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Wyalusing State Park History

Ancient seas, glacial meltwaters, mound-building Native Americans, explorers, fur traders and farmers are some of the people and events in the long and colorful history of the area we now call Wyalusing State Park.

Geology

Some two billion years ago very hot, molten minerals cooled and crystallized to form granite, which now lies far beneath the park's surface. Beginning about 600 million years ago, a series of dramatic earth movements caused a succession of shallow seas to spread over North America. Over these long years the seas deposited a thick "sandwich" of sediments which eventually became sedimentary rock.

Many rivers, including the present Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, cut into this sandwich over a 400-million-year period. Bluffs and ridges were left behind that now tower 500 to 600 feet above the rivers. As you hike the park trails downward from the bluff tops, you are walking back in time. Each layer of dolomite (limestone), shale and sandstone is older than the layer above it.

Native Americans

People began arriving here about 11,000 years ago, as the glaciers retreated. Many left evidence of their life and culture behind.

The Red Ochre Culture appeared around 1000 B.C. They were followed by the Hopewell Indians and the Effigy Mound Builders. Archeologists tell us that these groups were the builders of the many mounds on Sentinel Ridge, Spook Hill and other areas of the park.

Burial of the dead was one reason Woodland Indians constructed mounds. Most of the dome-shaped, conical mounds contain skeletons. Effigy mounds, those shaped like deer, bears, birds, turtles and other animals, were more than just a simple burial method. Construction may have been religious, an indication of territorial possession or a ceremonial group activity. We may never know.

Historic Native Americans (those encountered by the first Europeans) considered the region near the mouth of the Wisconsin River a "neutral" land. At least 14 different tribes lived in the area or visited to trade.

Some land features in the park have been named for Native Americans of the region. Green Cloud Hill Picnic Area is named for the Winnebago chief who led the last band of Native Americans to camp in the park. Other areas in the park received names for the way they were used by the Native Americans. Signal Point was used for signal fires. Sentries used Point Lookout to keep watch on the rivers.

Europeans

Journeying from Green Bay via the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, the first Europeans to enter the area were Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet. They recorded seeing the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers on June 17, 1673. Their exact vantage point is unknown, although it is likely they saw it from one of the bluffs in the park. A marker at Point Lookout commemorates this event.

Fur Traders

A few short years after the arrival of Marquette and Joliet, French voyageurs came here to trade with the Native Americans. Rivers were the most efficient means of transportation. Pelts worth millions of dollars passed through this area as first the French, then the British and finally the Americans made their living by trapping and trading.

A massive cliff in modern Wyalusing State Park was a very prominent feature to anyone traveling on either waterway. Native American agent and geologist Henry Schoolcraft came through in August 1825, Schoolcraft's route "carried us through the most picturesque and interesting part of the Wisconsin, called the Highlands or River Hills. Some of these hills are high, with precipitous faces towards the river. Others terminate in round grassy knobs, with oaks dispersed about the sides."

Miners

News of mineral deposits, primarily lead, brought more people to the area. A man could literally "make a fortune overnight."

The early lead miners burrowed into hillsides searching for ore and used their "mines" for living quarters before more suitable housing was constructed. Because of this practice they were nicknamed "Badgers." Thus the nickname for Wisconsin residents came to be.

There were some mining ventures in the park; however, none were known to be successful.

Farming

As the region became more settled, land was cleared on the tillable areas of the park and farming became a common lifestyle. One humorous tale of those pioneer farming days tells about some questionable uses of the resources.

Many of the early settlers raised hogs, letting them run wild in the winter to forage on acorns. This practice led to several years of "hog rustling." Local farmers finally discovered that two men were butchering their animals, storing them in Sand Cave where ice kept them cool until late in the spring and then rafting them to Prairie du Chien when the rivers opened.

Early farmers supplemented their income by cutting and selling firewood to the steamboat operators that traveled the rivers. A backwater (slough) adjacent to the park is named "Woodyard Slough" for this reason.

Wyalusing State Park

The idea to create a park at the junction of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers was both a local movement and statewide initiative. The Robert Glenn family, who owned the land, promoted the concept of a park around the turn of the century. At about the same time, the state Legislature commissioned a report on the subject of state parks for Wisconsin. The report, completed in 1909, recommended four sites in the state for immediate consideration for acquisition. This area was one of four recommended. The purchase was approved by the Legislature in 1912 and the park established in 1917. The park was first named Nelson Dewey State Park and changed to Wyalusing in 1937.

The present Nelson Dewey State Park, south of Wyalusing State Park near Cassville, was created in 1935. It preserves the first governor’s restored home.

The Civilian Conservation Corps

During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public works program that put more than 3 million youths and adults to work, had a camp here. Its members built park roads and trails and started the Peterson Shelter, which was finished by another federal program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They built stone fireplaces in shelters and picnic areas.

A bronze plaque, commemorating the Civilian Conservation Corps at Wyalusing State Park is located in a large rock at the entrance to the Outdoor Group Camp (the site of the CCC camp). The “old park office” has been refurbished. An original kiosk, built by the CCC is located immediately west of the “old office”. Large information panels describing the “Days of the CCC” are found in the kiosk.

Last revised: Wednesday January 07 2015