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Whitefish Dunes State Park History

The Whitefish Dunes area's history has been shaped by its geological prehistory, its location along the Lake Michigan shore, its people and its scenic natural resources.

People of the dunes

Evidence of eight separate occupations ranging in age from 100 B.C. to the late 1800s can be found at Whitefish Dunes State Park. A number of factors made this a particularly good location for past settlement. The seasonal abundance of lake sturgeon, walleyes, lake trout and whitefish and the overall variety of fishing opportunities are believed to have been major reasons for repeated occupation. Cave Point, Whitefish Bay and Clark Lake provided fishing diversity.

North Bay people

The earliest settlers were the North Bay people (100 B.C. - A.D. 300). Most of the pottery from this occupation comes from a single large vessel. Archaeologists value the information that pottery provides, since it changed more rapidly than stone tools, and better reflects social relationships. The North Bay pottery is thick, and tempered with coarse grit.

The territory of the North Bay people extends from Green Bay north to Rock Island. Within this area there were probably several kinship-based bands that interacted relative frequently, traveling around the peninsula by canoe. The people probably arrived at the site in the spring, in time for sturgeon spawning. They seem to have stayed at least through early summer. After this occupation the lake level rose and flooded a portion of the site.

Heins Creek people

The descendants of the North Bay group are known as the Heins Creek people. The name comes from a site at the mouth of Heins Creek, about six miles north of Whitefish Bay. The Heins Creek occupation dates to about A.D. 500-750, placing it in the early portion of the Lake Woodland period.

These people continued to occupy the shores of the Door Peninsula. Judging from the number and size of their sites, the population was larger than ever before. Fishing continued to be an important focus of their livelihood.

Late Woodland people

Late woodland wigwam
This is what the Late Woodland lodges probably looked like.
DNR Photo

Whitefish dunes contains evidence of two other Late Woodland occupations shortly after the Heins Creek component. These two occupations date around A.D. 800-900. By this time the site was a substantial village, occupied from spring through late fall. After the fishing season drew to a close, family groups are believed to have traveled to their winter hunting camps. Such camps could be in caves or rock shelters on the Green Bay side of the peninsula, or on the edges of wetlands.

The Oneota

Around A.D. 900 the Oneota people appeared on the Door Peninsula. They were probably descended from local late Woodland people. There were two Oneota occupations. Between these occupations there was a second high water episode that flooded part of the site. A third flood came later, sometime in the historic period.

The Oneota practiced agriculture as well as fishing, hunting and gathering. Both corn and squash were cultivated in the vicinity of the site. Some of the corn may have been ground to flour and formed into dough for roasting in the ashes. The dig produced seven charred black lumps that contain corn flour. One came from a pit oven that was full of fire reddened dolomite cobbles. Such "corn cakes" have not been found in other archaeological sites in the Midwest. The Oneota may have lived here year-round, or they might have left for the winter hunt like their Woodland predecessors.

Excavation at Whitefish Dunes

The excavation produced scanty evidence of an early historic Indian occupation. By the early 1840s, John P. Clark and his brother Isaac S. Clark had begun a commercial fishing operation on Whitefish Bay. During the fishing season (August through mid-November), the Clarks employed 30 to 40 fishermen. Two or three hundred Potawatomis are reported to have assembled at the bay to manufacture fish oil from the fish waste. The Clarks worked the fishery until sometime in the 1880s. Square nails, green bottle glass, lead net sinkers and other artifacts indicate activity of this era in the Whitefish Bay View site.

In recognition of the number of past occupations and excellent state of preservation, this site has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It holds great potential for future research.

Early settlers in the Whitefish area

As early as 1838 Whitefish Bay was mentioned in log books. The Gazelle, a schooner, speaks of it as Fisherman’s Bay. The Gazelle traded around the various Lake Michigan fishing camps, such as Death’s Door camp (probably Rock Island), the Twin Rivers camp and Whitefish Bay, selling fishing supplies, stoves, whiskey, tobacco, beer, flour and other things and picking up barrels of salted fish for the return voyage to sell in Cleveland and Detroit.

A New Englander, James Pearson Clark, an early fisherman and shipper, owned the Whitefish Bay camp. He employed Europeans, Americans and some 50 to 100 Indians at Whitefish Bay fishing, salting and perhaps doing some logging and building. The Gazelle’s supplies included hay and oats, probably for oxen or horses to aid in clearing trees.

As the maritime trade of the area grew, Whitefish Bay began to claim its own shipwrecks, totaling six in number. The first reported was the Schooner Grey Eagle in 1869, followed in later years by the schooners Hungarian, D.A. Van Valkenburg, James Garrett, Otter, Success, C. Harrison and the spectacular burning of the steamer Australasia in 1896.

Many other ships have passed through this area, but Whitefish Bay and most other small Great Lake ports declined in maritime activity after the decline of lumbering around the beginning of the 20th century.

State park history

In the 1930s, conservationists like Jens Jensen called for the preservation of Whitefish Dunes. Rare plants and the best sand dunes on the western shore of Lake Michigan needed protection from development. Dream became reality in July 1967 when the state park was established. In 1982, 230 acres of the 867-acre park were designated as a state natural area.

The dunes were protected through the foresight of the people of Door County and the Wisconsin Conservation Commission (now Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).

Last revised: Wednesday October 03 2012