Odd Wisconsin Archive
How Aztalan Got Its Name
Last week two newly arrived residents of Madison requested a tour of Aztalan, our state's best known and largest archaeological site. This opened the door to an explanation on the strange origin of the name "Aztalan."
The first white settler to lay eyes on it is said to have been Watertown pioneer Timothy Johnson, in 1836, who refered to it simply as the "ancient walled city." In October of that year Milwaukee resident Nathaniel Hyer set out to visit the site and in the next year he wrote an account of his visit (published in the Milwaukee Advertiser on Feb. 25, 1837, with a map) which contained the first use of the odd name:
"The accompanying cut [engraving], together with the above description, is intended to represent some of the 'Ruins of an Ancient City;' which we have taken the liberty to call Aztalan, which name we find in the writings of Baron Humboldt, 'From which it appears the people inhabiting the vale of Mexico, at the time the Spaniards overrun that country, were called Azteeks or Aztekas and were as the Spanish history informs us, usurpers having come from the North: from a country which they called Aztalan.'"
Baron Humboldt was Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who spent the years 1799-1804 in Central American jungles and in 1832 published a popular book called The Travels and Researches of Alexander von Humboldt: Being a Condensed Narrative of his Journeys in the Equinoctial Regions of America. Hyer and other early observers postulated that the pyramids on the Catfish River in Wisconsin were the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs, and so adopted Humboldt's name.
Contemporaries didn't hesitate to flesh out Hyer's skeletal explanation with imaginary details of their own. "They derived the name Aztalan," wrote the New York Eagle in 1839, "from a tradition among the Indians, mentioned by an old French traveller, who in the seventeenth century, made a tour through the extent of the great lakes, in a canoe paddled by Indians. The tradition alluded to, was to the effect that some hundreds of years previous, a war-like people came from the northeast, and after several battles, wrested their land from them. This people were called Aztalans, and are described as possessed of tools and implements of all kinds, with which they cultivated the soil, built houses, and exhibited a degree of civilization far superior to the natives. After subduing the Indians, they proceeded to build a city... after the lapse of an hundred years, the Aztalanians becoming dissatisfied with the country, burnt their city, and proceeded south to Mexico which they conquered and have ever since retained."
No seventeenth-century French accounts mention any such tradition, however, or use the name Aztalan.
This article was excerpted almost verbatim in what is perhaps the most fanciful explanation of Aztalan. It appeared in an early Mormon newspaper published in New York, The Prophet, in its issue of March 8, 1845. The author claimed to have visited Wisconsin and the remains of Aztalan in 1839, and proposed that the ancient city had actually been built by a "Civilized Race from Europe or Asia" who later moved on to Mexico. He argued that Aztalan and this race of people bore a striking resemblance to the Jaredites described in the Book of Mormon.
Several other amateurs investigated the site (see their manuscripts here) before the first systematic analysis was done by Increase Lapham. His letters written from the field and his scholarly monograph on Wisconsin archaeology are both online in Turning Points in Wisconsin History.
The real mystery about Aztalan is not who built the city -- Native Americans obviously built it -- but rather why pioneer investigators couldn't see such a plain fact and insisted instead that a mythical vanished race from Asia or a lost tribe of Jaredites had made it.
If you'd like a book that summarizes both the weird theories and the scientific facts, one filled with history, analysis, and pictures, then grab a copy of Bob Birmingham and Lynn Goldstein's Aztalan: Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town. Order it online through that link and we'll pop a copy right in the mail to you.
:: Posted in Curiosities on August 2, 2009