The Mounds of Brown
by Andy Hooper
For many years, I've enjoyed the legacy of the work of Charles E. Brown, but I only learned his name, and a little about his life a few days ago.
On my recent trip to Madison, while researching an article for another publication, I found myself tramping around the city examining Indian mounds, a familiar part of the landscape there. Between AD 800 and 1200, ancient Native Americans constructed more than 1,500 conical, linear and effigy mounds on the shores of Madison's "four lakes," and there may have been more than 20,000 such sites in the state of Wisconsin, including flat-topped pyramid mounds more than 100 feet on a side. Unfortunately, as much as 80% of these works have been destroyed by the demands of civilization, and the fact that there are any of them left at all is largely due to the efforts of Charles E. Brown, as I discovered in my research at the city library.
Brown was born in Milwaukee, and his father, a civil engineer and amateur paleological collector, instilled in him an interest in history, natural history and Native American culture from an early age. He was barely 20 when he joined the staff of the pioneering Milwaukee Public Museum in 1900. Despite his lack of formal academic credentials, Brown's seemingly limitless energy for fieldwork and administration swiftly made him a legend in Wisconsin's formative archeological community. In 1903 he founded the Wisconsin Archeological Society, and served as its secretary for over 40 years, and published over 160 volumes of Wisconsin Archeologist, the longest continuously-published journal of its kind in the country. In 1904 he gained appointment as the curator for the U.S. Philippine Exhibition of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which brought him to attention of the national anthropological community. Shortly thereafter, Ruben Gold Thwaites, director of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, talked him into becoming the first director and full-time curator of the Society's museum. He remained in this post until 1944, and died just two years after his retirement.
As a self-taught museologist, his professional achievements are remarkable. But even more impressive is the life-long campaign which Brown waged to preserve Native American sites in and around Madison and bring local attention to the region's priceless historical assets. As director of the State Historical Museum he was accorded a certain measure of civil respect, and the local newspapers knew he was always a good source for copy. At times, he seemed to have an almost paternal affection for the mounds, and often supervised their re-turfing or repair himself. To this day, the only survey or observations ever made of 90% of the mounds in the region was conducted by Charles Brown and his volunteer crews between 1910 and 1935.
I hasten to point out that while many of these mounds are merely low hummocks of turf and soil arranged in a cone or a loaf-shape, some of them are quite spectacular. The huge bird effigy on the grounds of the State Mental Hospital once had a wingspan of 624 feet, and is third-largest effigy in North America. One linear mound that ran through the center of the modern city of Monona, on Madison's east side, was 700 feet long. Many of the animal effigies take odd and stylized forms, and it was Brown's friendship with local Ho-Chunk (aka Winnebago) Indians that provided our current interpretation of those shapes. While the Ho-Chunk are a historical tribe, they've embraced the late-Woodland effigy culture as part of their own, and there is evidence that their spiritual beliefs have close parallels with the mound-builders who came before them. This relationship remained largely unconfirmed until Brown began his work, largely because no anthropologist had ever asked the Ho-Chunk what they knew about the mounds.
Unfortunately, many of his efforts at preservation were unsuccessful, and such spectacular mound groups as the Picnic Grove site, the Outlet Mound group, and the entire Dividing Ridge group, some 600 yards from end to end, were lost to development, private landscaping, and were sometimes even mined for topsoil or gravel. Probably his most bitter defeat was the eventual development of Frost's Woods, on the southeast shore of Lake Monona. This was the last tract of original forest left on the shoreline of the city's four lakes, and contained mounds of many types. Ho-Chunk families still camped there during the summer in the late 1920s, when the land came up for sale, and was slated for development.
In response, Brown founded the Lake Monona Wild Life Sanctuary Association, which struggled for three years to raise the funds necessary to buy the tract itself. To help attract funds, the Association commissioned a series of alternate-use plans for the property, including a multi-purpose cultural and nature center, a wild life sanctuary, an outdoor museum, a wild life school, a perpetual campground for the Ho-Chunk and a recreational area for youth organizations. Ho-Chunk leaders participated in public meetings at the capitol, conducted special tours and one friend of Brown, Oliver Lamere, opened his summer home on the site to visitors, allowing them to see a traditional Ho-Chunk hunting camp in operation. Lamere and Chief John Blackhawk, descendent of the historic Chief Winneshiek, were frequent guests in Brown's Nakoma neighborhood home, and from them came the modern theory that the effigy mounds were clan symbols, a kind of heraldry in earthwork.
Although the Association fell $12,000 short of their goal, the land was developed and almost all the mounds destroyed, Brown's efforts became a model for such preservation efforts in the state, and created considerable public awareness of the mounds of the region and their loss to the bulldozer. The violence of Brown's condemnation of the Frost Woods development, combined with his rage at the destruction of the Picnic Grove mounds on the University of Wisconsin campus, which he had literally only finished restoring before the University chose to build a dormitory on the site, eventually began to have some effect. The Picnic Grove site brought the total of mounds destroyed by expansion of the campus to 12, each of which Brown was only too eager to describe to the local press. After being roundly caned on the editorial pages, the University went out of their way to contact Brown when they acquired the Picnic Point site (lots of picnics in old Madison, apparently), and asked his help in restoring and preserving the mounds there, promising him they had no intention of disturbing anything there.
State law now protects Indian mounds on both public and private land. Without Brown's efforts, who knows if this legislation would have even been conceived. More Indian mounds exist in Madison than any other city in the United States, and many of the sites are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Several hundred are now designated city landmarks.
In an era when it was popular to consider the mounds the work of the lost tribes of Israel, or Vikings, or far-ranging Phonecian sailors, Charles Brown made sure that the scientific community knew that they were the work of Native Americans, whose descendents are still among us today. His legacy is not just the mounds themselves, but our understanding of them as well. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance.
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