Treks Around Aztalan

I’m from southeastern Wisconsin. I was born, raised, and deeply indoctrinated into the history and culture of arguably one of the most diverse areas in the country. I mean diverse in a multitude of ways.


In terms of population, Milwaukee hosts about a bajillion different ethnic festivals every year, celebrating mostly European cultures. In addition, Wisconsin possesses incredible variations in its geography. Most of the southern part of the state has glacial mounds of different forms including kettles, moraines, and drumlins. Northern Wisconsin has trees and trees and trees. Oh, and did I mention trees? I didn’t think so!

Did I also mention some mounds are man-made? No? Well, take a gander below!

Reconstructed two-step platform mound

This picture was taken at Aztalan State Park in Jefferson County, WI near Lake Mills. This park, established in 1952 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, was home to three different mounds and a wooden stockade dating from between 900 and 1200 A.D. Originally settled by a group of Mississippian Native Americans, Aztalan was only part of a massive network of mound-builders whose center was located at Cahokia in Illinois. The mounds played both religious and ceremonial roles in the Aztalan culture. Upon closer inspection, the mounds resemble multi-step pyramids prevalent among many Mexican indigenous cultures. Interestingly, according to Aztalan State Park’s website, Aztalan received its name from mapper Nathaniel Hyer. In a 1837 letter to the editor in the Milwaukee Advertiser, Hyer justified his use of Aztalan because a previous man had termed it so:

“[the name] we find in the writings of Baron Humboldt. ‘From which it appears the people inhabiting the Vale of Mexico, at the time the Spaniards overrun the country, were called Azteks or Aztekas and were as the Spanish history informs us, usurpers having come from the North; from a country they called Aztalan.” [1]

Hyer erroneously made this connection, but it nonetheless demonstrates a clear connection between the two cultures.

Preservation efforts persisted throughout the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries after Aztalan’s discovery in 1835. The Landmarks Committee of the Wisconsin State Historical Society first bought much of the surrounding land in 1920 in a first attempt to preserve the area as excavations were being conducted. Later local efforts attempted to solicit, unsuccessfully at first, federal funds during the 1930s. Still later attempts were more successful when the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a resolution ensuring that 120 acres would be purchased in 1948. As mentioned above, Aztalan became a State Park in 1952.

An 1855 plate of Aztalan’s layout from a book by Increase A. Lapham, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I had been rather curious to go to Aztalan because I was interested in the mounds. Carroll University’s campus has two (remaining of originally thirteen), and a nearby park has three. The greater Midwest region has a substantial amount of mounds, and these have significant historical value in the study of early American history. Note that at the height of European civilization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mound-builder civilizations had cities with greater populations than any of their European counterparts.

Last month, my niece and I ventured to Aztalan. Little did I know we made two new friends:

Friend 1
Friend 2

Yep, we found two stray dogs roaming around Aztalan. Now, originally I had no intention of doing anything about them because who knew where they had been? That, and had they not been obedient and friendly, I would have been concerned. But, as it happens, my niece and I both have a soft spot for dogs, and because of the extremely hot weather and their willingness to follow us, we took them to the nearby animal shelter. It turns out that the lab was microchipped, and the pit bull-mix had a collar. Amanda and I both agreed that historical curiosity wasn’t the only reason we were sent to Aztalan that day.

For anyone in the Lake Mills area, I highly recommend a day trip out to Aztalan. We had a lovely shaded walk along the Crawfish River, and one can even picnic there. There are other conical mounds outside the reconstructed stockade (implementing the original post holes…the stockade had been used for defense and perhaps even a territorial marker) which are worth a look.

Aztalan historical sign
Crawfish River
Reconstructed stockade and mound
View from top of pyramid
Reconstructed stockade

Work Cited

[1] Hyer, Nathaniel F. “Letter to editor, with illustration.” (Milwaukee Advertiser, 25 February 1837: 2). Online facsimile at:; Visited on: 8/7/2012.

For more information, visit:

Aztalan State Park website

A well-written Wikipedia article

Aztalan Manuscripts and Photos at the Wisconsin State Historical Society

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