Pre-Columbian History of Wisconsin

The largest platform mound at Aztalan, with modern reconstructions of steps and stockade

The first known residents of Wisconsin were Paleo-Indians, who first appeared in the county in about 10,000 BCE at the dawn of the Ice Age. The retreating icebergs left behind a green patch in Wisconsin inhabited by large animals, such as giant beaver, mastodons, mammoths, muskox, and bison. The Clovis and the Boaz mastodon artifacts located in Boaz, Wisconsin, show that the Paleo-Indians hunted these giant animals. They also collected plants as conifer forests bred in the glaciers’ wake. With the extinction and decline of many giant mammals in the Americas, the Paleo-Indian diet shifted toward smaller mammals like bison and deer.

From 6000 to 1000 BCE, during the Archaic Period, mixed conifer-hardwood forests and mixed prairie-forests replaced Wisconsin’s conifer forests. People stayed dependent on gathering and hunting. Around 4000 BCE, they developed copper tools and spear-throwers such as knives, adzes, axes, harpoons, projectile points, fishhooks, and perforators. Copper decorations like beaded necklaces also emerged around 1400 BCE. These people collected copper ore on Isle Royale in Lake Superior and at quarries on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. They may have crafted copper artifacts by folding and hammering the metal and heating it to expand its malleability. However, it is not sure if these inhabitants knew anything about copper smelting.

Despite this, the Copper Culture of the Great Lakes area got a level of elegance unprecedented in North America. The Late Archaic Period also saw the evolution of ritual burials and cemeteries.

The Early Woodland Era began in 1000 BCE as plants became an essential part of the inhabitant’s diet. Pottery and small scale agriculture appeared in southern Wisconsin at this time. The primary crops were beans, maize, and squash. Agriculture, however, could not adequately support these people, who also had to gather and hunt. Agriculture at this period was more related to gardening than to food-farming. Villages emerged along streams, rivers, and lakes, and the earliest earthen burial mounds were built.

The Havana Hopewell Culture appeared in Wisconsin in the Middle Woodland Period, living along the Mississippi River. The Hopewell people joined Wisconsin to their trade practices, ranging from Yellowstone to Ohio and from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. They built extensive mounds, made elaborately painted pottery, and brought a broad range of minerals to the region. The Hopewell people may have directly influenced the other residents of Wisconsin rather than replacing them.

The Late Woodland Era started in about 400 CE, following the Hopewell Culture’s departure from the area. The people of Wisconsin first practiced the bow and arrow in the Woodland Period’s last centuries, and farming continued to be employed in its southern part. The effigy mound society dominated Southern Wisconsin during this era, building stone mounds in animals’ shapes. Unlike earlier mounds, many of these artifacts were not employed for burials.

Instances of effigy mounds still exist at Lizard Mound County Park and High Cliff State Park. In northern Wisconsin, tribes continued to survive on gathering and hunting and built conical mounds.

Mississippian culture tribes moved into Wisconsin around 1000CE and constructed a settlement near Aztalin adjacent to the Crawfish River. While driven by the Caddoan tribes, other societies began to borrow and adjust to the Mississippian cultural structure.

This amazingly planned site may have been the northernmost outpost of Cahokia. However, it is also now known that some Siouan tribes along the Mississippi River may have taken part in the culture.

Regardless, the Mississippian section traded with and was influenced in its defensive and civic planning and culturally by its much more populous southern neighbor. A square wood-and-clay stockade surrounded the fifteen-acre site, including two large earthen mounds and a central plaza. One mound may have been utilized to store food or as a temple, as a home for high-ranking officials, and the other may have been employed as a morgue. The Mississippian Culture grew maize intensively, and their fields seemingly stretched far beyond the barrier at Aztalan, although modern agriculture has obliterated any traces of Mississippian practices in the area.

Both Woodland and Mississippian peoples occupied Aztalan, which was connected to the extensive Mississippian trade network. Copper from Lake Superior, Shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and Mill Creek chert have been located at the site. Aztalan was evacuated around 1200 CE. The Oneota people later built farm-based villages, similar to those of the Mississippians but with the state’s widespread trade networks.

By the time the first Europeans reached Wisconsin, the Oneota had gone.

As of the first European incursions, the historically documented residents were the Siouan speaking Dakota Oyate to the northwest, the Algonquian Menominee and the Chiwere speaking Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) to the northeast, with their lands starting roughly north of Green Bay. The Chiwere regions were south of Green Bay and accompanied rivers to the southwest. Over the years, other tribes moved to Wisconsin, including the Fauk, the Ojibwe, the Sauk, Illinois, and the Mahican.

The Mahican were the last known groups to appear, coming from New York after the U.S. Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

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