Chetek's Greatest Heritage

Beneath Our Feet -

The Indian Mounds and the Copper Culture

Written and donated by Timm Severud


I keep reminding myself that if I knew what I now know about the Indian Mounds when I was 10 years old, I would have been carrying a shovel all over Chetek and digging in people's back yards looking to see what was in them.  It is a good thing that I did not know, because I doubt that my parents would have appreciated a problem like that.  If you, like I call Chetek your hometown, then you too grew up in a graveyard. Chetek was established and built over a massive graveyard representing a number of different cultures across a wide spread of time. Beneath our feet the past does stir, for our greatest heritage has been nearly destroyed in the name of arrogant ignorance, progress and individualistic greed.  If we do not respect the past why should we expect anything less than the same destruction of what we hold dear and sacred?

What do the mounds represent?  Who made them and why?  How were they made? What was in them and what might remain?  Lastly, what do we do with this heritage?

More than a thousand years ago, there existed a culture whose true name is lost in the mists of time.  The mounds represent one of the two known artifacts of that culture, one that I will call the Copper Culture because copper is the other artifact they left to us.  If you would like to see some of the copper artifacts, then I can suggest a visit to the Calhoun Museum.

The copper artifacts that have been found in quantity in these mounds has been found in small amounts all over this so-called New World.  This copper came from the Lake Superior region, specifically from the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale.  This copper did not have to be smelted for they are the only source on our planet of pure raw copper.  This copper can be found in three ways.  The first is in the pure veins of the Keweenaw and the Isle.  The second is what is called 'drift copper', rocks, stones and boulders that were moved across the landscape by glacial effects.  The third way is the way that the Ojibwa (aka Chippewa or Anishinabe) prefer to get it.  This type of copper is called 'float copper' and is found, mostly, on the western shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  Ore veins that exist below the surface of Lake Superior produce it.  The wave action of Lake Superior moves rocks and these rocks bang against the copper veins. Once in a while pieces break off and some of this copper is moved to the shore by the same wave and rock action, most flattened pieces from very small size to sizes that are difficult for one person to lift. These forms of copper have made it difficult for those of us that followed the artifact makers to this land to figure out where they lived because it did not require smelting.  It only required hammering to shape.

The Ojibwa have a different view on the mounds and the copper and especially how copper is to be used.  The mounds have a number of stories aligned with them and they are felt to go back further than the archeologists seem to believe.  The most common explanation is that the mounds were the underground houses of an ancient people.  Similar to the type of homes that their enemies, the Odugamee (fox), lived in. The Ojibwa call these people the Fox because like a fox they live in holes in the ground.

Copper has a very special place in Ojibwa culture, one that delves deeply into the religious and the medicinal which in the Ojibwa ways are not separable and all tied up with individual and group abilities.  The Ojibwa rarely used the copper for weapons it was too valuable and represents a part of the body of the Great Water Spirit who they refer to as Missnipe. Missnipe resides in Lake Superior and is the greatest and leader of all the water spirits.

The above is a representation of Missnipe.  This is taken from a drawing on a birch bark scroll and the figures in this tells a story about Missnipe that is a part of what others might call Ojibwa mythology.  The wavy lines behind the horns on the head is where the copper comes from on Missnipe and like skin or hair some of it will fall off.  This it the traditional source of all float copper.  All metals veins and other sources in the ground are not for human beings but for the underground spirits like the 'copper-tailed bear'.  The drift copper, because it is usually found in or near water was for the use of the other water spirits, like the Merman (Man Fish), to use either of these types of copper for anything but only as prescribe and when prescribed, would be a great religious sin.  To even tell another or show another where a vein of pure copper was or a hidden bit of drift copper is located would also be a great sin. The only type of copper they would consider using is the float copper because that came, as a gift, from Missnipe.  One of the things that copper has been used for is in 'hunting' medicine.  Hunting medicine are those things that one does, has and uses to bring the game to them.  A person having good hunting medicine was a prized member of the family and clan. This sort of copper was not used for spearheads or arrowheads or other working implements, but it did have a few other uses.  The Ojibwa produced 'calendar disks' of copper to mark the passage of they years and note the passage of time since an event.  One of the more famous uses of the float copper was in the making of a set of copper armbands with filigreed Thunderbirds on each of them.  From these armbands the great Ottawa chief Pontiac was believed to have gained much power from Missnipe.

However the copper artifacts that have been located in the Chetek and Rice Lake region are not the product of the Ojibwa or the Dakota, but they come from a much older culture.  The archaeological record indicates that ancient societies in the upper Midwest built mounds of various kinds sometime between about 800 B.C. and A.D. 1200.  The mounds in the Chetek area are considered some of the older ones (800 B.C. to A.D. 100) and it is my opinion, the home of the Copper People. Who they were is unknown, but the only one of the Wisconsin tribes that does not have a migration story is the Menomonee.  Where as the Ojibwa and Potawatomi both have a migration story, if fact both have a longer story saying that many generations ago they left this area, spending generations traveling as communities towards the Atlantic Oceans.  They spent many generations living there and then they made their return trip to this land.  These are the stories that blend into the mists of time. All the tribes share the blood of the copper culture with so many generations between them and us.

We know where the copper came from and where it ended up in the form of artifacts (all over the New World), but what is not known is where the people who mined and first processed the copper for trade lived.  There are no signs of ancient habitation in the areas near the natural copper veins of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  The Chetek area produced more copper artifacts than any other area has.  With the rice of Prairie Lake and the proximity of the Keweenaw, we have a claim to the heart of Copper Peoples Culture.

During the 1870s & 1880s when the sawmills & dams were being built and in operation, the water level of the lake fluctuated heavily and a great many mounds were washed out and many things were found. In a Chetek Alert article from September 15, 1882, it was noted by a Mr. W. R. Smith that …

'In the village site there are some forty mounds, remaining intact, some fifteen being hauled away by the Knapp, Stout & Company the soil used in grading, and some very valuable specimens of copper implements found, consisting of spears, arrow points, wristlets, necklaces, and beads.'
In the same article, Mr. Smith also notes,
'On the east side of the lake (Chetek) there is a low swale, edged by a broad beach.  The beach is covered with relic, spears and arrowheads, scrapers, fleshers and hardly any limit to pottery fragments, from appearance and pattern very ancient. Frequently excellent specimens of copper have been found there.  I have found some six arrowheads of pure agate, found there, not a flaw in them, and different patterns.  Thousands of specimens have been found there, and every spring, the low waters bring to the surface just as many more.  I have also found stone whistles of very ancient make, as well as other relics of soapstone, pipestone and flint… There was a mound very near this shore that this year's high water completely carried off.  On the beach near this mound I have found these splendid specimens of copper; one I prize highly; it is a copper arrowhead, about three inches long, the center is grooved a half inch long, and lower end curved: a shoulder near the point end of the groove for the arrow shaft, to rest against, preventing the shaft from flying around when shot. When the shaft is fitted in the grooves, the curved end forms a complete barb, that holds the arrowhead in the wound, while the shaft can be easily drawn out of the grooves as there is no place to fasten the shaft to the head…  I have also a copper spear eight and a quarter inches long, six grooves on each side, perfect, formed in a mould, also one four inches long with no grooves.  The last is very ancient, its shank running to a sharp point and twisted or spiral.  This one is one inch wide at its center, tapering to each end, but surrounding but rounding at the head and beaten down to a very sharp edge.  The large one is an inch and a half wide at the bottom and tapers to a very sharp point where the shank commences the curves are perfect, and the shank is three-quarters of an inch wide. I have 18 specimens of copper all found around the lake.  The greatest find of all was made last November while excavating the railroad bed, out of all some ten or twelve relics were saved, consisting of knives, necklaces, spear and arrow heads, the bulk of which were thrown into the wagon, then into the rail road dump.  I have been creditably informed that over two bushels, (their language), was lost.  The workmen said there were two or three bushels of copper curlings or scraps found and all went the same way. They thought it was an old workshop of the Indians, and did not think they were of any value, until to late.  In going over the ground I think I have reached the true solution of the find by discovering several mounds surrounding the find, still remaining. They had simply cut into the four other mounds, and had gone considerably deeper than the company men do, they found the copper; they said the ground in two places were covered with copper curls or chips.'
In a the second of the third letters to the Chetek Alert in the October 6, 1882 issue, Mr. Smith made note of another local copper discovery,
'I learned yesterday that Ole Thompson, who owns the land on which they are located made quite a find of copper, some two years ago, in the vicinity of the mounds but on the bank of the Menomonie River consisting of plates and deep dishes, all of copper, besides other relics, which he deemed of no value and gave them away to his neighbors, when he moved away last spring.  If they have kept them, I shall make every effort to secure them. I do not know as I ever heard of copper dishes, plates, and etc. being in use by the pre-historic race… '
Mr. Smith went on his last letter published in the January 16, 1883 issue of the Chetek Alert adds, much more about both the finds on the Railroad Grade and on the copper dishes,
'I made very careful inquires concerning the copper plate and dish find by Ole Thompson, on the bank of the Red Cedar River.  There is now no question as to the find. It consists of five dish pieces, in form and shape like our dinner plates, about five and a half inches across and about three quarters of an inch deep and presenting the appearance of having been hammered into shape, with signs of hammering still visible. There were two other dishes about eight inches long, four inches wide and two inches deep; the corners were not squared by rounded. He also found 2 copper finger rings, which I was misinformed about, he having kept them…
  W. W. Flynn living on the east side of Lake Chetek, made a find of a splendid copper hatchet, grooved, was found in his nursery on the banks of the lake.  It is about five inches long by three wide and the grooves are still perfect. He also has several stone implements.  I understand he has sold the hatchet to Mr. Gus Lewis, of Lewisville Wisconsin, who, with Mr. Ebner received all the copper found in the railroad cut of last fall.  As I stated before there were over a hundred specimens dumped into the grade owing to the ignorance of the men as to their value…
  Several very valuable finds of copper were made during the excavations of the mounds for the grading purposes, hatchets and spear and arrow heads most of which have been sent to our State Historical Society.'
Mr. Smith goes on to explain his opinions of mounds and the race involved with their making.  He was a man of his times, just like we are and just like Mr. W.E. Carter was when he was the subject of another Chetek Alert Article in the February 28, 1908 issue.

Mr. Smith believed the mounds were house mounds with alleys and streets between them.  Mr. Carter, whose collection of copper artifacts and stone artifacts are available for viewing in the Calhoun Museum, had an entire different belief.  He knew that they were burial mounds and that some were older than others.  He knew that certain shapes of mounds were built in different ways and supposed them to be for different purposes.  He found the bones of later people interred into the mounds and recognized them as intrusive burials and threw aside those bones (most likely Dakota and Chippewa burials).  Whenever they would reach the depth of the original burial, this is an example,

'The bodies where buried erect, set in a trench or grave, which took the form of a cross. Mr. Carter's evidence of this coincidence was reached by following the black body of the soil until he had lain the 'cross grave' bare entirely.  From ten to sixteen bodies where buried in one mound, and with them many of the articles… All the skeletons crumbled to dust immediately upon being uncovered, save one, a skull…'
In an February 27, 1916 Eau Claire Leader article and a reprint from the Chetek Alert, a Chetek resident and a member in good standing with the Wisconsin Archeologist, Mr. J.A.H. Johnson, said it best and is often the thought I come back to when I contemplate the Mounds of the Copper Culture,
'Yes, Chetek had a city council, a mayor and city government when Columbus was making preparations for his western trip. Few people have seen or heard of the curious and mysterious formations scattered along the lakeshores and streams called mounds. The blush of shame could rightfully crimson the white man's checks for the shameful manner in which he has desecrated, mutilated, and wantonly destroyed these ancient memorials simply to satisfy idle curiosity or for the sake of securing a few trinkets and human bones. The mounds of earth are the works of minds and hands now long quiet, a memorial the meaning of which by the time the white man came to this region had been forgotten by the very Indians themselves whose ancestors built them.  We can picture in our mind's eye the scene as it appeared on some warm summer day. We know not how many generations or ages ago, there labored in what is now the city of Chetek a band of dusky copper colored men, women and children digging and carrying away in baskets and bags of earth of which these mounds were formed.  It is not difficult to imagine the scene and surroundings as it appeared on this bright summer day.  The hills and valleys about the lake looked not much different than they do today, only more thickly wooded. The surrounding country was covered with a dense growth of hardwoods and pines with here and there a majestic white pine more tall and stately than the rest, towering high above the general landscape, a beacon light for these dusky travelers.  The underbrush was thick and dense which sheltered both deer and bear. In the lake swam myriads of fish and turtles, on its surface flocks of waterfowl of every description, while in every bay and bayou stream and inlet was found a bountiful supply of menomin - wild rice of the Indians.  To the south, west and north were their planting grounds and garden beds, which they tilled and worked with crude implements of agriculture.  On these planting grounds were raised their winter supply of corn, beans, squash, potatoes and tobacco.  Parts of these gardens beds and planting grounds are still visible.'
Between 1910 and 1920 the Wisconsin Archeological Society did a number of studies of the area… in 1915 the concentrated on the Chetek and Rice Lake area.  In their October 1917 issue of the Wisconsin Archeologist Charles K. Brown and Robert H. Becker reported on their findings. In this 38 pages document they give as detailed of knowledge they could of all of the mounds they were made aware of.  There were a few they missed.  I have printed out and donated a copy of this report to the Calhoun Library, along with the complete articles by Mr. Smith, Mr. Carter and Mr. Johnson.  It is there for those who wish not to read this information through the light of my opinions and for those who merely wish to know more.  The 1917 report is very detailed about where the mounds were, what shape they were in, their sizes and shapes.  In a few cases they excavated mounds and in doing so some of the best descriptions of their construction.

I would share some of this here, however, in telling exactly where some of these things are I might open them up to further destruction, as I remember what it meant to be 10 years old and way too quick with a shovel.  I do not think we should be ashamed any longer of the mounds or their heritage.  I have no need to shame my ancestors, but I do want to know this part of the story of Chetek, for I know that we do not own history, our history owns us.


Last Update Friday, 01-Apr-2011 00:56:42 EDT

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