by NATHANIEL NELSON
Underneath the streets and homes of Trempealeau, beneath layers of sediment built up over hundreds of years, the remnants of an ancient civilization lay dormant, waiting to be found. Archeologists Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt and Danielle Benden have been spending the last decade combing the Wisconsin bluffs for evidence of a Mississippian city tracing back 1,000 years, and next Wednesday, the two will share their most recent findings at a public event.
According to Benden, the history of Trempealeau’s Native civilization, known as the Mississippians, traces to a location more than 500 miles down river. “About 1,000 years ago, they were living at what was essentially America’s first city,” she said. The city, known as Cahokia, was a 2,200-acre metropolis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River across from what is now St. Louis, Mo., that was home to tens of thousands of people –– more than London at the time.
However, for an unknown reason, a group of Mississippians loaded up canoes and paddled up the river, settling in modern-day Trempealeau.
Benden grew up in La Crosse, Wis., and while her friends were entranced with the glamorized cultures of ancient Greece and Egypt, Benden was more interested in what had happened closer to home.
“I really took an interest in the history of the area where I grew up. A lot of my friends were fascinated by faraway lands, but for me, it was always about understanding the past in where I grew up, Benden said. “Trempealeau, in particular, is such an unbelievable site.”
In 2009, Benden and Boszhardt worked with a colleague in Illinois to begin an investigation of the Trempealeau land. The topography showed that there were at least three separate rectangular-topped mounds, which were indicative of a Mississippian city. While much has been written about the history of other regional cultures, including that of the animal effigy mounds of Wisconsin and Iowa, the human-made flat-topped mounds were less-documented and different.
Over several years, the two discovered that there was, in fact, a settlement in Trempealeau, but it was bigger than they ever imagined.
“It’s amazing to dig in Trempealeau to find rocks transported hundreds of miles to create arrowheads,” Boszhardt said. “It’s almost like Jamestown. When you excavate the British colonies on the east coast, you’ll find British pottery.”
Artifacts like pottery, stoneware, architecture and religious artifacts have been found, and the site continues to grow. Benden and Boszhardt now operate an archeological tour company called Driftless Pathways, but each year, the two return to the Coulee region to continue their research.
This last year, they made another very large discovery. Originally, there were three mounds that were known, with another two suspected. In researching, they found another big surprise.
“We thought there might be another a quarter of a mile away, but we now have found another. Now there are six known platform mounds in Trempealeau, which is amazing to realize. There’s probably more,” he said.
Another discovery came over the past two years, as the group was working on a new property. In one of the newly discovered mounds, the two uncovered something incredible –– a burnt temple. Wood, stone, and other materials were found preserved in the ground. “That’s pretty spectacular for Midwestern archeology to find a burnt temple structure,” he added.
But what is the goal? According to Benden, the two want to discover why the group came to Trempealeau and settled there, of all places. It’s a long way from the Mississippian home base of Cohokia, and trade wasn’t one of their larger operations, so why Wisconsin?
“We think they selected Trempealeau because of its location and the Trempealeau Mountain. For many native people, [it is] a special and sacred place,” Benden said. Native cultures oftenmarveled at the magic and power of the mountain, and Beenden said they believed the Mississippian people came to the area to harness that power. “From a geological standpoint, it’s important because it is the only remnant bluff completely surrounded by water,” she added.
Next week’s presentation, held at the village hall, is an annual update that the two give to the community to keep residents up to date on their findings. Boszhardt explained that they typically go over the history of the project and why it was started before moving onto more recent discoveries, and then open up the presentation for questions.
They will also be selling their book, titled “Beneath Your Feet: Archeology at Trempealeau,” which was written in 2016 to give community members an easier way to look at and read about the findings of the project.
“This was sort of a payback to the community, to write a popular book,” Boszhardt said.
Most of the time, archeological digs are short and simple –– Boszhardt worked as a contract archeologist for many years, and it was common for a project to last no more than a week or two. But this one won’t be ending anytime soon.
“There’s still so much we don’t know,” Benden said.
The presentation “Beneath Your Feet: Archeological Excavations at the Ouellette Locality in Trempealeau,” will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27, in the Trempealeau Community Room at Village Hall in Trempealeau. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Benden or Boszhardt at email@example.com.