Effigy Mounds National Monument

Contact Info
151 Hwy 76
Harpers Ferry, IA 52146
(563) 873-3491

Along the high bluffs and lowlands in the Upper Mississippi River Valley are numerous prehistoric Indianburial mounds of a type unique in North America. Though different groups of prehistoric Americans builtburial mounds at various times and places, only in southern Wisconsin and adjacent areas in Illinois,Minnesota, and Iowa were they built in the shapes of birds and other animals.

Effigy Mounds National Monument was established to preserve the earth mounds found in northeasternIowa. Within the monument's borders are 191 known prehistoric mounds, 29 in the form of bear and birdeffigies and the remainder conical or linear shaped.

At Effigy Mounds the visitor can visualize prehistoric man carefully forming each earth effigy to receivethe body of the departed, selecting by ritual the most fitting bird or animal form for this solemn purpose.Some mounds are monumental; one, the Great Bear Mound, is 70 feet across the shoulders and forelegs,137 feet long, and 31/2 feet high.

History of the Area
Toward the end of the last glaciation, about 12,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians-hunters similar to other earlypeople east of the Rocky Mountains-came into northeast Iowa.

The way of life of these early hunters was comparatively simple. Small groups pursued and killed hugeelephantine mammals and now extinct forms of the bison. Their weapons were darts, tipped with leaf-shaped stonepoints, and hurled with spear throwers. They probably lived and hunted in groups of closelyallied units. If they built houses, archeologists speculate they used a very rudimentary shelter of brush orskin.

Remains of these earlier Indians have not been found in the monument, but scattered evidence of theirpresence appears in the vicinity in the form of dart points of types known to have been made by earlypeoples elsewhere. Their part in the prehistory of the area is noteworthy, for it represents the beginningof the human story of which we are a part.

The early hunter tradition can be traced through several thousand years. Eventually changes in andadditions to the living habits of the Indians caused them to produce tools suited for woodworking.Archeologists have found the ax, adz, and gouge - all attesting to changes in the adaptation of the Indians'way of life from the plains to the forest.

Wild rice, nuts, fruits, berries, and fresh-water mussels, laboriously gathered, made up a large part of theirfood supply; and fishing also may have been important. The animals they hunted included the deer, bear,and bison. Implements and weapons attributed to these people have been found along the MississippiRiver; some have come from the riverbanks along the monument's eastern boundary. The discovery ofnumerous tools and weapons suggests a large population and a relatively prosperous life.

Religious practices, magical in character, were important to these people. Shamans, who aimed atbending the forces of nature to man's will, greatly influenced their actions and activities. These menconducted ceremonies which they hoped would bring success in hunting and increase the number of gameanimals. They also worked to prevent natural disasters and drive away sickness.

Bone and copper awls were used for sewing. Possibly they wove baskets and matting, for earlier groupsknew a form of weaving. It is thought the women wore clothing of tanned hides, moccasins, and jewelryof bone, shell, or copper. Men wore similar jewelry, and breechcloths and moccasins, and painted theirbodies for additional adornment.

The oldest mounds in the Mississippi Valley belong to the Red Ocher Culture. One mound excavated inthe monument produced evidence linking it with this culture, and was dated, by the radio-carbontechnique, as being about 2,500 years old. Bundle burials had been placed on a floor covered with redocher, and burial offerings included large chipped blades, straight-stemmed and corner-notched spear ordart points, and spherical copper beads.

The spear thrower was still the chief weapon, and projectile points continued in the same styles as theirantecedents. Among the innovations, pottery was an important item. Their first pottery was crude, thick,and heavily tempered with coarse pieces of crushed rock. Toward the end of the period, pottery becamethinner and was decorated with wide, indifferently applied, incised lines. Pottery of this type has beenfound in the monument.

The next major cultural division is noted in pottery and the use of many materials obtained from distantsources. The Indians seem to have elaborated their material possessions and intellectual life gradually,following a trend apparent through the Midwest. The remains from this period are called Hopewell, aculture dating from 100 B.C. to A.D. 600. Pottery and projectile points collected in the monument show arelationship to certain Hopewellian types. Indians of this period used mica from the Appalachians,obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico, and copper from the LakeSuperior region.

Several mounds excavated in the monument are of the Hopewellian period. While certain ones containedtraits identified with the Hopewell, the evidence was not as abundant as is usually found in similar centersof Illinois and Ohio. Three of these Hopewellian mounds are adjacent to the visitor center.

The Effigy Mounds people occupied the land now within the monument from a time overlapping theHopewellian period until almost historic times. Their cultural remains indicate they differed from theHopewellians chiefly in constructing mounds in effigy forms, using copper for tools rather than ornamentsand burying their dead with few if any intentional offerings of a lasting nature.

Whatever their burial customs, these people probably differed little from their predecessors in terms ofeconomic and everyday life. Archeological excavations indicate the Effigy Mounds people were probablysupplanted about 1300 or 1400 by Indians of the Oneota Culture. These people placed a strong emphasison agriculture and on life in larger villages.

The pottery, economic orientation, and certain facets of the religious life of the Oneota indicate a moresoutherly cultural ancestry. Some of their villages have been identified with a historic tribe-the Ioway,from whom the State takes its name. For the most part, the Ioway villages were north and west of thepresent monument boundaries, but scattered finds, consisting of pottery fragments, indicate they made atleast temporary use of lands in what is now the monument. They probably hunted in the area and they may have had transient camps in some of the rock shelters.

With the advent of the fur-trade era, Indian occupation of the land now within the monument came to anend.

Louis Joliet and Father Marquette were the first white men to reach the northeast Iowa region whileexploring the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers in 1673. Others followed - exploring, building forts, anddeveloping Indian trade.

The first known mention of the Effigy Mounds area appears in Jonathan Carver's"Travels Through theInterior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, 1768." He tells of leaving his traders at themouth of the Yellow River while he himself ascended the Mississippi. The next mention of the areaimplies that a few habitation sites had appeared at the mouth of the Yellow River.

During the historic period the mounds on the bluff tops and in the valley went unnoticed. In 1881,however, two men - Theodore H. Lewis and Alfred J. Hill - began an ambitious survey of the moundgroups of the Mississippi River Valley. The Lewis-Hill surveys produced excellent maps of the moundsfound throughout the valley and the southern United States. Among the groups they mapped in 1892 aresome now within the monument, including the Marching Bear Group and a number of mounds whichwere destroyed before the monument was established.

On August 10, 1949, the first 1,000 acres to he included in Effigy Mounds National Monument passedinto Federal ownership. Another 204.39 acres were conveyed to the United States by the Iowa GeneralAssembly on April 14, 1951. An Act of Congress on May 27, 1961, added about 263 acres and 99mounds to the monument.

Besides its unusual archeological attraction, the area contains interesting historical and scenic values anda varied vegetation and wildlife. The monument is located across the Mississippi River from historicPrairie du Chien, Wis., an important point in the exploration and settlement of the Upper Mississippivalley. The military road from old Fort Crawford at Praire du Chien to Fort Atkinson near Fort Atkinson,Iowa, passes through the monument. For over a century, sightseers have enjoyed the superb panoramas ofthe Mississippi River country along the monument's cliff-bordered eastern boundary.

The forests, the wildflowers, ferns, and other plants, and the varied bird and other animal populations atEffigy Mounds represent a biological community not found elsewhere in the National Park System.

Visiting the Monument

Effigy Mounds is located five miles north of McGregor and three miles north of Marquette, Iowa on IowaState Highway 76. Bus parking is available at the Visitor Center.

Upon arrival, you should stop first at the visitorcenter where museum exhibits and an audiovisual presentation explain the prehistory, history, and naturalhistory of Effigy Mounds. The visitor center is open daily, except Christmas Day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (7p.m. in summer).

A 1-hour walk on the self-guiding Fire Point Trail leads to representative examples of major featureswithin the monument, including the Little Bear Mound, Hopewellian mounds, and scenic viewpointsalong the 300-foot-high bluff tops. Trailside exhibits and markers tell the story of the mounds, or explainthe natural features. Guided walks along the trail by park rangers are given on a scheduled basis fromMemorial Day to Labor Day. A longer walk is possible by following the Hanging Rock Trail to otherpoints of interest.

Those who plan to visit in a group should make advance arrangements with the superintendent for guidedwalks. There are no camping or picnicking facilities within the monument. You can obtainaccommodations in nearby towns. . Both picnicking and camping facilities are available at Pikes PeakState Park and Yellow River State Forest. Restaurants and lodging facilities are available in the localcommunities.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

  • Effigy Mounds National Monument Travel Q&A

  • What's your favorite hike? Where's the best campsite? Join the conversation! Ask Your Question

Articles & Advice on Effigy Mounds National Monument

park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »


Parks Near Effigy Mounds National Monument
GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog


Ask Questions