There are singular remains of antiquity throughout America, universally conceded to be the work of a prehistoric race, commonly called the Mound Builders. That these works owe their origin to a people more intimately acquainted with the arts of life than the aboriginal tribes which inhabited this continent upon its discovery, is abundantly proved by these records which are found scattered throughout the entire length and breadth of our land.
The attention of archaeologists is being more and more directed to a study of these peculiar evidences of a vanished half civilization, but as yet neither their origin nor the date of their inhabitance has been determined. Such traces as are left, though abundant in quantity, are vague as to character, no written memoranda having come to light, nor hieroglyph whose key can unlock the mystery. The remains consist chiefly of mounds of earth, which, notwithstanding the leveling and wearing action of the elements, have kept the form into which those mythical hands molded them. Hence the name of Mound Builders.
In these mounds are found the traces of such useful arts as place beyond peradventure the users of them higher in the scale of progression than the savages who succeeded them. These mounds and enclosures are various in form, and it is supposed that they were dedicated to uses as various. Some are believed to have been fortifications; others, places of sepulcher and of sacrifice, while some were the sites of temples, and others observatories.
The ground selected for their erection seems generally to have been an elevated plateau on the banks of either lake or river, and the builders were apparently influenced by the same considerations as govern men in modem times in the choice of places for settlement. It is a fact that many of our most opulent cities are built upon the sites of these ancient works, proving that those by-gone races availed themselves of the same natural advantages as we do of today. These earth works are by no means of uniform shape or size. Some are regularly arranged, forming squares, circles and octagons; others are like walls or fortifications, while others (and these are more numerous in Wisconsin than elsewhere, and first noticed in this state) are in imitation of the shapes of animals, birds, beasts and fishes - and in the forms of trees, war clubs, tobacco pipes, and other significant implements of race.
It is not an improbable supposition that these curious figures were intended to represent a badge of tribe - a sort of gigantic armorial device on a scale commensurate with the vastness of the territory inhabited. In all existing nations symbols are employed as an expression of national individuality, and are deeply cherished by the people. England has her lion, France her eagles and her flour-DE-lis, Scotland her thistle, and among our present North American tribes we have such titles as Sitting Bull, Driving Qoud and Black Hawk. So these mounds may have been shaped to represent tribal or family insignia, and were possibly dedicated to the burial of members of the special clans who reared them.
These animal shaped mounds, equally with the round tumult, contain human bones. These bones are in a very brittle and decomposed state, having roots and fibers growing through them, and are distributed equally through all parts of the mounds. In the construction of these monuments it is evident that the bodies were laid upon the surface of the ground and the earth heaped upon them. No appearances are to be found of graves having been dug below the surface. In many cases later burials have been made upon these mounds, where possibly some nomadic tribe made a grave for its dead above the long buried and almost forgotten race. This surface burial, in which earth was brought and heaped above the dead, was not the custom among the North American Indians, their mode being a shallow grave, or suspension on platforms, or in trees, and this is counted another proof of the non-identity of the Mound Builders with the people that followed them.
In some parts of the state are found earth works of a different character from the mound proper, which from their supposed use, are styled "garden beds." These beds are methodically arranged in parallel rows, much as a gardener would lay out his ground for flower culture, and are of a variety of sizes and shapes, sometimes occupying acres in extent. These mounds are not the only traces of the lost inhabitants. The copper mines of northern Michigan afford ample proofs of their having been worked at some previous period, and as implements of this metal are abundant among other vestiges of the Mound Builders, they were, without doubt, the prehistoric miners.
Professor Irving believes that, as the Michigan copper belt extends across Wisconsin to Minnesota, copper must have also been mined in this state. The Jesuit fathers frequently mention the existence of copper, and even use the term mines, though there is no evidence that they either saw or heard of actual mining in the technical sense of that word. As early as 1636, which was prior to the time when they themselves had visited the Great Lake, they speak of the presence of native copper, and of its having been taken from the mines. In the "Relations" for 1659-60, after missions had been established in this region, they reported it to be "enriched in all its borders by mines of lead, almost pure, and of copper all refined in pieces as large as the fist, and great rocks which have whole veins of turquoise."
Professor Whittlesey says, in a paper to the Smithsonian Institution, that there are evidences that these ancient mines were abandoned several hundred years before the advent of the French into that region, and their acquaintance with the northern tribes. As there is no legend among the Indians of their ancestors having worked the mines, nor any implements in their possession that could have been used for that purpose, it is highly improbable that they could have been the original workers.
In ancient mining pits have been found wooden shovels, fragments of wooden bowls and broken stone mauls. The effects of blows from these stone mauls are visible upon the rocks. In other places are the distinct marks of picks and drills, as fresh and perfect as if they had been recently made. Coals and ashes are also found in the old excavations, along with the remnants of tools used, and in some cases the scales of fishes, evidently the remains of miners' meals.
It appears that these people were supplied only with very simple mechanical contrivances, and that they penetrated the earth only to a short distance, their deepest works being only about the same as those of old tin mines of Cornwall, England, which were wrought before the conquest of Britain by the Romans.
Dr. Hoy, president of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, finds upon examination of the implements made out of copper by these people, that they were beaten or hammered into the required shape, not melted and molded. In a large majority of cases he found specks of pure silver scattered over their surfaces, which he counted as evidence positive that the specimen was never melted. Their fibrous texture was another proof that they were hammered or beaten out.
Professor James D. Butler, however, appeals from this conclusion, and believes the people knew the art of smelting, "though the manner may be past finding out." He claims that as a rule the articles they manufactured were of utility rather than of ornament, and that he has found evidences of melted metal in their construction. The discussion is of interest only as going to prove a greater or less degree of advancement among these workers in the appliances of labor. If smelting was practiced, more complicated ingenuity was evinced than if only the rude hammer was used.
We have scarcely learned the alphabet of this strange language written all over the surface of our country. Thus far in the study of the subject of the Mound Builders little more seems demonstrated than the ancient occupation of the territory by a semi-savage race. No trace of high art or of refined civilization piques the antiquarian or stimulates the imagination of the student with visions of valuable discoveries yet to be made.
The chief interest lies in solving the mystery of the utter disappearance of a race, which has so entirely dropped out of human annals as scarcely to live even in legend. We only know that a people lived, were numerous, industrious and widely established, but from whence they came or whither they vanished is mere conjecture. Their names were not "writ in water," but in the earth. The turf of the prairie, the margin of the river, the cleft in the rock testify to their having been. But whether definite history can be written from such memoranda, must rest with the future archaeologist.
Information gathered and adapted from History of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, Past and Present
Carl Zillier, Editor
Pubished by The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912, Chicago, IL