07 Jun 2010 @ 12:20 AM 

Manitou Stones


Manitou Stones in Wisconsin

Mary Sutherland  2010


 While hiking or exploring, you may have noticed a rock outcrop or boulder that seems to ‘jump out’ at you as being ‘different ‘ or ’special’.  If so, you are not alone. The Algonquin speaking people of North America’s eastern woodlands (Chippewa, Menominee, Pottawatomie, Ottawa, Sauk, Fox and Miami) spoke of stones that had ‘presence’ or supernatural power, calling them ‘Manitou” (Spirit). Variations of the word ‘Manitou’ have survived in a number of place names sprinkled on the Wisconsin map: Manitou Island, Manitowish, Manitowish Waters, Manitowoc and Manitowoc Rapids, etc.  

 The Manitou Stones were once commonly found in Wisconsin on hilltops and other significant places considered important.  Varying in size, among the three to four prevalent shapes or styles, red rocks and decorative pigments were found to be more prevalent. Bison effigies and other distinctive shapes including rock outcrop resembling human and animal profile styles can be considered as part of the phenomena.   Both hills and Manitou stones are associated with water, i.e. springs, rapids and water falls, creeks, straits, river bends and drainage divides. Their association with springs seems to have been most common.  There is also a trail or prehistoric footpath association and the places venerated by the presence of Manitou(s) and these pathways may have functioned as part of a broad ‘trail-shrine’ network

 Early French explorers, Jesuit priests and the later missionaries frequently mentioned them as did Henry Rowe Schoolcraft during his travels in the upper Midwest in the early 19th century.  Father Jean de Brebouf commented (in about 1636) that ‘The Indians recognized God in created things i.e. the earth, rivers, (rocks), and sky … all considered to be inhabited by  “Oki” or Manitou (Kinietz 1965:123).  And according to Father Francois DuCreux  ‘both the words Manitou and Okki were applied to good and/or evil spirits’.  He further stated that unusual objects with unusual shapes in unusual settings were perceived to have supernatural power (Mavor & Dix 1989:141). 

 The power of an ‘unusual setting’ was apparent to Fathers Allouez and Dablon who, in the year 1670, cast a Manitou stone found at the Grand Chute, now Appleton, into the Fox River.  Two years later, Father Allouez found another Manitou stone at Rapide Croche, five miles ‘below’ Kaukauna.  This was also rolled into the stream (Lawson 1907:135).  These two Manitou stones had ’stood guard’ at both ends of the rapids on the lower Fox River, an obvious veneration to the water falls and rapids. 

 The tradition of the (Catholic) church to purge the countryside of pagan relics was ancient, even by the Jesuit Order or church standards.  It can be traced all the way back to Deuteronomy 12: 2&3  that “Ye shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations … served their gods, upon the high mountains … and hills … overthrow their altars and destroy the graven images (i.e. sacred stones) of their gods …”  During the 8th century A.D., this tradition was again in evidence as a Papal decree brought to Ireland by the Catholic missionaries who were to “sanctify the pagan hilltops” and also urged to build churches wherever they found ’standing stones’ (Sharp 1989:50,122).  Nine centuries later, this mindset would be zealously transported to the New World by the Jesuit Order.

     From the numerous descriptions of Native American people and customs recorded in the Jesuit Relations, there is little doubt that distinct Manitou stones were a commonly recognized icon which called attention to certain places; places of spiritual importance to the Native Americans and recognized as such by the Jesuit priests.   Ongoing research  indicates that Manitou stones were intentionally placed on hills or other high points associated with water; and not only water falls and rapids, but also springs, river headwaters, river bends, creeks, marshes and drainage divides.  Springs, however, seem to have been the most important.  There is also a trail or footpath association, an especially important aspect as the prehistoric trails once connected the numerous springs flowing at the base of the hills (Steinbring 1997:24).

 Springs venerated by Manitou stones located along trails were obviously sacred and utilized as ‘trail shrines’ (Schaafsma 1980:45,98).  Portages around water falls and rapids were also part of the trail network and, therefore, logical places to also find Manitou stones venerating the setting.  A Manitou rock can still be found near Grand Father (Bull) Falls along the west side of  the Wisconsin River in Lincoln County , the site of an old portage route as reported by Hiram Calkins in 1855  (Brown 1908:167).  This particular rock outcrop has ‘projection’ in addition to ’sound’ emitted from water flowing (underground) through a split or fracture in the rock (Figures 1a&b).  The projection, split and sound are ‘phenomenal attributes’ (Steinbring 1992) considered highly ‘mysterious’ and would be purpose enough for Grand Father (Bull) Falls to have been venerated as a place of ‘Manitou’.  Thus, Manitou stones (which exhibited phenomenal attributes) together with scenic vistas viewed from the hilltops and prominences, all connected at one time by sight and a network of trail shrines, helped to define the Native American concept of an integrated ’sacred landscape’

(Steinbring et al 1995).        

 Years of historical and field research suggest that Manitou stones can generally be classified by three or four basic shapes, preferably one derived from a natural rock.  If the Manitou rock was intentionally altered to the desired shape, there was only a minimal amount of actual working of the stone, always just enough to suggest the shape or effigy.  It appears that extensive workmanship would almost have been sacrilegious (Schoolcraft 1834:291-92).   Most often, a rock was selected which already had, through natural processes, the desired shape.  Jack Steinbring, formerly at the University of Winnipeg and now living in Ripon, Wi calls this “iconic congruence” (personal communication).  Color, too, was apparently of great importance with red-colored rocks being favored (Lawson 1907:135; Walker 1991:197-98).   Many times the rocks were painted (primarily with red pigment) to achieve the proper color which was likely of spiritual importance (Lynd 1889:168-70; Schoolcraft 1834:291).

 One shape encountered many times is triangular or conical (Figure 2).  William Pidgeon (1858:180), while traveling through what is now Wisconsin in the 1830’s, described a place he called “Paint Creek” on the Mississippi River 9 miles north of Prairie du Chien where there was “a large rock upon which many singular paintings have been executed”.  30 miles from Paint Creek was another he called Paint Rock which “presents a pyramidal form, standing 5 feet above the surface of the earth, gradually tapering from the ground upward … covered with painted … figures of various kinds.”   Sometimes, these conical or pyramidal uprights suggest the shape of someone wearing a blanket over their head and shoulders, the outline or shape for a spirit or apparition to those wearing a bed sheet costume on Halloween night dressed as a ghost! 

 A second shape often described is the human bust or effigy type.  The two Manitou stones thrown into the Fox River by Fathers Allouez and Dablon were human-like in appearance (Parkman 1983: v.1:751), the rocks were selected because of their resemblance to a human profile. Both had been painted.  Of interest, a human bust type Manitou like the ones described by Allouez and Dablon once stood near Detroit.  A Jesuit priest said it was “a large stone, somewhat suggestive of the human figure, which the Indians [have] daubed with paint, and which they worship as a Manitou” (Parkman 1983: 739).  In about 1670, it was broken into pieces by Jesuit priests and some of LaSalle’s men, then carried into the middle of the river in canoes and thrown in.   The association of the bust-shaped Manitous with rapids and the strait (which Detroit means in French) is an important one, once meant to convey both spiritual and geographic information to anyone passing on a journey. 

      A variant of the bust shape is what Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1834:291-92) called “Shin-ga-ba-wos-sins” or “image stones”.  On his frequent trips into the Michigan and Wisconsin Territories during the 1820’s and 1830’s, Schoolcraft recorded copious amounts of geographical and ethnic information.  Married to a Chippewa woman, he was privy to information usually not shared with others.  Schoolcraft  wrote that the “image stones” or “Manitou” were of “shapes resembling the trunks of human bodies, or other organic forms” , the image aided “by dots or dabs of paint, to denote eyes and other features … or rings of red ochre around their circumference …”   Lapham, the first official state geologist and later founder of the U.S. Weather Bureau, extensively traveled and wrote about antiquities in the Wisconsin Territory,  described a boulder (of red gneiss or granite) located near Hustiford in Dodge County which, bearing a resemblance to a bird, the Winnebago held “in great veneration” (Lawson 1907:135). 

A similar rock was given to the State History Society about 150 years ago.  It was “a stone manitou or spirit rock” of an uncertain “animal shape”, also the “object of Indian worship and regard”.  Described as “a foot and half long”, it was “formerly located on the old Indian war trail on the west shore of Lake Winnebago”.  It should be mentioned that numerous bison or buffalo effigy rocks have recently been discovered in southeastern Wisconsin, all associated with prominence or vistas and exhibiting “iconic congruence” (Bender 1997). 

      The image stones described by Schoolcraft differed in size.  He commented that “If the image be small, it is generally taken with him and secreted in the neighborhood of his lodge.  If large and too heavy for this purpose, it is set up on the shore …”  (Schoolcraft 1834:292).  These small stones, “secreted” away, can be looked upon and classified as portable manitous. In a 1796 report on Christian missions, Jeremy Belknap and Jedidiah Morse (1955:9-10) remarked that the “ONEIDA STONE” was the source of the Oneida name signifying “the upright stone” and that “it follows the nation in their removals.”   The stone was “of rude unwrought shape rather inclining to cylindrical, and more than a hundred pounds weight.”  Furthermore, Morse said it was not local rock and the Oneida did not know where it came from or when.  Three copper Manitou have been discovered in southern Wisconsin and can probably be considered ‘portable’.  All three are worked, triangular in shape and were apparently associated with high hills or prominence as venerations.  About 1660, Father Allouez stated that pieces of copper were kept as “so many divinities” (Kinietz 1965:285).  The Chippewa regarded copper as “something highly mysterious” which was “raised to the dignity of idols” (Kohl 1985:61), indicating it contained ‘Manitou’.

 Not so much a shape but of spiritual importance and recognized as Manitou are the individual boulders which exhibit unique attributes regarded as sacred through ritual, tradition or landscape associations. A number of these were described in early Wisconsin Archeological Society publications almost a century ago (Brown 1908: 165-68).  By no means exhaustive, the list of descriptions included:  the Pipe of the Manitou which stood on a ridge 200 feet high at the head of Lake Chetac; the War Stone or Wheel of War on an island in Lake Chetac; the Rain Stone on the “southern edge of the Court Oreilles reservation”; Medicine Rock in Lac du Flambeau between the old cemetery and Strawberry Island; the Crawling Stone in Crawling Stone Lake on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation: the Menominee Manitou Rock, better known as Spirit Rock, located on the Menominee Reservation; and the “spirit stone on the west side of the Wisconsin River near Grand Father (Bull) Falls in Lincoln County.”  Interestingly, the early report went on to say that the Manitou stones were once located along trails and canoe routes, in the vicinity of villages, were frequently painted in bright colors, and were venerated with offerings.  A report on the St. Croix Road Spirit Rock said it was a “Large granite rock … in use by the Chippewa Indians as a spirit stone.”  The rock was “about five feet high and five feet thick [where] it stood alone on the east side of the St. Croix River …”  (Brown 1914:41),  And, according to the 1914 Wisconsin Archeologist report, “The Indian trail passed this rock.  In passing it the Chippewa often left … offerings of tobacco … or other articles …” There can be little doubt it was an important trail shrine. 

 Once numerous before white settlement, they were no doubt either destroyed by early missionaries, abandonment through conversion to Christianity and later, agricultural land clearing, eventually being removed from where they had stood for generations and dumped on to stone fence rows.  There is even evidence that some may have been intentionally ‘tipped’ in a deliberate attempt to disguise their use.  Yet, as late as 1880, gifts or offerings were still being left on the St. Croix Road Manitou stone (Brown 1914: 41).  So, the next time you encounter a rock which seems to ’speak to you’, consider that it may be telling an ancient story of guardian spirits, a shrine visited on a long journey or some other event now forgotten, an event perceived to have empowered the rock and the surrounding landscape with ‘Manitou’.  Then think back on how  the Indians religiously deposited offerings on large, strange looking stones which, by their shape, are looked upon as divinities and upon which they perform their functions” (Rosholt & Gehl 1976:217).   And, then make an offering of tobacco or something of personal value to the Manitou Spirit.”


 Belknap, Jeremy and Morse, Jedidiah

     1955   Report on the Oneida, Stockbridge and Brotherton Indians – 1796.  Indian Notes and Monographs, Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, N.Y., N.Y.

Bender, Herman E.

     1996   Strawberry Island and the Sacred Landscape.  Unpublished report on file at Lac du Flambeau Band of Chippewa Office of Historic Preservation, Lac du Flambeau, WI and ASHCO, Fond du Lac, WI.

Bender, Herman E.

     1997   The Kolterman Mounds: More Than Just Mounds.  An address delivered to the Ritzenthaler Chapter of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, December 9, 1997.

Brown, Charles E.

     1908   Wisconsin Spirit Stones.  The Wisconsin Archeologist (old series) 7(4):165-168.

Brown, Charles E.

     1914   Aborginal Evidences in Northeastern Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin Archeologist

(old series) 14(1):7-59.

Bruder, Dr. E. G.

     1953   Archeological Remains in Northeastern Dodge County.  The Wisconsin Archeologist (new series) 34(4):181-206.

Gard, Robert and Sorden, L.G.

     1988   The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names.  Heartland Press, Minocqua, WI.

Hall, Robert L.

     1985   Medicine Wheels, Sun Circles, and the Magic of World Center Shrines.  Plains Anthropologist (30)109:181-193.

Heming, Harry H.

     1896   The Catholic Church in Wisconsin.  Catholic Historical Publishing Company, Milwaukee, WI.

Kinietz, Vernon W.

     1965   The Indians of the Western Great Lakes 1615-1760.  University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Kohl, Johann Georg

     1985   Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway.  Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN.

Lawson, Publius V.

     1907   The Winnebago Tribe.  The Wisconsin Archeologist (old series) Vol.6, No.3, Madison, WI.

Lynd, James W.

     1889   The Religion of the Dakotas.  Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society Volume II, St. Paul, MN.

Mavor, James W. and Dix, Byron E.

     1989   Manitou- The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization.  Inner Traditions International, Rochester, VT.

Parkman, Francis

     1983   France and England in North America (2 volumes).  Library of America, New York, N.Y.

Pidgeon, William

     1858   Traditions of De-Coo-Dah and Antiquarian Researches.  Horace Thayer, New York, N.Y.

Pond, Samuel W.

    1834   The Dakota or Sioux in Minnesota as They Were in 1834.  Minnesota Historical Society Press: 1908, 1986 reprint, St. Paul, MN.

Powell, Peter J.

     1969   Sweet Medicine (2 volumes).  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

Riggs, Stephen R.

     1883   Mythology of the Dakotas.  American Antiquarian 5(2):148-149.

Rosholt, Malcolm and Gelh, Msgr. John Britten

     1976   Florimund J. Bonduel: Missionary to Wisconsin Territory.  Rosholt House,

Rosholt, WI.

Schaafsma, Polly

     1980   Indian Rock Art of the Southwest.  University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM.

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe

     1834   Narrative of an Expedition through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake.  Harper and Brothers, New York, N.Y.

Sharp, Mick

     1989   A Land of Gods and Giants.  St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y.

Steinbring, Jack

     1992   Phenomenal Attributes: Site Selection Factors in Rock Art.  American Indian Rock Art, Vol. 17, American Rock Art Research Association, edited by Donald E. Weaver, pp. 102-113, El Toro, CA.

Steinbring, Jack , Behm,  Jeffrey and Bender, Herman

     1995   Petrofrom Research in the North American InteriorIn Mitigation Project Report.  The Ashford Area.  Wisconsin Electric Power Corporation, unpublished report on file, Wisconsin Public Service Commission, Madison.

Steinbring, Jack

     1997   Successful rock Art Conservation Projects: Two Cases.  Pictogram (9)2:21-27.  Southern African Rock Art research Association, edited by Shirley-Ann Pager, Okahandja, Namibia.

Vogel, Virgil J.

     1991   Indian Names on Wisconsin’s Map.  University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

Waldman, Carl

     1985   Atlas of the North American Indian.  Facts of File, New York, N.Y.

Walker, James R.

     1991   Origin of the Hunka Ceremony, Little Wound (CHS).  Lakota Belief and Ritual, edited by J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NB and London.

Manitou Stone in Burlington WI


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