Area Archaeology

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Life Along Wisconsin’s Great River Road And Why You Need To Go

By ANASTASIA PENCHI

It’s easy to make history come alive along Wisconsin’s Great River Road.

The 250 miles of Highway 35, which runs adjacent to the Mississippi River from Kieler, Wisconsin, in the South, to Prescott in northern Wisconsin, can take you back to times when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Native American religious ceremonies and rituals were commonplace.

There are plenty of historical sites where you can physically see evidence of our past along Wisconsin’s Great River Road. Your ancient examination should start at one of these locations:

Extinct but also here

The very land we walk on was once inhabited by giant creatures and the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center in La Crosse has the proof. The center, which preserves local artifacts and educates us about the science of archaeology and ancient cultures of the upper Mississippi River Valley, has excavated mastodon and mammoth teeth locally. These big furry elephant-like creatures were kind of like Manny from the cartoon Ice Age movies, but without the comic sloth best friend. Apparently, while most mammoth remains are found on the plains and most mastodon remains are found in the eastern woodlands, the La Crosse area has both. That suggests the vegetation here was a mix of grassland and woodland supporting both species.

More than just heaps of earth

About 7,000 years ago, Native Americans used the Mississippi River and surrounding land for travel and trade. We know this because remnants of several native cultures have been found in earthwork mounds like those in Perrot State Park in Trempealeau. These mounds are mainly associated with the burial of the dead. Sometimes they are animal-shaped (effigy mounds are commonly shaped like birds, bears and panthers). Visit Perrot’s nature center to learn more, and explore its picturesque grounds to locate them yourself. But don’t walk or picnic on them. Not only is this disrespectful, it is also illegal under Wisconsin state law.

Imagine a culture and see its temples

While you are in Trempealeau, you can also walk the Little Bluff Mounds Interpretive Trail. Start at the kiosk just off Main Street and learn about the Mississippian people, a Native American culture named by archaeologists (in order to define the time period) who lived from 900-1500 AD. A hiking trail meanders up Little Bluff where three temple mounds constructed more than 1,000 years ago still stand. Archaeologists believe a group of native people left Cahokia, which was the “big city” of its time in Southern Illinois and traveled 530 miles up the Mississippi River to form this community. Why did they come here? Who knows! But after you see the scenic river views from Little Bluff you might have an idea.

Military and medical history buffs wanted

The oak timber enclosure is long gone, but there is still plenty of history to see at Fort Crawford, a 19th Century U.S. Army outpost located in Prairie du Chien. Fort Crawford actually refers to two forts, as the first Fort Crawford was too close to the Mississippi River and flooded, forcing a move/rebuild. The Fort Crawford Museum now on the site has three buildings of exhibits featuring local and medical history, and includes a 1930s reconstruction of the second fort’s hospital where digestion experiments were completed by Dr. William Beaumont, a pioneer in his field.

Meet the Writer

Anastasia Penchi

Anastasia Penchi is a self-employed writer who lives just off Wisconsin’s Great River Road. You can read more about Wisconsin’s Great River Road, and the festivals and people of Western Wisconsin, at the Web site: www.loislaneforhire.com.