Devil’s Lake is one of our most coveted and well-studied parks, we’ve learned about its ecological diversity, geological history and it’s past as a resort during the turn of the century. Entering into the next century we may think we have learned all there is about the park, but there is a secret left for us by first visitor’s to the park over a millennium ago.
The Effigy Mounds at Devils Lake were built around 800 to 1100 AD by aboriginal Americans we refer to as the Effigy Mound Builders. No one, not even a modern native American has any direct knowledge of these people. At one time many people believed that these were burial mounds, but studies have shown that most seemed to have ceremonial significance and were not used for burials. At the turn of the 20th century Sauk County had innumerable mound sites. But it did not take long before most were destroyed when settlers started building homes and farming the land. It is sad to say that many of those early farmers considered the plethora of mound sites to be a nuisance and spent much hard work plowing them under. Today there are few in existence, and there are still people who place no value in protecting them. Here in our part of Wisconsin, Man Mound north of Baraboo is now protected by a small park and there are also a few large mounds near Wisconsin Dells. In Sauk County the largest cluster of existing mounds are at Devil’s Lake.
In the park itself many of the mounds were damaged and destroyed by the building of motels, cabins and the like as Devil’s Lake became a popular tourism destination. With the building of first cabins and a hotel the mounds were cut up or removed all together. The mounds that survived were between buildings and on property lines and were luckily left largely undisturbed. Over time an interest in the mounds began really take hold and in the 1920’s mapping and study of the mounds began in earnest. As interest increased preservation began to become a priority. By that point, time and man had eroded the mounds almost beyond recognition so that only through survey records and historic examples, the mounds could be rebuilt to what is believed to be closest to their original appearance. These rebuilt mounds are what you see today.
Today the Mounds of Devil’s Lake receive visitors from time to time who hold them sacred and who find solace near them. We were told of a story by park staff that several years ago two Native American women drove down from Minnesota to worship at the effigy mounds. They were appalled to see children playing on the mounds and told the park staffer how sacred the mounds were to them. In reply it was explained how the mounds had been rebuilt and that although Native Americans hold them sacred, most visitors to the park today know little about them. We hope this will not always be true.
Today the mounds are at Devil’s Lake State Park are covered in native grasses to protect them from further erosion and from people walking on them. Even this has been controversial, but it does seem to keep most people off of the mounds.
We urge you to learn more about the mounds and the native history of the park. Please tread lightly and be respectful of the mounds and their place in our history. To learn more visit the Nature Center on the North Shore of the park. We think you will be amazed by the human and geological history of Devil’s Lake.
- Find The Effigy Mounds – The yellow markers on our “Historical Sites” map identify Effigy Mound locations.