Southeast Missouri State University Press

The Rivers that Bring Us Together

Kevin Koch

We are hiking past the marching bears.

The Mississippi River slips quietly downstream beneath the bluff to our left. The woods are thick at our right, barren and brown in early December. Alongside us lie the Native American burial mounds of the Effigy Mounds National Monument near the town of Marquette in northeast Iowa: conical mounds, linear mounds, and effigies in the shapes of flying birds and great marching bears pointing downstream.

Just south of here, the Wisconsin River empties into the Mississippi, a confluence of waters that brought native tribes together at this sacred spot, brought the European trader, and even brought them together in a frontier village of interracial marriage, until, in the end, it all came tumbling down.

Above it all the ancient burial mounds—hundreds of them—silent in the progression of seasons. The marching bears keep pointing downstream.

Winter is holding off this year. Dennis Lenzendorf, a Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, science teacher, seasonal park ranger, and guide at Effigy Mounds, bounces us up the rocky service road in his Jeep, taking us high into the hills of the park’s secluded South Unit, taking us to the marching bears. On December 4, it is forty-five degrees, and you can bet that this mild weather won’t last.

He knows the story like it is written in his bones.

Effigy Mounds National Monument—established in 1949—preserves and protects over two hundred burial and ceremonial mounds—thirty-one of them in the shapes of bears or birds—in one of the nation’s most significant Native American historical and spiritual sites. The mounds range from 750 to 2,500 years old, the work of Woodland Period Native Americans, a hunter-gatherer society that inhabited the Mississippi River valley and bluffs, and the oak savanna prairies that stretched over the inland rolling hills.

The Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers were great highways—stretching north to Minnesota and northeast nearly to the Great Lakes and south as far as the imagination could reach. The rivers gathered the Woodland Period clans together each spring at the junction. There they fished the rivers, tended gardens, hunted, and set up trading posts.

In late fall, the clans dispersed far and near—small bands and families—in search of rock shelters to endure the winter, each group to its own devices. In spring, the rivers brought them together again in celebration.

They brought the winter’s dead—interred overwinter in tree platforms—to the gathering place, and the season’s work of mound building began. First, the builders scored the mound shape into the bluff topsoil, although some of the mounds are at river floodplain level. The dead were interred in the scored‑out basins of the mounds. Next, the Woodland peoples carried soil, basket by basket, from the sacred riverbank up winding paths to the top of the 450‑foot bluff, and spread it layer after layer upon the mounds, interspersed with clamshells, ornaments, weapons, and other cremated ashes. Slowly they raised the mounds to a height of four to five feet above the savanna floor.

Most mounds, and the oldest, are conical or linear. Conical mounds are usually ten to twenty feet in diameter. Linear mounds are typically six to eight feet wide and stretch thirty or fifty feet in length. One linear mound in the park is 470 feet long.

But it is the effigy mounds that define this place, and as we exit his Jeep and begin our hike, Dennis points to the large bear and bird images along the path. These later‑period mounds were built from 500 through 1250 a.d. The largest bear lumbers 137 feet from nose to tail and the largest bird extends its wings 212 feet. Some effigies were burial mounds, but many were ceremonial. Ash residue pinpoints the ceremonial fire pit, often located at the heart of the bear or bird. Great ceremonies amid the bear and bird effigies linked land and sky, human and earth, spirit and beast. Rituals celebrated the harvest, prepared the peoples for winter, and rejoiced in the renewal of spring. These ceremonies, says Dennis, actively involved the tribe in bringing forth the new season, a sacred responsibility of the peoples along the river.

There may have been Keepers of the Mounds, Dennis says, spiritual landscapers of sorts, who kept an eye over this magnificent overlook of the Mississippi from the oak savanna that graced the bluff top.

Today the Park Service is the Keeper of the Mounds. In a moment of skepticism, I ask Dennis whether Native Americans resent the mounds being put on public display. He considers the question thoughtfully, but shakes his head, no: “A tribal elder from Wisconsin has said that if the Park Service weren’t here, there would be no mounds preserved. And we not only preserve the mounds, but also the landscape that goes with them. Tribal peoples say that we are preserving a sacred space, a sacred geography.”

Indeed, Dennis draws my attention equally to the woods, the river, and the mounds themselves. On an earlier visit, I had climbed the trail that rises some 450 feet above the interpretive center on the valley floor to the bluff top. Markers along the switchbacking trail drew my attention to the rich variety of the forest: walnut, basswood, sugar maple, white oak, red cedar, white ash, chinkapin oak, shagbark hickory, hawthorn, honey locust, black cherry, big‑toothed aspen, red oak.

“There’s a meaning here that is many layers deep,” Dennis says, insisting that the land, forest, prairie, river, and burial mounds are all part of a seamless web. “The Native Americans understood that. We’re getting closer.”

Later, as we descend the rocky service road to a fading December sun, Dennis wraps up his thoughts. The mound building ended about 750 years ago, he says. The Woodland Period peoples spread out across the prairie. Their descendents became the Oneota, later the Ioway, perhaps even the Sioux and the Winnebago. They moved away. But their spiritual connection with the land did not die away. According to tribal historians,” he says, “many practices observed today have their roots in the Effigy Mound Culture.”

Other tribes like the Mesquakie and the Sauk, driven out of the eastern woodlands by the Iroquois, took their places along the river bluffs, arriving in the early 1700s. Settling first in Wisconsin, they came down the Wisconsin River to settle along the Mississippi, at the base of the mounds, and up and down the Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois shores.

The rivers brought them here.

*  *  *

I once came upon Native American burial mounds in the most inauspicious way. In a snowless winter, in the woods above the Mississippi near my home in Dubuque, Iowa, I spied in the distance what I first took to be a lead mine pit, a circular indentation in the ground too neatly round to be a sinkhole. I pushed through the brush beyond the trail in order to check it out. As I drew nearer, though, I realized it did not have the telltale signs of a lead mine pit. It wasn’t deep and cone‑shaped. There was no ring of rock at its lip, no boulders dug up and dropped at the pit’s edge. I looked around in the woods for similar small craters, as lead mine pits often occur in linear groups, frequently in east‑west runs where miners had caught a line of lead along a limestone fracture.

I looked east, I looked west. Two more circles dotted the nearby soil; however, these were not pits but mounds rising up from the forest floor. Native American burial mounds? But what about the pit? Maybe some long‑ago desecration by a fool with a shovel? I had no way of knowing. But my skin crawled, and I hurried back to the trail.

From the trail I could see the Mississippi River through winter’s denuded branches and tree trunks, as silent as it was when the Woodland peoples buried their dead on the bluff tops.

*  *  *

The European arrival on the upper Mississippi River was, at first, a drop here, a drop there. Fr. Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet arrived first, by canoe, in 1673. From his mission church along Lake Michigan, Marquette was summoned by the French governor to accompany Joliet to find a passageway to the Far East.

Marquette and Joliet had heard of a great river that bisected the continent, heading south to the oceans. How could they reach it from the Great Lakes? The Miami of the Green Bay area agreed to show them the route. They would paddle up the Fox River that fed into the Great Lakes and then portage several miles to the Wisconsin River, which flowed southwest to the Mississippi, the Father of Waters.

Marquette kept a journal: “The River on which we embarked is called Meskousing [Wisconsin]. It is very wide; it has a sandy bottom, which forms various shoals that render its navigation very difficult. It is full of Islands.”

Marquette, Joliet, and their men paddled southwest, past woods, prairies, and bluffs. They passed an iron mine worked by the Native Americans. Soon the Wisconsin began to widen and deepen: “We arrived at the mouth of our River; and, at 42 and half degrees Of latitude, We safely entered the Mississippi on the 17th of June, with a Joy that I cannot Express.”

From Pike’s Peak State Park on the Iowa bluff, 450 feet above the river across from the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi, you will see—and are part of—what Marquette next describes:

Here we are, then, on this so renowned River. . . . It is narrow at the place where Miskous [Wisconsin] empties; its Current, which flows southward, is slow and gentle. To the right is a large Chain of very high Mountains, and to the left are beautiful lands; in various Places, the stream is Divided by Islands.

Marquette describes the fish and wildlife encountered there, perhaps with an exaggerated or fear‑induced flair:

From time to time, we came upon monstrous fish, one of which struck our Canoe with such violence that I Thought that it was a great tree, about to break the Canoe to pieces. On another occasion, we saw on the water a monster with the head of a tiger, a sharp nose Like That of a wildcat, with whiskers and straight, Erect ears; the head was gray and The Neck quite black.

And finally he spies the “wild cattle”:

They are very similar to our domestic cattle. They are not longer, but are nearly as large again, and more Corpulent. When Our people killed one, three persons had much difficulty in moving it. The head is very large; The forehead is flat, and a foot and a half Wide between the Horns, which are exactly like Those of our oxen, but black and much larger. Under the Neck They have a Sort of large dewlap, which hangs down; and on The back is a rather high hump. The whole of the head, The Neck, and a portion of the Shoulders, are Covered with a thick Mane Like That of horses.

Jacques Marquette had, of course, just experienced his first sighting of the American bison.

Marquette and Joliet would paddle as far south as present-day Arkansas, where a budding fear of the Native Americans and the Spaniards to the south turned them back.

On both passages, south and north, they had passed beneath and alongside the ancient effigy burial mounds, without ever knowing they were there. They had arrived and returned via the junction of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, just like so many before them.

*  *  *

We enjoy our rivers, have made them into our playthings. The Wisconsin River is a canoeist’s delight, with its swift current, sandy bottom and ample sand islands, and comparatively clean waters—you can see your paddle two feet down, as compared to most Midwest rivers and streams that are choked, chocolate brown, with eroded mud and thick with fertilizer‑induced algae.

I used to canoe these waters with the Boy Scouts when my sons were younger. We played keep‑away by teams while floating downriver, tossing a football from canoe to canoe, working our hardest to overturn the other guys. We played Gooberball on the islands—softball with a duct‑tape ball and a canoe paddle for a bat. I declined the game of tackle football. There were other ways to abuse my 40‑ish body than to be slammed into the sand by high‑strung teenagers.

Now I return from time to time with friends and family. Today my wife and I have taken our two canoes (Rocky and Bullwinkle) and four friends on a nine‑mile Labor Day float. Dirk and Lorilee alternately laugh uncontrollably or debate a finer point about Thoreau. Since Dinesh and Stephanie are expecting a baby, Steph gets to ride like Cleopatra, although being stuffed into the belly of a canoe bottom hardly makes for a glorious ride.

It’s been a dry fall, and we occasionally drag the canoes over low spots in the river. We eat our lunch on a sandy island. Only I am foolish enough to take repeated float trips in my life jacket in the chilling water as we rest.

We draw nearer to our take‑out, and the current deepens and quickens. We hug the left shore to avoid the shallow sand shoals, and the current begins to sweep us along. Too late from the rear of the canoe I spot a log protruding from the water, and the current is pushing us toward it! A quick maneuver fails and the canoe capsizes, spilling Lorilee, Dinesh, and me, laughing and yelling and joking. Lorilee catches the log and hangs on for dear life, till we convince her that she can put her feet down and stand up. But the cooler is floating downstream, the handle loosened from the upset. The beer is loose! My apple is gone! shouts Dinesh, laughing at the absurdity of it all.

My reputation has floated away, too. So this is the experienced canoeist, they joke for the rest of the trip. When the other canoe returns, having rounded a bend and not seen us for a while, we are back in the canoe and delirious with laughter. The other canoe catches the one paddle we have not been able to retrieve.

Such is a day on the Wisconsin River, some miles above the Mississippi, well out of sight of the Effigy Mounds, unless, of course, some unnamed mounds lurk in the bluffs above us, with only a beating sun and a rustling breeze to unmask the ordinary.

*  *  *

The bluff at Pike’s Peak State Park on the Iowa shore rises 500 feet above the Mississippi, directly across from the confluence of the Wisconsin River. The view is expansive, stretching upriver to the town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, lying sleepily in the river floodplain, downriver to Pool #10, river waters backed up by the Lock & Dam at Guttenberg, Iowa, and directly across to where the Wisconsin River bleeds into the Mississippi. Together their waters wind and curl among a hundred islands, and fishing boats anchor in the myriad cuts in hopes of landing bass and walleye. At eye level across the river, the rolling hills of Wisconsin bound away on the plateau above the river valley.

Raging meltwaters scoured the deep river valley as the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, just yesterday in geologic time. These rugged lands amid the prairies—encompassing eastern Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, and southeast Minnesota—are known as the Driftless Area, having been bypassed by the final glaciers that bulldozed and pulverized everything in their paths. Even so, the Driftless Area was sculpted by the meltwater, and the Mississippi ran brim-to-brim across the 500‑foot bluffs, and probably even deeper, as the river floor here contains another 300 feet of glacial sediment before hitting bedrock.

The down‑cutting unveiled a geological past, deep and silent in the exposed bluff along Pikes Peak State Park. From top to bottom, the bluff tells a story:

  • Galena limestone, formed in deep, quiet seas 450 million years ago, with few fossils;
  • Decorah limestone and shale, formed in a shallow sea near shore, laced with brachiopod fossils;
  • Platteville limestone, an impervious layer from which water seeps today in outcroppings and forms small waterfalls;
  • St. Peter Sandstone, formed from a sandy beach;
  • Prairie du Chien Group, layers of dolomite, sandstone, and shale;
  • Jordan sandstone, the oldest rock visible at river level, 550 million years old.

Between epochs, the land sometimes heaved upward, rolling back the seas, and sank again, falling beneath new oceans with new, strange creatures dropping into the muck upon their deaths. One last time the land heaved upward, its seabeds hardened into rock, then bowed beneath or miraculously escaped successive waves of glaciers and eroded again by their meltwaters raging along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

Pike’s Peak State Park takes its name from General Zebulon Pike, whose name likewise graces the more famous Pike’s Peak of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, General Pike paddled up the Mississippi on a mission to scout a likely location for a military fort, and recommended the bluff top with its expansive view. The U. S. government, however, eventually decided on a location just to the north at Prairie du Chien, at river level.

Because the river brings us, gathers us, and disperses us.

*  *  *

The town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin (population 6,000), lies along the Mississippi River about five miles above the Wisconsin River confluence. Today, its major businesses include a 3M Company plant and a Cabela’s fishing, hunting, and camping store and warehouse. Named as the Prairie of the Dogs, the town’s history is richly intertwined with the Mississippi and nearby Wisconsin Rivers, Native American trade and tribal councils, French miners and traders, and military outposts and treaties.

Not far upstream from Effigy Mounds, where ancient tribes rendezvoused from spring through autumn, Prairie du Chien was first a Mesquakie village, a center for trade among tribes and later with the Europeans, and frequent site of inter‑tribal councils. When the British explorer Jonathan Carver saw the Native American village in 1766, he described it as “one of the most delightsome settlements I saw during my travels,” and Peter Pond, a trader from New England, described the village’s bustling activity in his 1773 journal:

We Saw a Large Collection from Everey Part of the Misseppey who had arrived Beforur Us Even from Orleans Eight Hundred Leages Beloue us. . . Hear was Sport of All Sorts we went to Colecting furs and Skins. . . . Thare was Not Les then One Hundred and thirtey Canues. (Both quotes from Wilkie. See Sources Consulted.)

French fur traders and lead miners who had arrived shortly after Marquette and Joliet soon settled down and intermarried with the Native Americans, making Prairie du Chien a frontier interracial, Métis village. According to Dr. Thomas Auge, former professor of History at Loras College, by 1781 a number of French traders purchased land, settled down, built homes, and took Native American wives. The village had grown to thirty‑seven houses and nearly four hundred people by the time General Pike visited in 1805. Pike, not nearly as accepting of the interracial marriages as the French, wrote with an edge that “almost on half of the inhabitants under 20 years have the blood of the aborigine in their vein.” But Pike had to admit that the Métis lived a good life: “the inside furniture of their homes is decent, and indeed, in those of the most wealthy display a degree of elegance and taste.”

The Métis culture flourished in Prairie du Chien along with numerous other such villages along the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes, acceptable to Frenchmen and Mesquakie alike, but less so to the American pioneers, miners, and businessmen who began arriving at the village with more frequency by the 1820s. Caleb Atwater wrote with disdain of “as motley a group of creatures, (I can scarcely call them human beings) as the world ever beheld.” Their mixed breeding, he denounced, was probably “touched by the Prairie wolf” and had resulted in the vices and faults of each culture “without even one redeeming feature.”

The river was soon to disperse them.

Everything begins to unravel.

The Americans build Fort Shelby on the islands near Prairie du Chien in 1814. The British capture the fort, occupy it for several months, and then destroy it. The Americans rebuild it as Fort Crawford in 1816. Sauk and Mesquakie from the river shores to the south meet with Sioux from the north at the white man’s fort and draw a line to separate their warring tribes. Soon the military focus shifts from separating warring tribes to securing land for white men, as miners and farmers move illegally onto Native American soil. Tensions flare. Ambushes and revenge. Tribe against tribe, pioneer and soldier against Indian. The U.S. government forces eight million acres to be ceded for mining interests. The Mississippi River becomes the defacto western boundary for pioneers, and even that is porous.

The Sauk, and their cousins the Mesquakie, fight back in the Blackhawk War of 1832. For a while, Blackhawk wins, handing defeat to the Illinois militia (including the young officer, Abraham Lincoln) as the Sauk cross the Mississippi and push their way north along the eastern shore.

But soon the war turns sour for Blackhawk, ending in massacre about forty miles north of Prairie du Chien in early August when American troops on foot and gunners on the boat “The Warrior” open fire on the remnants of Blackhawk’s renegade band of braves, women, and children as they attempt to flee westward across the Mississippi River. Sioux warriors—invited down from the north to join in the melee—finish off most of the rest on the river’s western shore. Blackhawk himself surrenders at Fort Crawford in late August.

The time it takes the river to wash the blood downstream pales alongside the river’s deep memory.

By then, the spirits entombed in the Effigy Mounds had already been asleep for centuries.

*  *  *

I see the Mississippi almost every day. In summer I canoe its backwaters. In winter, I go to spot bald eagles. My office window sports a distant view of the river from five stories up on a distant bluff.

We all share this river. It hosts our picnics, and we boat on it and float barges on it. Sometimes it drowns our children, and sometimes it floods our towns.

It is what it is, and communicates nothing, and feels nothing. This is not out of insolence. The river was here first, and is not required to be on our terms.

*  *  *

I have neglected to tell you this. At the Effigy Mounds, Dennis Lenzendorf parks the Jeep at the side of the service road along a bluff-top prairie. “Come,” he says, “I’ll show you a rock shelter where we have archaeological evidence of Native Americans overwintering.”

Dennis leads me down through the prairie that is browning out with the lateness of the season. We pick our way through a small woods and turn a sharp corner onto a narrow ledge that overlooks a deep, wooded ravine that has arisen seemingly out of nowhere. Soon the path opens into an indentation in the rock, a shelter perhaps thirty feet long, ten wide, and a ceiling seven feet tall at the opening—though sloping quickly down to nothing at the interior wall.

“Evidence of 2000‑year‑old pottery and campfires have been discovered here,” Dennis says, explaining that the tribes that gathered at the Effigy Mounds for the spring, summer, and fall would have dispersed by families or small groups of kinsmen throughout the region to spend the winter before regrouping again in spring. A family would winter along this ravine, hunting deer and rabbits, rationing out corn, and stringing blankets or hides across the rock shelter’s entrance to keep out the cold during nights and periods of bad weather.

Two weeks later, the mild weather has ended. Back at my home about an hour south of Effigy Mounds, the first winter snowfall is blustering in.

And from the warmth of my house, I can’t shake the image: An ancient Indian family packing along the narrow ledge—children afoot, perhaps aiding an elderly grandmother—setting up a winter camp at the rock shelter and starting a fire behind the new‑strung hides. And an Indian man, perhaps my age, watching the woods fill up with first snow. How long it will seem until spring.

And when spring comes, the rivers will reunite us here at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. We will spend the summer together, raise our crops, hunt, enjoy life. And bury our dead.

But for now it is still winter. The cold is harsh.

Is it warmer now, is it an easier life, with one’s bones interred in the mounds and one’s spirit free above the rivers?


Sources Consulted

Auge, Thomas, Ph.D. “Destruction of a Culture.” Gateway Heritage. (Fall 1980): 32-45.

Effigy Mounds Historic Resource Study. <>.
Prepared for National Park Service, August 2003.

Lenzendorf, Dennis. Effigy Mounds: A Guide to Effigy Mounds National Monument. Fort Washington,
PA: Eastern National Press, 2000.

———. Interview and Guided Tour. 4 December 2004.

Marquette, Jacques, SJ. Voyages of Marquette. Reprinted in French/English text, Ann Arbor, MI:
University microfilms, Inc.

Wilkie, William, Ph.D. Dubuque on the Mississippi: 1788‑1988. Dubuque, IA: Loras College Press,


© Kevin Koch