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Ancient Land and First Peoples

Sidebar: Water Panthers & Thunderbirds

Effigy mounds, found throughout Wisconsin but almost no where else on earth, are sacred grave sites that probably symbolized spirits of the sky, earth and water. Read more.

Turning Point in Wisconsin History

Wisconsin was born about 13,000 years ago when the last Ice Age glacier withdrew, leaving our region bounded on the west by the Mississippi River, on the east by Lake Michigan, and on the north by Lake Superior. A gentle dome rose in the northern third of the state, and water drained off it in three directions: the Chippewa and Wisconsin rivers into the Mississippi, the Wolf and Fox into Lake Michigan, and the Brule and Montreal into Lake Superior. South of the highland forests lay the remaining two-thirds of Wisconsin, divided between open prairie in the east, on terrain scraped flat by the glacier, and in the west by the Driftless Region of rugged hills and coulees untouched by the glacier.

People always occupied this land. The Menominee and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) each preserve ancient narratives that place them here long before written records. Archaeologists have found the remains of mastodons in Kenosha and Crawford counties dating from about BCE 12,300. Paleo-Indian stone tools from BCE 5000 have been unearthed throughout the state, and sophisticated copper implements dating slightly later have been collected in northern Wisconsin. The "Woodland Tradition" (BCE 700 to ca. CE 1300) was the first culture to make pottery, domesticate plants and build earthen burial mounds here. Between CE 600 and 900, they adopted the bow-and-arrow and began raising corn, as well as burying their dead in uniquely shaped effigy mounds resembling birds, mammals or people.

About CE 1000 the indigenous "Effigy Mound" culture was joined by a people from the vicinity of present-day St. Louis. This "Mississippian Culture," which lasted roughly from CE 1000 to 1200 in Wisconsin, built fortified towns at Aztalan in Jefferson County and near the city of Trempealeau, and traded pottery and other goods throughout the Mississippi Valley. They left Wisconsin about CE 1200, succeeded by a culture known as the Oneota, which scholars suspect was the direct ancestor of today's Indian nations.

The Menominee, Ho-Chunk and Dakota (Eastern Sioux) appear to be descendants of the Oneota and were already here when other tribes came into the region. The earliest of these migrating tribes were the Ojibwe (Chippewa), who came to Lake Superior from the eastern Great Lakes about CE 1500 CE. In the mid-1600s, warfare drove the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Ottawa, Miami and Huron into Wisconsin from their homelands in Ontario, New York, Ohio and Michigan. When the first Europeans arrived, they found many different peoples, each with its own language, customs and beliefs, trying to share the Wisconsin environment.

Next Section: Fur Trade Era, 1650s to 1850s

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