Was humankind created in Wisconsin?
How an itinerant pastor picked Trempealeau County as home to the Garden of Eden
Sunset at Perrot State Park. Mark Twain wrote that the area has “nothing this-worldly about it.” But is it Eden? (Photo | Dave Carlson, Galesville)
A 35-mile stretch along Wisconsin’s western border was once the real, actual Garden of Eden, according to a Methodist minister.
Though little-remembered, the “scientific” research of the Rev. David Oyer Van Slyke was hotly debated in his day, and his Eden still makes news.
“There are a lot of people who would tell you that his portrait [of Eden] is actually appropriate for this area of the country,” says Dave Carlson, economic development and tourism coordinator for Trempealeau County, in the heart of Van Slyke’s Biblical paradise. The Washington Post last summer termed the area “an overlooked gem.”
Van Slyke’s Eden is on the Wisconsin shore of the Mississippi, between La Crosse and Winona, Minn. It’s 10 miles across at the center, tapering to five miles at each end. It even has a wall: the craggy bluffs of the state’s Driftless Area.
The Abrahamic religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — all share the story of humanity’s creation and eventual expulsion from a fabled, perfect place, as do the myths of ancient Greece, Mesopotamia and Sumer. Although many read Adam and Eve’s tale as a parable, there have always been others who want to pin it to a specific place. Besides the Middle East, candidates have included Armenia, Botswana, Uganda, Scandinavia and even the North Pole.
Van Slyke (1818-1890) was an itinerant preacher in western Wisconsin. A fervent abolitionist, during the Civil War he enlisted with his son Augustus in the 30th Wisconsin Infantry. He was elected chaplain by the ranks and commissioned as a sergeant. After the war he settled in Galesville, north of La Crosse, and took up farming. He fell in love with the area.
“I, as a matter of pleasantry, used occasionally to say to my friends, this is the Garden of Eden,” Van Slyke later recalled. “At this suggestion I smiled.”
He soon began to take it seriously, however. “The discovery, resulted from my familiarity with, or thorough knowledge of the Bible,” he wrote in his 1886 book, “Found at last: the veritable Garden of Eden, or a place that answers the Bible description of that notable spot better than anything yet discovered.”
To Van Slyke it all made perfect sense.
First, the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark are both in the first book of what Christians call the Old Testament, Genesis. They’re all the same location, Van Slyke argued. Adam and Eve were fruitful and multiplied. Over the centuries (Adam was 930 when he died) the founding family grew and grew in the greater Eden area, until the time of Noah. That was when, according to Genesis, God noticed “how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth.”
For Van Slyke, the most visible signs of that wickedness were the nearby indigenous burial mounds from prehistory. “They worshipped dirt images and not their creator,” complained the bigoted pastor. And so, according to Genesis, God “sent the flood that devastated the whole earth.”
Noah’s Ark was built of good Wisconsin timber, he concluded, before it sailed to the Middle East and Mount Ararat: “The ark would naturally go eastward, and just about reach that mountain in the time that it was floating,” according to Van Slyke.
The Bible does mention four rivers in Eden: Pison, Gihon, Tigris and the Euphrates. But those don’t count. “The names given to the rivers and places, in connection with the original habitation of man, were naturally washed out by the flood,” reasoned Van Slyke. They were actually the Trempealeau, Black, La Crosse and Mississippi Rivers.
Van Slyke found lots more of what — to him — was evidence, including the presence of snakes (rattlers) and the lack of tornadoes. But mostly he pointed to the scenic beauty between La Crosse and Winona.
A somewhat better writer, Mark Twain, described it in “Life on the Mississippi.”
In case you’re wondering, given today’s date, this is not an April Fool’s joke. Van Slyke believed all of this to be true. “We CAN and HAVE proven it, on scientific principles,” he wrote in his book, “Found at last.”
“Isn’t it a heck of a sales pitch?” says Carlson. “There’s not a negative quality about anything he describes in that publication.”
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