The ones here before: Presentation explores pre-historic archaeology in Houston County

By : 
Jordan Gerard

Who were the first people in the land that is now Houston County?

Even before our generations. Before the Norwegian immigrants. Way before recorded history.

There were actually several groups who lived in Houston County in prehistoric times, according to Jaelyn Stebbins, an archaeologist from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in archaeology and cultural anthropology.

She’s been studying the prehistoric groups for about two to three years now.

“It’s really understudied,” she said. “We don’t realize how much is here. I hope to continue here.”

Stebbins recently presented her facts at a presentation on Jan. 20 at Giants of the Earth Heritage Center. The event was co-sponsored by the center and the Spring Grove Public Library.

The heritage center is also looking to expand its research into indigenous groups that lived here, as part of its five-year research plan. They will also work with the Historical Society of Minnesota and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Executive Director Bill Fried said.

They have been in contact with the Ho Chunk Nation to collect facts, but have yet to receive enthusiasm from that group. 

Giants of the Earth will also host a follow up session on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2 p.m. to allow people to bring in artifacts they’ve found or that have been passed down. 

Stebbins started with the creation of the area we now call the Driftless Area, which encompasses southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and a small portion of northwest Illinois.

“This area is an unglaciated area of the Midwest,” she said. “People were able to inhabit this area because there was no glacier.”

There are many theories as to how people got to be on the North American continent before it split apart. 

The two most accepted theories are people crossing the Bering land bridge from Siberia to what is now Alaska, or they sailed from Siberia and landed on the coast. Stebbins thinks it could have been both.

It’s important to note that in different time periods, people didn’t just appear then disappear. They changed over time.

First people

The first people to inhibit Houston County would have lived about 10,000 to 8,000 B.C. They were highly nomadic groups of about 20 people, mostly consisting of family members.

The weather was considerably colder than it is today. They were hunter-gatherers and followed game where they could find it. 

The groups occasionally came together for celebrations, such as marriages. 

“There’s not a lot of information about them because there’s not a lot of things left behind,” Stebbins said. “A few stone tools and remains from last night’s dinner.”

Archaeologists do know what they hunted with though. It was called an atlatl, which was a dart thrower used to hunt large game.

Essentially, it’s a long spear with an arrowhead on the end. It was used until the bow and arrow came along. Surprisingly, it was incredibly accurate and powerful, Stebbins said.

Archaic environmental shift

A second group of people from 8,000 to 500 B.C. saw a change in their climate. It would have been warmer than the aforementioned paleoindian period, but still colder than today’s climate.

Large, nomadic bands still roamed around Houston County, but the groups had about 30 people and relied more on plants for survival and did not constantly follow game.

A few new technologies appeared in this period, including baskets, textiles, copper materials and more.

Ceremonial traditions also changed. There were more decorations adorning the ceremony, and special burials were held.

Woodland tradition

From 500 B.C. to 1200 A.D., a resemblance to early indigenous groups and pilgrims could be seen. The group of people living then moved with the seasons; they found a sheltered area in the winter and then moved to a more open area in the summer.

Groups resembled little villages, sized from 50 to 100 people. These people also began gardening and built the foundation for agricultural by growing corn and squash.

New technologies include pottery, rock art (cave drawings), bow and arrow and pipe tobacco.

The bow and arrow came around about 800 A.D. It was a new hunting tool that perhaps allowed for easier hunting.

People did not spend time on clay as they had in previous ages, because they moved around a lot. But now that groups only moved around seasonally, pottery was possible. 

With pottery, they could make larger bowls, a variety of tools and decorate their pottery items. It was also easier to cook for a large population using pottery.

This was the period when people buried the deceased in burial mounds, commonly known as effigy mounds. 

It was a way of saying “This is my home. These are my people,” Stebbins said.

Oneota People

Finally, we get to perhaps the most well-known prehistoric group, the Oneota. 

From 1300 to 1680 A.D., these people existed and lived all over the driftless area, but not yet into Houston County.

The Oneotas were a mix of several different cultures and generations. Fading in from the woodland era, the Oneotas mixed with groups from the St. Louis, Missouri area (Mississipian).  

The word “Oneota” is actually created by archaeologists.

“Oneota is emerging from what is left after the collapse of the Missouri,” Stebbins said.

There were also large cities in prehistoric times too. Before modern day St. Louis was built, there was a large city in its place, called “Cahokia.” The same is true for the Madison, Wisconsin area.

It was a complex and sophisticated society, proved by evidence of woodhenge, mounds and burials.

Scholars and archaeologists believe large cities such as Cahokia may have collapsed due to environmental factors like overhunting, deforestation and flooding.

“They got too big for their britches,” Stebbins explained. “Their king or ruler was not able to sustain the population, so they died out or went back to smaller groupings.”

As for the Oneota, they were agriculturists who grew corn, beans and squash on ridged fields and on mounds.

The corn would grow on top of the mound, beans would grow around the mounds (to give nitrogen back into the soil) and squash grew on the bottom to keep the weeds out.

Pottery also saw changes, as the Oneotas would mix clay with burnt mussel shells. That allowed for bigger pots, about 10 gallons in size and for more globular shapes. 

Their reasoning was that corn boils for a long time and to feed a large population, you needed a bigger pot.

On the pottery were decorations again, but more in the abstract sense. Thunderbirds, or falcons, were incredibly important to the Oneotas. They are considered to be very strong birds and symbols.

In 1625 A.D., a few groups built longhouses in what would be the La Crosse area. One longhouse could house about 20 to 45 people. 

They moved west during the winter, however, some family groups stayed. 

Not many sites have been found around La Crosse, but before new buildings are built over open spaces, it’s always checked for evidence of prehistoric events, Stebbins said.

Houston County

Around 1625 A.D., the Oneota moved further west from east of the Mississippi River into Houston County.

They moved to the Riceford Creek area after feeling pressure from the east. That pressure would have been diseases and overcrowding, so indigenous groups pushed west.

They also knew that white Europeans had arrived, but they had not met them yet.

Cultural changes also came about while the Oneota resided in Houston County. 

They lived in more isolated locations, such as bluff sides where it was hard to physically get to. They were hidden.

“If you didn’t know where they were, good luck finding them,” Stebbins said.

There was an increased use in catlinite, or pipestone. Evidence of that has been seen near Valley View Mall in Onalaska, Wisconsin. 

The Oneota had the ability to receive European trade goods from neighboring indigenous groups that had come into contact with the Europeans, yet they would not reveal themselves.

“They [Oneota] were avoiding something,” Stebbins added. “They were protecting themselves from something and then they left.”

They left in 1680 and moved into Iowa, potentially joining plains groups.

After the Oneota left, other indigenous groups would have occupied the area for a short while until the arrival of the first Norwegian immigrants.

Historical findings

Much of what Stebbins told the audience is based on archaeology. Longhouse sites were able to be found because the poles they used to build the houses stained the dirt a different color.

As for the area’s karst geology and caves, evidence of people living the caves has been found. It would have been common for people to live in the caves, Stebbins said. Oftentimes, moccasins or thatched rugs have been found.

Concerning settlements around Spring Grove, most of them haven’t been found yet because there’s not a lot of archaeology being done here.

One has been found near Yucatan, called the Farley Village. Tiny European beads were found there in the late 1600s.

“The goal is to find it before they build on top of it,” Stebbins explained with a lot of La Crosse’s development.

If a landowner finds an artifact on their land, such as an arrowhead, do they have to report it? If it’s human remains — yes. But other things like tools, pottery and beads — no. 

Archaeologists appreciate when they are notified though because it expands their research. Landowners generally have full control over what happens on their land. Archaeologists would not be able to take anything unless it’s given to them. 

If sites show historical events specific to indigenous groups, archaeologists constantly communicate with nations such as Ho Chunk to see what their thoughts are and what they want done.

“We try to be scientific and culturally sensitive,” Stebbins said.

Stebbins said she hopes to do more archaeology work in Houston County in the future.