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Driftless Area | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Driftless Area

Driftless Area | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Driftless Area near La Crosse, ca. 1950 (WHi-40179)

 The Driftless Area refers to the hilly landscape topography of southwestern Wisconsin. This area was left untouched by the last glacier that covered most of Wisconsin, resulting in its hillier and more rugged features. It is without the "drift" left by glaciers so it is "driftless."

About 15,000 years ago, and several times during preceding ice ages, glaciers flowed out of Canada as far south as the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. During the most recent one, the glaciers were diverted to the east or west by the highlands of north-central Wisconsin, leaving the Driftless Area untouched. In most of the Midwest, the ice sheets smoothed the landscape flat by eroding away the crags and filling in the valleys. The Driftless Area escaped this fate. its ancient, rugged hills, and steep valleys pre-date most of the rest of the state's landscape.

In 2010, however, Michael Iannicelli argued (The Open Geology Journal 2010, pages 35-54) against this traditional explanation for the origin of the Driftless Area.

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[Source: Cultural Resource Management in Wisconsin (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986). Iannicelli, Evolution of the Driftless Area...]