Merrill Springs

by Charles E. Brown

Springs are the openings through which the animals enter the spirit world. The Winnebago in former times made offerings of tobacco, food, and stone and bone implements to the animals at these places to obtain their "blessings." One of the springs at Merrill Springs was a "medicine" spring and its waters were believed to possess special healing properties. Wishes made while drinking its waters might be fulfilled.1

Commentary. "openings" — the word for spring is mą’í, from , "earth," and ’í, "mouth." So springs are the "mouths of the earth" and a natural place to enter the underworld.

"Merrill Springs" — these springs, which were once quite vigorous in their output, have since dried up.

Historical data collected by the U.S. Geological survey in 1958 showed that the Spring Harbor Spring flowed at about 75 gallons per minute (GPM) and the Merrill Spring flowed at about 100 GPM. Water temperatures were about 51-54° F. This means that one could hold a gallon jug at an imaginary outlet in the spring and it would fill in less than a second! In 1967, one measurement at Merrils Spring was recorded to have a flow of 140 GPM; however, soon after the city well was installed neighbors started noticing daily fluctuations in spring flow, probably corresponding to pumping at the public well. By 1970, Merrill Springs periodically dried up ... Results from a ground-water study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1992 showed direct effects from pumping at the city well on ground-water levels below the old location of Merrill Spring. The pumping rate at the city well averaged about 2,300 GPM (2.5 million gallons per day) in 1992. In the mid-1990s, the pump at the city well broke down and both springs started flowing again within a few days. Thus, it appears that our springs are not dead but only sleeping, waiting to surface again when less water is pumped from the city well.2

The springs are now being reclamated. The old retaining wall at the site has also been renovated.

The park has an old 45 ft diameter stone cistern built over Merrill Spring to capture and contain the large ancient cold water spring that welled up to the surface on the shore of Lake Mendota at the end of Spring Ct. in the city of Madison. The stone cistern with walls over eight feet tall protected the water quality of the spring from surface runoff. The current structure was built in 1932 and replaced an older structure that was there at least since 1900.3

The name for Merrill Springs in Hocąk is given in garbled, pseudo-phonetic orthography as Matt-e-lo'-hanah'.4 This is probably a corrupted form of Mą’irohąna, "The Many Springs" (mą’í, "spring"; rohą, "many"; -na, the definite article). The springs were also known by a Dakota name, "Minnewakan Springs," from minne, "waters," and wakaŋ, "sacred."5

Comparative Material. The Cheyenne have the same ideas about springs. "As the sun went down, all the village began to look toward the spring. after a time, as they watched, they saw a four-year-old bull leap out. He ran a little distance and began to paw the ground, and then turned about and ran back and plunged into the spring. After he had gone back, a great heard of buffalo came pouring out of the spring and all night long they could hear them. No one went to sleep that night, for the buffalo made too much noise. Next morning at sunrise the eath, as far asw they could see, was covered with buffalo.6

In the ancient Greek traditions, sinkholes (κατάβοθρα), which were associated with wolves, were thought to be entrances into the Underworld. Although some sinkholes form the exits of springs, they by and large represent the opposite end of a spring, or at least its opposite, inasmuch as waters drain into it and enter into the world below.

From Konon we learn of an entrance to the underworld in the territory of Pheneos. The people of Pheneos had revealed to Demeter that a sinkhole in Kyllene was the gate of Hades into which Pluto had made off with her daughter Kore ...7

The sinkholes were associated with wolves because they issued winds when they dried up.

Links: Tobacco.

Stories: mentioning springs: Trail Spring, Vita Spring, Big Spring and White Clay Spring, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, Bear Clan Origin Myth, vv. 6, 8, Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, Bluehorn's Nephews, Blue Mounds, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Lost Child, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Wild Rose, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Two Brothers, Snowshoe Strings, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Nannyberry Picker, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, The Two Boys, Waruǧábᵉra, Wazųka, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Turtle and the Witches.

Themes: animals enter Spiritland through a spring: Trail Spring, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter.


1 Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends (Madison: Wisconsin Archeological Society, 1933) 6. "At Merrill Springs there is an Indian medicine and wishing spring." Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Prehistory, History and Legends (Madison: The Wisconsin Archeological Society, 1933) 6.

2 Faith A. Fitzpatrick (May 14, 2003), reproduced on the Spring Harbor Online website.

3 Bill Fitzpatrick, "Historic Restoration of Merrill Spring," Lake Views, The Newsletter of the Yahara Lakes Association (August, 2006): 4.

4 John-Brian Paprock, and Teresa Peneguy Paprock, Sacred Sites of Wisconsin. A Trails Media Guide (Boulder, Colorado: Big Earth Publishing, 2001) 143.

5 Richard A. Muttkowski, "New Insect Life Histories," Bulletin of the Wisconsin Natural History Society, 13, #2 (1915): 109-122 [121-122].

6 Hall, An Archeology of the Soul, 99b. George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways. 2 vols (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972 [1923]) 261.

7 Konon, Narrationes 15; Daniel E. Gershenson, Apollo the Wolf-god. Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph #8 (McLean, Virginia: Institute for the Study of Man, 1991) 49.