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The Mendota Canoes | Wisconsin Historical Society

The Mendota Canoes


The Wisconsin Historical Society, in partnership with Wisconsin’s Native Nations, is preserving a pair of historic dugout canoes recovered from Madison’s Lake Mendota. Testing revealed the first canoe is 1,200 years old (800 A.D.) and the second 3,000 years old (1000 B.C.).

These significant artifacts, unnearthed by Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen, are being preserved for display at the future Wisconsin history center and other educational opportunities. They will help provide a more complete story of how the Ho-Chunk and other Native American ancestors lived in the area thousands of years ago while also connecting their traditions to the vibrant Tribal Nations of today.

The first glimpse of this canoe from 1,200 years ago, still wet from the lake a beautiful deep brown wood almost looking blue in spots.

1,200-Year-Old Canoe

The 15-foot dugout canoe was recovered from Lake Mendota on Nov. 2, 2021. Dated to 800 A.D., it is the oldest fully intact vessel ever to be extracted from Wisconsin waters. It was also the first canoe found with artifacts on board – net sinkers used for fishing. News of the recovery spread on social media and made headlines across the world.

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a ancient canoe that has been broken down by time and water rests safely in a bouyed tray for transport.

3,000-Year-Old Canoe

The 14.5-foot dugout canoe was recovered from Lake Mendota on Sept. 22, 2022. Dated to 1000 B.C., it is the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region by roughly 1,000 years. It was unnearthed within 100 yards of the 1,200-year-old canoe, prompting research into ancient shorelines and fluctuating water levels.

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“Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it. By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us.”

— Marlon WhiteEagle, Ho-Chunk Nation President

Ho-Chunk Dugout Canoe Journey

June 2022

A group of Ho-Chunk youth and tribal members visited the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison to view the 1,200-year-old canoe in its preservation tank. The group arrived via the Yahara River, paddling a new dugout canoe that they had carved from a cottonwood tree. The visit was part of a five-day paddling journey of the Four Lakes region that is so significant to Ho-Chunk history and culture.

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“We are working alongside our tribal partners to protect a piece of history for future generations. We are excited about the possibilities the canoes offer to share Native American stories and culture through the present day.”

— Christian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director & CEO of WHS

3,000-Year-Old Canoe

September 2022

team floats the canoe out of Lake MendotaHo-Chunk youth examines the canoe during the 3D scan.

1,200-Year-Old Canoe Recovery

November 2021


Help the Wisconsin Historical Society preserve and share the stories of these significant cultural artifacts.


The Wisconsin Historical Society would like to thank the many partners who helped in the recovery of these important artifacts. A special thank you to leaders of the Ho-Chunk, Bad River Ojibwe, and other Native Nations, whose support and partnership throughout this recovery and preservation effort have been invaluable.

We look forward to continued collaboration throughout the ongoing process. Also, we’re grateful to the Dane County Sheriff’s Department dive team and other volunteers who lent their expertise and equipment and were essential to the successful recovery of the canoes.

Remembering Dr. James Skibo

Wisconsin State Archaeologist, Dr. James Skibo, led the team that worked in close coordination with Wisconsin’s Native Nations on the historic recovery of these canoes. Skibo passed away on April 14, 2023, while on a routine work-up dive preparing for the maritime archaeology season. We were honored to have him join the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2021 and grateful for his leadership on this effort and many others. Read more about the life and lasting legacy of Dr. James Skibo, the People’s Archaeologist.

Read the In Memoriam