Manitou Stones in Wisconsin
by Herman E. Bender
Mid-America Geographic Foundation, Inc.
February, 2000


Manitou or 'spirit' stones were once common.  Three to four basic shapes or styles were prevalent, red rocks and decorative
pigment were preferred and sizes varied.   Hilltops and other significant places considered important were favored locations for
Manitous.  On the cultural landscape, the stones together with their physical setting were considered sacred.  Physically, both the
hills and Manitou stones were (are) generally associated with water, i.e. springs, rapids and water falls, creeks, straits, river
bends and drainage divides.  Association with springs seems to have been most common.  There is also a definite trail
(prehistoric footpath) association, and the places venerated by the presence of Manitou(s) may have functioned as part of a broad
'trail-shrine' network, identifying 'place' itself in both a spiritual and geographic context.  Some Manitous can be dated back many
millennia.  Historically, 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.  Once the target of destruction by many
missionaries, a surprising number have survived, discovered  where originally erected.   Lithic Bison effigies and other distinctive
shapes including rock outcrop resembling human and animal profile styles can be considered as part of the phenomena.  

Geologically, rocks can be classified in a variety of ways.  A geologist will look at a rock and determine whether it is igneous,
metamorphic or sedimentary; note its color, mineralogy, grain shape and size, texture, fracture, inclusions; if transported by nature
and how or a number of other distinguishing characteristics in order to classify it.  But, while hiking or exploring, maybe you have
noticed a rock outcrop or glacial erratic (boulder) that seems to 'jump out' at you as being 'different ' or 'special'.  A rock, which by
its color, unique setting, lighting or some other attribute calls attention to a certain undefined quality; namely 'presence'
(Steinbring 1992:107).  If so, you are not alone.

The Algonquin speaking people (e.g. Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Sauk and Fox, Miami) of North America's
eastern woodlands had a name or word for 'presence' or supernatural power, saying rocks could possess "Manitou" (Kinietz
1965: 285; Parkman 1983: v.1: 385-86, 393; Waldman 1985:57).  The Iroquois, one tribe being the Oneida or "people of the
stone", described it as having "Orenda"; the local individual rocks being "Okies" or "Otkons" (Parkman 1983: v.1: 386).  There is an
ancient, documented tradition amongst the Sioux or Lakota (who originated in the upper Midwest) of  'sacred boulders' with many
places or locations identified solely by their association to a particular rock or boulder (Pond 1986:87, 89; Riggs 1883:149).  To
the Sioux, these rocks were imbued with "wakan".  As the Winnebago, now called by their own name Ho-Chunk, speak a Siouan
dialect (Waldman 1985:68), their word and recognition for 'presence' were probably much the same.
Nowadays, inspired by a new awareness of existence even after a century of forgotten purpose, many of the 'sacred' stones or
boulders are being rediscovered.  Some are found sitting where first venerated, some have been moved.  But a certain 'quality'
remains as they still retain the 'power' vested in them centuries, if not millennia ago.  The most common word or term used to
describe the 'quality' of these rocks, here (in Wisconsin), because of the predominance of the Algonquin languages, is "Manitou".  
Variations of the word have survived in a number of place names sprinkled on the Wisconsin map: Manitou Island, Manitowish,
Manitowish Waters, Manitowoc and Manitowoc Rapids (Gard & Sorden 1988:164).  The English translation of  'Manitou' is simple:
spirit (Vogel 1991:101).  The actual meaning, however, can be far more complex.

It is the 17th century Jesuit missionaries to whom we owe our knowledge of  'Manitou' in general and the individual stones in
particular.  Father Jean de Brebouf commented in about 1636 that "[the Indians] recognize God in created things ... in particular,
the earth, rivers, rocks, and above all, the sky ... [all] considered to be inhabited by ...
Oki" or Manitou (Kinietz 1965:123).  Father Francois DuCreux  noted, at about the same time as Brebouf, that 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.

In retrospect, the Jesuit fathers were only carrying out what they thought was God's work.  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 the Holy Bible where it says in 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, 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".  Thirty (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 (Figure 3), the outline or
shape for a spirit or apparition to those wearing a bedsheet 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 certainly 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 manito" (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 "Manitoes" 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 ..."   Increase Lapham, who extensively traveled and wrote about antiquities in the Wisconsin Territory, then
became the first official state geologist and later founded the U.S. Weather Bureau,  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" (Ibid).  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 (Figure
4).  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 an 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 Manitous 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 Manitous are the individual boulders which exhibit unique
attributes regarded as sacred through ritual, tradition or landscape associations (Figures 5a&b).   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 (Figure 6); 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.  Perhaps it should
come as no surprise when, a few years after these remarks were recorded  (Brown 1914:41), 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 ..."   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, what became of the Manitou stones?  Most, no doubt, were 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 what
Florimond J. Bonduel, Missionary to the Wisconsin Territory said when he described 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, be sure to bring "an offering of  tobacco, or something else of less value, [which] may
be made to it, or rather through it, to the [Manitou] spirit" (Schoolcraft 1834:292).

Exploring the Mysteries With Brad and Mary Sutherland
Manitou Stones - Sacred Stones -
Sacred Sites of Wisconsin

Probably meant as Staff and Serpent used
as symbols in Egypt New Kingdom
Calendar symbols on stone at Har Karkom
Negew. Scorpio, Lizard and Serpent were
in use from 4th millennium to late 2nd.
They have listed around 40000
Altar or oathstone
Many of the rock-carvings or part of
rock-carvings could be seen as an
altarstone. They are connected with a holy
place and can be found on high places and
noble graves.
In the Indian ritual they started the seasons
with fire rituals which may explain why
many of the mounds of stones I have been
finding seemed to have been charred (Mary
Many sites marked by stone-works are
known as “dancing places.  Dance
would be one part of large intertribal events
recorded in the earliest writings. Many a â
€œmajor stoneâ€� also bears the image
of one or more of the animals most
important to Natives  ie. deer, black bear,
serpent .
Bear - closeup
Snake Head
"Manitou or spirit stones were once
common," wrote Herman E. Bender of the
Mid-America Geographic Foundation, Inc.
in 'Manitou Stones in Wisconsin'  "The
stones together with their physical setting
were considered sacred."

The Alqonquin speaking people (e.g.
Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi,
Ottawa, Sauk and Fox and Miami) of North
America's eastern woodlands had a name
or word for 'presence' or supernatural
power...(the stones) possess 'Manitou' "
Bender wrote. "A certain quality remains as
they still retain the power vested in them."
Excerpt from 'The Week' Walworth County
In the area where we were finding the
Manitou Stones, I just recently discovered a
sacred circle from some aerial photos of
the area.  The lines you see on the outside
are roads going to and from the circle.

Dr. Bruce Cornet
Open cult places were bibilically built on "high places"  - ("...On every high hill and under every spreading tree" -I Kings 14:23). On the ridge's summit a CIRCLE OF LARGE
STONES was laid, some 20m in diameter; the empty center of the circle was perhaps reserved for a sacred tree. Usually on  the circle's eastern side, a large stone
(standing stone) was placed. Statuettes of bulls are sometimes found in these sacred places, The bull is the symbol of Baal and are found throughout the Canaanite culture.
Portals- Gateways to the Multi-Dimensional Worlds

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