Friday, October 25, 2019

Archaeological dig at Oshkosh headquarters site yields 20,000 artifacts, eight sets of human remains

The global headquarters of Oshkosh Corp. is nearing completion overlooking Lake Butte des Morts.
By Miles Maguire
The remains of eight Native Americans, believed to have been buried at least 800 years ago, have been recovered from the site of the nearly completed global headquarters of Oshkosh Corp.

Initially city officials said researchers had found two and then four sets of human remains. But a newly released final report on the recovery of skeletons and fragments at the old Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course shows the higher number.

The report also notes that there is a “high probability” that burial locations could be found on other portions of the study area. The company opted to retain some mature trees and to forego additional excavation that might have disturbed more grave sites, city documents show.

The archaeological dig began before the site was formally designated a burial location. But the discovery of prehistoric graves did not come as a surprise to Jeffrey Behm, a retired anthropology professor at UW Oshkosh.

“I would not have been surprised if many more had been found,” Behm said. He pointed out there are dozens of documented burial and archaeological sites on the shores that ring Lake Butte des Morts.

More than 20,000 artifacts have been recovered from Lakeshore, said Jennifer Haas, who is a senior archaeologist at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Cultural Resource Management and who served as principal investigator on the excavation.

Many of these are “very small pieces of chipped stone tool refuse, animal bone fragments and charred plant material,” she said. But some could be up to 3,000 years old.

“The golf course site has yielded information relating to the Late Archaic, Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, Late Woodland, and Oneota occupations, indicating people were living along the lake shoreline since approximately 1200 B.C.,” she said.

“The excavations have generated a wealth of information about prehistoric domestic lifeways and cultural dynamics,” Haas said.

Investigators recovered the remains “of three infants, one toddler, one child and three adults.” The remains were found in six different locations, including “four primary burial pits and one multifunction pit containing an isolated human tooth.”

The other location was the first find, which was inadvertent and occurred in a dirt pile that resulted from the use of mechanical equipment to remove the top layer of earth. There researchers found skull fragments, a tooth and part of a lower jawbone. Because of the condition of the bones, it was not possible to determine the age, gender or cultural affiliation, the report says.

Three of the remains are described as “relatively complete.” But “weathering, naturally occurring water damage, and the human cultural activity of golf course landscaping resulted in postmortem damage and [decomposition] of all of the human remains from this site,” according to the study.

In all Oshkosh acquired about 33 acres of the old golf course. The archaeological study focused on 13 acres, including the building footprint of the new headquarters. Almost 7 acres were mechanically stripped to allow researchers access to the subsoil.

Once the subsoil was exposed, the researchers looked for soil “stains,” darkened sections of the ground. Excavating those stains, the study team found what are called “cultural features,” which are indicators of previous human activity and may include pits, walls and posts. Haas said the dig turned up about 110 cultural features.

Most of the finds were clustered in the northeast corner of the study area, several hundred feet to the east of the old clubhouse and 150 feet or so south of Punhoqua Street extended. They are on a sandy ridge overlooking Lake Butte des Morts where it melds with the Fox River.

No burial sites were found in the headquarters footprint, but that part of the study area did yield some of the oldest finds. These are described as “Late Paleoindian and Late Archaic,” which could date them to more than 10,000 years ago.

The golf course has been interpreted as having been an “extensive” campsite or village over the course of the Woodland period, which the report says began about 500 BC and continued for 1700 years.

The location is prime, situated in the Middle Fox River Passageway--a trade route that was in heavy use for thousands of years connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River Valley.

The surrounding area had abundant food resources, “including wild rice, fisheries, waterfowl, and upland game,” the report notes. “The abundance of this habitat was attractive to hunting and gathering populations and those later sustained by the horticultural trilogy of corn, beans and squash.”

In the modern era, it’s possible that the golf course was used as a fort by the Meskwaki, a tribe known by European settlers as Fox Indians. “On a 1730 French map there is a Meskwaki fort placed on a point on the south bank of the river a short distance upriver from Lake Winnebago,” Behm said. No archaeological evidence has yet been found to support this theory, he added.

The land is relatively well-preserved. Although parts of it were used as farmland in the 19th century, its development into a golf course allowed it to avoid “destruction from recurrent plowing and urban development,” the report says. 

Still, Behm warned, “Considering the amount of disturbance on the property, it is possible, probably likely, that many burials and other archaeological deposits had been destroyed.”

The seven sets of remains that were intact enough to be analyzed are described as being part of the Woodland Tradition. The Woodland tribes were a prehistoric people, and they are thought to be ancestors of modern-day tribes such as the Menominee and Ho-Chunk.

City officials said they notified both of these tribes when the remains were found. The remains were taken to the Archaeological Research Laboratory at UW-Milwaukee. “The Wisconsin Historical Society is responsible for the final disposition of the human remains,” Haas said.

The city is working on plans to turn the rest of the old golf course into park, a move that will likely spur additional archaeological digs at the site. “We anticipate we are going to have to be in touch with [state archaeologists] for just about anything we do out on the site,” said Parks Director Ray Maurer.

The city is also looking into appropriate ways to commemorate the history of the land of its various uses over time. “There needs to be some type of cultural history recognition,” Maurer said. The specifics are “all to be determined,” said. But “there definitely needs to be some type of signage that shows the entire history of the property. It’s no longer a golf course, but the history needs to be acknowledged.”

The new corporate owner is not planning a historical marker at this time, said spokeswoman Katie Hoxtell. But she said Oshkosh intends to take good care of the site.

“We are focused on sustainability and being good stewards of the environment,” she said. “In fact, with our construction process, we have planted more than 4,000 plants and trees.”


  1. "The new Corporate Owner is not planning on a historical marker at this time" REALLY...but he DID plan on glass opening doors in his office to hit golf balls into the river?! Isn't that pollution????? But ok, you planted trees that no doubt your landscaper suggested. Who is the Corporate Owner? Maybe we need to publish his name.

    1. You want to publish his name but you're too much of a coward to put your name on your remark why is that

  2. The new corporate owner is ... Oshkosh Corp.

  3. It sounds like these archaeologists kinda suck. Had I made this discovery I would have issued a stop work order and established an inadvertent discovery plan. Going forward there should be no ground disturbing activities and if the land owner wants to build he should build up.

  4. This article is so 2018 or was it 2017???

  5. Yeah all your tree huggers are trying to turn Wisconsin into California that ain't going to happen.

    1. Amen they need to head west!

    2. There are literally federal laws about this sort of thing. Look up nagpra

    3. Your check is the mail, Comrad F Pal. It’s in Rupples.

  6. Makes you wonder how many Golf Courses in Wisconsin are ancient burial sites.

  7. I visited Kauai recently, and was impressed by the quality and quantity of signage about pre-contact residents and culture. I hope Oshkosh,the state and the corporation can do as well. Tourists like to know these things as well as residents.