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For information about Horicon Marsh, contact:
Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area
N7725 Hwy 28
Horicon WI 53032

Human history of Horicon

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The history of Horicon Marsh is like the life that lives within it. It is vital and abundant; it is also a story of life and death and the birth of new life. It is a history of change from wetland to wasteland and back again.

Indian history

Image courtesy of the Illinois State Museum

The rich resources of this marsh have attracted people to the area ever since the end of the last Ice Age. Nearly every major prehistoric Indian culture known to the upper Midwest has utilized or inhabited Horicon Marsh over the past 10,000 to 12,000 years. What we know of these early inhabitants is told in the archeological record. Many area residents have found large collections of Indian artifacts, including spear points, arrowheads and other stone tools around Horicon Marsh.

We also know of the many Indian trails that brought people to the area hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Perhaps you followed one on your way to the marsh. Several of our roads today follow in part the past Indian trails. Highway 33, Hwy. 26, County A from Horicon to Fox Lake and County Hwy. Z along the east side of the marsh are all former trail routes.

Among the most interesting Indian artifacts are the effigy mounds, built by prehistoric people between 700 A.D. to 1200 A.D. These are earthen mounds built to represent animal and geometric shapes. At one time many more mounds were to be found around the marsh. Many of these, however, have been destroyed as land was converted for other purposes. The first survey of these mounds was conducted by our first state geologist, Increase Lapham in the 1850's. At that time he mapped over 500 mounds around Horicon Marsh alone.

This early map shows the location and shapes of mounds.

One of the most impressive mound groups was located at the south end of the marsh. This early map shows the location and shapes of these mounds. Today, all of these are gone. The city of Horicon is built on top of a former Indian village and ceremonial grounds. Mounds can still be seen along County Hwy. Z just south of Hwy. 49. A sign indicates the location of several conical and panther mounds. These are located on private land and must be viewed from the road and right-of-way.

Take a little time to learn about the earliest inhabitants of this area and the importance of Horicon Marsh. The abundant and diverse wildlife of the marsh has lured people to it for thousands of years. We are just the last in a long line of successive people that have been drawn to Horicon Marsh since the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age.

Artifact displays and Native American Indian history can be seen and studied at the Horicon Historical Society's Satterly Clark home, Mayville White Limestone Building, Beaver Dam Historical Society and at Fox Lake Historical Society. A wonderful display of effigy mounds can be seen at Dodge County's Nitschke Mounds Park. Call the local Chambers of Commerce for locations and times. Other information and programs are available through the DNR Naturalist Program.

From wetland to wasteland and back

Restore Horicon Marsh campaign
Restore Horicon Marsh campaign, circa 1920

It was the great glaciers of the last Ice Age that gave rise to this marshland basin. Since these early origins, it has been home to an abundant variety of fish, birds, and other marshland wildlife. Evidence indicates that humans were already here when this marsh was in its infancy. Nomadic hunters arrived here as early as 12,000 years ago. In time, they were succeeded by other prehistoric Indian cultures, including Paleo and Archaic hunters, the Mound Builders and other Woodland cultures. Around the marsh, there still exist exists today the burial mounds and other artifacts that tell of their occupation of this land. Time and again, people have come here to take advantage of the abundant resources of the marsh. More recently, the Native American Indian tribes inhabited the area. The Potowotomis and Winnebagos (Ho-Chunk Nation) had their settlements here and several major Indian trails passed by the marsh.

When the white settlers came to this region, they settled nearby these Indian villages. Their first name for Horicon was "The Great Marsh of the Winnebagos." In time, these Native American settlements were displaced by the towns and villages of today.

The first modern settlement on the marsh was the town of Horicon. In 1846, a dam was built at this site for powering the first sawmill. This dam held back the water in the marsh raising it nine feet. By flooding the marsh, they created Lake Horicon which, at that time, was being called the largest man-made lake in the world! After 23 years of operation, disputes led to the removal of the dam. In the years that followed, the marsh returned as a haven for wildlife. The attraction of wildlife brought with it the advent of hunting clubs and the market hunting days. From the 1870s to the early 1900s, unregulated hunting devastated the duck populations on this marsh. With the loss of these birds, this once-famous duck marsh had little value to many people. They sought to change it once more.



Other interests in the marsh eventually came to dominate and influence it as muck farming or moist-soil agriculture promised quick profits. With this incentive, private landowners around the marsh dug ditches to drain their own land. Soon, local sentiment changed in favor of draining the entire marsh. From 1910 to 1914, the main ditch was dredged for this purpose. Despite these efforts, their farming attempts failed. The exposed peat soil of the marsh dried and caught fire and the marsh was abandoned. Many of the ditches that are still seen today are from this project.

Those people who originally saw the marsh as a wasteland, thought they could improve on it by damming it or draining it. This last effort left behind a devastation which they could hardly have foreseen.

The marsh now laid as a true wasteland--useless to man and wildlife.

It was in 1921 when conservation-minded individuals began the fight to restore the marsh. In 1927, the state legislature passed the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge Bill. This provided for the construction of a dam at Horicon to restore the marshland water levels and for land acquisition. During the 1940's, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the northern portion of the marsh as a National Wildlife Refuge. With these efforts began the recovery and restoration of Horicon Marsh.

Today, Horicon Marsh is about 32,000 acres in size, consisting mostly of open water and cattail marsh. The southern one-third (about 11,000 acres) is owned by the State of Wisconsin and is controlled by the Department of Natural Resources. This is called the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area or the "State area." The northern two-thirds (about 21,000 acres) is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is known as the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge or Federal Refuge. Together, as one marsh, it is one of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States.

Through our efforts to recreate what nature had provided for us, we are now beginning to understand how complex this marshland ecosystem really is. Today, through management, Horicon Marsh is once again supporting an abundant variety of wildlife which is becoming increasingly more valuable to the many people who visit this great marsh. The scars of the past have healed themselves, and as we gaze out over the marsh we get a feeling for the Algonquin word from which this marsh takes its name; Horicon--the land of clean, pure water.

The people, the marsh and the future

People have always been a part of this marsh and the marsh has always lured and provided for those who live by it. For 12,000 years the Native American Indians depended on Horicon Marsh and it always provided for their needs. Since the time of European settlement this marsh has supported a developing modern society. However, due to a lack of understanding of what nature can and cannot provide, people often made demands on this marsh which it could not always meet.

Some wanted better navigation and commerce and inundated the marsh to make a lake of it. Others wanted wildlife, especially ducks, in an abundance that even this marsh could not provide indefinitely. The market hunter devastated this most valuable resource. Then came those who wanted farmland, but needed to destroy the marsh to make it into such.


Early hunters

Today, we have learned much from the mistakes of the past. We have learned to understand and appreciate wetlands much more than at any other time in recent history. However, as society continues to evolve and make new demands of the land we have yet to develop a sustainable use of the very resources which make life possible. We will not again destroy the Horicon Marsh in a deliberate attempt to rid the marsh and make something else of it, but the challenge remains for us to learn how to live with and around this great wetland and in a way that sustains us and the life we share this land with.

Aerial photo

Aerial view

Our biggest concern for Horicon Marsh today is to hold on to the gains of the past and maintain the integrity and biological productivity of this marsh. The greatest impacts to Horicon Marsh come from the surrounding uplands. Intensive agricultural use and suburban development have led to excessive sedimentation and non-point run-off entering the marsh.

To continue farming without comprehensive conservation practices will only lead to a loss of productive topsoils and the resultant choking of this marsh from too much sediment and nutrients. This would ultimately be a loss to both uplands and lowlands. To convert productive farmland to unplanned developments will further contribute nonpoint pollutants of another kind to the marsh and crowd its perimeter with subdivisions which spoil the view and experience in being out in the wilds of southern Wisconsin. Land use planning and sustainable resource use, coupled with a common vision for the future of this internationally important wetland, is becoming of greater urgency as we stand back to look at the changing world we are creating.

One of the best ways to gauge our success or failure is to watch the marsh. If it continues to sustain the diverse populations of wildlife that currently live there we recognize that nature is telling us that we are on the right track. If otherwise, neither the marsh nor perhaps ourselves can persist. In simple terms, nature returns equally to all - care for the earth and it will care and provide for us. Poison the earth and it will in turn poison us. Diminish nature's richness and likewise our lives will be diminished.

Last revised: Tuesday March 24 2020