Native American exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

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In the first installment (RT Aug.17) of this piece, the Getaway Guys began their search for evidence of historic Native Americans by visiting Wisconsin’s Beloit-Janesville-Madison region.  Seeing cool stuff, but short on results, the Guys directed their quest toward Milwaukee.

They were in luck: East of Madison near Lake Mills is Aztalan, the best evidence of a preserved Indian habitat they encountered. Situated on the Crawfish River and living there between c. 900 and c. 1200 AD, these natives were related to the Mississippian culture centered in Cahokia, Ill. They were not Potawatomie, Sauk, Winnebago or Menominee but a somewhat mysterious people who flourished and disappeared for reasons still unknown. Rescued from development in 1919, today’s Aztalan State Park contains several large mounds and a re-creation of the log palisade that once protected the settlement. Nothing of their domestic architecture remains, but in the early 20th century archaeologists were able to identify and determine the scope of this advanced culture. While exploring the site on a late April afternoon, only the Guys and couple of other people were present. Aztalan is almost spooky.

Next the Guys visited Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, otherwise known as The Domes. Just off I-94 about 15 minutes from downtown Milwaukee, Mitchell’s distinctive Domes were constructed between 1957 and 1967. They are modernist structures, two devoted to tropical and arid environments and a third to thematic plant exhibitions. The park is just one of many facilities in the Milwaukee County Park System. In the arid zone the Guys wandered past date palms, golden barrel cactus and bougainvillea. In the tropical environment they encountered cacao, sausage and chicle trees, plus species of birds, lizards, frogs and toads. But not even the special exhibit addressed native species. Although Mitchell (established in 1889) is sizable, the conservatory occupies a relatively small portion, the remainder being devoted to more prosaic pursuits, such as boating, swimming and baseball.

Located in Hales Corners (still Milwaukee County), the Boerner Botanical Gardens and the adjacent Wehr Nature Center are bookend nature partners with the Mitchell, the former being essentially an outdoor affair and the latter an indoor facility. The Guys found the Mitchell interesting but the Boerner and the Wehr fascinating. Featuring formal gardens with cultivated plant species, plus rusticated enclaves containing native specimens, the Boerner is part natural and part CCC-engineered during the Great Depression.To Neil’s and Alan’s eyes, both work well visually (aside from a geologist or topographer, who can tell?). The Wehr is a slightly different story. Consisting of a large dammed lake surrounded by walking paths, this CCC project was once a recreation destination, but today its core purpose seems to be an abandonment to nature, providing a habitat for native plant species and wildlife, including deer, birds and some nutty otters frolicking in the lake. The Guys circumnavigated the lake, encountering dragonflies of many kinds and uncommonly friendly chipmunks.

The Logan Museum of Anthropology in Beloit, Aztalan State Park and, finally, the Milwaukee Public Museum tell a convincing tale (albeit incomplete) of Native American habitation in southeast Wisconsin. With other traces erased or open to speculation, these three help confirm the Guys’ hypothesis that native cultures once resided where positive cultural and informative entities now exist.

 The Milwaukee Public Museum is a jewel box. Since Neil’s teaching days at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in the early ‘70s, “Streets of Old Milwaukee” has been a favorite. But almost 43 years later, he and Alan found its Wisconsin Native American collection to be equally, if not more, informative. While its artifact collection with copious information intrigued Alan, its panoramas depicting Indian life before the incursion of Caucasians captured Neil’s imagination. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the museum’s panoramas tell a compelling story. What tribes occupied the stretch between Beloi—–t and Milwaukee, when or why, is somewhat elusive. Winnebago, Menominee, Fox, Potawatomi or Sauk may have been there. Tribal living patterns were not defined by longitude and latitude.

Due to duress or coercion, by 1840 almost all Old Northwest Territory Indians were dispersed into Iowa and Kansas. Efforts at assimilation had failed. Agriculture did not work, and education for young Native American men proved to be a dud. Endless meetings with federal representatives were held and countless agreements signed, to no avail. Negotiators on both sides could not reach a definitive agreement and both were guilty of dishonesty. To say Caucasians were entirely to blame is an oversimplification. Things were not so black and white. By the mid-to-late 1830s federal officials were under increasing pressure to clarify land rights in the ONT and Native American representatives were using anything they thought useful to resist (military confrontation having been a loser). By then, they were virtually wards of the State, having grown dependent on federal financial allotments and survival provisions. Their former trade economy with whites had collapsed and ruinous debt left them insolvent. Their forced move westward put them out of sight and mind temporarily.

In spring of 2011 Neil and Alan traveled from Beloit to Milwaukee and saw nothing other than Aztalan directly related to Native American habitation. What might have existed has been erased by “progress.” While some land is preserved for nature and for cultural enlightenment, most is devoted to private agriculture and urban development. This adventure gave the Getaway Guys a chance to wrap their minds around something other than white development.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website,, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often
overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.