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Cast Iron Effigy Mound Model | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Cast Iron Effigy Mound Model

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Cast Iron Effigy Mound Model | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeCast Iron Effigy Mound Model

Cast Iron Effigy Mound Model, c. 1875

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1975.8.12

EnlargeIncrease Lapham

Increase Lapham examines a meteorite, c. 1871

Increase Lapham examines a meteorite found in Washington County, Wisconsin, c. 1871. View the original source document: WHI 1944

EnlargeSketch by Increase Lapham

Sketch by Increase Lapham, 1875

Sketch made by Increase Lapham in 1875 of the mound model layout as submitted to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The “trunk and arms” model is shown at left. Source: Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Record Unit 305, box 30, accession #4322 (1875) catalog #19018

EnlargeConical mound

Oval mound, 1939

Oval or conical mound located at the base of Picnic Point, Madison, Wisconsin, 1939. View the original source document: WHI 39026

EnlargeTurtle mound

Turtle mound, 1942

Turtle mound located on Observatory Hill, University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, 1942. View the original source document: WHI 36224

Cast iron Wisconsin effigy mound model in the shape of a "trunk and arms of a man", designed by Increase A. Lapham, c. 1875.
(Museum object #1975.8.12)

Native American earthwork mounds were once a prominent feature of Wisconsin's landscape. It is estimated that in the 1600s there were 15,000 to 20,000 mounds scattered across the region-the highest concentration anywhere in the country. Built mostly during the Late Woodland cultural stage (c. A.D. 500-1200), mound forms range from conical to linear to more complex shapes interpreted as buffalo, birds, snakes, turtles, bears, and even humans, like the "trunk and arms" mound model featured here.

This model, depicting a "trunk and arms" surveyed by Logan Crawford in 1851 in Dodge County, is based on one of fourteen wooden mound models designed by Lapham at the behest of Spencer Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, for exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The models were based on mounds he had surveyed years earlier, which he published in "Antiquities of Wisconsin". The original models created represented mounds in the shape of a "man", a "long-armed man", the "trunk and arms", a "bear", a "buffalo", a "mink", an "otter", a "broad-tailed animal", a "squirrel", a "horse", an "elephant", a "bird", an "eagle", and a "turtle". Before traveling to Philadelphia for exhibition at the Centennial, the mound models were exhibited at the Interstate Industrial Exposition in Chicago in 1875. A set was also exhibited in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. These expositions provided a first glimpse of the wonders and achievements of Native American culture to many visitors.

Mound construction was once erroneously attributed to a "lost race" known as the Mound Builders. A lack of understanding of indigenous culture, history, and tradition allowed this view to dominate much of the nineteenth century. Not only was Lapham one of the earliest to describe the mounds of Wisconsin, he was also one of the first to challenge the "lost race" explanation. By drawing comparisons between the mounds and their contents to the material culture of modern Native American tribes, Lapham rightly attributed mound construction to the ancestors of Native American peoples, many of whose descendents continue to call this region home. Despite Lapham's revolutionary thought, his inability to correctly date the mounds led to erroneous identifications of some mounds as depicting a horse and an elephant. These mounds probably originally represented animals such as bears, which inhabited the region at the time of mound construction. Erosion and agricultural damage are possible reasons for the distortion of the original shape.

Increase A. Lapham was born in 1811 to Quaker parents in Palmyra, New York. Lapham's talents in observation and drawing and his passion for nature and history was evident at a young age. By the age of 17, he was a well-respected draftsman, plying his trade in Kentucky, Ohio, and eventually Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Throughout his travels and during his spare time, Lapham was consistently, if not relentlessly, involved in the observation, collection, and study of the things around him. He collected plants, rocks, and shells, and spent countless hours classifying them in a diary entitled, "A Journal of Science and Arts with Miscellaneous Nonsense by the Auther [sic]".

After moving to Milwaukee, Lapham continued his pastime of observing and collecting. The culmination of these efforts was Wisconsin's first commercially published book, "Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin", in 1844. With an urge to do more, Lapham sought the financial assistance of the American Antiquarian Society and the Smithsonian Institution, and between 1849 and 1852 he surveyed and described numerous mounds throughout Wisconsin, resulting in the 1855 publication of "The Antiquities of Wisconsin". In many cases, these early sketches and descriptions are the only surviving records of mounds that since have been destroyed. Lapham presented one of his original copies to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, where it is now kept as part of the Rare Book Collection. (Lapham's personal copy is housed in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Special Collections). Unlike many of his peers, Lapham strongly believed in the importance and preservation of both natural and cultural resources. A letter penned by Lapham and published in the "Milwaukee Advertiser" on November 24, 1836, illustrates his enthusiasm for history and his belief in its preservation:

"Perhaps with some of our readers it may excite a smile to hear us talk about the" antiquities "of a country so recently brought into notice as this Territory; but nevertheless we can assure them that there are in this vicinity many remains which seem to indicate that this country was once very densely populated, and that too, by a people far advanced in the arts. Our object however in noticing this subject at present is not so much to describe any new or interesting discovery, as to call the attention of those living near them, to the subject; and to make an earnest appeal to the proprietors of the land on which they are found for their preservation. Many of the works of this kind in the United States are now entirely destroyed, or so much injured as to lose all their interest in the eyes of the antiquarian. Let us hope that in Wisconsin, the case will be different – that here at least the future traveler will not have to regret the loss of those records of an ancient people."

Lapham's appreciation for and respect of nature and history was manifest in the founding of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; he was one of three original drafters of the Society's original constitution. As "Wisconsin's first great scientist," Lapham devoted his life to the research and protection of Wisconsin's natural and cultural resources. Current and future generations owe him a debt of gratitude for the natural and cultural wonders that he preserved for all.

Despite the widespread destruction of mounds from urban expansion, agricultural practices, and looting, mounds remain a part of Wisconsin's landscape and history. The approximately 4,000 recorded mounds remaining are protected by the Burial Sites Preservation Law, which prohibits any disturbance to the mounds without special permission.

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[Sources: Birmingham, Robert A. and Leslie Eisenberg. "Indian Mounds of Wisconsin "(University of Wisconsin Press, 2000); Cameron, William C. "The World's Fair, Being a Pictorial History of The Columbian Exposition" (J.R. Jones, 1893); Clark, James I. "Increase A. Lapham, Scientist and Scholar" (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1957); Janik, Erika. "Citizen Scientist," "Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine". February 2007); Lapham, I.A. "The Antiquities of Wisconsin as Surveyed and Described." (Smithsonian Institution, 1855); Quaife, Milo M. "Increase Allen Lapham, First Scholar of Wisconsin," "Wisconsin Magazine of History", vol. 1 (1917); Lapham Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Box 12, Folder 2; "Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at its Forty-First Annual Meeting Held December 14-1893"; Kellogg, Louise Phelps. "Wisconsin at the Centennial," "The Wisconsin Magazine of History" 10(1):7].


Posted on October 30, 2008