Native American History of this Area

1834 Government Survey Field Sketch Map of Town of Madison. Click on the map to view a larger image.  Note the diagonal line across the center of the larger map is marked "Indian Trail".

When the last ice age reached its peak about 20,000 years ago, the Green Bay lobe of the glacier covered all but the western third of Dane County. At that time, the glacial ice in the Madison area was estimated to be about 1000 feet thick. As this area became ice free around 12,000 years ago, a huge glacial lake formed and then slowly drained to become the four lakes we know today surrounded by extensive marshlands. As the climate warmed, the barren glacial landscape transitioned to evergreen forests, then to prairies, oak savannas, and hardwood forests.

Indigenous People living south and west of the glacier began migrating into the Madison area as the ice receded to the northeast. When sites were found with plenty of food,  fresh spring water, and other resources, these early nomadic inhabitants often traveled back to the same areas year after year, forming small temporary village sites at favored locations.

Early  inhabitants of this area left evidence of their presence in the form of ancient earthworks some of which dot the landscape today. The Madison area has one of the largest concentrations of ancient earthworks in the upper Midwest. Many have been destroyed by the farmer's plow and the advancement of modern civilization but quite a few still remain in parks and on private land throughout the Madison area.

During the 1700's and early 1800's, explorers and fur traders encountered members of the Ho-Chunk at camps and village sites surrounding the Lake Wingra area. Hard packed soil trails connected the Lake Wingra area with additional settlements of Ho-Chunk in the four lakes area including village sites in the Middleton, Monona, and McFarland areas. 

The United States Government began the first geographic survey of the this area in 1834 in preparation for the creation of the Territory of Wisconsin on July 3, 1836. The field notes and sketches recorded during the survey of each township often noted "Indian Trail' in the notes and on the field sketches that documented their findings.

Cropped portion of the Wisconsin Indian Trails Map by Charles E. Brown 1930

Click this link for a copy of the full original map 

The map to the left is a cropped version of the Wisconsin Indian Trails Map drawn in 1930 by early Wisconsin archeologist, Charles E. Brown, for the Wisconsin Archeological Society. The trail locations shown on this map were probably plotted out using the original government survey field notes recorded over 90 years earlier.  Notice that most of the trails in Dane County meet in the Madison area.  The extensive marshlands surrounding Madison's Lakes offered few easy options for traveling through this area. The high ground between Lake Wingra, Lake Monona, and Lake Waubesa that was left behind by the retreating glacier became a preferred route connecting settlements of Indigenous People on the east and west sides of the Madison lakes. 

Early Wisconsin archeologist, Charles E. Brown, documented the findings of his archeological exploration of the Lake Wingra area in The Wisconsin Archeologist, Volume 14, No. 3, published in September 1915. Below is a composite map that utilizes the original hand drawn map of the Lake Wingra area on pages 138 and 139 of the document as the base layer of the image. The composite map was created using photo editing software to remove the photographic distortion of the open pages at the center of the book and to colorize various features of the map.

The original hand drawn map was drawn approximately to scale with the four large square boxes on the map being township section lines. Charles Brown notes in the original document that the trail and encampment site locations are approximate as are the topographic lines drawn to show elevation changes.

Accompanying the composite map below is a map index and legend that utilizes the original map index with the text linked to pages in the original document. You can use the map index below to access the detailed information in the original document about the many earthworks; camp and village sites; and trails in the Lake Wingra area.

Click on the above map to open and zoom in on a higher resolution version of the map

 Wisconsin Archeologist Volume 14 No. 3 September 1915 Click this link to view a digitized copy of the entire original document on


Map of Lake Wingra  This is the actual map of Lake Wingra on pages 138 and 139 in the above document.


Original Lake Wingra Map Index  This is a link to the actual index for the original map in this publication. The index is reproduced below but with additional links to the chapter in the document that describes each earthwork group. The Oregon Street Group in the map index was located along the old Oregon Street between Cedar Street and Pine Street. Oregon Street was renamed South Park Street after 1923 when the city of Madison annexed South Madison. In 1948 a bypass was constructed for South Park Street from Cedar Street to Dane Street and the old section of South Park Street was renamed Beld Street.

A legend for the colored layers on the enhanced map follows the map index below.

Map Index


The numbers refer to the numbering of the map and of the text descriptions.

Click on each of the numbered groups below to open a new webpage at the location in the document where that mound group is discussed.

Camp and village sites are indicated by dotted areas, trails by broken lines and outlines of former marshy areas by dotted lines.


Legend for color overlays on the composite map of Lake Wingra

Dark blue = Lake Wingra and Lake Monona

Light Blue = Marshlands surrounding Lake Wingra

Light purple = Major trails in the Lake Wingra area

Tan = Camp and village sites

Brown = The Dividing Ridge

The Dividing Ridge - October 6, 1902

Click on the above image to open the full image in a new window. The photographer is looking to the northeast. Two sand and gravel pits can be seen along the Dividing Ridge. The Wisconsin State Capitol can be seen on the horizon on the right side of the image with the dome just above the closer group of buildings along that sight line. Three church steeples can also be seen along this sight line towards the capitol dome. The tallest steeple just to the right of the Capitol dome is that of the St. Raphael's Catholic Church on West Main Street. Bascom Hall, complete with its original dome, can be seen on the horizon on the left side of this image. Science Hall can be seen to the right of Bascom Hall near the smoke billowing from a large chimney. The foreground in this image is the wetland area to the south east of the ridge on the west side of Fish Hatchery Road. Click here to open a link to a United Stated Geological Survey webpage that provides additional information about this image. The photographer's position is probably on the higher ground near the northwest corner of the intersection of Fish Hatchery Road and Carver Street. That area has a young woods growing there now.

The Dividing Ridge

This amazing glacial sand and gravel deposit was left between Lake Wingra and Lake Monona by the last retreating glacier. At 83 feet above Lake Monona, it was slightly taller than the Capitol hill. The sides and top of this long narrow ridge were dotted with ancient earthworks left by the Indigenous People who lived here for thousands of years. The panoramic view from the top was probably one of the best in the entire Madison area. Surely it must have been a very special place for generations of Native Americans who had lived in the area.

 In 1834 when the Madison area was first surveyed, a well packed Indian trail followed a route from beyond what is now the Middleton area past Spring Harbor to the Vilas Zoo area then along the Dividing Ridge through the South Madison area.  This trail then crossed the Yahara River near Bridge Road and then branched off to trails that extended to the south past the McFarland area and north to the southeast shoreline of Lake Monona and continued on to other settlements on the east side of the four lakes area.

Today, the remains of the Dividing Ridge are barely noticeable in South Madison's urban terrain. From the late 1800's on this glacial sand and gravel deposit was slowly hauled away. The readily available sand and gravel was used to fill nearby marshlands, to build roads, and as a major component in the concrete and mortar used to build the growing City of Madison. Though it was still being chewed away at as late as 1937, this unique geological feature and sacred Native American site was virtually gone by then.

Click on the above image to open a digital copy of the Wisconsin Archeologist Volume 14 No. 3 September 1915 at the start of the chapter describing the Dividing Ridge. The chapter starts at the bottom paragraph on that page. It is worth time to read this seven page chapter describing the archeological research of the Dividing Ridge that  Early Wisconsin archeologist, Charles E. Brown documented in this publication. 

Views from the top of the Dividing Ridge

There are very few surviving photographs of the view from the top of the Dividing Ridge. Each image below was part of a two image set that was placed inside a hand held stereographic viewer which was held up to your eyes to view the image set as a three dimensional image. It would be great if we had the second image of each image set and an old stereographic viewer in which to view the images sets. But we don't. So you will have to use your imagination a little bit more when viewing these images.  Sure would be nice if we had some higher resolution images to show you instead. With the antique stereographic viewer, the top of the ridge in the foreground of these images would have seemed just a few feet away from you and the rest of the image would have appeared lower and much further away.

View looking east from the top of the Dividing Ridge - 1870ca

View looking northeast from the top of the Dividing Ridge - 1870ca

Another View from the Dividing Ridge

The image below is a low resolution digital copy of an oil painting created by Eva Anne Curtiss around 1884ca. The painting is a reproduction of another oil painting created by Thomas Moran in 1876. You will have to lean on your imagination a bit with this image, too. The artist's position appears to be near the top of the Dividing Ridge at the location where a young Fish Hatchery Road is headed down the northeastern slope of the Dividing Ridge. The Capitol dome can be seen on the horizon. The two railroad causeways can faintly be seen crossing in the lake. The former lakeshore wetlands can be seen between the base of the ridge and Monona Bay. There are a handful of lakeshore cabins depicted on the lakeshore in this wetland area near some larger trees. This is the same area that can be seen in the previous image above labeled "View looking east from the top of the Dividing Ridge - 1870ca". The lakeshore trees in that image are more prominent but the lakeshore cabins are not distinguishable. Both images show the same curve of the wetland area reaching further into Monona Bay at that location.

'Sunrise on Lake Monona' by Eva Anne Curtiss, 1884ca

Click on the image above to open a larger version of the image. This image is also available for viewing on the Wisconsin Historical Society website. More information about the oil painting can be found at this link: Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 102418 

A Larger View of the Area from Above

The map below is a high resolution image of the Hydrographic Map of Lake Monona including the topography of the Madison area created in 1900 by Civil Engineering Students , University of Wisconsin Class of 1901 and by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. This is a relatively accurate early topographic map of the Madison area. The map provides a beautiful topographic depiction of the Dividing Ridge and areas to the east of Lake Wingra including the land that now comprises Olin - Turville Park and all of the lands just south of Lake Monona.

Hydrographic Map of Lake Monona - 1900

Click on the map to open the full high resolution image; then zoom in and see greater detail in the image.

Below are three similar images that can help you imagine the size of the Dividing Ridge and the extent of the earthworks that covered the glacial ridge from one end to the other. Click on each image to open a larger image file that you can zoom in on. The third image utilizes the topographic elevation of 10 feet above the elevation of Lake Monona as the outline of the Dividing Ridge. The ridge area that was higher than this 10 foot elevation is highlighted with a cream color to mark the extent of the ridge. Thousands of years ago, waves on a huge glacial lake lapped at the ridge along this 10 foot elevation boundary. All lands below this elevation were submerged for thousands of years until the deeper glacial lake drained. A gradually sloping lakeshore extending outward on each side of the ridge was the result of wave action attacking the ridge on both sides forming a beach sand deposit along the ridge as the lake slowly drained down to the present day Lake Monona water level. At its lower elevations further from the ridge, this beach sand deposit became thinner and the lake bottom became covered with many alternating thin deposits of fine sand, silt and clay. These layers were then covered with gray marl and black organic muck to form the the marshlands that existed on both sides of the ridge. Much of marshland along the lakeshore on both sides of the ridge has been filled in since the mid 1800's to build the expanding city we see here today.

Dividing Ridge Area 2023 image

Click the above image to open a 2023 Google map of the Dividing Ridge area.

Dividing Ridge 1901 - 2023 Composite

Click on the above image  to open a composite map of the Dividing Ridge area  with a portion of the 1901 Hydrographic Map of Lake Monona superimposed on the 2023 Google map image.

Dividing Ridge 1915 - 2023 Composite 

Click on the above image to open a composite map of the Dividing Ridge area using the 1915 hand drawn image of the earthworks along the top of the ridge and the elevation data from the 1901 Hydrographic Map of Lake Monona.

The map below is a cropped portion of the 1900 Hydrographic Map of Lake Monona with additional layers showing locations of the major Native American trails that existed in this area prior to the influx of settlers. The original map file was too large to effectively modify with photo editing software. Layers were added to the cropped map to depict the Native American earthworks that once covered the top of the Dividing Ridge as well as additional layers that show approximate routes of the major Native American trails that traversed through this area in the early 1800's. 

The trail locations are approximate based on early survey notes and maps that indicated their presence when the Madison area was surveyed by the US government in 1834, and by trail descriptions in Charles E. Brown's,  The Wisconsin Archeologist, Volume 14, No. 3 published in 1915. These trails were mostly just wide enough for single file travel but were likely wider along more heavily traveled sections.  The trails were probably much like the narrower trails you see across our parkland today that are maintained mostly by being traveled on often. It is interesting to note that some of the initial roads built In the mid 1800's by early settlers of this area closely followed the trails of those before us.

The trails depicted are in no way meant to show an exact route but to inspire you to imagine what it might have been like to travel across this landscape back then. Imagine this map minus the grid of roads in the young city of Madison. How would you get around?

The Dividing Ridge and Native American Trails on the lands south of Lake Monona

Click on the above map to view a high resolution version of this image; then zoom in and see greater detail in the image.

Did you notice the dead end trail that travels to the tip of Turville Point as well as another dead end trail to the east in the Wiinnequah area? These two trails were connected by communal canoe landings on each side of Lake Monona. Canoes were kept at each location and used to travel across Lake Monona to the other side. If there were too many canoes at one landing, extra canoes were towed across the lake to the other landing by the next user of this communal canoe crossing.

Several tribal villages existed in the Madison area prior to the influx of new settlers that started in 1837 when the first documented settler built his cabin on the east side of Madison. There were encampments and villages located on Madison's isthmus; in the vicinity of Vilas Park; along the southeast shoreline of Lake Monona; the Middleton area; and the east shoreline of Lake Waubesa, as well as other locations nearby. These settlements were connected by well traveled trails that often followed the higher ground from one settlement to the next. Additional trails branched out along the main trails through nearby woodlands, and along waterways and marshes for hunting, fishing and foraging. The early inhabitants of this area traded with each other and with the early fur traders who passed through and traded supplies for furs. Sometimes fur traders would establish more permanent trading posts along well traveled trails between settlements.

Glacial Lake Yahara

The earliest Indigenous People exploring the Madison area would have encountered a huge glacial Glacial Lake Yahara that included all of the Madison area lakes. At its maximum elevation this lake was estimated to be about 15 feet higher than present day Lake Monona at an elevation of about 860 feet above the earth's present sea level.  But as the glacier receded further a large amount of the glacial melt water was diverted away from Glacial Lake Yahara when new drainage routes to the Rock River became available east of Madison. The amount of water flowing down the Yahara River was greatly reduced and Glacial Lake Yahara slowly drained to become the multiple lakes we know today. The shallower areas of the glacial lake bed became partially filled with alternating thin layers of clay, silt, and fine sand that washed into this lake basin as the glacier receded. As the climate continued to warm, these former lake bed areas filled further with deposits of marl, muck, and peat to become the marshlands we see surrounding Madison's lakes today.

Glacial Lake Yahara

Click on the above map to open a higher resolution image then zoom in and see greater details in the map. The map elevation of 10 feet above Lake Monona was used to depict the outline of this glacial lake for ease in creating the blue lake layer in the image. At its peak elevation, the glacial lake would have been about five feet higher than depicted on the above map. With Glacial Lake Yahara at its highest level, the Dividing Ridge would have been a slightly wider peninsula that was actively being chewed away by wave action along its shorelines with the huge glacial lake. This is what created the steep slopes on both sides of the ridge. Olin-Turville Park would have appeared as a bit larger island that also was being chewed on by the wave action of the vast glacial lake, especially along the steeper areas along the shoreline . As the water level lowered, the more gradual slopes of a sand beach appeared and extended outward from the higher areas of the Dividing Ridge and Olin-Turville Park.

Memories of the Area's Indigenous People noted in Turville History Documentation

Portion of 1967 Turville Farm History Article

Wisconsin State Journal, January 22, 1967 Page 29

Click on the above image to open a more readable version of the image

To read the entire newspaper article above, first log into the Madison Public Library system using your library card number using this link: Madison Public Library Login page

Once you are logged in, come back to this page and click on this link to open the page:      Wisconsin State Journal - February 22, 1967, page 29

You should then be able to view the entire newspaper article with free access to through the Madison Public Library. If you encounter an error message, "Authentication failed", you are not properly logged into the library website and will need to log in to the library system again. The login has a time stamp and you will need to login again if you see the "Authentication failed" error again.

Below is a cropped portion of a photograph of "The Map of the City of Madison" published in 1854 by George Harrison. This image shows the properties along the south shore of Lake Monona from the Dividing Ridge to Turville Point. The map is orientated with North towards the top right corner of the image. The map shows ownership of most properties, however, the Turvill property just east of the Madison Water Cure is not labeled. Also shown is a depiction of the higher ground along the lakeshore as well as trees depicting oak savanna and woodland areas. Built homes are shown as shaded rectangles on occupied property parcels. Though this early map is not very accurate, it shows the general location of the glacial deposits elevated above lake level that became a main route of travel for the Indigenous People who lived here for thousands of years. The highest elevation in this vicinity is on the property owned by R. Cheney which is labeled on this map. That property had an elevation of about 55 feet above lake level before it was leveled off slightly in the 1930's to build the Romnes Apartments that exist there today.

You may notice two sets of railroad tracks on this map that do not exist today. Early maps of the Madison area often added improvements that were planned but not yet built at the time of the publication of the map. The rail corridor shown in the top left corner of the cropped map is along the future Fish Hatchery Road corridor and may have been planned but did not get built. The second set of tracks that cross the lake in this image did once exist but that rail corridor was abandoned south of the current railroad crossing  on the causeway when a new corridor for that railroad was completed. That rail corridor currently exists along Rowell Street which is shown on this map just east of the R. Cheney property but is not labeled.

Click the above map to open a larger version of this map. Then zoom in on that image to view finer details on the map.

Click this link to view a digital copy of the full original map: The Map Of Madison published by George Harrison in 1855

The image below is a more closely cropped portion of The Map of Madison published by George Harrison in 1855. Click on the image to open a higher resolution version of the image. The main two buildings at the Madison Water Cure are depicted, as well as two other structures just southeast of the Water Cure property. The L shaped structure is the first home built by Henry Turvill shortly after he purchased the property in 1854. The other rectangular structure located closer to Turville Point is believed to have been the cabin of a fur trader who the Turvill's claim was squatting on the property when they purchased the land in 1854.

Click the above map to open a larger version of this map. Then zoom in on that image to view finer details on the map.

Turville Point Topographic Map, 1906ca

This is a photograph of a topographic map of Turville Point drawn by Fredrik Turville Thwaites around 1906. Click on the map to bring up a zoomable image. Zoom in on the image and you will see a small circle drawn on the map with the words, "Old House" next to it. Look for it to the lower right side of the center of the image. The circle has hash marks around its inside edge indicating that this is a depression on the landscape. In fact, this faint depression is still visible today at Turville Point if you know where to look for it. This is believed to be the location of a cabin that was occupied by a fur trader who was 'squatting' on the property when Henry Turville purchased the property in 1854.  The other hand drawn structures in this image are the various homes and farm buildings present on the Turville farm. The map in this photograph is not yet available online but the original hand drawn map can be viewed at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.

More links to the History of the Indigenous People of the Madison Area

Spirits of Earth

The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes

By Robert A. Birmingham · 2010

Native American Mounds in Madison and Dane County

By Robert A. Birmingham and Katherine H Rankin · 1996

A Madison Heritage Publication

Indian Mounds of Wisconsin

By Robert A. Birmingham and Amy L. Rosebrough · 2017

Archaeological Investigation on the UW-Madison Campus June 2005

Prepared by George Christiansen III

Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center: Project 04.005 

A detailed overview of the presence of Native Americans in Wisconsin dating back to the post-glacial period can be found on pages 16 through 27.

Native Americans and the Preserve

UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve website page with links to much more information about the Indigenous People of the Madison area.

Links to individual stories from the past

Lake Wingra in the '70's

by Leslie Brooks Rowley

Leslie was the son of Manley Silas and Julia Maria (Easterbrooks) Rowley. Leslie Brooks Rowley was involved in real estate and became an attorney. He wrote most of the banking laws for the State of Wisconsin, and for many years was the proprietor of a the Rowley Service Bureau which served the banking industry. In 1906, he was the Republican candidate for mayor of Madison, running on the "dry" ticket. He lost the election, but the platform on which he ran resulted in a reduction of the proliferation of saloons in that university city.

The banner image at the top this webpage is a cropped portion of a poster created by the USDA for Native American Heritage Month, November 2013. Click on the image to the left to open the full image of the poster. The caption at the bottom of the image credits the artist. Zoom in on the image to read the caption and credits at the bottom of the poster.