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A new history brings to life people, places and innovations of Wisconsin astronomy

May 16, 2024

Cover art for Chasing the Stars shows the title of the book set against a deep blue star chart with an archival photo of Washburn Observatory in the foreground.

The following is an excerpt from a new book, Chasing the Stars: How the Astronomers of Observatory Hill Transformed Our Understanding of the Universe. Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the book is co-authored by UW–Madison’s James Lattis (Department of Astronomy) and Kelly Tyrrell (Office of Strategic Communication). Chasing the Stars traces the history of Washburn Observatory and astronomy at UW–Madison through present day, bringing to life the people, places and innovations that have made Wisconsin an important contributor to our understanding of the universe. What follows is chapter 1.

Early stargazers: The mound builders

In the oral tradition of the Dakota, the Creator shaped the people from clay at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, after their spirits traveled to Earth along a path of stars in the Milky Way. The river waters converge and connect with earth and sky near the White Cliffs of what is now called Indian Mounds Regional Park, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This sacred place holds special significance to the Dakota, alongside other Indigenous peoples of the Upper Midwest whose oral traditions tie them here, including the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska. Over a period of more than one thousand years, beginning in 200 BCE, their ancestors built burial mounds atop these cliffs, which tower 200 feet above the Mississippi. The Indigenous people who built the mounds lived in communities along the river, and from the high point on the bluffs, they mapped out the stars. Dakota scholars have identified correlations between the arrangement of the earthly mounds and celestial constellations. There were as many as 200 mounds here before most were damaged, destroyed, or desecrated by European Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Farther north, on the face of a cliff that plunges into northern Minnesota’s Hegman Lake, are the images, painted in red, of a human figure, a moose, and a small animal with a long-curved tail. For years, says Boise-Fort Band of Chippewa (Ojibwe) member Carl Gawboy, people talked about these pictographs, and more than 200 others along Minnesota’s North Shore and Canada’s Hudson Bay, “as mysterious, something from the past,” and took guesses as to what they could be.

Gawboy, a retired professor of American Indian Studies at College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, spent years making countless sketches and photographs of the Hegman Lake figures, trying to “get into the heads” of the people who drew them hundreds of years ago. At the same time, he spent decades researching and asking questions about Ojibwe star knowledge. When he started to “think like a scientist” and not an artist, Gawboy realized the figures on the rocks represented Ojibwe constellations:

When I did that, that’s when things started to go together. Who are the people that met there and said, “Well, this is what we have to remember, and this is what we have to teach, and this is how we’re going to remember it, by putting these images on rocks: the Wintermaker, the Great Panther, and a Great Moose figure, so that we see the images in the rocks, we see the constellation and then there’s the prophecy, the prediction, the story that goes with it—traditions that extend all throughout Ojibwe lore.”

Indigenous traditional knowledge provides tremendous insight, but it can be difficult to know for certain the relationship Paleo-Indians had with the sky. Much of what Western archaeologists and anthropologists today understand about prehistoric Indigenous astronomy in the Midwest is indirect, inferred by modern scholars’ study of Ohio Hopewell sites established between 200 BCE and 200 CE, and prehistoric sites at Cahokia in southern Illinois near present-day St. Louis and at Trempealeau in western Wisconsin.

According to Sissel Schroeder, archaeology and anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Western scientists believe early Indigenous peoples across the Midwest developed their own sophisticated uses of astronomy, most notably related to observations of solstice and lunar alignments. For instance, a site now known as Woodhenge sits just west of the famed Monks Mound of Cahokia — North America’s largest pre-Columbian city, inhabited by the mound-building Mississippian people between 600 and 1400 CE. Woodhenge consisted of a series of circles consists of large wooden posts. Some archaeologists believe Woodhenge functioned as a solar calendar, marking sunrise and sunset at equinox and solstice. (Others have argued that Woodhenge may have been built to solidify the social and political power of the city’s elite by providing them a visibly direct connection to the Sun, rather than—or in addition to—serving as a calendar.) Fifteen miles west of Woodhenge, on a Cahokian site known today as the Emerald Acropolis, structures appear to be aligned with the most extreme positions of the moon at standstill and at the halfway point of the cycle. Solar and lunar festivals would have drawn people to Cahokia from hundreds of miles away.

Around 700 BCE, the Woodland Indians began to inhabit the land we now call Wisconsin. In addition to building effigy and burial mounds, they domesticated plants, built homes and other structures, and made pottery. Their mounds often took the shape of animals or other figures. Around 1000 CE, Mississippians from Cahokia began to migrate to the region. At Aztalan, in present-day Lake Mills, Wisconsin, the Woodland Indians and Mississippians forged community within wooden palisade walls, merging pottery and housing styles and building additional mounds.

In the 11th or 12th century, the Cahokians appear to have reconstructed a sandstone ridge spur at Trempealeau, known today as Little Bluff. While scientists have not discerned a clear lunar or solar orientation to the reconstruction, they recognize the importance of other spiritual connections the people of Cahokia observed in relation to earth, water, and sky that could account for Little Bluff.

However, while astronomical alignments have been well-documented at some prehistoric sites and some Indigenous cultures have well-known connections to the celestial realm, it’s important to resist making assumptions about why sites like Little Bluff were created.

“Given the myriad of possible sighting points and lines among the thousands of differently oriented mounds and their appendages, almost any alignment that one is looking for could, eventually, be discerned,” writes former Wisconsin state archaeologist Robert Birmingham in his 2009 book, Spirits of the Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes.

In fact, ancient Indigenous people across the region had complex societies and built mounds and other structures within the context of varied social, political and geographic factors. Though Indigenous people today carry the oral histories and traditional knowledge of their ancestors despite decades of forced removal from their lands by European American settlers, much about the Midwest’s first stargazers remains unsettled.

What is certain, however, is that in building Washburn Observatory, at least one effigy mound on the land occupied by the university was destroyed.

Astronomer Edward Holden, who became Washburn’s second director in 1881, bore witness to this history when he made the only known public acknowledgment that the observatory “was built upon the spot formerly occupied by an Indian mound.”

In the first volume of the Publications of Washburn Observatory, Holden emphasized the importance of carefully preserving those mounds that survived.

“These are striking memorials of a race whose language even is unknown, and they serve to show the kind of antiquities which the young communities of the West afford,” he wrote. “They should be sacredly preserved for present and future study.”