People have lived along the Mississippi River for thousands of years. In northeast Iowa, there is evidence of human habitation going back 10,000 years. About 2,500 years ago, people began building simple mounds to bury their dead. These societies lived off the bounty of the land, moving with the seasons to take advantage of the best available plants and animals to eat.
A few centuries later—about 1,400 years ago—people in the area began building mounds in the shapes of animals. We don’t really know why they were built. It’s possible that they were clan symbols, but they might also have been built as a way to connect this world to the next. In some later American Indian cultures, for example, bears were considered guardians of the land, while birds were guardians of the sky.
The last effigy mounds were built about 850 years ago. Around that time, the people in the area (who we call the Oneota) began living in larger villages and relying more on agriculture. Europeans began showing up in the 1600s. (Marquette and Joliet canoed by the area in 1673). For nearly two centuries, fur trading dominated the local economy, but few Europeans settled permanently here. By the first part of the 19th century, though, Europeans and Americans moved to the region with the intention of sticking around.
Around 1900, surveyors counted over 10,000 mounds in the region, but 90% of them would be lost in the next century. Effigy Mounds National Monument was created in 1949 to preserve the remaining mounds, many of which are unique to this area. The site preserves about 200 mounds, 31 of which are effigies.
Ellison Orr played a significant role in the creation of the monument. A native of northeast Iowa, he spent years mapping mounds in the region and excavated a few. His book, The Reminiscences of a Pioneer Boy, describe life in the prairies and along the rivers of the Upper Midwest before widespread farming took root. He was a persistent advocate for creating a park to protect the remaining mounds.
A contemporary of Orr, Emma Big Bear Watson was one of the last Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Indians in the region who lived a traditional lifestyle. She lived much of her life in a traditional called a wikiup, a dome-shaped hut built of limbs and covered with grass mats. She and her husband lived off the land, earning additional income by making traditional, intricate woven baskets, many of which are now highly prized by collectors.