Sny Magill : A historical hidden treasure

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The late Dr. Richard Clark Mallam, founder of the anthropology program at Luther College in Decorah, outlined the extremities of the Marching Bear Group in agricultural lime in 1978. (National Park Service photo)

By Caroline Rosacker

Effigy Mounds National Monument in Clayton and Allamakee counties contains the largest known concentration of  prehistoric mounds remaining in the United States.

In 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed the proclamation that created Effigy Mounds National Monument. At the time the nature reserve consisted of the Jennings-Liebhardt tract (south unit), and the Yellow River unit (north unit). The National Park Service (NPS) assumed management of an additional 204 acres in 1951-52; The Des Moines Founder's Garden Club donated 40 acres containing Founder's Pond, in 1955; the 100-acre Ferguson tract was added in 1961, and the addition of the Sny Magill property doubled the number of mounds within the monument in 1962. 

In 1999, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation purchased the 1,000-acre Kistler-Ferguson tract and transferred it to the NPS, increasing the monument size to 2,526 acres. The national monument contains 191 known prehistoric Native American mounds, including 31 bird and bear effigies, making it the largest known concentration of mounds remaining in the United States.

Ellison Orr

Ellison Orr, McGregor native, was active in promoting the idea of protecting the cultural and natural resources of Northeast Iowa. He played a key role in the eventual creation of Effigy Mounds National Monument, and after its formation donated most of his writings and much of his American Indian artifact collection to the memorial preserve. It has been noted, "Without the efforts of Ellison Orr, it is not an exaggeration to speculate that there would be no Effigy Mounds National Monument in Northeast Iowa."

Sny Magill Unit

Effigy Mounds Sny Magill unit is located on the flood plain of the Mississippi River roughly 10 miles south of the main section of the park. Sny Magill stream is approximately seven miles long, and flows in a southeasterly direction into a slough of the Mississippi River. It was named after Donald Magill, a Scotsman and American Indian trader. "Sny" is an archaic word meaning a side channel of water. Magill built a trading house on the banks of the slough in 1814, and carried on a trade with the Sawkee and Musquakee tribes for several years. 

The unit's access road can be found a few miles south of McGregor on County Road X56. It can be difficult to find, but well worth the effort. One explorer reported, "The access road crosses a small creek (Sny Magill Creek), turn to the east and park at the parking lot to the boat launch, then go through the gate to the north." 

The unit contains several mounds located close to one another. Although they are mostly conical, bird and bear mounds are also present. 

Werges Family

Garnavillo Iowa: Gem of the Prairie History 10,000 B.C. to 1876 A.D., researched and prepared by Arnold and Laverne E. Roggman, noted, "Until the government purchased the Sny Magill property, the extensive acreage belonged to the Werges family who lived northeast of Garnavillo."

Caspar Werges acquired the property, land and water at a very early date. During a 1980 interview with Caspar's grandson, the late Ray Werges,  he reported, "It could not have been an Abstract of Original Entry title as he traded a horse for it." Mr. Werges was not sure how many acres were involved or who the previous owner was. 

The land was considerably clear and used for hay and some corn crops. The southern end of the mound area offered a large supply of good quality masonry sand. The Werges family sold the sand at .50 cents a load to landowners and farmers in the Garnavillo area. In the winter it was hauled out by sled. Werges commented, "Apparently some of it was never paid for. The access was not restricted and people could help themselves." 

"Squatters" or "River Rats"

Native Americans and whites living side-by-side occupied the mound area continuously from the very earliest historic times up to 1936. "Mr. Werges and I both recall as youngsters when Earl and Lizzie Ellsworth lived in their shanty, put together of drift lumber and discarded tin," wrote Roggman. "They had a garden and apparently not much more. They were a congenial couple and seemed completely satisfied and happy there."

The Blackburn family lived in close proximity to the Ellsworths. Their large family also lived in a tarpaper shanty. Some individuals, who hauled sand in the winter, recalled the Blackburn children running around barefoot in the snow. 

Werges mentioned, "Above the Blackburns, and among the mounds was the location that the Native Americans chose to occupy with their 'tepees.' The tall, pointed wigwams, were framed by long poles set to form a ground circle that converged at the top, where they stuck out a bit, and where an opening was left to emit smoke from the inside fire." 

The continuous turnovers of individuals setting up makeshift shelters were referred to as "Squatters" or "River Rats." The Werges family thought the term demeaning and unjustified, as their only fault was being poor. The family took an unusually kind attitude toward the trespassers and never dislodged anyone who came to occupy their property. They were known to be especially kind to the Native Americans, and "put-up" another family on another farm unrelated to the mound area for several years. This was described as a very interesting and unusual relationship. 

Nine-foot channel institutes condemnation

Anna Werges, Caspar's daughter, was the property owner when the government stepped in and instituted condemnation proceedings, because of the nine-foot channel project on the Mississippi River. “She was offered $3.75 an acre,” said Werges. At the time, most people felt that was too little and very unfair, but apparently there was no chance for arbitration. The deal ended private ownership, cheap sand and a place for people to set up and call home. Werges was hopeful that the land being placed under government control would be respected and the prehistoric site would be preserved. 

Dr. Richard Clark Mallam

Efforts were extended toward this considerable prehistoric site, under the direction of the late Dr. Richard Clark Mallam, founder of the anthropology program at Luther College, Decorah. Dr. Mallam outlined all the extremities of each mound with lime and took an aerial photograph of his work in 1978. 

The passage of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 promoted a shift, and opened a new chapter in the history of the monument. The act required federal agencies and museums that possess Native American human remains and cultural items consult with lineal descendants and culturally-related tribes. The NAGPRA led to the development of long-absent relations between the monument, its affiliated tribes, and the living descendants of the Native American mound builders.

For additional information call Effigy Mounds National Monument at 563-873-3491, or visit, or find them on Facebook.

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