Spirit Sign: The Rediscovery of an Ancient Monument

An ancient burial mound refound at Wauwatosa’s Jacobus Park.

It could be a rollicking good film: The Lost Burial Mound of Milwaukee County. For years, scientific consensus held that only two Indian burial mounds – the one preserved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at State Fair Park and another marked by a low plaque at Lake Park – had survived the breakneck development of Milwaukee County, which was once dotted with hundreds. Then, in November 2014, a naturalist friend of James Price’s made an offhand remark to him that set off an ardent search. Another one of the naturalist’s friends had read about a third mound in Wauwatosa’s Jacobus Park. His source? A musty old book of Milwaukee history.

Price could hardly believe it. A journalist and amateur archaeologist, he lived next to the park and had previously walked through the quiet ravine where Vanishing Creek (so-called because it sometimes dries up) runs past a paved walkway believed to have originated as an Indian trail. He’d heard rumblings before about a mound in the park but had found nothing.

This time, with the right combination of search terms, Google spat out a Milwaukee Journal article from 1949 that all but provided a map to the missing mound. The story stated that an amateur scientist named Rudolph Boettger had attended a meeting of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society in June 1949, at the Jacobus Park pavilion, when he wandered down the path about 150 feet and turned to find an Indian burial mound. Price retraced Boettger’s footsteps 65 years later, counting off 50 paces, and looked to his right. “There it was,” he says, a low dome about 20 feet in diameter, the sort of feature that, in Wisconsin – the state with more Indian burial mounds than any other – often indicates a “conical mound” of great age. While mounds are a rare sight in Milwaukee parks, more than 20 have been preserved in Madison-area parks.

Later, Price learned why no one else had been searching for the mound. In 1980, a survey commissioned by the county Parks Department failed to find the mound and so marked it as “presumed destroyed.” In the years that followed, thousands of dog walkers and joggers passed within mere feet of the mound, including Price. On the afternoon of his discovery, he climbed down into Vanishing Creek, which the mound overlooks. In the bank, he found a vein of red earth, which could have heightened this location’s spiritual significance. Robert Birmingham, the former Wisconsin state archaeologist, later examined the site and drew a similar conclusion.

The dome itself “was consistent with earlier mounds,” Birmingham says, although soil testing is needed to cement its authenticity. Price’s amateur investigation went further: He climbed around the ravine, which was gnarled with tree roots, looking for more of the dramatic red earth. After about an hour, he found some on the opposite bank. It appeared as if the vein had once cut through the creek and probably still extended into the mound – a striking explanation for its precise location but one Birmingham says would have to be tested by a soil expert. Price imagines the soil turning the water red and aligning with native beliefs in a watery underworld. “The blood of the earth carried up where a spring disappears into the ground would have had such enormous spiritual significance to them it would have bordered on a cathedral,” he says.

Since 2014, scientific analysis of the mound has remained at a standstill. Birmingham is busy elsewhere, and a mound expert at UW-Milwaukee has no plans to study the site. Still, Birmingham argues the public should see this example and others: “They remind us this is Indian land that was wrested from them.”

Hear more about this story on WUWM’s Lake Effect. Listen here.

‘Spirit Sign’ appears in the 2016 City Guide issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.