Odd Wisconsin Archive
In the Strangest of Places
Wisconsin is full of weird and wild natural places such as Stand Rock and Witch's Gulch, but the places that early settlers found most remarkable were made by man, not nature.
Spread all across our state, often on bluffs and highlands overlooking water, are thousands of carefully crafted mounds in the shapes of bear or deer, lizards or turtles, magnificent birds, or simply in long linear embankments. Most were sculpted onto the earth between 600 and 1,200 A.D., and some archaeologists and Native Americans believe they symbolized spirits of the sky, earth, and water. To modern tribes, many of the animals in effigies were associated with important clans, or groups of related families. If the same clans also existed a thousand years ago, the social and religious ties that held mobile and sometimes scattered communities would have been reinforced in the effigy mounds they encountered on their travels.
Perhaps the most amazing mound was one discovered near Baraboo in 1859. "I wish to announce," wrote Increase Lapham to the State Historical Society that year, "the discovery by Mr. William H. Canfield near Baraboo in Sauk County of an ancient artificial mound or earth-work of the most strange and extraordinary character of any yet brought to light. It represents, as will be seen by the accompanying drawing (see plate, fig. 1), very clearly and decidedly the human form in the act of walking, and with an expression of boldness and decision which cannot be mistaken. The figure is no less than two hundred and fourteen feet in length; the head is thirty feet long; the body one hundred; and the legs eighty-four. The head lies towards the south and the motion is westward. All the lines of this most singular effigy are curved gracefully, much care having been bestowed upon its construction." (Lapham's entire book about the mounds of Wisconsin is online and a modern edition can be bought online through our Museum store.)
Effigy mounds were treated as trifling curiosities by most 19th-century settlers, and enormous numbers of them were looted, plowed under or, since they were often found near wetlands, used for landfill. Even the famous Man Mound was cut off at the knees by a rural road, and developers today still destroy mounds accidentally or in ignorance of the law passed to protect them. Before you build that summer house or swimming pool, please familiarize yourself with our services to landowners who may have mounds on their property.
The effigy mounds that survive continue to awe and impress us with their other-worldy beauty and simple antiquity. In recent years, the Society has assisted artists and musicians who were creating works inspired by them, Indian tribes and local historians working to save them, and countless thousands of children for whom they are virtual time-machines, carrying young imaginations back 1,000 years in a single glance.
:: Posted in Curiosities on March 29, 2007