The Mound Builders

Early History – the Mound Builders

By Cynthia Sommer

Several chronicles on Milwaukee tell the stories of our early pioneers and their efforts as they developed a growing metropolis.   However, little documentation or recognition was given to the American Indians who lived in this area thousands of years before the arrival of European explorers.    An absence of written records leaves us to search the archeological record, ancient earthworks, trails, village sites, and Native American oral history for evidence of the cultures of these native inhabitants.   Unfortunately, many of the mounds and villages were destroyed through plowing of farmland and rapid growth of cities.   Trails have been turned into our major roadways.

Lake Park has the only remaining burial mound of an estimated 200 mounds once built in the City of Milwaukee by the ancient Native American peoples; though hundreds of other ancient burial mounds can be found throughout Wisconsin, especially in the southern and south central region.  One other conical burial mound is preserved on the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in the Wisconsin DNR complex, and several mounds exist in our surrounding suburbs.  Wisconsin has the richest collection of burial mounds in the world.

Archaeologists estimate that there were approximately 20,000 to 25,000 burial mounds and other types of enclosure earthworks in Wisconsin.   Early and Middle Woodland Period (500 BC – AD 400) Native American peoples built conical and linear form burial mounds, such as the conical mounds built in Lake Park.  Subsequent generations of Native American peoples built intriguing mounds in the forms of effigy burial mounds – mounds shaped like bears, birds, deer, panthers, and other types of water spirits.  The Wisconsin Archeological Society (WAS) over its long history has helped to document the  existence of approximately 2,500 conical mounds and more than 2,600 effigy mounds; Dr. Kurt Sampson, president of WAS,  indicates that  new sites are being discovered each year (seven mounds found in 2015; personal communication).

The accompanying map published in 1906 by Charles E Brown and C. Bodenbach, designates the location of current preserved conical mound and several destroyed mounds in Lake Park.  The “roadway” is the current Lake Park drive; the “depot” is the original trolley turnaround at Locust Street.

Charles E. Brown was an early pioneer Wisconsin archaeologist from the Wisconsin Historical Society who saved over 100 Indian mounds in the state.

The Woodland Indians (Early, Middle and Late Period Cultures) were the people that existed in Wisconsin from approximately 500 BC and to about 1200 AD. These predominantly hunter-gatherers made pottery, stone tools, copper works, arrowheads and also grew plant foods such as corn and sunflower.  The Lake Park mounds were believed to be built during the Middle Woodland Period (200 BC – AD 400) based on their size, shape, and location, though the exact dates have not been determined as these earthworks have not been excavated.  The Lake Park mound (closest circle to “roadway” on map) is visible from Lake Drive where Locust Street meets Lake Park.  A descriptive bronze plaque dedicated in 1910 is located on top of the mound.  The effigy mounds in Milwaukee, usually located near the rivers, were built by the late Woodland peoples between 500/700 AD – 1200 AD.  The uniqueness of these mounds merits a separate story.

Rapid changes occurred in the lives of the Native American in Wisconsin in the 1830’s due to the massive land cession following the Chicago treaty in 1833 between the native peoples and the US Government; the subsequent explosion of settlements and land speculation quickly changed the landscape and lives of the inhabitants. The resident tribes were told to leave their homeland and move west of the Mississippi within three years.

Much of our knowledge of the ancient burial mounds in our area comes from the work of Increase Lapham, a land surveyor who arrived in the area in 1836. Current Milwaukeeans recognize the name from Lapham Boulevard, Lapham Park or Lapham Hall (As you walk in the neighborhood, check out the large boulder with a bronze plaque honoring Lapham that is located in front of UW-Milwaukee Lapham Hall).  Lapham wrote extensively on the archeology, geology, flora and fauna of Wisconsin including his famous Smithsonian Institute publication on the mounds entitled:  Antiquities of Wisconsin (1855).   His interests were wide-ranging and he is often called Wisconsin’s first scientist.  For example, Lapham also worked to get Congress to establish the US Weather Bureau.

The single undisturbed conical burial mound remains in Lake Park on a high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan- undoubtedly a planned, ceremonial site.   This large earthen mound is two feet high and forty feet in diameter.  Similar conical mounds located east and southeast of the current mound were destroyed in the 1890’s during the construction of Lake Park.  To build such mounds would have taken a commitment of labor to hand move the soil in baskets to the site. The mounds that still remain in the state are protected by the Wisconsin’s Burial Sites Preservation Law (Wis. Stats 157.70) and Wisconsin’s Field Archaeology Act (Wis. Stats 44.47).

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee conducted an archeological study of Lake Park in the 1970’s, excluding the conical mound and golf course.  No significant artifacts were found in the park except for a few lithic (chipped stone) materials, north and northeast of the mound, but construction of Lake Park had a major impact on the original land.   Ground penetrating radar (GPR) studies were also done in coordination with Discovery World in 2010.  GPR uses radio waves that bounce off of buried objects; their signals are then analyzed using computer software. While the GPR studies were not conclusive, there were suggestions of “buried targets within the mound, but nothing that can be confirmed as human”.

So many questions still remain about the Lake Park mound builders.  What changes occurred in their culture to drive them to build mounds? Exactly how did the mounds function in the ceremonial life of these ancient people? How did these early mound builders differ from those that built the later effigy mounds?  Why did mound building end?  We may never find all the answers but we should respect and preserve the mound sites that remain.  They are sacred places to the ancient people who built them, and many Native Americans and non-native peoples of our state who still inhabit the land to this day.