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Histories:  Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:

"History of Trempealeau County Wisconsin, 1917":

Chapter 3

The Platforms

(by George H. Squier)

-As transcribed from pages 28 - 33

It might seem that in selecting these for special notice I was giving them undue prominence, but, when it is realized that they are by far the most massive earthworks in the county, and exceeded by few, if any, in the state, or in the Northwest; that they embody novel features, being in this respect practically "sui generis"; that neither their purpose nor authorship is determined, it will, I think, be conceded that such prominence is not unwarranted.

They are easily chief among the features of historic and prehistoric interest, of which Trempealeau is the center, although it would not be far wrong to say that the attention they have received from the archaeologists of the country has been rather in inverse proportion to their real importance. Description: The group consists of three platforms ranged along the crest of the hill, which jutting out toward the village, has its foot on Main street. One platform is on the extreme point, being partly produced by digging off a portion of the crest of the hill but mainly by filling. There is an interval of about seventy-five feet between this and the next, which is a level place produced by filling sufficiently to bring it to the level of the crest. The next and principal platform immediately adjoins this and is built up to a level seven feet higher than the crest of the hill. Owing to a certain amount of settling and wash around the sides, the level surface was somewhat greater than at present, apparently about sixty-five by eighty feet. The greatest length is transverse to the direction of the hill crest, a circumstance which added very materially to the amount of fill required, the west base being about eighteen feet below the produced surface. The material of which they were constructed was obviously obtained, in the main, from the large holes closely adjoining to the northward; however, an excavation carried down to the base revealed the interesting fact that at least some material had been carried up the hill, the nearest source of that kind of material being somewhere in the vicinity of Woodmen's Hall. Gravel also occurs on the corner of the middle platform, brought from somewhere below, either with studied design or else incidentally.

I have also made numerous measurements, transverse, longitudinal and diagonal, and from these have calculated the cubic contents: Large platform, 93,000 feet; middle, 2,000 cubic feet; on point, 18,000 cubic feet; total, 113,000 cubic feet. The massive character of the construction may be best brought out by some comparisons. The Nicholls mound, the largest conical mound remaining, and at least one of the largest at any time in this vicinity, contains about 38,000 cubic feet. A mound of medium size, say 40 feet in diameter and four feet high, contains some 1,800 cubic feet. One of the pure linear mounds may be taken as having a cross section approximating 18 square feet. The material in the platforms would be sufficient to build a linear of that cross section over 6,000 feet long. These figures will, I think, bear out my assertion as to the pre-eminence of the platforms in the matter of mere size.

Peculiarities: In the emplacement and the apparent careful co-ordination of the platforms, they are without a known parallel in the Northwest; indeed, nothing quite parallel has been reported from any part of the country; but platforms are of somewhat frequent occurrence in the South and Southwest, and two occur in Wisconsin. These are both in the same locality, in Jefferson County, and within what appears to have been an enclosure, on the banks of the Crawfish River. (Two other enclosures with platforms on a smaller scale occur in the near vicinity.) They are now nearly obliterated by cultivation, but in 1850 I. A. Lapham surveyed them, and his plate is reproduced by G. A. West in an article in the Wisconsin Archaeologist (Vol. 6, No. 4, 1907, facing page 242). Of the two platforms one is given as sixty by sixty-five feet on the level top, the other supposed to be fifty-three feet. The height, unfortunately, is not given. The smaller platform is said to be the highest point in the enclosure and to overlook the wall. The wall is said to be from one to five feet high. The other we may perhaps assume not to have been higher than the wall. I have calculated the contents on the assumption that one was five and the other six feet high, giving about 23,000 and 25,000 cubic feet respectively. These calculations have, of course, little value, but seem to indicate that they are considerably less massive than those at Trempealeau.

Purpose and Authorship -- That a construction of such size and built at the expenditure of so much labor was intended to serve a public function is so self-evident that attempted proof would be superfluous; but, whether this function were civil or religious, and who were the builders, are questions in regard to which there is a divergence of opinion.

My own opinion, based on apparent adaptation, is that the purpose was religious, that of sun worship. If this view is correct it involves certain corollaries as to authorship. The other view, held by many who have not made a personal study of the remains, would assign to them a civil purpose and a different authorship. In any line of investigation, when other sources of information are lacking, apparent adaptation is regarded as important evidence. In the study of palaeontology, for example, it is relied on to determine habits of animals long since extinct, and, as is believed, with a good approximation to accuracy. It would seem to be equally applicable in the domain of archaeology.  It may be stated as a broad generalization that it is in their religious constructions chiefly that the idealism, mysticism and mythology of a people find expression, and when we find a variety of adjustments having no apparent explanation from the purely utilitarian standpoint, there is justification for the belief that they were made in conformity to some religious idea. When in addition we find that all the features combine to render the construction peculiarly suited to a certain form of religious observance, the presumption is greatly strengthened. Both of these suppositions find exemplification in the Trempealeau platforms. There are several adjustments which give evidence of careful planning and appear as though designed for the accommodation of a rather complicated ceremonial. If designed for sun worship the location was surpassingly fine, and the evident orientation (toward the position of the sun at the summer solstice, not toward due east), evidenced in the placing of the longer axis of the platform transverse to the hill crest, and in other features, would find its explanation. As the site of a council house, or of a chief's house, the only alternative function that can be suggested, they would have been isolated from the body of the tribe, inconvenient of access, remote from supplies, and open to attack. We may conceive of tribes whose government had become so centralized and separated from the people, that such isolation would be desirable, but this is not true, according to our best knowledge. of any of the tribes found in the region when the whites first entered it. So far, therefore, as we may judge from adaptation, the evidence strongly indicates religious use and contraindicates a secular one.

The opposition to this view rests on the belief that it conflicts with certain archaeological generalizations, a belief which, in my opinion, is based on misconceptions. I have already alluded to the fact that archaeological opinion has undergone a great change in the last half century. The ascription of our American antiquities to an unknown, and long vanished race, having been quite displaced by that which ascribes them to tribes identical with, or at least of the same general stock, as those that we know. Coupled with this earlier belief were numerous rather fanciful hypotheses, based, on careless observations which, in the light of more careful recent study, seem almost childish. This whole matter is treated at considerable length and much ability by G. A. West in an article entitled "Indian Authorship of American Antiquities" (Wis. Arch., Vol. 6, No.4, 1907). It is well worth reading by those interested in the subject. But in discussing the Aztalan (Wis.) remains (pp. 217-232) he reaches some conclusions which I do not think quite in accord with the evidence. That the remains at Aztalan and the other two smaller groups of similar character near by are notable departures from the types seen elsewhere throughout the State is indisputable. However, Mr. West is disposed to place such an interpretation on them as to minimize the unlikeness. In doing so he very justly exposes certain inaccuracies of observation, and extravagances of interpretation current for a time, such as the use of brick in the construction of the enclosing wall, the evidences of human sacrifices, and the ascription of the remains to the Aztecs. Prescot's "Conquest of Mexico" had taken a firm hold on people's imaginations, and served to bring the Aztecs into many situations where they had no place.

The two features of Aztalan which are peculiar are the encircling wall and the platforms. Their peculiarity is seen in the fact that while there are scores of mound groups showing the characteristic assemblage of Winnebago forms, effigies, linears, and taper linears, nothing at all similar to the enclosures is found outside the Aztalan region (a few small inclosures are reported, but they are so obviously different in all essential respects that they cannot justly be placed in the same class) and nothing similar to the platforms save there and at Trempealeau. We are obliged to assume in explanation, either that there was some special reason, the seat of a centralized government, for example, why the tribe used a type of construction there which they deemed needless elsewhere; that some small subdivision of the tribe developed a type of construction markedly different from the others; or that it was built by some quite distinct tribe having very different ideas and building requirements.

Mr. West finds in the linear groups of mounds common in certain topographic situations a parallel to the enclosing wall assuming that the separate mounds of such a group are connected. But such connection is rare, so rare as to be negligible, and even if it were otherwise would fall short of a full explanation. He assigns to the platforms a secular friction -- the site of the chief's house, or or the council house, and cites as examples some described in the account of De Soto's expedition, but those which he encountered were certainly not used by the Winnebago, nor by any other tribe of the same stock, and there is some reason to believe that one in northern Georgia belonged to a tribe kindred to the Natchez, with whom the chief was both the civil and religious head of the tribe, and where in consequence the platform combined both a civil and religious function. Some of those noted were probably in Florida, a region where, as has been said, "they have hard work to keep their feet out of the water," and where a platform had a decidedly utilitarian purpose.

There are a few effigies and linears at Aztalan, both within and without the inclosure, which are, no doubt, of Winnebago authorship. The artifacts found in the vicinity are also said to be of the type common in the State, though some of a better quality are hinted at. Because they are indistinguishably commingled all are assumed to be of the same authorship. There is, however, no necessity for such an assumption. If a region has been occupied by different races, a commingling of their artifacts and construction must almost inevitably happen. Mingling of white and Indian remains is not unusual.

However, I have been able to show that at Trempealeau a type of pottery, almost identical with a type common south of St. Louis, but very rare north of that place, occurs quite unmixed with the common type of the region. We may say, therefore, that both the platforms and the pottery find their nearest counterparts in what we may broadly speak of as the Arkansas region.

This fact offers at least a suggestion as to probable authorship. Mr. West remarks in referring to that conjecture that a colony of Mexicans (Aztecs) had built the inclosure and platforms, "Such conclusions are no longer permissible. No such colony ever penetrated to within a thousand miles of Wisconsin." In this assertion he is no doubt correct. There is to my mind nothing to suggest Aztec influence, and I have never for a moment entertained such an opinion. But he ignores the fact that the valley of the Mississippi has been entered, and for a long time occupied by another race, which, on the basis both of language, and their own traditions, has been referred to the Maya stock of Central America. These were the Natchez, and cognate tribes. Their wanderings had carried them considerably more than a thousand miles from their original seat, and to considerably less than a thousand miles from Wisconsin.

There is considerable ground for the belief also that they were in their decadence when they first became known to the whites, and that the area occupied by them had become greatly restricted from what it had once been. That, during their expanding and aggressive stage, offshoots from them should,have passed still further up the great river, is more in accord with inherent probability than that they did not. It should be noted In this connection that the Arkansan (from whom the state took its name), a tribe of the same stock as the Winnebago, is, on the basis of Indian tradition, assigned a rather late entry into the region, apparently about the last of that stock to pass into the trans-Mississippi region, and the curtailment of the Natchez territory might in part have been the result of that invasion. Among the Natchez the chief was held as a superior I being, a child of the sun, the religious as well as the civil head of the tribe.  The sun was the object of worship, the worship involving a complicated ceremonial on the platform, on which a perpetual fire was kept burning. The chief, as a sacred being, also had his residence on the platform.

While we should not Suppose that all the tribes had identical customs, we should look for strong family resemblances, and such family resemblances would seem to be indicated by the remains at Trempealeau and Aztalan.

The whole argument, of course, falls short of demonstration, which is perhaps not to be hoped for. It, however, offers a solution of the problem which violates no inherent probability or well determined fact; is, on the contrary, rather probable and in accord with such facts as we know.

Synopsis of the Argument Regarding the Platforms --

 1. Their size, and the thought and labor bestowed on them, clearly indicated a public purpose.

 2. That purpose, judging from adaptation, was religious -- sun worship.

 3. They do not belong to the recognized type of Winnebago constructions -- are indeed so unlike other constructions of the Northwest as to constitute a type in themselves.

 4. The nearest parallels are found in the "Aztalan" groups.

 5. These groups are also rather notable departures from the typical Winnebago type.

 6. The arguments whereby it is sought to bring them into harmony with Winnebago types are pertinent as showing their Indian authorship, but not as showing their Winnebago authorship.

 7. Disproof of their Aztec authorship was uncalled for, since I have never believed in such authorship.

 8. A group of tribes of Central American origin were living on the lower Mississippi when whites first entered the region. Their civil and religious beliefs and customs offer a rather striking parallel to what, on the basis of adaptation, we should judge to have been those of the builders of the platforms.

 9. The pottery found at Trempealeau is almost identical with that they are known to have made.

10. It is inherently rather probable that offshoots from these tribes should have ascended the Mississippi.
 


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