Archeological evidence of people living in western Wisconsin’s coulee region, of which Pierce County is a part, is scant. Much of what existed here before Euro-Americans arrived was destroyed later by cultivation, building practices, and looting. The few artifacts that have been found indicate that the region has been inhabited for 10,000 to 12,000 years.
The first known arrivals (from approximately 12,000 B.C. to 8,000 B. C.) were highly nomadic Paleo-Indians who hunted large Ice Age animals at the edges of receding glaciers. After the North American climate warmed, nomadic Archaic peoples arrived (approximately 8,000 B.C. to 6,000 B. C.). They lived in camps and small villages while hunting bison, elk, bear, wild cats, and deer with small spear points. Their culture is thought to have evolved or been influenced by other cultures so that by 1,000 B.C., they were living seasonally in rock shelters and river bottoms, using copper for tools, fishing and hunting small game, and burying their dead with items of either personal or cultural significance.
Around 500 B.C., Woodland Tradition people replaced the Archaic people. They hunted or trapped small game, made distinctive pottery, and built burial mounds. Over 300 years, they appear to have been influenced by Hopewell cultures in Ohio and Illinois, building larger, more elaborate burial mounds and using trade items made hundreds of miles distant. Then, somewhere around 600 A.D., another Woodland culture appeared (or evolved). These people gardened, created pottery different from the early Woodland peoples, built groups of earthen mounds of various shapes for burial and ceremony, and hunted with bow and arrow.
A new people arrived in the southern coulee region about 1,000 A.D. who greatly influenced the Woodland Tradition people. Called Mississippian, they are thought to have been part of the culture that produced the great Cahokia earthen platform mound in southern Illinois. They introduced advanced agriculture dependent on beans, corn, and squash, a pottery clay tempered with crushed mussel shell, and mound building for burial, ceremony and worship. Their presence probably gave rise to the culture archeologists named Oneota.
The Oneota people, who remained after the Mississippians left, continued to build camps and villages on river bottoms and terraces, to use copper for decoration, weapons and tools, and to engage in agriculture using unique bone implements. A large Oneota village site exists in Pierce County along the Mississippi River in Diamond Bluff Township. Called the Mero Site after an early landowner, it once contained several hundred mounds, and is now an archeological preserve listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Other village sites have been found near the Trimbelle River. Conical mounds have been identified in the townships of Diamond Bluff, Isabelle, Maiden Rock, Oak Grove, Salem, and Union.
It’s possible that people from the Archaic forward were ancestors of two of the Native American groups living in western Wisconsin in the 1650s—the Ho-Chunk (known as Winnebago) to the south and the Santee Dakota (known as Sioux) in the north. The Santee were gradually displaced from forests near Lake Superior when Annishinaabeg, known as Ojibwe or Chippewa, pushed south from Canada. By the 1700s, other tribes—Pottawatomie, Sac (or Sauk), Fox, Illini, and Ioway—moved into the region because turbulent economic events in their traditional homelands made relocation necessary.
Much of the region’s changing population occurred because of the expanding fur trade here. The land contained enough game to support hunters and trappers forced by the British and Iroquois to move out of what became Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ontario, Canada. French traders had established themselves here, where beaver, muskrat, fox, and weasel were abundant, and by 1750, most native inhabitants were participating in trade not only with the French, but with each other.
The land that was to become Pierce County was a combination of oak savanna and mixed hardwood forest supporting large populations of elk, bear, deer, weasel, wolf, rabbit, hare, prairie chickens, eagles, and doves. Many of the streams teemed with Brook trout. This abundant wildlife provided not only meat for food, but also materials for shelter, clothing, and ornamentation. Control of the resources became a source of ongoing conflict between the Santee Dakota and Ojibwe. Their periodic skirmishes are mentioned by early explorers and later visitors. Details of a major battle at the mouth of the St. Croix River in 1755 passed through generations of storytellers.
The Santee, living on both sides of the Mississippi, had earned a reputation for fierceness similar to that of the Iroquois Confederacy. Still, with no intention of settling the region, the French were able to establish mutually beneficial relations with them and other native groups. They built camps, forts and trading centers along or near major waterways. Remains of these centers in Pierce County have been found near the St. Croix River, Lake Pepin, the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi tributaries, Rush River, Big River and Plum Creek.
French trading rights in North America were challenged, however, by the British, who were determined to control the fur trade from New England to the Pacific Ocean. This conflict led to the seven-year French and Indian War in which the Ojibwe fought with the French. It ended with a treaty in 1763 that officially removed the French from the entire Great Lakes region. But business didn’t go smoothly for the British in Wisconsin territory. The region’s forests were becoming “hunted out,” and native hunters and traders preferred to deal with the French, who were far less condescending than the British.
To remain here, the British set up relations with small “jack knife” trading camps that had operated independently for years. But additional trade interruptions occurred during the Revolutionary War and after American victory in 1781. The predominant attitude of the newly formed United States government was that frontier lands and resources located beyond established national borders rightfully belonged to the young nation and not to Europeans. American interests in the Upper Mississippi territory involved American Fur Company success and land acquisition for American settlement.
Little consideration by any government officials was given to the welfare of Native Americans already living in the Upper Mississippi region. Not only would the Dakota, Ho-Chunk, and Ojibwe face removal from traditional homelands, but their populations would be devastated by newly introduced diseases for which they had no immunity. They would lose thousands of members to undocumented epidemics before 1800, noted only by massive changes in numbers between one explorer or representative’s visit and another.
The U. S. began to explore the Upper Mississippi in earnest at about the time that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark poled their keelboats up the Missouri River in 1804. Government surveyors spread across the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In 1805, the U. S. Army sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike up the Mississippi River on a military expedition to make residents aware of U. S. presence. Pike bought a large parcel of land from the Santee living near the confluence of the St. Peter’s (Minnesota) and Mississippi rivers. That purchase became a catalyst to U. S. settlement in the region, which included the future Pierce County.
Sources: Buried Indians: Digging Up the Past in a Midwestern Town; Laurie Hovell McMillin, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2006; History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley; Rev. Edward D. Neill. North Star Publications Company, Minneapolis, MN; 1881. The Wisconsin Frontier, Mark Wyman; Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis; 1998. Archaeology of the Great River Road, John T. Penman, 1981. The Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 9, No. 1 / 2, January – December 1997, published by the Wisconsin Archeological Society.