Effigy Mounds
National Monument
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NPS photo

Bears and Birds Made of Earth

At first you see low rises on the landscape, but soon your eye picks out regular patterns in the hills. Trace the patterns, and those hills turn into familiar shapes—animals rising out of the ground in low relief. The effigies aren't nature's work—American Indians created them between 850 and 1,400 years ago. American Indians built mounds at various times and places across the Americas, but only in the upper Midwest did a culture regularly build mounds seemingly shaped like birds, turtles, lizards, bison, and, most commonly, bears.

Why were effigy mounds created? They are best viewed from above, so who or what was meant to see them? With no written records and few surviving tribal stories and traditions, the mounds' origin and meaning remain a mystery.

Effigy mounds have attracted the most attention but are not the area's oldest mounds, nor were their builders the first to live here. Humans have lived in eastern Iowa for over 10,000 years. Dome-shaped conical mounds began to be built about 2,500 years ago by people now known as Woodland Indians.

By 1,400 years ago, in the Late Woodland period, area Indians began to build effigy mounds from just west of the Upper Mississippi River to Lake Michigan's western shore. Locally this hunter-gatherer culture thrived on the rich resources of Mississippi waters, wetlands, and forests. From summer camps along the river they fished and gathered freshwater mussels, arrowhead roots, wild rice, acorns, fruits, and berries. White-tailed deer and elk were staple foods in winter when extended family groups lived in rock shelters in the local river valleys.

Earthen effigy mounds began to appear 1,400 years ago, and were possibly religious sites or clan symbols used in seasonal ceremonies. Some show evidence of fire, probably ceremonial, in the mound's head, heart, or flank. Some tribal stories hold that the bear is the guardian of Earth and the bird the guardian of the sky. Perhaps the mounds were a means of connecting the people to the land and their spirit world and ancestors.

Around 850 years ago, the building of effigy mounds ceased. Archeological evidence suggests a major cultural transition: the people started to live in larger permanent villages, making new forms of pottery, and most significantly depending far more on agriculture than on hunting and gathering. Archeologists call the prehistoric people who took up this new way of life the Oneota Culture. It is believed that they are the ancestors of historic tribes in the effigy mounds region.

European explorers began arriving in the late 1600s. The fur trade among the Indians, French, British, and later Americans continued into the mid-1800s. The region saw a big influx of American settlers starting in the 1840s. Land with mounds was logged, plowed, and turned into farmland. In the early 1700s many held that technologically advanced cultures from the Middle East, China, or Europe had built the mounds, but Smithsonian Institution research in the 1880s showed that the moundbuilders were prehistoric American Indians.

Surveys of northeastern Iowa in the 1800s and early 1900s documented the presence of over 10,000 mounds of all types. But within 100 years, fewer than 1,000 survived, and several people mounted efforts to preserve some of the remaining mounds. Effigy Mounds National Monument was established in 1949. Today, as you walk along the bluffs and around the mounds, be respectful of the ancient people whose relationship with nature inspired these creations.

Tools and Trade

Stone was abraded to make a celt or adze and a hammerhead. Chert was fashioned into spear points and arrowheads. Clay from riverbanks was used for pottery. Exotic materiais came from trade: the breastplate was made from copper mined on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

A Guide to the Mounds

Exploring Effigy Mounds

park map

topo map
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Effigy Mounds National Monument holds 206 known prehistoric mounds, 31 in the form of animal effigies. Others are conical, linear, or compound.

Conical mounds, round domes of earth, are the oldest and most numerous mounds in this area, dating back 2,500 years. They are 2 to 8 feet high and 10 to 20 feet in diameter.

Similar mounds can be found throughout the eastern United States, but especially in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. Ancient peoples in this region buried their dead in conical mounds. The oldest have traces of red ocher (iron oxide) used in burials.

Linear mounds, built between 1,700 and 1,300 years ago, were 2 to 4 feet high, 6 to 8 feet across, and could be 100 feet long.

Compound mounds are conical mounds joined by linear mounds. They may mark a transition phase from conical to linear styles. Groups of these mounds usually will have three or four linked conical mounds. The largest group in this park has seven conicals and extends 480 feet. Linear and compound mounds are found only in the Effigy Mounds region.

This upper Mississippi region is famous for its effigy mounds. The Effigy Mounds culture lived in northeastern Iowa, southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and southeastern Minnesota.

They created many different shapes, but here the bird and bear mounds predominate. A typical effigy is 2 to 4 feet high, 40 feet wide, and 80 feet long. Wingspans of 124 and 212 feet are found on two bird mounds here in the park.

The Great Bear Mound measures 137 feet long and 70 feet wide at the shoulder.

Effigy Mounds National Monument is three miles north of Marquette on Iowa 76.

Stop first at the visitor center, open daily except for certain public holidays. For hours and days of operation, call the monument or check the website.

There are picnic areas along Iowa 76 south of the visitor center but no picnic tables in the park. Nearby towns offer lodging and restaurants.

Plants and animals of Effigy Mounds are typical of the upper Mississippi River valley. The park's main section has two units separated by the Yellow River. Both units are best explored by trails.

North Unit North of the visitor center a two-mile walk on the Fire Point Trail goes past Little Bear Mound (outlined with pebbles) and conical and compound mounds, with good river views. South of the visitor center the one-mile Yellow River Bridge. Boardwalk Trail (wheelchair-accessible) lets you explore a wetland environment. Rangers conduct programs from mid-June through Labor Day. A longer, self-guiding walk follows the Hanging Rock Trail past the Great Bear Mound, tallgrass prairie, and river overlooks. Educational tours may be arranged in advance during the school year.

View from Hanging Rock
A trail (3.5 miles one way) from the visitor center takes you to the Hanging Rock overlook, part of a large limestone outcropping. On your way you will pass several mound groups. As you walk the trails, watch carefully for white-tailed deer, a common resident.

Third Scenic View
Northward is a good view of Hanging Rock as well as the islands that make up the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The park grounds are forested with mixed deciduous trees, oak, maple, walnut, shagbark hickory, birch, and aspen.

View from Fire Point
A mysterious feature of Fire Point Mound is burned clay. Found in the top layer of the mound, this clay was carried up from the Mississippi River banks. The expansive view from here includes Pikes Peak State Park, far to the south, and Prairie du Chien across the river in Wisconsin.

View from Eagle Rock
Looking to the south you can see Bluegill Pond, Buffalo Pond, and, on the far side of the Yellow River marshlands, the south unit of Effigy Mounds. Eagle Rock is an excellent place to spot bald eagles, which nest along the rivers. November through March is the best time to see them.

South Unit The trail system in the south unit leads through hardwood forest and restored tallgrass prairie. Destinations include Marching Bear Group (10 bear and three bird mounds), Compound Mound Group, Founders Pond Overlook, and Nezekaw Point Overlook. A parking lot is 0.5 mile south of the visitor center at the day-use area.

Sny Magill Unit The monument's largest mound group is 12 miles south of the visitor center and other park areas. Please contact or inquire at the visitor center for information and directions to this remote unit.

For a Safe Visit All archeological and natural objects in the park are protected by law. Vandalism, looting, digging, or altering the mounds or features is prohibited. • Watch for poison ivy, mosquitoes, and deer ticks. • Pets must be restrained by leash at all times. • Stay on trails.

Accessibility We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to our visitor center, ask a ranger, call, or check our website.

Related Sites Other Woodlands-era mound sites are the Fish Farm Mounds, north of Lansing, Iowa; Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa; and Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. There are also mound sites that are open to the public in St. Paul, Minn., and throughout southern Wisconsin.

Source: NPS Brochure (2012)


Effigy Mounds National Monument — October 25, 1949

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Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section


Aquatic Invertebrate Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument, 2008 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/HTLN/NRDS-2010/071 (David E. Bowles, Hope R. Dodd and Jessica A. Luraas, August 2010)

Bird Community Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa: 2009-2010 Status Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/HTLN/NRDS-2010/111 (David G. Peitz, November 2010)

Bird Community Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa: Status Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/HTLN/NRTR-2014/851 (David G. Peitz, March 2014)

Bird Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa: Status Report 2009-2017 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR-2019/1874 (David G. Peitz, Lloyd W. Morrison and Kristen L. Mecke, February 2019)

Effigy Mounds National Monument (Wilfred D. Logan and J. Earl Ingmanson, extract from The Palimpsest, Vol. 42 No. 4, April 1961, ©The State Historical Society of Iowa)

Figures on the Landscape: Effigy Mounds National Monument Historic Resource Study (HTML edition) (HRA Gray & Pape, LLC, August 1, 2003)

Final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa (February 2013)

Foundation Document, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa (March 2014)

Foundation Document Overview, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa (March 2015)

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument: Year 2 (2010) NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/HTLN/NRTR-2012/617 (Jordan C. Bell, Craig C. Young, Lloyd W. Morrison and Chad S. Gross, September 2012)

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument: 2006-2015 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR-2017/1451 (Jordan C. Bell and Craig C. Young, May 2017)

General Management Plan: Environmental Assessment: Effigy Mounds National Monument NPS Review Draft No. 2 (September 1989)

General Management Plan: Environmental Assessment: Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa Draft (June 1990)

General Management Plan: Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa (May 1991)

General Management Plan Summary, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa (March 2014)

Geophysical Investigations at the Nezekaw Terrace Mound Group (Site 13Am82), Effigy Mounds National Monument, Allamakee County, Iowa Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report Series No. 118 (Steven L. DeVore, 2009)

Impacts of Visitor Spending on the Local Economy: Effigy Mounds National Monument, 2004 (Daniel J. Stynes, May 2006)

Invasive Exotic Plant Monitoring at Effigy Mounds National Monument: Year 1 (2006) NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/HTLN/NRTR-2007/022 (Craig C. Young, J. Tyler Cribbs and Jennifer L. Haack, April 2007)

Junior Ranger Activity Booklet, Effigy Mounds National Monument (2017)

Logic-Based Approach to Evaluating Plant Communities at Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR-2010/181 (Kevin M. James and Michelle M. Guck, March 2010)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Effigy Mounds National Monument (David Arbogast and David A. Clary, June 17, 1976)

Proposed Upper Mississippi River National Park (Roger W. Toll, October 8, 1931)

Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology Bureau of Ethnology Twelfth Annual Report, 1890-1891 (Thomas Cyrus, 1894)

Serious Mismanagement Report, Effigy Mounds National Monument 1999-2010 (David Barland-Liles, Bob Palmer, Jim Nepstad and Caven Clark, April 2014)

Strengthening Cultural Resources Stewardship in the National Park Service: Effigy Mounds National Monument After Action Review (April 2016)

The Perpetual March: An Administrative History of Effigy Mounds National Monument (HTML edition) (Jill York O'Bright, 1989)

Water Resources Foundation Report, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa NPS Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-2006/350 (Don P. Weeks, May 2006)

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Effigy Mounds National Monument

Last Updated: 02-Apr-2022