TREMPEALEAU — About a thousand years ago, a small group of people left the city life behind and paddled 530 miles north on the Mississippi River, settling briefly, but apparently very specifically, at what is modern-day Trempealeau.
For nearly 20 years, Danielle Benden, archaeologist and co-owner of the archaeological tour company Driftless Pathways, and her husband and fellow archaeologist Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt have been studying the region, trying to figure out why these “Mississippians,” as the people are referred to by archaeologists, left Cahokia — the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico — to set up something of a mini-Cahokia in Trempealeau, Benden said.
"We have been trying to figure out since 2001 why they came to Trempealeau specifically," she said. "It certainly appears they came right to Trempealeau. They didn't stop and set up a community for a few years halfway between. They presumably knew exactly where they were going."
Benden and Boszhardt's research has led to the establishment of the Trempealeau Interpretive Path, or TRIP, a three-stop tour highlighting the Mississippians' time in the region. TRIP is intended to be self-guided, Benden said, or visitors can hire Driftless Pathways for a guided tour.
"TRIP, the Trempealeau Interpretive Path is a really fantastic experience," Benden said. "You're getting some nature, some culture, and you're able to get out to hike. It's a lot of fun."
Mississippians were a group of ethnically diverse people that lived about 1,000 years ago in the city of Cahokia, located across from St. Louis in what is now southern Illinois, and in other places across the Midwest. Benden said everything in Cahokia, which had a population of about 30,000, was laid out based on the cycles of the sun and moon.
"They cared very deeply about the summer solstice sunrise and the sunsets and the equinox," she said. "Everything is ordered, even the entryways of their houses are ordered accordingly."
Mississippians were accomplished builders, well-known for their platform mounds and community works. They were also large-scale corn farmers. At Cahokia, craft specialists made pottery, arrowheads and other artifacts. Benden said the group that came to Trempealeau remained in the area for only about 50 years.
"It's a pretty substantial group that came up to Trempealeau," Benden said. "We think they came up because of Trempealeau Mountain, as it's a really important place in the world. It's an important place historically in the first written accounts of people coming to this region, like the Europeans, they know about Trempealeau Mountain. It's the only remnant bluff that's completely surrounded by water on all sides in this stretch of the Mississippi River. That's a huge landmark.
"There are lots of stories about the magic of Trempealeau Mountain and the importance of it as a spiritual place."
TRIP's three-part exhibit includes an artifact display at the Shirley M. Wright Memorial Library, an indoor exhibit in the Perrot State Park Nature Center and an informational kiosk, signage and interpretive pathway at Little Bluff Mounds on Main Street in Trempealeau.
"TRIP is a culmination of the 10 or 15 years of field archeological research we've been doing in the community," Benden said. "Even though we're still excavating, we wanted to provide visitors and local residents with a place to go for free and to learn about this really amazing discovery of a group of Native Americans who came to the region."
The library exhibit includes historical illustrations and artifacts collected during archaeological digs. The exhibit at the state park includes a comprehensive 13,000-year history of the region, including geological, topographical and cultural changes since the last Ice Age, Benden said. On the interpretive path, visitors come across a series of three platform temple mounds built by the Mississippians carrying millions of basket-loads of soil up the bluff.
"Each stop makes sense independently of the other two, but when you go to all three you get a much more enriched experience," Benden said. "It's kind of fun for local folks, because they can't believe that this is under their community. It has gained a lot of local support."
Driftless Pathways offers scheduled tours of the Trempealeau Interpretive Path, Native American rock art sites, Madison effigy mounds and several other options through the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. Information about those tours can be found at www.wisconservation.org/field-trips/guidebook. Tours typically cost about $25 per person, Benden said.
"The whole point is to educate people and have some fun and teach them about Wisconsin as an amazing state and the archaeology of the state," she said. "We really enjoy giving the tour to people. It's a beautiful part of the world, and it has a fascinating story to tell."