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cemeteries Racine History

Mound Cemetery: Home of the Dead

Humans have had a long history of both honoring and burying their dead leading some historians to recognize cemeteries as some of the first permanent human settlements. [1] Cemeteries are where we gather the remains of our loved ones and send them on to their next life, whatever it may be. Together, our ancestors inhabit the ground for us to visit and honor. In Racine, Wisconsin Mound Cemetery is one of the state’s most unique settlements of the dead with burials spanning hundreds of years. The cemetery itself is home to over 5,000 unknown and unmarked graves with thousands of more known gravesites that contain the remains of some of Racine’s most noteworthy individuals.[2] The most unique features of Mound Cemetery are the very mounds it is named after; Ancient Native American burial mounds. The mounds within Racine’s oldest standing cemetery are also believed to be some of the oldest man-made features in Racine.

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Mound Cemetery, Racine, WI

The land that Mound Cemetery is currently situated on is part of a plot of land purchased by two early settlers of Racine from a man named Joseph Antoine Ouilmette.[4] Early records indicate Ouilmette was one of the earliest settlers of the area, coming to Racine in 1834 from Crosse Point, Wisconsin. With him, he brought his wife and children.[5] Ouilmette himself was listed as both Indian and French based on different sources, but his wife was Potawatomi.[6] This explains why many records indicate that the land was purchased from, and originally belonged to, the Potawatomi.[7] Early white settlers Norman Clark and James Kinzie purchased the land from Ouilmette in a sales agreement on February 3rd, 1851. Ouilmette described the land as the “burial place of his fathers” and reportedly signed the contract with “his mark.”[8] In November of 1851 the City of Racine purchased thirty acres of Kinzie and Norman’s land and named the area Mound Cemetery shortly after.[9]

The Excavation of the Mounds

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A mound near two headstones in Mound Cemetery

Some of the earliest recorded speculation as to who the mound builders were was by one of the men responsible for excavating them, Dr. Philo Hoy. Hoy came from a region in Ohio that also was home to many mounds and speculated that the mounds in Racine were constructed by the same people.[10] Hoy was considered a scientist, pioneer archaeologist, and was a practicing physician as early as 1846.[11] In 1852 Hoy along with Increase Lapham began to survey and plat the sixty mounds within the cemetery. Hoy is credited with excavating several of the mounds along with Lapham and writing detailed descriptions of their findings.[12]

Hoy described the mounds as basin-shaped holes, approximately two feet deep. They were hand dug into the grounds and covered with bark or logs and layers of soil. [13] The majority of mounds were about two to four feet in height and thirty to forty feet in diameter[14] though one of the mounds was recorded at almost seven feet tall.[15] He believed the mounds were each built one at a time due to the lack of stratigraphic evidence in the soil.[16]

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A sketch of one of the skulls found in the mounds

When the mounds were excavated local newspapers reported that the remains of over 100 Native Americans had been discovered, though this claim is rather shaky and difficult to prove since remains were often moved and few records were made of the removal and movement of bodies.[17] When Hoy and Lapham decided to excavate the mounds they carefully chose fourteen of them to take a closer look at. Inside they found multiple skeletons in most. One mound had the remains of seven individuals, but most contained only one to four sets of skeletal remains.[18] The bodies in the mounds were found sitting up facing east, with their legs flexed beneath their body.[19]

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A sketch of the position of skeletons within the mounds

Although most mounds only contained unornamented skeletal remains, in one of the mounds some pottery was recovered, similar in style to Burmese cooking pots. Three of the pots were reconstructed from the fragments found within the mound and given to the Smithsonian.[20] Two of the vases in better condition were recorded in detail by Dr. Hoy. He described one vase as made from a sandy cream-colored substance that resembled pale brick and could hold about five quarts. The other vase was a red brick color and considerably smaller. [21]

Hoy and Lapham used dendrochronology to date the burial mounds at the cemetery site and produced some interesting results (dendrochronology, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the science of dating events and variations in environment in former periods by comparative study of growth rings in trees and aged wood).[22] One of the tree stumps examined near the mound had 250 rings in it and had not been cut in ten years but another stump showed an even earlier origin of the construction of the mounds. Another stump that had 310 rings in it was found next to a human skull in a remarkable state of preservation. From this evidence, the two archeologists were able to conclude the site was at least 1,000 years old[23] and thus part of Racine’s prehistoric history.[24] They thought that the people who constructed the mounds must have been a barbarous people and not any more advanced than modern Native Americans, showing a sad but common attitude toward the native cultures of America.[25]

They speculated all sorts of causes as to why the burials had so many skeletons and were constructed just one at a time. They wondered if they had died of battle or pestilence, or perhaps they had died of more natural causes in the winter and were buried once the ground thawed in the spring.[26] Ethnologists have also taken a stab at cracking the mystery of who the mound builders were, concluding they were most likely ancestors to modern Native Americans.[27]

Preservation

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Mound Cemetery site was its careful preservation. Mounds had once existed in many areas in southeastern Wisconsin including the nearby areas of the Town of Norway, City of Burlington, and Raymond Township, but the vast majority of these have been destroyed and lost to time.[28] Racine too used to have dozens of more mounds, many along the bluffs of the Root River.[29] North of the plots Hoy and Lapham originally surveyed, there were even three lizard effigy mounds, one long mound, and six conical mounds, none of which exist today.[30] Subdivisions have been built over many of the areas where these mounds once were.[31] Construction, natural forces, relic hunters, mound diggers, and agriculture have all likely contributed to the disappearance of the mounds.[32] The records Hoy wrote of the mounds are some of the only things that remain of these lost mounds and were not published until 1903 by George A. West in the Wisconsin Archeological Society Report.[33]

Mound Cemetery was officially dedicated on June 3rd, 1852. Hoy was a part of the committee to preserve the mounds in the cemetery. He plotted 1,768 cemetery plots[34] in eight blocks with his committee.[35] The paths of the roads were made around the mounds and have not needed to be altered since their creation due to the roads’ original width of eighteen to twenty feet, wide enough for the modern car.[36] Hoy was a self-described naturalist and used native flora to the area to help preserve the mounds. Around each mound, he planted a variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants including elms, willows, hawthorns, and berry plants.[37]  Currently, thirteen mounds remain preserved in the cemetery[38] and now have preservation markers created by Racine’s city council.[39] The mounds that currently reside in the cemetery have never been excavated and remain mostly untouched.[40]

Mound Cemetery Today

Mound Cemetery is an important archeological and historical site to the City of Racine. Over four generations of Racine’s residents have been buried in Mound Cemetery[41] and many of those remains were even relocated from other earlier cemeteries to protect them from natural threats and construction.[42] On May 12th, 1976 Mound Cemetery was designated as an official landmark of the City of Racine and was granted special protections.[43] Due to the uniqueness of having both Racine residents, many of which who were important figures in the city’s history, and Native American burials it was given its landmark status.[44]

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Soldiers’ monument at Mound Cemetery

Other than the mounds in the cemetery some of the known and famous gravesites of the cemetery include Gilbert Knapp, the founder of Racine; the first white settlers of the county; a handful of veteran’s from George Washington’s army; Lucius Blake, the father of Racine industry; Jerome Increase Case, the founder of J.I. Case Tractors; Henry Mitchell, a leading Racine industrialist; William Horlick, a man who revolutionized the distribution of milk to the troops during World War I; Samuel Curtis Johnson, the founder of S.C. Johnson; and soldiers from the Spanish-American War. Also, M.C. Secor, one of Racine’s most interesting mayors with one of the most famously controversial headstones, rests in the cemetery. The stone reads, “The world is my home. To do good is my religion. Why has a good God created a bad devil?”[45]

In 1985, Wisconsin Act 316 assured that all human burials were to be treated equally with respect and human dignity without any regard to the buried people’s ethnicity, cultural affiliation, or religious beliefs.[46] No persons may intentionally cause or permit the disturbance of a cataloged burial site without a permit from the director of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.[47] Racine recognized the importance of Mound Cemetery and has made efforts at preserving it and its history for generations to come. The burial mounds are one of the most important features of Mound Cemetery but in the future, Racine’s burials will also become the subject of archeological studies.

 

Sources

  • [1] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] E. W. Leach, History of Burying Grounds in Racine, (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, 1921), 8-9.
  • [6] Ibid. 9.
  • [7] Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mound Cemetery. (Racine, 1976)
  • [8] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Serge Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine Ethnologists Can Only Theorize Who Their Builders Were. (Racine Sunday Bulletin, 1954)
  • [12] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [15] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Home of the Dead, (Daily Journal, 1889)
  • [18] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 2.
  • [22] Ibid. 2.
  • [23] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [24] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 2.
  • [25] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [26] Ibid.
  • [27] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [28] Ibid.
  • [29] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [30] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] Ibid.
  • [33] Ibid.
  • [34] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [35] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 10.
  • [36] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [37] Ibid.
  • [38] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [39] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 2.
  • [40] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [41] Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mound Cemetery. (Racine, 1976)
  • [42] Leach, History of Burying Grounds in Racine, 5-8.
  • [43] Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mound Cemetery. (Racine, 1976)
  • [44] Ibid.
  • [45] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [46] Register’s Office Racine County, WI. (1999). Notice of Location of Catalogued Burial Site.
  • [47] Ibid.

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