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Human history of Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area

Today, Horicon Marsh is about 32,000 acres in size, consisting mostly of open water and cattail marsh. The southern one-third (about 11,000 acres) is owned by the state of Wisconsin and is controlled by the Department of Natural Resources. This is called the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area or the state area. The northern two-thirds (about 21,000 acres) is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is known as the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge or federal refuge. Together, as one marsh, it is one of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States.

Through our efforts to recreate what nature had provided for us, we are now beginning to understand how complex this marshland ecosystem really is. Today, through management, Horicon Marsh is once again supporting an abundant variety of wildlife which is becoming increasingly more valuable to the many people who visit this great marsh. The scars of the past have healed themselves, and as we gaze out over the marsh we get a feeling for the Algonquin word from which this marsh takes its name: Horicon — the land of clean, pure water.

The history of Horicon Marsh is like the life that flourishes within it — vital and abundant. It is also a story of life and death and the birth of new life. It is a history of change from wetland to wasteland and back again.

Indian history

It was the great glaciers of the last Ice Age that gave rise to this marshland basin. Since these early origins, it has been home to an abundant variety of fish, birds and other marshland wildlife. Evidence indicates that humans were already here when this marsh was in its infancy. Nomadic hunters arrived here as early as 12,000 years ago. In time, they were succeeded by other prehistoric Indian cultures, including Paleo and Archaic hunters, the Mound Builders and other Woodland cultures. Around the marsh, there still exist today the burial mounds and other artifacts that tell of their occupation of this land. Time and again, people have come here to take advantage of the abundant resources of the marsh. More recently, the Potowotomi and Winnebago people (Ho-Chunk Nation) had their settlements here, and several major Indian trails passed by the marsh.

What we know of these early inhabitants is told in the archaeological record. Many area residents have found large collections of Indian artifacts, including spear points, arrowheads and other stone tools around Horicon Marsh.

We also know of the many Indian trails that brought people to the area hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Perhaps you followed one on your way to the marsh. Highway 33, Highway 26 and County Highway A from Horicon to Fox Lake, and County Highway Z along the east side of the marsh are all former trail routes.

Among the most interesting Indian artifacts are the effigy mounds, built by prehistoric people between 700 A.D. to 1200 A.D. These are earthen mounds built to represent animal and geometric shapes. At one time, many more mounds were to be found around the marsh. Many of these, however, have been destroyed as land was converted for other purposes. The first survey of these mounds was conducted by our first state geologist, Increase Lapham, in the 1850s. At that time, he mapped over 500 mounds around Horicon Marsh alone.

One of the most impressive mound groups was located at the south end of the marsh. Today, all of these are gone. The city of Horicon is built on top of a former Indian village and ceremonial grounds. Mounds can still be seen along County Highway Z just south of Highway 49. A sign indicates the location of several conical and panther mounds. These are located on private land and must be viewed from the road and right-of-way.

Take a little time to learn about the earliest inhabitants of this area and the importance of Horicon Marsh. The abundant and diverse wildlife of the marsh has lured people to it for thousands of years. We are just the latest in a long line of successive people that have been drawn to Horicon Marsh since the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age.

Artifact displays and Native American Indian history can be seen and studied at the Horicon Historical Society's Satterly Clark Home, Mayville White Limestone Building, Beaver Dam Historical Society and at Fox Lake Historical Society. A wonderful display of effigy mounds can be seen at Dodge County's Nitschke Mounds Park. Call the local Chambers of Commerce for locations and times.

From wetland to wasteland and back

When Europeans came to this region, they settled near Winnebago villages. Their first name for Horicon was the Great Marsh of the Winnebagos. In time, these Native American settlements were displaced by the towns and villages of today.

The first modern settlement on the marsh was the town of Horicon. In 1846, a dam was built at this site for powering the first sawmill. This dam held back the water in the marsh, raising it nine feet. By flooding, the marsh became Lake Horicon, thought at the time to be the largest man-made lake in the world. After 23 years of operation, disputes led to the removal of the dam. In the years that followed, the water receded and the marsh reemerged as a haven for wildlife.

The attraction of wildlife brought with it the advent of hunting clubs and the market hunting days. From the 1870s to the early 1900s, unregulated hunting devastated the duck populations on this marsh. With the loss of these birds, this once-famous duck marsh had little value to many people. They sought to change it once more.

Other interests in the marsh eventually came to dominate and influence it as muck farming or moist-soil agriculture promised quick profits. With this incentive, private landowners around the marsh dug ditches to drain their own land. Soon, local sentiment changed in favor of draining the entire marsh. From 1910 to 1914, the main ditch was dredged for this purpose. Despite these efforts, these farming attempts failed. The exposed peat soil of the marsh dried and caught fire and the marsh was abandoned. Many of the ditches that are still seen today are from this project.

Those people who originally saw the marsh as a wasteland thought they could improve on it by damming it or draining it. This last effort left behind devastation which they could hardly have foreseen. The marsh now laid as a true wasteland, useless to man and wildlife.

Then in 1921, conservation-minded individuals began the fight to restore the marsh. In 1927, the state legislature passed the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge Bill. This provided for land acquisition and the construction of a dam at Horicon to restore the marshland water levels. During the 1940s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the northern portion of the marsh and designated it a national wildlife refuge. With these efforts began the recovery and restoration of Horicon Marsh.

The people, the marsh and the future

Today, we have learned much from the mistakes of the past, and we have a greater understanding and appreciation for all that wetlands can provide. However, as society continues to evolve and make new demands of the land, we have yet to develop sustainable use of the very resources which make life possible. We will not again destroy the Horicon Marsh in a deliberate attempt to rid the marsh and make something else of it, but the challenge remains for us to learn how to live with and around this great wetland and in a way that sustains us and the life with which we share this land.

Our biggest concern for Horicon Marsh today is to hold on to the gains of the past and maintain the integrity and biological productivity of this marsh. The greatest impacts to Horicon Marsh come from the surrounding uplands. Intensive agricultural use and suburban development have led to excessive sedimentation and non-point runoff entering the marsh.