Dunn County's
First People

When Europeans arrived on the scene in the late 1780s they found the area inhabited by Santee Dakota and Ojibwe people. But these were not the region's first inhabitants. The area has been occupied on and off for the past 10,000 to 11,000 years --- since the Early Paleo-Indian Period.

Paleo Indians: 9500 to 6500 BC

Archeological evidence of early inhabitation of the Red Cedar Valley is sparse, including Clovis and other projectile points found in Barron and in Dunn Counties from the Early Paleo-Indian Period (9500 - 8000 BC in Wisconsin). Opinions vary, but these people may have hunted such large game as mammoths, mastodons, musk ox and barren ground caribou with spears. They may have supplemented this diet with small game and plants gathered from forests and swamps. They made other stone and bone tools such as scrapers, knives, choppers and perhaps needles.

Late Paleo-Indians (8000 - 6500 BC in Wisconsin) left evidence of habitation here as well. These people may have continued to hunt large game, but also hunted smaller game such as deed, beaver and turtles.

 


Archaic Tradition: 6500 to 550 BC

While Indians may have been present in Early and Middle Archaic Periods, no evidence of these people have been found in the area. Several sites in Dunn and Barron Counties point to Late Archaic (1200-c -- 550 BC). A cache of four "turkey-tail blades' found at Varney Creek along the Red Cedar Trail, are evidence of Red Ocher Culture. A copper point found among other copper artifacts at another site point to Late Archaic occupation as well.

Living in permanent villages, Late Archaic people probably hunted deer, moose, woodland caribou, beaver, hare, turtles fish and shellfish, and gathered nuts and berries. Throughout the period, hunting, gathering and some fishing were the main livelihood.



Woodland Tradition: 550 BC to 1000/1600 AD

Burial mounds first appeared in the Woodland Tradition. Earliest local sites are from the Middle Woodland Period (1 -- 400 AD) in the area include one of the mounds in the Wakanda Mounds Group in Wakanda Park, Menomonie, and perhaps one of the mounds in the Dunnville Mound Group, and two other sites in the county. Indians of this period seemed to have lived in communities and ate quantities of seeds in addition to hunting and fishing.

Many artifacts --- triangular projectile points and pot sherds --- from the Late Woodland Period (400 --1000 AD or perhaps European contact in the 1600s) have been found in the county. Most of the Wakanda Park and Dunnville Mounds have been assigned to Effigy Mound cultures of this period. Bow and arrows were introduced in this period (about 700 AD in this area) and it is likely that hunting was seasonal. One theory is that these people lived in villages in summer, practicing some agriculture, along with plant/seed gathering and dispersed in smaller groups in fall through spring to hunt and gather food.



Mississippian Tradition: 900 to 1600 AD

This is the final period before the arrival of Europeans in Wisconsin. No documented Mississippian sites are known in the county, although there are sites in the adjacent Chippewa Valley, upriver from its confluence with the Red Cedar River. A pot inserted into the Wakanda Mounds long after they were originally constructed shows influences from this period.

People of this period lived in permanent villages on lakes and rivers; hunted fished and gathered their food; used triangular projectile points; and buried their dead in cemeteries or low mounds. At the same time, some groups of people maintained characteristics from the Woodlands Tradition through this period.

Historic Period: 1600 to 1825

Most archeologists agree that Mississippian or Late Woodland peoples were the ancestors or even the same people as those tribes that were present in the 17th century when Europeans first traveled here. In the Red Cedar Valley, it may have been the Clam River or Sand Lake people of the Late Woodland Tradition who became the Santee Dakota who were here when the first French explorers, traders and missionaries arrived here. The Ojibw people may have descended from the Blackduck Complex people of the Late Woodland Period, though they believe they migrated here in the late 16th to early 17th century from the Gulf of St. Lawrence area.

The Santee Dakota dominated this area in the 1600s and early 1700s and became involved in many conflicts with refugee tribes moving west into Wisconsin. Pressure from the Iroquois in the east and lack of game for hunting led the Ojibwe to move into Santee Dakota lands. Hostilities developed and open warfare ensued. The Ojibwe pushed south into Northwest Wisconsin and won a decisive battle at St. Croix Falls in 1770.

For more than a century, the Ojibwe and Dakota competed for control of what we now call the Chippewa Valley. Bands of both nations negotiated each season for rights to hunt and travel in the territory. Sometimes these negotiations held, sometimes not, and many spots along the Chippewa and Red Cedar rivers saw skirmishes or surprises.

 

Writing in the 1850s, Ojibwe historian William Whipple Warren noted that every Ojibwe person considered the land “strewed with the bones of his fathers, and enriched with their blood.”

The 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien established a demarcation line which split Dunn County at Lamb's Creek Falls on the Red Cedar River north of Menomonie, with the Ojibwe claiming lands to the north and the Dakota the lands to the south.

Historic Period: 1825-1960

As white settlement continued in what is now known as Dunn County, the lumber and brick-making industries became the main drivers of the economy, and employed many new settlers, drew new immigrants, and also employed indigenous people of the area.

As the river was dammed to create a holding pond for the lumber of the Knapp Stout & Co. Company, the landscape changed dramatically. In the 1950s, government officials approved a higher dam at Lake Menomin, which would raise the level of the lake. Seventeen of the 20 effigy mounds near the water level on the northwest shore would be inundated by the new Northern States Power Company dam.

Local citizens alerted the Wisconsin Historical Society. Madison archeologist William Whittry arrived shortly with a student team to excavate the mounds before Lake Menomin swallowed them forever. 

Whitry also raised a corps of local volunteers. The effort needed many hands: by the time Whittry arrived, the team had little more than a week before the bulldozers would flatten the mounds. The archeology crew finished its work the day the construction crew arrived. 

In their own words:

Indigenous history of the area does not end in the 1960s. The Dunn County Historical Society is dedicated to continuing to work bring indigenous voices and resources to the community.  As we continue this work, we recommend the following resources as excellent ways to learn more about Wisconsin's Indigenous communities:

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Source: 9500 - 1825

Where the Wild Rice Grows
Edited by Larry Lynch and John Russell
Published by the Menomonie Sesquicentennial Committee

This text contains a detailed discussion of this topic.