The Creation and Evolution of Effigy Mounds National Monument

Between 1915 and 1929, Congressional representatives from Iowa introduced into the United States Congress, on no fewer than six occasions, legislation to create an Upper Mississippi River National Park. A park feasibility study was finally authorized and approved on June 16, 1930. In 1931, the National Park Service sent Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Roger W. Toll to conduct the survey mandated by the feasibility study. The Toll Report, which was completed on October 8, 1931, did not support the establishment of a national park on the Upper Mississippi River. Despite this setback, Toll’s report did sow the seeds for the creation of a national monument.

...Along the banks of the Mississippi River there are prehistoric mounds built by Indians and used as burial places… It seems desirable that some representative examples be preserved, since they are of great archaeological interest to the present and future generations. (Toll to NPS Director Albright 1931).

Almost immediately, the national park movement in Iowa became the national monument movement. On October 25, 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed the proclamation that created Effigy Mounds NM, which at that time consisted of the Jennings-Liebhardt tract (South Unit) and the Yellow River Unit (North Unit). Following the presidential proclamation, the NPS assumed management of an additional 204 acres transferred by the state of Iowa to the Federal government in 1951-1952. The Des Moines Founders Garden Club donated 40 acres, containing Founder’s Pond, in 1955. The 100-acre Ferguson tract was added in 1961. Addition of the Sny Magill property doubled the number of mounds within the monument in 1962. In 1999, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation purchased the 1,000 acre Kistler-Ferguson Tract and transferred it to the NPS, increasing the total size of the Monument to 2,526 acres. The monument now contains 191 known prehistoric Indian mounds, including 31 bird and bear effigies, making Effigy Mounds NM the largest known concentration of mounds remaining in the United States.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the National Park Service undertook many archeological excavations of effigy and burial mounds within the Monument, however when a mound is excavated, its value as a scientific object of study is greatly reduced or destroyed. It was during this time that some people began to question the wisdom of excavating burial and ceremonial mounds. In 1959, Effigy Mounds NM established a policy prohibiting further destructive investigations of the mounds, stating that in the future only nondestructive testing methods would be permitted. By the 1970s the emphasis at the monument had fully shifted away from archeological field investigations and towards preservation and interpreting the mound builder story.

During the 1980s, another shift of emphasis took place, this time the transition being from a more traditional “scientific” perspective to one that viewed the mounds and associated landscape from a more humanistic perspective. While the “science” of the mounds still mattered, the fact that the monument was interpreting what modern American Indians considered to be a “sacred landscape” began to be recognized. The passage in 1990 of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) promoted this shift, and subsequently opened a new chapter in the history of the monument. This act requires Federal agencies and museums that possess Native American human remains and cultural items to consult with lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes. Consultation and dialog that began in the 1990s led to the development of long-absent connections between the monument, its affiliated tribes, and the living descendants of the Native American mound builders.

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