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Fish Farm Mounds State Preserve - Notes on Iowa State Parks Series, Episode 63

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Located along the Mississippi River floodplain in extreme northeastern Iowa near New Albin in Allamakee County, a 3-acre state preserve pairs with a 909-acre wildlife management area containing natural and historic treasures.

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Fish Farm Mounds State Preserve.

The geographical and archeological qualities of Fish Farm Mounds vest the preserve and wildlife management area with unique attributes. The mounds which give the preserve its name rest on an alluvial terrace of sandy soil deposited on the edge of the Mississippi River’s floodplain. While glaciers shaped lands to the north, the ‘Driftless Region’ of Iowa and Wisconsin avoided glaciation while melting occurred upstream to raise the floodplain along the river by at least 100 feet. While erosional downcutting lowered the plain over the last 10,000 years, the sandy-shelf containing the mound group at Fish Farm found protection in a small side valley sheltered by 300-foot bluffs made of Cambrian Age sandstone.

From the era spanning 250 BCE through the around the year 400, the Hopewell culture, also known as Middle Woodland, thrived in the Midwestern United States. Spanning from Kansas to Ohio, the group buried their dead in mounds typically overlooking river. The civilization thrived along the Mississippi, as evidenced by numerous mounds located along the river’s upper-reaches. Although the onset of early agriculture destroyed the many of the mound groups, those at Fish Farm Mounds survived while tucked away amongst steep hills stretching above the Mississippi River’s floodplain. When Americanization came to Iowa during the 1800s, the Mounds quietly rested under the shady bluffs a short distance inland from the main channel of the Mississippi.

In the early American era, major treaties between the United States and the region’s Indigenous peoples took place at nearby Prairie du Chien in 1825 and 1830. Following the second treaty, William Clark commissioned Nathan Boone, son of the far-famed Daniel Boone, undertook a survey of the neutral ground created to separate the Sauk and Meskwaki from the Dakota. Boone, a dragoon who later helped lead the 1835 expedition up the Des Moines River, started his survey near the mound group at today’s Fish Farm site.

First recorded in the 1887 in a report put together by the Bureau of American Ethnology, the initial mound group underwent examination by early archaeologists. The workers uncovered human skeletons, copper artifacts, stone drills, and arrowheads. In 1889, a man named T.H. Lewis mapped the mounds present at the site. Lewis’s report also noted the presence of many petroglyphs in a stone cave now buried by silt slides and general erosion. Although the Lewis records indicate the group containing upwards of thirty mounds, today the site contains around fifteen.

Owned by Ed and Frank Fish during the early 1900s, the state acquired the site for $100.00 in 1935 a decade and a half after the creation of the Iowa Conservation Commission. Local people paid $1.00 for subscriptions to the project to preserve the mound group. Containing fifteen mounds within the three-acre archaeological preserve portion of the property, officials determined the site’s best use rested with leaving it largely untouched. A local man named Ellison Orr spent considerable time during the 1930s exploring and documenting the site. While Orr noted at least 28 mounds present during the early 1930s, looting and digging by over-eager amateur archeologists destroyed at least eight of the mounds by 1940. While the state park system developed, the property stood undeveloped until changes in the state administration of public lands during the 1960s created the ability for Iowa to place lands in protection as preserves dedicated to biological, archeological, and historical resources. In 1968, the state officially created an archaeological preserve out of the three-acre parcel containing the remaining mounds.

In 1988, the National Register of Historic Places included the Fish Farm Mounds on the list. Over the years additional purchases helped to add roughly 1,000 acres of heavily timbered lands adjacent to the mound group to the public lands at the site.

Today, Fish Farm Mounds State Preserve and Wildlife Management Area offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southeastern Iowa.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Fish Farm Mounds State Preserve and Wildlife Management Area. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Fish Farm Mounds State Preserve and Wildlife Management Area shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Fish Farm Mounds State Preserve.

Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.

I hope I’ll see you out there!


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