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Wisconsin Archaeology Month 2005: Communities at a Crossroads

Since the first families followed retreating glaciers northward around 15,000 years ago, Wisconsin’s residents have come together to form communities. Throughout Wisconsin’s history, communities have faced challenges and have overcome them by working together and adapting to their new situations. To illustrate this year’s Archaeology Month theme the Office of the State Archaeologist has chosen to highlight the Oneota communities that thrived here in the last millennium before Euro-American contact. The Oneota successfully navigated a new economy based on corn horticulture and careful management of natural resources. They are widely believed to have survived the catastrophe of epidemic disease and the tumultuous arrival of European explorers, giving rise to the modern Ho-Chunk, Ioway, Oto, Missouria and related tribes.

Orthoquartzite arrow point
from the Tremaine Site,
La Crosse County
(WHS #Lc-95 N140W72L.2-1)
For thousands of years after the glaciers melted, communities composed of small groups of related families hunted and gathered plants in Wisconsin’s savannas and forests. They evolved a way of life that gave each community the flexibility and stability needed to survive. By moving from place to place as the seasons changed, they could harvest food when and where it was most abundant and make the most of their surroundings. Cultivation was limited to small gardens where native North American species like sunflowers, gourds, lambsquarter, and knotweed were planted. Wild plants were managed through selective harvesting and the use of fire. This way of life successfully sustained communities for millennia.

By AD 900 a series of related cultures that archaeologists call “Late Woodland” made Wisconsin their home. Far to the south, near where St. Louis now stands, a very different culture thrived. The Middle Mississippian residents of the American Bottom lived in a socially stratified society, with powerful chiefs and priests who mobilized the labor and resources of thousands. As Middle Mississippian traders moved northward into Wisconsin, a rapid wave of change swept through the region. Customs that had endured for centuries faded away.

Ceramic ear ornament
in the shape of a sunflower,
from the Tremaine Site,
La Crosse County
(WHS #Lc-95HF155L.5-3)
Some communities seem to have held onto the old ways, continuing Late Woodland lifestyles relatively unchanged. Other communities embraced change. By AD 1100 Wisconsin was home to three broad cultural groups: Late Woodland, Middle Mississippian, and a new culture—the Oneota. The origins of the Oneota are hotly debated, but it is clear that the way of life we call Oneota quickly expanded across the Midwest and replaced Middle Mississippian culture over a wide area.

Oneota populations gathered themselves into large villages that were periodically moved short distances when conditions warranted. These villages were established along the shores of Lake Koshkonong, Lake Pepin, Green Lake, Lake Winnebago, Lake Poygan, Lake Butte des Morts and on the Mississippi where modern Onalaska and La Crosse now stand. Smaller Oneota communities were founded on the shores of the Door Peninsula, in central Wisconsin, and among the small lakes scattered in the deep forests of northern Wisconsin.

Archaeologists with the
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center
excavate the Oneota Meier Farm
site near La Crosse, Wisconsin,
prior to development.
Photo courtesy Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center
Each Oneota community was slightly different from its neighbors, and Oneota culture evolved and diversified over time. The earliest Oneota communities sometimes show affinity with those of the Middle Mississippians. Later, or ‘Classic’ Oneota communities consisted of large villages that may have been home to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Each large village was surrounded by cemeteries, many acres of agricultural fields, and piles of stone created when land was cleared for habitation or cultivation. Some villages were fortified. Oneota peoples hunted game with bows and arrows, fished, and continued to harvest some wild plants, but they generally relied heavily on corn and squash to survive. They traded special commodities amongst themselves, including bison bone hoes, animal hides, copper, pipestone and orthoquartzite and chert for arrow points and other tools.

The arrival of Euro-Americans in the 16th Century sparked a wave of epidemic disease that spread across North America and undoubtedly hit the Oneota hard. By the eve of Nicolet’s trip to Wisconsin, many Oneota village complexes had been abandoned. Substantial Oneota populations remained in the Lake Winnebago/lower Fox River region, and along the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River villages in the vicinity of La Crosse traveled westward to hunt bison, and traded shoulder blades, pipestone and other products of the plains and prairies with their cousins to the east. This way of life continued after Euro-American contact. The introduction of metal containers and weaponry quickly supplanted the use of ceramic cooking pots and stone tools. Though a small number of sites have yielded both types of artifacts, the transition was so rapid that from an archaeological point of view, the Oneota culture seems to simply vanish. Modern Native American residents of Wisconsin take a different view. For them, there is no “Oneota”, only revered ancestors. In the years after Euro-American contact, Native American communities in Wisconsin would face their own, substantial, challenges.

Cooking pot
recovered from the OT site,
La Crosse County
(WHS# 1995.218.39)
Today modern communities like La Crosse, Onalaska, and Green Bay face the challenge of preserving the remains of Oneota villages and burial grounds, as well as other irreplaceable heritage sites, while encouraging growth and development. La Crosse, Wisconsin, sits directly upon a major Oneota village and cemetery complex. Cooperation from City officials and private developers has allowed archaeologists to rescue fragments of past community life from modern urban expansion. The Division of Historic Preservation and Public History at the Wisconsin Historical Society continues to assist in such planning, and is encouraged by the example set by La Crosse and other communities in Wisconsin. Careful land use planning and consultation have allowed many of our modern communities to preserve the past while planning for the future.


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