By Sarah T. Lahey
Growing up in Fontana, it somehow never occurred to me that there was a history of Geneva Lake before the Potawatomi arrived. I remember hearing stories as a kid about Chief Big Foot and where his village was located. I also went to homecoming dances at the local high school bearing his name. To me, Lake Geneva has always felt steeped in Potawatomi heritage. So how is it possible that I missed several thousand years of history?
In truth, there were centuries – even millennia – of activity before the Potawatomi set up camp on the western shore of the lake.
As early as 10,000 B.C., hunter-gatherer societies roamed the land that now comprises the Geneva Lakes area. We know this because archaeologists have unearthed more than five mastodon skeletons in southeastern Wisconsin, along with spear tips and other signs of hunting. Quite simply, these animals were not alone.
One famous discovery at Geneva Lake was a set of mastodon teeth. The “Williams Bay mastodon,” according to Paul B. Jenkins, was discovered in 1907 on the “low slopes and gravel beds” along the northwest curve of the bay. I imagine the site is not too far from today’s Pier 290 restaurant.
The mastodon hunters, called Paleo-Indians, sustained themselves for nearly 5,000 years in present-day Wisconsin. Comparing that to white settlement, which spans less than 200 years, the scope of their inhabitance is fairly amazing.
The next big clue to Wisconsin’s earliest inhabitants was the discovery of earthen mounds, which are most prominent in the southeastern part of the state. Archeologists now know that mound-building began as early as 500 B.C. and continued until 1100 A.D. The style of the mounds changed greatly over time, and each new phase tells us something different about Wisconsin history.
The first mound builders lived between 500 B.C. and 100 A.D. Most of the mounds constructed at this time were conical mounds used for burial, and it seems that their purpose was fairly simple: the circular-shaped mounds were like gravestones. They let everyone know where the dead were buried, and sometimes included colored sand to further mark the grave.
Overlapping with this tradition is the Middle Woodland period, during which burial rituals became more complex. Mounds started to include not only human remains but also rare goods. According to Leslie Eisenberg and Richard Birmingham, co-authors of Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, mounds of this era included everything from freshwater pearls and shell beads to bear canines and pipes. The most famous mounds built during this era are on Lake Mendota and Lake Monona in Madison, but it is possible some were built near Lake Geneva.
MYSTERY OF THE MOUNDS
These traditions gave way to the most fascinating era in mound building: “effigy” or shape-based mounds. These were large, earthen mounds in the shapes of birds, bears, man-like figures, turtles, and other forms. Wisconsin once had more than 2,500 effigy mounds — a phenomenon that has mystified archeologists, residents, and tourists for the last century. Everyone has asked: What do these mounds symbolize? And why did native peoples put so much time and energy into building them?
Our best guess is that effigy mounds represented an ancient belief system in which earth, air, and water spirits lived in balance with each other. The air effigies, often shaped like birds, signaled the strong but kind force of the Upper World. The water effigies, resembling turtles or lizards, stood for the menacing force of the Lower World. The earth effigies, shaped like bears or men, represented everything in between. Evidence suggests that mound-builders of this period (roughly 700 to 1100 A.D.) were ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The Ho-Chunk people historically were divided into earth, air, and water clans, so it makes sense that the mounds would reflect this division.
Mounds of all types were built in the Geneva Lakes area, with an important collection at Delavan Lake. Archeological records confirm that 65 mounds existed as of 1926, and estimates suggest that as many as 100 mounds might have stood on these watery shores.
One false claim is that the lake once had over 400 mounds. Internet sources (including the Delavan Historical Society) credit this to a survey conducted by Beloit College in 1912, but no such survey ever took place. Professor Bill Green, a leading anthropologist at the college, confirms there is no record of this survey.
There is still the possibility, of course, that more mounds existed than we have in official records. Stephen D. Peet claimed in 1886, for example, that Delavan Lake had ten bird effigy mounds. Since only two remained when surveyors arrived, it is difficult to know how many were lost to public record.
Of the mounds surveyed by Charles E. Brown, a famous Wisconsin archeologist, one important site was the Inlet mound group, located in what is now the Town of Delavan’s Community Park. This featured an 85-foot bird effigy and several conical mounds. One of the circular mounds had a long tail attached to it — roughly 132 feet long — which suggests it was a serpent-like water effigy.
Today, only one mound remains here. In October 2008, park director Steve Shoff organized the first-ever Native American Heritage Day at Community Park to commemorate this mound. Elders from the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi tribes attended the event and conducted a drum ceremony to honor their ancestors.
On the opposite end of the lake, another small group of mounds existed in what is now Assembly Park. This consisted of six circular mounds in 1926, all of which had been disturbed by relic hunters. These “Sunday mound diggers” were often tourists digging into Indian mounds for fun, not realizing they were disturbing graves over 700 years old.
The most important mound group at Delavan Lake is located within the property of Lake Lawn Resort. This is the largest mound group in Walworth County, with over 40 mounds still intact. The only comparable sites in southern Wisconsin are at Beloit College and Lake Koshkonong, near Fort Atkinson. We are indebted to the resort owners who have gone to great lengths to preserve these important landmarks.
Most of the mounds at Lake Lawn Resort are circular or oval, suggesting an earlier period in mound-building history. However, there are two bird effigies (sky spirits) and three turtle effigies (water spirits), some of which span over 100 feet. These effigy mounds suggest that later generations of mound builders came back to this important site.
While Lake Lawn Resort has earned some fame for its mound collection, it has garnered even more attention for the supposed discovery of giant skeletons within these mounds. In March 1911, the Phillips brothers (who owned the resort at that time) dug into several mounds and allegedly discovered human skeletons ranging from 10 to 12 feet tall. Their skulls, according to local legend, were equally enormous.
The Phillips brothers did not mention these unusual skeletons in their official report to the Wisconsin Archeological Society. Nevertheless, the rumored discovery made it all the way to the New York Times. Since then, researchers have offered as much as $500 rewards to anyone who can provide photographic evidence of the dig. No photographs have ever surfaced. Conspiracy theorists think they have been hidden away by the government, and others believe the entire story to be a hoax.
Lake Geneva does not have as many mounds as Delavan Lake, but there is evidence that it once housed as many as 12 mounds. More were likely destroyed before surveyors arrived in 1928.
Current-day Library Park, near downtown Lake Geneva, once had two water spirit effigies nestled close to the water. In 1912, Albert Beckwith described one as “lizard shaped, with legs outspread, tail turned northwardly,” near the intersection of Main and Lake streets (now Wrigley Drive). He estimated it was 50 to 80 feet long. He also claimed that “little more than a block westward was a larger mound, also lizard shaped, with longer tail.”
The lizard-shaped mounds were representative of ancient Ho-Chunk water spirits or “panthers,” which lived in the water and came out at night. Water spirits could pass through the earth, travelling to a watery underworld. These spirits were considered to be rather menacing, and later Potawatomi stories claimed that a powerful water spirit lived in Geneva Lake.
Unfortunately, the lizard mounds at Library Park were destroyed during the early years of settlement. In 1928, Charles Brown lamented: “It is indeed a great pity that neither of these two effigy mounds were preserved. Either would be a greater attraction in Lake Geneva today than any park or building which the city possesses.”
Another important mound group on Geneva Lake is the former Northwestern Military and Naval Academy on the south shore. On the northeastern corner of that property, there once stood a group of five conical mounds. They were rather small, only 15 feet wide, but more importantly tell us this was once sacred ground. One of the mounds, excavated in 1928, had a single skeleton laid to rest in the fetal position. It was clearly a burial site, probably for an important tribal member.
The Academy mounds were destroyed sometime during the early 20th century. By the time developers came along to build the current South Shore Club, all evidence of their existence was long gone. Single mounds likewise disappeared (at unknown dates) at the former sites of the Antlers Summer hotel, Kaye’s Park, Birches Subdivision, and Lake Geneva Manor Subdivision.
Among the absent mounds is the rumored existence of a large effigy mound shaped like a bow and arrow, located on a high ridge between Williams Bay and the western edge of Lake Como. In 1912, Beckwith romantically described the mound as “that of a bent bow with arrow ready for flight toward the larger lake, as if unseen bowmen lay forever in wait for unwary or daring trespassers.”
Some claimed the mound spanned as much as 90 feet. When surveyors arrived in 1928, however, there was no evidence of this mound. We have only the reports of earlier observers, and the haunting notion that somewhere along Highway 50 — perhaps on the grounds of Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy — lay the remains of an ancient weapon.
THE PRIDE OF WISCONSIN?
Wisconsin has more effigy mounds than any other state in America. In fact, earthen works of this nature, in such concentration, do not exist anywhere else in the world.
Only Wisconsin can lay claim to a bird effigy mound with a 624-foot wingspan (nearly two football fields long), which still sits on the grounds of the Mendota State Hospital. And only Wisconsin has unusual effigy mound shapes such as rabbits, double panthers, and mysterious crosses.
Nevertheless, only 4,000 of an estimated 20,000 mounds have survived years of disturbance by farming and urban expansion. The Burial Sites Preservation Act of 1985 was a huge milestone in preserving these ancient mounds — some of which date back to 500 BC.
As of January 2015, a new senate bill threatened the current level of preservation. At press time, the Wisconsin State Legislature was debating Assembly Bill 620, which would allow corporations such as the Dane County Mining Co. to dig into burial sites in order to prove the existence of human remains. The Ho-Chunk Nation is adamantly opposed, and the outcome of the debate remains uncertain.
One can only hope that state legislation will continue to preserve these important monuments, which are crucial to understanding Wisconsin’s earliest inhabitants.