Time Machine: Iowa's Oneota burial mounds provide glimpse of long-lost culture
The Oneota Indians were the ancestors of the Ioway, Oto, Winnebago and Missouri tribes in Iowa.
Little is known of the tribe’s origins, but the natives appeared to migrate into the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest around A.D. 1000. They survived by hunting, fishing, gathering plants and farming.
The only remnants of the Oneota culture, which ceased to exist around 1720, are their burial sites that have been uncovered around the state.
Four have been found in northeast Iowa, clustered on the Upper Iowa River, formerly the Oneota River. They are the Elephant Cemetery, the O’Regan Cemetery, the Lane site, and a site in Allamakee County that became known as the Flynn Cemetery.
A road building crew cutting away a hill for a new road in Allamakee County’s Bear Creek Valley, about 13 miles northwest of Waukon, found human bones in a load of dirt dumped into a landfill on Sept. 9, 1958.
Contractor A.H. Myers immediately pulled his men and equipment off the site. Engineers from the Iowa Highway Commission were already on site and called archaeologists from the University of Iowa.
While they waited, Gazette reporter John Reynolds contacted Robert T. Bray of the National Park Service at Effigy Mounds National Monument, near Harpers Ferry.
Bray and highway commission inspector Gavin Sampson of Decorah, who was an amateur archaeologist, began sifting through and evaluating the find.
There were 11 skeletons on the site, nine adults and two children, most buried in a line about 3 feet apart at a depth of about 3 feet. Some bones from each grave had been removed by the road equipment, but a bulldozer then aided in the investigation by carefully scraping away the hill a few inches at a time.
after the french
The heads of the skeletons were laid toward the north, with the feet toward the creek.
Bray concluded the skeletons were members of the Oneota tribe, known to have camped near Bear Creek. He estimated that most of the burials had occurred after 1673 when French traders first showed up in the area because several of the graves included blue and green glass trading beads and two of them held pieces of metal knives.
One grave, however, was found away from the others on lower ground. It contained no trade items, having instead two whistles made from the bones of a bird, small animal bones and the skeleton of a large bird. Investigators thought this grave dated before 1673.
Another grave contained a piece of pumice stone, a volcanic rock not available in the area.
Copper bracelets and beads, a burial vessel, small disc buttons, flint chips and tools and arrowheads also were found.
The copper items were made by the Oneota from ore mined during migrations north. The tribe used it mainly for decorations, working it into necklaces and bracelets along with the beads.
The clay burial vessel had flecks of broken clamshell embedded in it.
One grave included the skull of a duck found very close to the head of the skeleton buried there. Bray surmised that it could have been an ornament in the person’s hair.
Another grave contained a burial mat.
As word of the find began to spread, sightseers arrived. They began to dig as well and steal bones. Because of the intrusion, Sampson and Bray removed the artifacts and bones.
The following Monday, the road crew went back to work.
Three weeks later, a field party from the University of Iowa, headed by Reynolds Ruppe, uncovered skeletal remains at the site they believed were from about 22 people, 13 of which were adults.
When the crew left the site, they never suspected that two weeks later, an amateur crew under Bray’s supervision would uncover five more, the most important of which was found within an inch of the UI dig.
The Bray crew — Gavin Sampson, Dr. H.P. Field and Cliff Chase of Decorah, Dr. Warren Hayes of Waukon and Luther College student Darrell Henning — uncovered a complete skeleton of a young man on Sunday, Nov. 2.
The skeleton had a fiber belt around its waist, with hundreds of little copper beads woven into it. Attached to the belt were remnants of a pouch containing 50 pieces of flint for making arrowheads, as well as the rib of a buffalo fashioned into a tool for making arrow shafts.
Until the discovery, archaeologists had not known the Oneota used this method to make arrows.
The Ruppe excavation remains went to the UI’s Office of the State Archaeologist Burials Program in the 1970s, cataloged and reinterred in a cemetery designated for Native American remains.
The finds from Bray’s two excavations were moved to the Effigy Mounds National Monument and then transferred to the UI burials program in 1994, cataloged and reinterred in 1997.
Some remains that may have been among those looted from the archaeological site in 1958 were brought to Effigy Mounds in 2015 by a private individual. They were transferred to the Allamakee Historical Society, then to the UI’s state archaeologist program for reburial.
The locations of the four cemeteries used for ancient remains are not publicly identified. The cemeteries are on state-owned land. Remains go to the cemetery closest to the original burial site.
In 2016, the Office of the State Archaeologist reported 38 skeletons, 21 of them adults, were identified in the Allamakee road construction site.
The famous burial sites at the Effigy Mounds National Monument date to the Late Woodland period, and its natives likely lived there before the Oneotas settled in northeast Iowa.
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