Mystery of the Mounds

Author: Carroll University

Published Date: 1/21/2020

Categories: F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2020


Map of the effigy mounds surrounding Carroll University
Carroll's effigy mounds were surveyed by noted naturalist Increase A. Lapham in 1850. 

In the words of Carroll’s second president, Dr. Walter L. Rankin, “Wisconsin… is the state of the Effigy Mounds, and Waukesha County is one of the most highly favored regions in the state for the number, variety and significance of its mounds.” The area surrounding Carroll once housed over a dozen independent mounds. Two effigy mounds can still be found on campus, on opposite corners of Main Lawn.

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Carroll’s remaining mounds have been dated as far back as 750 A.D., though some of the mounds that have since been lost may have originated as long ago as 100 B.C. Formed through an arduous process of hauling dirt to the mound sites basket by basket, the mounds are surrounded by mystery. They are not linked to the Potawatomi tribe who once occupied Carroll’s current grounds, but little else is known about their provenance. There’s been speculation that the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, or perhaps even both tribes played roles in the building process. 

A greater mystery than the mounds’ creators, though, is their purpose. While some mounds may have been mortuary structures, it appears that they were used for more than burials. One suggestion is that they acted as territory markers, playing a role in boundary renewal ceremonies. They also may have denoted different clans and lineages corresponding to their various sizes and shapes. Another thought surrounding their purpose is that they indicated sacred lands visited exclusively for ritualistic practices, as the mounds were discovered a distance from Native American living areas. Though their exact purpose remains unknown,it’s certain that they weren’t used for mundane activities. 

Carroll’s effigy mounds are an important part of the university’s rich history. They provide a lens into the lives and cultural values of the Native Americans who made Waukesha their home. Today, signs mark the two remaining mounds, reminding observers that the mounds are sacred spaces and should be treated accordingly.

Learn more about the effigy mounds on Carroll University's campus

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