How a 1,200-year-old canoe found in Wisconsin's Lake Mendota last summer is serving as a bridge for tribal relations.

·4 min read

MADISON - State historians and archaeologists are calling a recently discovered 1,200-year-old canoe the gift "that keeps on giving” and an important bridge for building better tribal relations.

The dugout canoe was discovered last summer by Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamera Thomsen when she happened to be scuba diving for fun in Lake Mendota in Madison.

Thomsen, who studies shipwrecks in Lake Michigan, noticed a piece of wood at the bottom of the lake and had a good idea of what she was looking at.

“It’s sort of odd that the wood looks so good,” said Wisconsin state archaeologist James Skibo. “Wood in water lasts maybe 10 to 20 years. When we sent a small piece for carbon dating, it came back that it was from AD 800.”

What helped preserve the canoe was that most of it was buried in sediment.

Skibo said researchers intended to bring up the canoe and preserve it but first had to contact their tribal partners.

“There was no opposition to it,” Skibo said. “In fact, there was excitement, especially from Ho-Chunk officials and (Ho-Chunk tribal historic preservation officer) Bill Quackenbush.”

Lake Mendota is in the ancestral homeland of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

In years past, relations between state archaeologists and tribal officials had been strained, especially over issues such as past excavations of ancient burial mounds. The policy with these mounds now is not to excavate, but to preserve.

But the discovery of the 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was something both state and tribal officials could celebrate and work to preserve.

Workers had to use special devices to carefully suck out the sediment the canoe was buried under. It was located about a half mile from shore and under 27 feet of water.

“It took us from sunrise to noon,” Skibo said. “By the time we got to shore, a large crowd had gathered. … As we pulled it out, some people started to clap. Some were crying. I’ve never discovered anything in such a public way. It was a vision of things to come.”

The recovery team for the Wisconsin Historical Society lifts a 1,200-year-old canoe from Lake Mendota.
The recovery team for the Wisconsin Historical Society lifts a 1,200-year-old canoe from Lake Mendota.

The ancient canoe is one of about three dozen ever found in Wisconsin and is the only one discovered with associated artifacts.

Those artifacts are net sinkers used to sink a net for catching fish.

Interesting about this find is that ancient canoes are usually found buried in shallow water. They had been buried intentionally by Indigenous people for storage over winter.

Skibo said researchers are trying to determine if this canoe sunk during an accident or if Lake Mendota had been shallow at that time.

“Was it a shipwreck or was Lake Mendota at a different level?” he said.

Wisconsin Historical Society Director and CEO Christian Overland with Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush after a 1,200-year-old canoe was pulled from Lake Mendota.
Wisconsin Historical Society Director and CEO Christian Overland with Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush after a 1,200-year-old canoe was pulled from Lake Mendota.

Skibo said Bill Quackenbush agreed to be a part of a grant request for funding for more research, which includes recreating lake conditions and the environment 1,200 years ago.

“The Wisconsin Historical Society is very interested in building relationships with our tribal partners,” he said. “This was a great way to collaborate.”

Quackenbush recently led an expedition of Ho-Chunk students on a replica canoe and made a stop where the ancient canoe was discovered. There, state researchers talked about the discovery on site.

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“It was an emotional event for them,” Skibo said. “It’s one thing to hear about your ancestors, but another to be at the place where they lived. … The canoe just keeps on giving.”

Preservation efforts are still underway for the canoe and a 3D scan was recently completed to help researchers learn more.

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Skibo imagines the canoe might become a centerpiece at the future Wisconsin Historical Society Center scheduled to be completed in 2026.

He said the canoe could be displayed behind glass and a replica could be on display that children can actually get inside of.

Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 815-260-2262 or fvaisvilas@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Ancient canoe found in Wisconsin is helping bridge tribal relations