Wisconsin’s Hill of the Dead

Photo by Scott Wittman

Spring, 1730:

Dusk begins to set in on a village of the Fox Indians, located on the western shore of a lake in present-day Menasha, Wisconsin.

Tribesmen notice what appear to be canoes approaching their village. This is not unusual, however, as the village stands on the shore of a crucial body of water. This is the water route connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, a vital artery for traders, trappers, and travelers.

The tribe is confident this is a fleet of French fur traders.

More tribesmen arrive at the shore, eager to see what the traders will offer as “tribute.” For decades, the Fox has been demanding tributes for anybody to pass through what they believed to be “their” waters. Torches were lit. The tribe was ready to conduct business. As the boats drifted closer, the American Indians could see each canoe had canvas coverings over its contents, a common practice for traders to protect their goods from the elements.

The canoes formed a line opposite the shore.

There was silence.

Suddenly, the canvas coverings were thrown off revealing an army – and an arsenal.

Without warning, the Indians were reigned upon with canister shot, swivel guns and musket fire. The canoes did not hold fur traders, but rather concealed a fleet of French soldiers.

Running in horror for their lives, the Fox attempted to retreat into the woods. There they were met by their mortal enemies of the Menominee, conspiring with the French and attacking from the rear.

The village was burned and everyone in it slaughtered. The bodies were thrown into a stockpile and covered with dirt, creating what has forever since been known as “Butte des Morts,” or Hill of the Dead.

So says the traditional tale of the creation of the famous “Hill of the Dead” in Wisconsin. So famous, that the words “Butte des Morts” are weaved into the fabric of everyday life here. There is Lake Butte des Morts, Little Lake Butte des Morts, Butte des Morts Country Club, Butte des Morts Elementary School, the Town of Butte des Morts, and so on. A historical marker at the present site, a park, retells the same tale.

Although passed down by some of the areas most respected pioneers as fact, this story of the creation of the Hill of the Dead has been called into question in recent decades. The real story being that The Hill was an ancient burial mound for native tribes centuries before the Fox ever even occupied the land, the first burials probably dating back 2,000 years. The surprise attack described in legend also has yet to be verified by any historical document. The French commander its attributed to, Paul Marin de la Malgue, apparently never wrote about it, and his writings of his tenure in Wisconsin are extensive.

What we do know, however, is that the entire Fox River valley, from Green Bay south to Lake Winnebago, was part of a brutal, full-scale war between the French Empire and the Fox Nations of what is now Wisconsin and Michigan in the early 1700’s. The war raged for 25 years, cutting a merciless scar of torture, bloodshed, and death, the remnants of which can still be seen today. Archeological digs have confirmed many of the battle sites, finding the weapons of choice for the French, including musket balls and mortar shells. Countless American Indian villages were destroyed in the area, thousands of people tortured and killed. Skeletons were still being pulled out of sand bars as late as the 1970’s, many found by children. More are no doubt still hidden.

In 1863 the Chicago-Northwestern Railway needed a bridge over the lake upon which shores the ancient burial mound stood. Their chosen spot for the crossing on the western bank was within 30 feet of the mound. In an egregious act, they used the Hill of the Dead, and all its contents, as fill for the rail.

The railway bridge was eventually abandoned but still stands today – as a walking trail called the Fox Cities Trestle-Friendship Trail.

Stories of paranormal activity on the site have been rampant for generations. Reports of people suddenly feeling sick, sounds of drums, gun shots and screams have been heard, and sightings of shadow people and apparent apparitions are common.

Are these the ancient, restless spirits of those who’s final resting place was so heinously disrespected?

The Midwestern Paranormal Investigative Network, (MPIN) based in Wisconsin is currently in the research phase of conducting a full-scale paranormal investigation on the site. A story regarding the investigation, the findings, and results will follow when available.


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