1878 West Salem’s Painted Cave

The following excerpt is from History of La Crosse County. Pg. 313, Submitted by Rev. Edward Brown.

This curious cavern is situated on the farm of David Samuel, in the town of Barre, four miles from West Salem, and eight miles from La Crosse, on the northwest quarter of Section 20, of Township 16, Range 6. It was discovered in October, 1878, by Frank Samuel, a son of the owner of the land, eighteen years of age, who had set a trap for raccoons at a hole of considerable size in the hill. Finding that he could, with a little difficulty, crawl into the aperture, which had been dug by wild animals through a land slide at the foot of a cliff of Potsdam sandstone, he entered, and finding that it opened into a spacious cavern, he procured lights, and with his two older brothers and a friend explored it. They found the walls extensively covered with pictures and hieroglyphic characters, and charcoal paintings. It thus became known to a few neighbors, and a few boys, who, in the winter, resorted to it and built fires and carved their names and their own pictures.

About the 1st of June, 1879, I heard of such a cave with such pictures and characters, and immediately visited it. I quickly saw that there was something of much value to the cause of archaeological science; that the rude pictures were evidently quite old; that the now close chamber had been an open cavern in the cliff, which had been closed not less than 150 years by a land-slide from the hill above. A poplar tree, two feet in diameter, having 120 growths of circles, stood as a dead tree twenty-five years ago, when Mr. Samuel first came there, and had rotten and fallen ; and a birch tree stood upon the edge of the cliff where the land-slide had passed over, of from 150 to 160 annual growths. I visited Mr. Samuel and informed him of the value to science of the inscriptions and possible discoveries to be made by digging. He immediately took measures to stop the vandalism that was fast destroying them; to enlarge the opening, and clear out the sand that had washed in from the land-slide and half filled the cave. In the meantime, I took facsimiles of the pictures and characters by pressing tissue paper into the grooves, and with black crayons followed each line to its termination, preserving also its original width. In ‘this way I got perfect outlines, and by placing other sheets over them, in the light of a window pane, took small copies that showed the pictures in their original form and size. I sent one set to Prof. Chamberlin, State Geologist, not intending to make anything public till an examination had been made by an archaological expert, and their value to science ascertained. In the meantime, it having become noised about that I was examining such a cave, I was called upon by the local editor of the Chronicle, of La Crosse, to whom I gave copies of some of the most prominent of the pictures, from which hasty and imperfect wood cuts were prepared, which appeared in the Chronicle. The article was seen by Mr. Lyman C. Draper, Secretary of the State Historical Society, who wrote to me for information in regard to it. I sent him copies of the pictures, so far as I had taken them, and designated a time, June 27, to dig into the bottom of the cave, requesting him to come, or send a competent archaeologist. He communicated with Dr. J. A. Rice, of Merton, Waukesha County, who came at the time appointed with Mr. Rockwell Sayer, of Chicago. A company of seventeen men repaired to the place with shovels, wheelbarrows and other necessary things for explorations. Several intelligent ladies also attended, and prepared a dinner.

Commencing at the back end of the cave, the sand was carefully dug up and wheeled out, every load carefully inspected, and the work continued till the whole had been examined. We came upon four layers of ashes, each from four to six inches deep, and containing charcoal, and burned and nearly vitrified sand-rock. They were separated from each other throughout the whole length and breadth of the cave by layers of clean, white sand, of from ten to fourteen inches in depth. Below the whole was water, of the same level as a marsh that lies in front of the cliff. The lower stratum of sand and ashes contained nothing. In the second, were fragments of pottery, made of clay and ground shells. These were smooth, and of the oldest kind found in mounds. In the third more elaborately wrought pottery, the newest found in mounds, with numerous fragments and whole sides of Mississippi River bivalve shelves, and a bodkin of bone, seven inches long. This, according to the opinion of old hunters, was of the ” hock bone” of an elk. It was in dry, white sand, and is quite sharp and smooth with use, and in a perfect state of preservation, even retaining the glassy polish of wear and handling, as if used but yesterday.

All the layers had become compact and well stratified, and all contained bits of charcoal, and charred and rotten wood. In the upper layer, we found two bones of birds, and two of small animals, and a ” clue-clan ” of a deer, and a cartilaginous maxillary inferior of a reptile. The four completely diffused strata of ashes, separated by a foot average of clear sand, showed that there had been four distinct periods of occupancy, separated by considerable intervals of time. This was also indicated by two orders of pottery, one always below the other ; but nothing to measure the time. The only conclusion we could arrive at was, that the first occupation was very ancient, and the last before the landslide, or not less than 150 or 160 years ago. The zone of the pictures agreed best, for convenience of engraving, with the third occupancy, the age of the figured pottery.

Before the land-slide, it was an open shelter cavern, 15 feet wide at the opening, and 7 feet at the back end; greatest width, 16 feet; average 13 feet; length, 30 feet; height, 13 feet, and depth of excavation, after clearing out the sand of the land-slide, 5 feet. The pictures are mostly of the rudest kind, but differing in degree of skill. Except several bison, a lynx, rabbit, otter, badger, elk and heron, it is, perhaps, impossible to determine, with certainty, what were intended, or whether they represented large or small animals, no regard being had to their relative sizes. A bison, lynx and rabbit are pictured in one group, all of the same size. One picture perhaps suggests a mastodon; another, the largest, a hippopotamus ; but whether they were really intended to represent those animals, is quite uncertain. Other seem to refer to animals yet in existence. Many pictures are fragmentary by the erosion of the soft sand-rock on which they are engraved. In one place is a crevice, 8 feet long, 2 feet high, and extending inward 1-feet, with fragments of pictures above and below.

The appearance and connection of the pictures and characters indicate that they were historical, rather than engraved for mere amusement, and suggest that thorough exploration of caves may shed much light on the history of the pre-historic aborigines of our country.


Additional Notes on the Pictured Cave


I visited the Pictured Cave you so kindly requested me to do in behalf of the State Historical Society, and avail myself of the earliest opportunity to examine my notes, and also the facsimile sketches of the animal representations there found, courteously presented to me by Rev. Edward Brown, and from them have prepared the report, which I now submit for the use of the society. Great credit is due to Mr. Brown for bringing the discovery of the cave to the notice of archaeologists. This cave is situated on the farm of a Mr. Samuel, near West Salem, in the county of La Crosse, and was discovered by a son of Mr. Samuel when trapping coons in a hole some animal had dug into the cave.

Mr. Rice then notices each picture as Mr. Brown has done, and adds :

In regard to the antiquity of these drawings there can be no question, for some of them were covered with sand, and, besides, I found pieces of the rock buried in the sand, which had fallen from the sides with portions of the inscriptions upon them, which fact must be regarded as proof positive of a greater or lesser antiquity. These are all the facts in regard to the cave that I think worth noting.

Now, as to the conclusions to be drawn from the representations here found, and which are the only objects of interest. The fact that we find four distinct and separate layers of ashes, with pottery in two of them of a different odor and make, would certainly indicate four separate and distinct occupations of the rock-shelter, each occupying a greater or less length of time,

and when we recollect that the Indian always contents himself with the smallest possible amount of fire, and take into consideration the thickness of the layers of ashes, it is fair to conclude that each occupation of the cave must have continued some considerable period of time. The layers of sand are easily accounted for, as resulting from the disintegration of the soft rock above the cave, as it fell down from the edge of the cliff, which would naturally drift into the cavern or shelter, and, more or less rapidly, make the layers mentioned, and although the rock of the sides and roof of the cave are quite soft, the disintegration has been exceedingly slow, as there has been no percolation of water, and especially since the closure of the opening the forest has not acted upon the walls ; so that the change since that time, at least, has been very slight indeed, and accounts for the well-preserved condition of the pictures.

It is, perhaps, impossible to say during which of these occupations of the shelter the drawings were made; but, taking into consideration the height of the zone of pictures above the first and second occupations, they could hardly be referred to either of these, and, therefore, must have been made during the third or fourth occupation, and from the proof positive of the closure of the cave for a period of at least one hundred and fifty years, a considerable antiquity must be allowed.

I have an interesting facsimile of an attempt at history-writing by the Sioux, with its interpretation. It is a rough representation of some one event in each year, occurring during the period from 1800 to 1870, and very much resembles some of the sketches in this cave. After a careful comparison of these and similar Indian drawings I have, I am forced to the conclusion that these representations in the La Crosse Valley Pictured Cave are also of Indian origin. Everything about them indicates this, especially the drawing of the human figure with eight plumes on his head can be regarded in no other light than as an Indian of some note, who displayed his eight feathers as indicating the taking of so many scalps, and would be so interpreted by any Sioux or other Northwestern Indian. If these conclusions are correct, the greatest antiquity

allowable would be from, perhaps, three to eight hundred years.


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