Historic ‘Silver Beach Elk’ skeleton comes home to the St. Croix headwaters

Intriguing archaeological finds discovered almost 15 years ago will return with celebratory events in Barnes, Wis.




4 minute read

Silver Beach Elk skeleton. (Courtesy Jean Hudson)
Events in Barnes on Sept. 27 and 28 will celebrate the return of the Silver Beach Elk. Click for more details.

In July 2005, the Barnes Centennial year, an array of animal bones, a set of antlers, and a fluted spear point were discovered in the lake bed of the Middle Eau Claire Lake in Barnes, WI (Bayfield County).

With the assistance of Dr. Jean Hudson, an archaeologist specializing in the study of animal bones in the Anthropology Department at UW-Milwaukee, all items were meticulously uncovered and documented and the site mapped.

The large elk, now known as the Silver Beach Elk, was probably close to 1,000 pounds.

Carbon-dating determined that the bones were approximately 500 years old, which meant that the elk probably lived between 1400 and 1600 A.D. The spear point was determined to be a Clovis/Gainey Point made of Jasper Taconite with an estimated age of 9,000 – 11,000 years.

The 11,000-year-old fluted point that was also found at the site.

Local citizens were determined to see the elk eventually “returned” to its native lands as part of an historic exhibit within their “planned” Barnes Museum. In the summer of 2016, after years and endless hours of volunteer work, the BAHA Museum opened its doors to the public.

Discussion of how and when to bring the elk back home, and research into what would be needed to create a meaningful exhibit has been on-going since 2006. During the past three years Carol LeBreck, the elk project lead, has worked with Dr. Hudson and the state archeologist to facilitate the return of the elk.

Now that the Wisconsin Historical Society has allowed the transfer of the elk remains to our museum, Carol LeBreck has been working to create a permanent exhibit which will include a display of all of the recovered bones, the antlers and an image of the Gainey Point.

The exhibit will also share the story of who lived on the land during those very early years (1400-1600s). The bones have “kill marks” and significant “butcher marks”; it must have been killed for food, but by whom? Who were those people and how did they live? And, if the Gainey Point spearhead is nearly 10,000 years old, how did it happen to appear with the elk?

Diagram showing how butchering marks are visible on the Silver Beach Elk skeleton. (Jean Hudson)

A number of theories have been proposed. For one, it is possible to imagine that over many years objects, like spear points and tools, that were frequently traded between early peoples over considerable distances, could have eventually made their way into the hands of people living in this area.

Another theory is that the spear point created and used by Paleo-Indians could have been carried by glacial wash and deposited as the glaciers receded from this area. However, it seems highly unlikely that a point that so clearly matches the kill marks in the scapula would “accidentally” wind up within such close proximity to the elk remains. At this time, there are only conflicting theories, as you might expect.

Historic maps and visuals from cultural research are being utilized to provide a “context” for the elk remains and spear point and to help visitors understand the significance and relationship of this information to the very early history of our Town of Barnes.

The discovery – In a nutshell

Map of the historic site in the St. Croix Watershed.

On July 12, 2005, a young man vacationing in the Eau Claire Lakes Area was swimming in the Middle Eau Claire Lake. He accidentally discovered what he thought was a couple pieces of driftwood; however, the “driftwood” turned out to be a very large pair of 8’ x6’ elk antlers. 

Once the family realized that the “driftwood” was actually an antler, they notified a friend who in turn contacted Dr. Jean Hudson, an archaeologist at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, who traveled to the site and recognized its historic value.

Over the next several months, Dr. Hudson coordinated the effort to gather and document the remains of the elk and transport them to her lab at the university. Once the remains arrived at the university, Jean and her students did the careful analyses to determine the kill marks, the butchering marks and to submit samples for carbon dating.

Two local girls pose with the Silver Beach Elk skeleton in 2005.

During the recovery process another historic discovery was made when a granddaughter of the Ruprecht’s stepped on what she thought was a sharp shell, but it turned out to be a fluted point (spearhead). Quite a remarkable find!

Throughout the excavation process, the grandchildren were able to assist with the archaeological processes; such as sifting through the sand and pieces.

Please stop by the museum to see the display and learn more about the research findings and the history and culture of the people who lived alongside the elk.

A detailed account of the day-to-day discovery process, photographs and scientific analyses can be found on the Town of Barnes website at http://barnes-wi.com/page.cfm/250.