Native American Cemeteries

Native American bowlBurial of the dead is a uniquely human activity, and one that has been practiced by virtually all cultures. Throughout the nineteenth century, along the western frontier of the states, Native American peoples were commonly relegated to sub-human status. Such an attitude "justified" forced relocation of Native American ethnic groups, and subsequent digging or plowing of their graves was done with little, if any concern, and certainly without respect. Although public attitudes towards Native Americans have improved somewhat during the latter part of this century, respect for the cemeteries of their ancestors remains an elusive cause.

For many of the same reasons that Nathan Myrick settled here in 1841, the La Crosse prairie was an ideal location for Native American occupation. The prairie offered high and dry land along the important Mississippi waterway, and was situated at the junction of major tributaries -- Black, La Crosse and Root rivers -- thereby offering native groups access to interior valleys for hunting or other seasonal forays. For nearly 10,000 years, the pristine environment supported a diversity of wildlife well suited to Paleo Indian, Archaic and Woodland groups living primarily on game and native plants. During the last 500 years of the prehistoric records, the Oneota culture found local floodplains ideal for gardening, and established a major settlement at La Crosse.

Due to massive alteration of the original landscape over the past 150 years, we will never know the extent of the pre-EuroAmerican Indian settlement of La Crosse. However, there are a few clues that were gathered during the city's development that allow a glimpse of earlier cultures.

The earliest description of a grave at La Crosse was provided by Major Stephen Long, who as a military officer stationed at Fort Crawford, took a voyage up the Mississippi River in the summer of 1817. Long's account of La Crosse was made on July 11 and includes the following:

"Passed Prairie de la Cross (sic) on our right, upon which we observed a small enclosure which was the burying place of the son on an Indian chief. Upon his grave a pole was erected to which an American flag was attached. The flag was almost worn out, having been suspended for a considerable amount of time." (Kane et. al. 1978:54).

Although Long did not elaborate on this point of interest, we can be reasonably sure that this grave was of a deceased member of the Decorah Winnebago encampment that had been established in La Crosse in 1797, and remained, at least seasonally, until the late 1830's. Based on a variety of other accounts, the placing of poles on graves was apparently a common practice for the Winnebago in early historic times.

A second reference to the Winnebago occupation at La Crosse was made by Joseph Nicollet, a Frenchman, who in 1839 was commissioned by the United States government to survey and map the Upper Mississippi drainage. On October 5th and 6th of that year, Nicollet arrived at La Crosse, and sketched the first map of the lower La Crosse River. On that map, he shows a hill along the north side of the river, corresponding with what would later become known as Indian Hill -- and a portion of which is now Red Cloud Park. At the west end of that hill, Nicollet made several symbols of Indian houses, and added the notation "Indian camp and graves" (Wood 1983: plate 20g). Unfortunately, Nicollet's journal of this section of his expedition from La Crosse to Prairie du Chien has been lost, and any additional details of his observations on that site are unknown.

By the time Myrick arrived in 1841, Decorah's band had apparently moved on. During the course of the development of the city that Myrick founded, other Indian graves were encountered, and occasionally noted in local papers or reminiscences of early pioneers. For example, William Tippett's account of his 1840 visit to La Crosse, describes an Indian cemetery at Front and Main streets that suggests another historic Winnebago burial ground in La Crosse, distinct from that recorded for the Red Cloud Park area.:

"Where Lloyd and Clark's store stands were five or six Indian graves, made in the usual manner. At the head of one was a cross made of red cedar, hewn about six feet high. At the crossing, a small niche had been carved out, and a piece of window glass had been inserted, behind which was a wooden image our Saviour, finely colored, like I have seen in the residences of Prairie du Chien. This was a roughly hewn cross very old to all appearances." (History of La Crosse County, 1881:329).

A statement by early pioneer Orrin Smith also concerns Indian graves at Front and Main streets, and may refer to the destruction of the above noted cemetery:

"On the site of David Law's business office, on Front Street, was a sandhill and an old Indian burial ground, numbers of skeletons having been exhumed." (Ibid.:461).

The History of La Crosse County (1881) also contains several references to an Indian burial ground on a sandhill near the corner of Third and Badger streets, in the vicinity of the present La Crosse County Administrative Center. William Hull in 1838 wrote of a trip:

"The country near the river was then a continous range of sandhills, some of them timbered, especially near what is now the location of Ziesler's Brewery and Dean Smith and Co.'s foundry. On top of the hill were some Indian graves." (Ibid.:333).

Ziesler's was located on Third Street between La Crosse and Grove streets; Dean Smith & Co.'s foundry was at Second and Badger streets. This hill was also used by the earliest Euro-American settlers for their first settlement: "The early residents of La Crosse made use of what was doubtless an ancient Indian burying place, situated on the (northeast) corner of Third and Badger streets." (Ibid.:512; see also Sanford et al.:28,201).

Human remains were also discovered and exhumed on June 24, 1879, on the north side of La Crosse. In the La Crosse Republican & Leader it was stated: "This morning some workmen who were digging a trench for the foundation of the stables of the Street Railway Company ... unearthed a quantity of human bones." The stables were located at the southwest corner of Car and Mill (now Copeland) streets. This location may correspond with the graves noted on the west end of Indian Hill as shown by Nicollet in 1839.

Native American remains have been found throughout the city of La Crosse during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The following is a summary of additional known disturbed sites:

    1885; Second & Jackson streets; seven skulls found of potentially Indian & whites
    1913; 5th St. South & Mormon Coulee Road; Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) cemetery
    1970s; Marion Road & Nottingham; fifteen skeletons; Oneota cemetery

The destruction of graves of earlier peoples at La Crosse is by no means a unique situation, as most modern cities have similar backgrounds. The rather callous diggings documented in the 1800's reflect an overall negative attitude toward Native Americans during the period, and a lack of understanding for the age and importance of earlier cultures. Such an attitude is documented in other accounts of the period.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century it was common practice for private groups to undertake sociable weekend outings where the principle activity was digging in Indian mounds. It was not until the 1880's that early archaeologists began to undertake scientific excavations of prehistoric sites, though in sad retrospect nearly all of those excavations were of Indian burial mounds. However, it was through these studies that the popular myth of the "Mound Builder" race was dispelled, and replaced with the factual interpretation of Native American construction of the burial mounds. This period is exemplified at La Crosse by the 1883 excavation of the mounds in Myrick Park by members of Harvard's Peabody Museum. After the turn of the nineteenth century, attitudes had shifted somewhat, and local newspapers promoted the preservation of the rapidly diminishing local antiquities.

Currently, archaeologists focus their studies primarily on habitation sites of earlier cultures. Burials are generally not excavated unless imminently threatened with destruction through continued urban development. Since the beginning of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, burials of both the two-thousand-year-old Hopewell culture and the five hundred year-old Oneota culture have been recovered in advance of the development of the industrial park across Pammel Creek from Sherwood Manor. This rescue archaeology project was supported by the developer, Hoeschler Realty. Another example is the salvage of about ten probable Oneota culture burials from a sandy hill in what is now the parking lot of Petsmart on Hwy. 16. The latter excavations were sponsored by Dahl Ford Subaru. However, the vast majority of the MVAC excavations have been at camp or village habitation sites. When burials are encountered during digs, and the site is not threatened with destruction, they are left in place.

For more information on the Oneota and pre-historic settlements in the Coulee Region, check out the online histories available from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center site.

Written by Robert "Ernie" Bozhardt
Regional Archaeologist
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Copyright ©July 2000 Bozhardt