Skip to main content

Burial Mounds

Nelson Dewey State Park

Long before prospectors discovered lead in southwestern Wisconsin, and Marquette and Juliet canoed the Wisconsin River, Native Americans hunted the valleys and ridges, fished the Mississippi River and raised food near their village in the shadow of the bluffs. Remains of these occupations hold clues to the lifestyles and activities of the people who lived here so long ago.

Three groups of burial mounds and two village sites have been found within the boundaries of Nelson Dewey State Park. Artifacts from the villages indicate that this area was inhabited as early as 7,000 years ago, and the oldest burial mounds in the park may be more than 2,000 years old. Most of the mounds appear to have been built between A.D. 500 and 900.

There are three kinds of mounds in Nelson Dewey State Park:

  1. Conical or dome-shaped mounds.
  2. Linear or long mounds.
  3. Compound mounds, a rare expression of conical and linear mounds connected in a chainlike arrangement.

The Dewey mound groups were first brought to national notice by Colonel P. W. Norris, an archaeologist working for the Smithsonian Institution. He visited the Dewey farm in the 1880s and wrote that the land was "literally dotted with mounds and other works." Many mounds had already been damaged by farming and soil borrow. Norris noted that the mounds had continued to be used for burial long after mound-building ceased. Later Native Americans dug into preexisting mounds, creating what archaeologists called "intrusive" burials.

The mound groups are an expression of important social and ceremonial activity. Each mound was built with hundreds of basket loads of soil. Many carried a great distance to the mound. Some mounds show a preconstruction outline carved into the ground to keep mound builders "inside the lines" of the original design. It is known that many individual mounds were built over a long period of time, in some cases, several hundred years.

Many functions have been suggested for the mound groups. Some say they were used to mark hunting territories, or others say important astronomical events. Some believe that they commemorate a clan or ancestor. Most are known to contain human burials. Mounds have been designated burial sites, and they are protected by laws of the state of Wisconsin and by federal law. Please respect these sites as they are sacred areas to many.