The Effigy Mounds at Devils Lake were built around 800 to 1100 AD by Native Americans referred to as the Effigy Mound Builders. No one, not even modern Native Americans have any direct knowledge of these people. At one time many people believed that these were burial mounds while research has shown that most seem to have ceremonial significance and were not used for burials. It’s also suggested that they were built at the center of burial grounds. Any or all of these ideas are probably true in some cases.
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 most of those early farmers considered sites to be a nuisance and spent much hard work plowing them under. (One of the reasons it’s hard to determine their exact purpose.) 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 (Designated as a National Landmark in 2016) 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. 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, and you’ll often see paths where people walk over the mounds regardless.
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.