History and Mystery: Touring Indian Mounds with Cultural Landscape Legacies

Mark Cupp (center holding staff), and others pose at the Wisconsin River at the Bloyer Mound Group Site.

The lower Wisconsin River Valley is home to numerous mound groups, but their locations are not so easy to find. That’s why I attended a tour of four mound groups. The tour was led by Mark Cupp, the president of Cultural Landscape Legacies, Inc., a organization dedicated to the education, protection and preservation of the cultural heritage of indigenous people who left their legacy on the landscape of the upper Midwest.

According to Cupp, most mounds have been destroyed, so it’s important to preserve what remains. He said that there are three different kinds of mounds found in the river valley: conical (round), linear and effigy mounds in the shapes of animals. He called the tour the “history and mystery” tour because there is more that we don’t know than know about the mounds.

We visited four mound groups: Avoca Lakeside Group, Dingman Mounds, Bloyer Mounds (Twin Lizard) and the mound groupings at Frank’s Hill.

Cupp said that the mounds were built by people that lived in the river valley about 1000 years ago. These people hunted and gathered for their food and started to garden and develop into farmers. It is believed that they built the mounds over a period of years while summering near the river. The mound groups were built to bury the dead and likely as a form of spiritual expression. All are considered sacred spaces.

The Village of Avoca has preserved a series of conical and linear mounds. Unfortunately, they have built a playground around the mounds. This photo shows a horseshoe pit built into the end of a linear mound, which, needless to say, is not best practice for mound preservation. Photo by Diane Schwartz.

Avoca Lakeside Group
The village of Avoca has preserved a series of four conical and seven linear mounds at Lake Side Park. Unfortunately, they have built a playground adjacent to the mounds and added some odd features to the grouping. There’s a horseshoe pit built at the tail end of a linear mound, several benches situated on top of another linear mound, and some odd concrete markers sitting on top of some conical mounds. According to Cupp, the mounds could be better preserved.

“It is never a good idea to walk on the mounds and build play structures into mounds,” he said.

He also said that that the mounds are mowed, which is not best practice. It is better to let the grasses grow naturally on the mounds, he explained.

The Dingman Mound Group includes five bird effigies. One bird effigy in the lower right corner of this drawing was recently discovered. Drawing courtesy of Cultural Landscape Legacies Inc.

Dingman Mounds

The Dingman Mounds are located on state land about 150 meters from the Wisconsin River. The road into the mounds is located just off Hwy 60 across from Eagle Cave Road. We walked in a short distance through restored prairie to this large grouping of about 12 conical mounds and 5 bird mounds. The site has undergone some restoration and is fairly heavily wooded with white pine. It would have been hard to locate the mounds without a guide. Cupp said that in 2005, they asked the Ho-Chunk permission to repair two conical mounds that were looted a long time ago. Cultural Landscape Legacies brought in soil to repair the mounds.

The Bloyer or Twin Lizard Mound Group is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Drawing courtesy of Cultural Landscape Legacies, Inc.

Bloyer Mounds/Twin Lizard

This mound grouping is one of the best preserved and scenic in the river valley. The grouping is located on state land adjacent to the Wisconsin River. The site is located at the end of Aigner Lane, just south of the intersection of Hwy 60, Hwy 00 and Ginger’s Road.  

The grouping consists of 15 mounds including 3 birds, 1 bear, 2 lizards, 1 conical, and 8 lineal mounds, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also the only site that is also part of the Orion Mussel Bed State Natural Area. This state natural area is the only natural area that preserves critical underwater habit for mussels, mayflies, dragonflies, beetles, and fish.

Cupp said that this mound site was purchased by the state about 10 years ago. A cabin and a garage were removed from the site.

“The mounds are larger than at the Dingman site and the definition of the mounds are very clear,” said Cupp. “There is very little erosion at this site.”

Cupp said that one interpretation of the site is that the land effigy (bear) is keeping the peace between the air (bird effigies) and the water spirits (lizard effigies). That’s part of the mystery of the site. Cupp speculated that societies would have to have strong leadership to build such sites. According to the book Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, second edition (page 125) by Bob Birmingham, a small conical mound might take 50 adults one afternoon to build and that same-sized group may take a full day to create an average size effigy mound. A large effigy mound may have taken several weeks to build. According to Birmingham’s book, “analogy with modern Native funeral ritual suggests that the construction of every mound was accompanied by other ceremonies that required further investments of labor and time – feasts, dances, give-away ceremonies, speeches, and both public and private rituals designed to ease the rite of passage of the dead to the next world, comfort family and friends, restore balance to the community and universe at large, reaffirm ties between the living and the ancestors, and celebrate the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.”

Franks Hill consists of two mound groupings. The west ridge contains a series of 12 conical mounds and the east ridge contains a series of two 5 mounds: canine, buffalo, bird and two others. Image courtesy of Cultural Landscape Legacies, Inc.

Frank’s Hill & Ghost Eagle

Our last stop is home to the beautiful mound groupings at Frank’s Hill. It is located on Hwy 193, just north of intersection of Hwy 60, just west of Muscoda.  The mounds are part of the once giant Eagle Township ceremonial lanscape.  

We hiked up the east hill for a panoramic view of the lower Wisconsin River valley and to see the grouping of four mounds: canine, buffalo/bear, bird and two mounds with interesting shapes and interpretations. Cupp said that the one mound could be a corn woman and one could be a coiled snake or serpent. On the western ridge are a series of 12 conical mounds which are believed to be calendar mounds, built to guide the harvest (though some archaeologist disagree with this interpretation). Both mound groups are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is owned by the Three Eagles Foundation, Inc., an organization established by Frank Shadewald, which is where the site gets its name.

Cupp said that because of the unique east-west alignment of the mounds to the sun, the Three Eagles Foundation hosts solstice and equinox events at the site (now not being held under Covid 19). He said that the east ridge is also believed to be a vision quest site, a place where young men would spend four days and three nights without food in order to see a vision for their future. Cupp said that he learned the vision quest story from a Cheyenne elder named Ralph Red Fox. While there is no way to confirm this story, there is no question that there is something special about this site. The view of the surrounding valley and the unusual mound shapes suggests that Frank’s Hill was a special place.

Mark Cupp, left, interprets the mounds at Frank’s Hill.

Cupp also said that there is a faint bird mound with a quarter mile wingspan in the farm field visible from Frank’s Hill. He said that you can still see it if there is a light snow, but continuous farming has diminished the view of this mound.

Frank’s Hill is open to the public.

For more information about the mounds of the lower Wisconsin River Valley, please contact Cultural Landscape Legacies.

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