A 200-acre wooded site west of Tisch Mills guards its secrets well. Maybe that’s what its original inhabitants intended.But for historian Bruce Vandervest and several other investigators, the site, confirmed to be a sacred Native American burial ground, continues to draw them back in their determination to find out more: a Viking ship also may be part of the find.
More questions than answers
What investigators have unearthed is “more questions than answers,” says
Vandervest of Luxemburg.
The grounds were used for burials as late as the 1930s, but their history could be prehistoric going back 1,000 to 3,000 years or more, according to researchers who have studied it. One dating estimate goes back 10,000 years.
Currently deeded to five landowners, a 40-acre portion owned by Tommy
Prucha is of particular interest to Vandervest, who first laid eyes on it 20 years ago.
Meticulously placed boulders and mounds of earth are dispersed throughout the woods. A limestone-boulder wall — 100 feet long by 4 feet wide by 4 feet tall — is positioned in the middle of the woods and not likely the work of early farmers, Vandervest says.
Similar stone structures and mounds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have been photographed in a book by Betty Sodders of Sault Ste. Marie, so Vandervest called her. Sodders put him in touch with Colfax-based Wayne May, editor of Ancient American magazine. May visited the site with Merlin Redcloud, a Ho-Chunk shaman and historian. Several archaeologists, as well as surveyor Jim Scherz of the Ancient Earth Society, Dale Reimer of Two Rivers and historians from a half dozen tribes, also have studied it.
May “knew right away it was important,” says Vandervest, adding that Redcloud recognized it as a burial site. Of special interest is the wall’s pipestone, a soft red rock found in Minnesota.
But something else also intrigues May. About 100 feet from the wall are limestone boulders in the shape and size (25 feet wide by 100 feet long) of an ancient Viking ship, which he believes could be buried beneath the rock. A similar Viking ship was found in England, but was buried in dirt, not stone, Vandervest says.
Vikings may have come to North America 1,000 years ago.
The structure is not far from a once-navigable branch of the East Twin River. It’s rumored, Vandervest says, that Vikings regularly came to North America 800 to 1,000 years ago and made it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A Ho-Chunk legend tells of Native Americans meeting tall red-haired men, Vandervest says.
“(Historians) suspect it had to do with the copper trade, that thousands and thousands of tons of copper were removed. It’s possible there was a village in this area where they would process it into manageable-sized ingots they called oxides,” Vandervest says.
He hopes that if wood is found beneath the stone, it could be carbon-dated to determine age. If it turns out to be a Viking ship, a Smithsonian-type dig could result. A 3-foot-wide trench already dug has revealed a smoky smell and still more large rocks under the “ship.”
“We’re kind of at a standstill,” says Vandervest, whose studies so far have resulted in the article, “Alive With Spirits,” published in Ancient American.
Radar proves this is a burial ground.
Ground-penetrating radar was used a year ago to prove there are grave sites. Near the graves are stones said to have mystical significance, including a sacred rock having healing powers, a ceremonial pit and an eternal fireplace for the keepers of the fire to furnish a ready flame. Also present is a medicine wheel used in sacred Native American rites.
Potawatomi, Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) and Menominee are believed to have lived near the site and buried their dead there, including Potawatomi chief War Thunder, who fought in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.
Effigy mounds include prehistoric creatures
There are several effigy mounds at the site, including life-size dirt mounds of buffalo, snakes, martens and bears, even life-size mounds of prehistoric animals such as mastodons, a short-faced bear and a whale.
Vandervest thinks it’s likely caves are present in the limestone beneath the site. Native Americans, he says, have been particularly interested in a stone igloo and marker trees.
Guardian of the woods
And, there’s evidence the site has a guardian who checks on it regularly. Vandervest has found artifacts and set them aside in a conspicuous place. When he has returned, they’re gone.
Vandervest would like the guardian to come forward to talk with him. He says he and others have been careful not to unnecessarily disturb the site. Although he’s determined to find out what the site is all about, he has respect for the dead and the sacredness of the area.
“The spirits are watching,” he says.