Perrot State Park
Situated near the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers, Perrot State Park is in the unglaciated Driftless Area, an ancient landscape characterized by deeply carved valleys. The park’s majestic bluffs are made of sandstone and limestone laid down in Cambrian and Ordovician seas between 500 and 350 million years ago. Subsequent erosion separated the bluffs from bedrock formations on both sides of the Mississippi. During the last Ice Age, natural dams holding back huge glacial meltwater lakes burst, causing catastrophic floods that carved the Mississippi River gorge and isolated the 425-foot-tall Trempealeau Mountain as a unique bluff island. The receding flood waters left sand and gravel plains in the old riverbed.
When the First People arrived about 13,000 years ago, the landscape was a frozen tundra. Spruce and tamarack were the first trees to take hold. By 10,000 years ago, prairie grasses covered the sandy plains, and scattered oak and hickory created a savanna environment. Until 1850, the only forests near what would become Perrot were on islands in the Mississippi floodplain. The upland forest grew after white settlers impacted the landscape by plowing the prairies and suppressing fires.
For millennia, Indigenous People have inhabited the land that is now Perrot State Park. Their descendants, including the Ho-Chunk and Dakota Sioux, still reside across the region. Stories, songs and place names reflect their enduring relationship to this land, including the connection to Trempealeau Mountain, which the Ho-Chunk call Xeniaja (the mountain that overlooks water), phonetically mispronounced as Hay-nee-ah-cheh (Soaking Mountain). By some accounts, the Ho-Chunk danced for the Mountain’s Wakon (snake or snake spirits) and believed that the Great Spirit made Xeniaja a home for rattlesnakes. The Dakota Sioux know Trempealeau Mountain as Pah-hah-dah (the mountain separated by water). Their stories describe it being moved from the Minnesota bluff line to its current location by powerful medicine, where rattlesnakes protect their burial mounds.
Archaeological studies reveal that Native Americans have lived in and around Trempealeau Bay since the end of the Ice Age. For 500 generations, Indigenous people adapted to changing environments through strategic decision-making and technological innovations. They marked the seasons with traditions and ceremonies, observed the cycles of the sun and moon, and described their world through stories and songs. Traditional knowledge was passed from generation to generation. This place, now known as Perrot State Park, has long been a landmark in the Upper Mississippi Valley for its unique geological features, abundant natural resources and the power of place.
Archaeologists have identified ancestral Native American lifeways as successive cultural traditions based on 150 years of research. They recognize patterns in how and where people lived, stylistic changes in the tools people used through time, and differences in religious expressions seen through burial practices and rock art images. These traditions—Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian and Oneota—are terms that archaeologists have created to refer to past lifeways.
Rock art is difficult to place in time, but carvings (petroglyphs) and drawings (pictographs) have been found across Wisconsin, primarily in the Driftless Area. In 1888, antiquarian Theodore H. Lewis recorded a series of human hands and other symbols carved on the sandstone ledge overlooking Trempealeau Bay. These petroglyphs were unfortunately destroyed several years later when the rock was quarried to build wing dams in the Mississippi River.
First People (Paleoindian Tradition: 13,000-10,000 Years Ago). The First People walked across this landscape at the end of the Ice Age when giant mammals or megafauna roamed the countryside. Small groups of people frequently moved, hunting mammoths and mastodons with distinctive chipped-stone spear tips. Native people used animal bones and hides for clothing and shelter and collected plants for food and other uses. Thirteen-thousand-year-old Paleoindian artifacts were identified within a few miles of Perrot, and an 11,000-year-old spear tip was found inside the park boundaries.
Hunters and gatherers establish regional territories (Archaic Tradition: 10,0000-2,500 years ago). By 10,000 years ago, the climate warmed, megafauna became extinct and Native people adapted to the changing landscape. They gathered prairie and forest plants and hunted and trapped deer, elk, and small animals within familiar territories. They knew when and where resources were available. People commemorated their ancestors in community cemeteries that marked generational homelands. Through trade networks, groups exchanged materials over hundreds of miles. Archaeologists have found remnants of Archaic camps at several sites in Perrot.
The Seasonal Round (Woodland Tradition: 2,500-850 years ago). Around 2,500 years ago, Native people cultivated local plants, made the first clay-fired pots, and built earthen mounds. As the seasons changed, groups strategically moved across the landscape to collect resources as nature provided. Communities gathered on the shores of Trempealeau Bay during the warm season when fish, waterfowl, turtles, freshwater mussels, wild rice, duck potato and berries were abundant. They lived in circular wigwams (ciporkes in Ho-Chunk, pronounced “chee-poe-doe-kay”) and sculpted nearly 100 dome-shaped or conical mounds, only 50 of which remain today, including some near the Nature Center and on Trempealeau Mountain. As winter approached and the river froze, families dispersed to interior valleys and hunkered in rock shelters, relying on deer, elk and stored nuts to make it through the season of starvation. A sandstone shelter along the Black Walnut Trail was large enough for a family’s winter residence.
The trade network that began in the Archaic expanded during the Woodland Tradition to include the eastern half of North America and is known as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Flints from the Rocky Mountains, pipestone and grizzly bear teeth from the Great Plains, copper and silver from the northern Great Lakes, and marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico were exchanged and placed alongside ancestors in burial mounds throughout this region, including some at Perrot. The Hopewell Interaction Sphere lasted until about 1,600 years ago, when it abruptly ended.
About 1,250 years ago, Woodland people began sculpting effigy (animal-shaped) mounds that served as burial places, territorial markers and manifestations of sky, earth and lower world spirits clan totems. They shifted from using spears to more efficient bow-and-arrow technology, allowing the population to increase. But more successful hunts may have depleted white-tailed deer herds. By the end of the Woodland era, the hunting and gathering lifestyle declined and people turned to farming.
Woodland artifacts, including stone tools, pottery sherds, shell implements, and animal bones, have been unearthed during archaeological excavations throughout the park. A few effigy mounds remain near the Nature Center, and a bird-shaped earthwork is preserved on Trempealeau Mountain.
Farmers (Mississippian and Oneota Traditions: 950 to 350 years ago). Around 1,000 years ago, Native people in southern Wisconsin became the first large-scale corn farmers, a major hallmark of the Middle Mississippian and Oneota Traditions. The Middle Mississippian Culture formed about 950 years ago at America’s first city, Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, Missouri. As that city of nearly 30,000 developed rapidly, some people departed and paddled more than 500 miles up the Mississippi to establish a community at Trempealeau. Here they lived their Cahokian lifeways, building flat-topped mounds that served as platforms for elite residences and temples to continue their religious practices. Archaeologists believe Cahokians were drawn by stories of Trempealeau Mountain’s power.
For reasons unknown, most Mississippians left Trempealeau after only a few decades. Some may have returned to Cahokia while others intermixed with local Effigy Mound people at places like Aztalan. Those who stayed intensively farmed acres of corn, squash, beans, and other crops next to large villages, and seasonally hunted bison west of the Mississippi. This lifestyle shift, along with the development of new pottery and other artifact styles, is what archaeologists call the Oneota Culture. About 700 years ago, an Oneota village was centered northwest of Perrot State Park but extended to Trempealeau Bay, remnants of which were unearthed by archaeologists in the 1990s.
The French Arrive
French explorers encountered Native people along the Upper Mississippi by the mid-1600s. In 1685, Ho-Chunk guides led Nicholas Perrot—who was in search of an Ioway community that was “rich” in bison hides—to the Trempealeau Bluffs. Perrot’s men built a small winter fort before moving up the Mississippi a year later. A 1688 French map marks the location of Perrot’s winter fort at a “Butte” above the “R. Noire” (Black River). By 1702, French maps depicted “La Montagne qui trempe à l’eau” or “mountain soaking in water,” indicating Trempealeau Mountain as an important landmark. The ruins of Perrot’s post were found in 1888 during railroad construction along the base of the Trempealeau Bluffs. Regional antiquarians excavated and mapped the site, and in 1926, the Wisconsin Historical Society dedicated it with a marker plaque near the existing park headquarters.
Traders in Native Lands
During the century after Perrot’s exploration, French traders exchanged iron tools, guns, glass beads, brass kettles and hawk bells for beaver pelts and bison hides provided by Indigenous people. Native lifeways were upended, and regional conflicts erupted including the early eighteenth-century Fox Wars that blocked the French from reaching the Upper Mississippi for several decades. From 1731-1736, Godefroy de Linctot commanded a post at the Trempealeau Bluffs, perhaps on the same site Perrot had wintered 45 years before. In the 1990s, archaeologists excavated near the historical marker and found French trade beads and gun flints that date to Linctot’s time.
Although the British gained control of the Upper Mississippi following the French and Indian War in 1763, French men remained the dominant Europeans on the frontier. Many married Native women, solidifying trade relations. The United States gained possession of the region after the Revolutionary War in 1787 but did not take control until after the War of 1812. Still, French descendent families continued to play important roles in Trempealeau into the 1840s.
Government records document that Louis Grignon established a trading post at Trempealeau Mountain in 1820 and Edward Pizanne was issued licenses for “Montagne qui tremps a l’eau” between 1825 and 1827. During that period, Ho-Chunk and Dakota Sioux lived in villages along the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Winona and Trempealeau Bay. In 1837, Daniel Gavin established a mission at Trempealeau Bay, and likely interacted with the Dakota Sioux. In 1839, Joseph Nicollet made the first detailed map of Trempealeau Bay and plotted the recently abandoned Sioux village near what is now the park’s Nature Center.
Removal and Return
In the early nineteenth century, the American government coerced tribes to sign treaties and cede lands. The 1832 Black Hawk War was a catalyst for repeated forced removals of Indigenous groups to reservations west of the Mississippi beginning in 1840. Many Ho-Chunks resisted and walked or paddled back to their Wisconsin homelands, only to be removed again. The final removal attempt was during the winter of 1873-74 in which U.S. soldiers captured families and shipped them by rail in cattle cars to reservation land in Nebraska. These included 56 members of the Black Cloud, Little Bear and Mezom’s bands who were rounded up from camps within a few miles of Trempealeau. The following summer, hundreds of Ho-Chunk people returned to Wisconsin, and after 1875, the government allowed them to remain. Without a Wisconsin reservation, Ho-Chunk families acquired land through various laws, culminating with the 1887 General Allotment Act. Over time, many parcels were lost due to unscrupulous oversight by government agents. Further, Indigenous people faced decades of forced assimilation through programs like boarding schools where Indian children were taken from their families and forbidden to speak their language or practice their cultural ways. Still, Native people persevered and remain today, maintaining their language and cultural traditions that they pass down to the next generation.
From 1845-1848, the Government Land Office mapped and surveyed what is now southern Trempealeau. Lafayette Bunnell and James Reed traded with Native people throughout the 1840s while cutting trees from Mississippi River islands to sell to steamboats for fuel. By the 1850s, additional families following Reed and Bunnell founded the town of Montville (now Trempealeau) at Reed’s Landing. John Brady’s farm was at the foot of Brady’s Bluff by the early 1900s. The Trowbridge, Lehman, and Shrake farms were along Trempealeau Bay.
John A. Latsch and the Founding of Perrot State Park
In the early twentieth century, John A. Latsch, a wealthy wholesale grocer in Winona and lover of the outdoors, began acquiring public lands along the Mississippi. Born in Trempealeau County in 1860, Latsch believed that everyone should have access to the Driftless Area’s rivers and bluffs. Before his death in 1934, Latsch donated more than 18,000 acres in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1916, he gifted 1,010 acres along the Trempealeau Bluffs to establish a state park, named in honor of French explorer Nicholas Perrot. In 1918, Perrot State Park was established and has since grown to encompass 1,270 acres. Latsch also donated 266 acres in 1919 and 1921 that became the core of nearby Merrick State Park.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a 1930s Depression-era federal work relief program for unemployed, unmarried men that made an extraordinary impact across the state park system and beyond. Designed to conserve natural resources on government-owned lands, the program put thousands back to work at eight Wisconsin state parks, including Perrot, and developed recreational areas for the public.
Between 1935 and 1937, CCC Company 2606 established Camp Perrot on the old Brady Farm. They transplanted 12,000 trees from the Mississippi bottomlands and constructed 2.6 miles of trails, including the one that leads to the top of Brady’s Bluff and a shelter house at its peak. The young men quarried, shaped and hauled more than 5,000 tons of limestone from the nearby bluffs to build trails and bridges and riprap shorelines. They also completed botanical surveys and made topographic maps of the park.
Since Perrot State Park’s inception in 1918, generations have picnicked, camped, canoed and connected to nature. Families have observed migrating birds, hiked trails, and learned to fish, swim, and paddle in the calm waters of Trempealeau Bay. They have climbed to the top of Brady’s Bluff to capture sunsets over Trempealeau Mountain, preserved in photographs and their collective memories. This is a landscape imprinted on the cultural legacy of countless generations that holds the stories of many. What will your Perrot story be?