By Drew Hanson
Fueled by new modes of transportation and shifting economies, human travel routes change with the passage of time. Most of the changes result in routes being improved. But occasionally an old route is abandoned. This essay is a story about an ancient overland trail across what is now southern Wisconsin and one of its segments that still evokes a sense of what it might have been like thousands of years ago.
The first book ever published by the Smithsonian Institution was Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, by E.G. Squier and E. H. Davis. It appeared in 1847, one year before Wisconsin became a state. Chapter five, Monuments of the Northwest, notes an ancient trail that is the geographic riddle this story strives to unravel:
“The great Indian trail or ‘war path’, from Lake Michigan near Milwaukie [sic] to the Mississippi above Prairie du Chien, which has for the most part [emphasis added] been adopted as the route of the United States military road… [T]his great natural pathway, which has been for ages and must forever remain the route of communication between the Great Lakes and the Great River,” is along “… a high open prairie, on the dividing ridge between the waters of the Rock and Wisconsin rivers.”
Roughly between the Mississippi River and the village of Mt. Horeb, the ridge that divides the waters of the Rock and Wisconsin Rivers is called the Military Ridge. It takes this name from a road that was improved by the U.S. military in the early 1830s. East of Mt. Horeb, the same dividing ridge follows an arcuate course northeastward and then southeastward to the edge of the Driftless Area near a small road named Timber Lane. Since the ridge east and west of Mt. Horeb is the same ridge, I refer to the entire ridge as the Great Dividing Ridge–a name applied to it by Increase A. Lapham in 1861 (Martin, L., The Physical Geography of Wisconsin, 1932).
I submit that between Mt. Horeb and the eastern edge of the Driftless Area, the ancient trail continued along the Great Dividing Ridge instead of along the present route of the Military Ridge bike trail, the present route of highway 18-151, or other routes of the Old Military Road through this area. Except perhaps during the driest periods, the modern routes east of Mt. Horeb would have been too wet and included too many topographic changes to provide a good route for pre-eighteenth century foot travelers. The Great Dividing Ridge east of Mt. Horeb would have provided the most reliably high and dry walking route without steep climbs for thousands of years and is the most likely segment to which Squier and Davis were referring when they used the qualifier, “for the most part.”
So why was the part of the ancient trail along the Great Dividing Ridge between Mt. Horeb and the eastern edge of the Driftless Area abandoned as the major travel route through the area? We know that the primary draw for European and American settlers into Wisconsin during the early 1800s was the lead mining of the southern Driftless Area. The principal community of the lead district was Mineral Point. Other important lead mining communities were slightly farther south. The growth of these lead mining towns forced the creation of new transportation routes and altered those previously in existence.
Mineral Point is situated approximately eight miles south of the Great Dividing Ridge. One of the effects of its growing economy was to attract commerce and its requisite transportation routes into the community. At least some of the traffic through the region was thus redirected across the lower lands south of the Great Dividing Ridge. After the territorial and state capital became fixed at Madison, the shortest distance between the main communities reinforced the route shift generally south of the Great Dividing Ridge and with a far smaller percentage of transportation being done on foot, the water crossings of the upper Sugar River basin (part of the Rock River system) were rendered insignificant.
During the 1830s, U.S. government surveyors were delineating the grid of the Public Land Survey System in western Dane County. In addition to marking township and section corners, the original surveyors took copious notes on the distance from each corner to the nearest tree. More important to this story, they sometimes drew trails and roads on their maps and noted distances in their notes. The maps and notes of the original surveyors show that by the 1835, the primary travel route between Mt. Horeb and Middleton (just west of Madison) was located on the military road south of the Great Dividing Ridge.
In the decades following the work of the original government surveyors, lands were sold in rectangular 40-acre units. The lands were eventually settled by farming families. With evolving transportation technologies and as a matter of convenience to landowners, most travel routes were gradually straightened along survey lines wherever practicable.
During Wisconsin’s first half-century, important roads were often named for the community at the other end, such as, Green Bay Road in Milwaukee, Madison Street in Beaver Dam, Milwaukee Drive in New Holstein, and many others. As transportation routes change, sometimes road names become applied to only vestiges of different earlier travel routes. In other cases, newer straighter roads are assigned names of earlier nearby roads, even if the straightened road no longer reaches its namesake, such as Mineral Point Road on the west side of Madison that no longer leads to the city of Mineral Point.
Does anyone today drive Blue Mound Road or Capitol Drive in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties to reach Blue Mounds near Mt. Horeb or the Wisconsin Capitol? Could either Capitol Drive or Blue Mound Road be part of the ancient trail between the mouth of the Milwaukee River and mouth of the Wisconsin River?
The road name “Stagecoach Road”, just south of the village of Cross Plains, presumably refers to its early history as a stagecoach route. The nearby road named “Old Military Road” appears to not follow the route of the earliest military road through the area, but perhaps it marks some vestige of a partially straightened military road of an intermediate era?
During all the years since the lead mining days, the Great Dividing Ridge east of Mt. Horeb had no road of importance along its crest. New modes of transportation and shifting economies redirected traffic away from this part of the ancient trail. It fell from dominance as “the route of communication between the Great Lakes and the Great River.” The “high open prairie” became a high, mostly open agricultural field.
Extending east from the Great Dividing Ridge, where the Johnstown Moraine defines the edge of the Driftless Area, one of Middleton and west Madison’s main roads begins. Just as the modern names Mineral Point Road, Capitol Drive and Blue Mound Road hint at their origins, the ancient trail provided Dane County with the name for one of its modern roads. Honoring a Native American Nation that lived in this region and had its primary village at present day Sauk City, the road is named Old Sauk Road.
The march of civilization has left the Mt. Horeb to Johnstown Moraine segment of the Great Dividing Ridge and ancient trail largely without improvements. For the moment at least, one can still grasp the scene that has remained for ages. But it may not last for long. Residential development and quarrying threaten this link to our past. How long before new homes, quarrying and paved roads obliterate this last vestige of the ancient trail? How long will these vistas last?