A view of the past: The original peoples of Whitewater


Carol Lohry Cartwright, Contributor

The “official” histories of Whitewater only briefly mention historic and prehistoric people who occupied this area prior to white settlement in the 1830s.  Yet, this history of ancient people and historic Native Americans is an important part of the story of Whitewater.  

Archaeologists have determined that ancient people migrated into Wisconsin at the end of the ice age, about 12,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Called Paleo-Indians, these groups lived among plants and animals very different from later eras.  The tundra-like landscape was home to mammoths, mastodons, and large herds of caribou.  These ancient people left evidence of their occupation through distinctive stone spear points and other sites.  

Between 8,000 B.C. and 100 B.C., the Paleo-Indian people gradually transitioned into a culture called the Archaic.  During this period, the landscape changed into how it appears today and new and smaller animals replaced the mammoths and mastodons.  The more temperate climate allowed the Archaic people to begin agricultural practices.  Archaic people left evidence of their culture in tools and weapons that were different from the Paleo-Indian people.  The most important of these were made of copper.  Evidence of the expansive trade networks of the Archaic people have also been found by archaeologists.  

The Woodland period of 500 B.C. to 1200 A.D. is most notable in Wisconsin because it is the period of mound-building and pottery production by prehistoric people.  Beginning in the middle Woodland period, around 100 B.C. to 500 A. D., prehistoric people in Wisconsin began constructing round and conical shaped mounds.  Between 700 and 1200 A.D., prehistoric people expanded mound construction to include effigy mounds.  One of the best effigy mound groups in the area is on Whitewater’s west side, in the Effigy Mounds Preserve.  

Whitewater’s Effigy Mounds Preserve contains conical, linear, and figural mounds, including mounds shaped like a turtle, panther, mink, and birds.  The mounds are the most important existing link to prehistoric people who once lived in the Whitewater area.

Between the late Woodland people and historic Native Americans were the Oneota people (1,000-1600 A.D.). Their lifestyle was based on corn agriculture, and they lived in established villages.  After whites began arriving in Wisconsin, the Oneota virtually disappeared due to disease and from pressure from other Native American groups moving into the state.  

Historic Native Americans (1600-1830s A.D.) in Wisconsin include the probable descendants of the Oneota people, the Ho-Chunk.  They were joined by Algonquian-speaking people who migrated into Wisconsin from Canada via upper Michigan.  These people split into two tribes that are still important in the state; the Ojibwe and the Potawatomi. Until 1833, the Potawatomi lived in southeastern Wisconsin, including the area that became Whitewater. 

The Early Annals of Whitewater, a volume that covers the earliest history of Whitewater after white settlement, notes that when the first white settlers came to the area, they found, at Whitewater, the remnants of a Native American “village.”  There were a group of about 30 wood frames, circular in form, that were made by poles about five feet apart and bent at the top forming a dome.  This description matches what is known about Potawatomi dwellings.  

By the 1820s, pressure from white settlers caused the Federal Government to “remove” historic Native Americans from Wisconsin so that the land could be sold. In 1829 and 1833, the government pressured the Pottawatomi to cede their lands in southern Wisconsin, including the Whitewater area.  Most of the Potawatomi moved out of the state, but some remained, eventually migrating to northern Wisconsin and later, a “reservation” was established for them in Forest County.  But, as seen in the abandoned village at Whitewater, the Potawatomi were successfully removed from their lands in southern Wisconsin.    

The area around Whitewater was also the site of a Native American-Federal Government conflict in 1832.  A group of Sauk and Fox people, under the leadership of Blackhawk, tried to return to their large village and hunting lands in northwestern Illinois from where they had been relocated to in Iowa.  Local militia, eventually aided by federal troops, engaged with Blackhawk and his followers to try to move them back to Iowa. Known as the “Blackhawk War,” the conflict was, in reality, a chase and eventual massacre of many of Blackhawk’s followers.  

During the chase along the Rock River through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, the Sauk and Fox traveled near the Whitewater and Fort Atkinson area followed by Illinois and Wisconsin militiamen and federal troops.  The conflict ended a few months later with most of Blackhawk’s people killed as they tried to cross the Mississippi River to surrender.  While the Whitewater area was not a “home” for the Sauk and Fox, the story of Blackhawk and his people traveling in this area during the “Blackhawk War” has remained popular in local folk history.   

After the conflict with Blackhawk, land in the Whitewater area was surveyed and offered to white settlers for purchase.  In 1837, a number of families arrived from the eastern United States to make their permanent homes in the area.  For a short time, these families were “visited” by lingering Native Americans (probably Pottawatomi) primarily seeking food, but soon they moved on and Whitewater became a new white settlement in the state.