Term: Butte des Morts Lake, Little [origin of place name]
Little Butte des Morts Lake derives its name from a large hill used as a burial site by Woodland Indians and, in modern times, by the Fox (Meskwaki) Indians following two massacres by the French.
In the early 18th century the Meskwaki (Fox) Indians resided on the west bank of the Fox River where it widens above Appleton, approaching Lake Winnebago. In 1716 the French found them living in a walled town upon a mound opposite the present city of Neenah, where according to French archives "they had 500 warriors and 8,000 women (who on these occasions fight desperately); ... their fort was fortified by three rows of palisades, with a ditch a foot and a half or two feet wide behind it." [Wisconsin Historical Collections 16: 343].
This town was built near or on top of an ancient burial mound. By the early 19th century this and another mound a few miles away had acquired the name "Butte des Morts" or "Hill of the Dead" and were well-known to travelers. Fur trader Louis Porlier wrote that "When I came here in 1830, there were several mounds there of varying sizes; the largest was on the North Menasha side and was about one hundred feet in diameter, rising gradually from the ground to a peak in the center which might have measured ten feet in height from the level ground. It was nearly circular. The Indians said it was made by the whites and was the burial place of Sacs and Foxes who had been killed in a great fight there and thrown in a heap to be covered with earth." [Wis. Historical Collections 15: 444-445]
Porlier referred to French officer Paul Marin de la Margue (1692-1753), who opened a trading post with the Menominee near Green Bay in 1729 and over the next two years attacked the Fox at various points along the Fox-Wisconsin waterway. Porlier reported that the local Indians "locate all the contests at Petit Butte des Morts, including both of Morand's [Marin's] expeditions." For several years prior to these expeditions, the Fox had attacked or harassed canoes of other tribes or of the French whenever they passed this narrow point in the river. They extorted furs, took hostages, and significantly disrupted the French fur trade. They had also been among the most combative opponents of French colonialism in the Great Lakes for more than a decade and Marin was ordered to punish them.
Augustin Grignon, who heard it as a child from some of the participants, later recalled the encounter that gave Butte des Morts its name. Marin's fleet of canoes "started from Green Bay up the river ¿ each canoe having a full complement of men, well armed, and an oil-cloth covering large enough to envelop the whole canoe, as was used by the traders to shield their goods from the effects of the weather. Near the Grand Chute, some three miles below the little Butte de Morts, and not yet within view of the, latter, [Marin] divided his party, one part disembarking and going by land to surround the village, and attack the place when [Marin] and his water division should open their fire in front. The soldiers in the canoes, with their guns all ready for use, were concealed by the oil-cloth coverings, and only two men were in view to row each canoe, thus presenting the appearance of a trader's fleet.
"In due time the Foxes discovered their approach and placed out their torch, and squatted themselves thickly along the bank as usual, and patiently awaited the landing of the canoes, and the customary tribute offering. When sufficiently near to be effective, the oil-cloth coverings were suddenly thrown off, and a deadly volley from - a swivel-gun, loaded with grape and canister shot, and the musketry of the soldiers, scattered death and dismay among the unsuspecting Foxes; and this, severe fire was almost instantly seconded by the land party in the rear, and quickly repeated by both divisions, so that a large number of the devoted Foxes were slain¿"
Although Grignon could not confirm that the name came from this 1730 attack on the Fox, both the mound and the lake that it overlooked soon became known to French traders as Butte des Morts. Cartographer Increase Lapham wrote in 1844 that it was "named from hills or mounds said to have been formed of the dead bodies of the Indians slain in some battle, which were thrown into heaps and covered with earth. They are now grown over with grass, and present much the same appearance as the ancient mounds so profusely scattered through the west."
Publius Lawson, who was mayor of Menasha as well as a respected historian, demonstrated that it was composed of both ancient and modern burials:
"The hill stood up boldly in plain view to all voyageurs," he wrote in 1900, "up and down the little gem of a lake, to which it early gave its name. It could be plainly seen in settlement days by the pioneers of Menasha and Neenah on the opposite bank of the lake. It was twelve feet high, sixty feet long north and south, and thiry-five feet wide. It stood in the midst of a wide prairie, 300 feet back from the lake shore, on a point of land that was thirty feet above the level of the lake, and the only high land on the west side of the lake.
"In 1863 the Northwestern railway constructed a pile bridge across Little Butte des Morts lake, and made a deep cut through this point on the south side of and within thirty feet of the mound. Subsequently they excavated and removed the gravel of the point over an areas of about five acres to a depth of about twenty feet, and with it, regardless of tradition or respect for the grave, went the "Hill of the Dead" all in the same mixture. The skulls and bones and relics of ancient kings and glory were strewn along the right of way for miles...
"After one-third of this ancient monument had crumbled into the pit made by the busy pick and shovel, a large pocket full of human bones was plainly exposed near the base. All about the outer surface, in shallow graves, were hundreds of skeletons, possibly of later date, and so-called "obtrusive" burials, as not being the objects of its construction." Lawson concluded that the burial at the deepest point was very early, resembling the conical mound burials from 2,000 years ago, and that the skeletons nearer the surface were probably those of the 18th-century Fox and Sauk. "As I can find no burying ground anywhere that may be traced to the Fox Indians, who resided from 1712 to 1728 within a mile of the hill, I am inclined to suppose that some of the intrusive burials were of that tribe." [Oshkosh Northwestern, February 3, 1900]
View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.
[Source: as linked above]