MN Historic Sites: Uncovering Minnesota's Early History
Centuries before the first settlers arrived, before towns sprung up and trains brought visitors from the coast, Minnesota was called home by thousands who hunted, traded and cared for the land and its rich resources. Today, Minnesota’s early history is celebrated at MN historic sites across the state, marking the state’s heritage that is as old as the Egyptian pyramids.
Minnesota’s First History Book: Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site
“This is where Minnesota’s historic record begins,” said Pat, a guide at the historic Jeffers Petroglyphs historic site in the tiny prairie town of Comfrey, MN, as she began the tour. Adjusting your eyes, slowly the ancient carvings of images appear – turtles, buffalo and hunters with spears.
“There are more than 2,000 carvings on this site,” Pat explained, pointing to the images. “The oldest is believed to be at least 7,000 years old, while the most recent are 150 to 250 years old.” Older than the Egyptian pyramids, the site marks the first record of those who first called the Minnesota prairie home.
What is known today as the Jeffers Petroglyphs, a Minnesota historic site, has for centuries and continues today as a sacred place for Native American tribes, including the Dakota, Iowa, Arapaho and Cheyenne. Native Americans carved images into the rock, representing spirits, wisdom, medicine, longevity and other images important to the tribes.
The carvings indicate a rich history of hunting and trade.
“The tools used to make these carvings were likely made of quartzite and wouldn’t have been made here,” said Pat. “That suggests the tribes traded for the tools.”
The images were carved in the stone to mark events, celebrate the tribes’ heritage or notate sacred images and parables. It’s believed that Native Americans first came to the area as early as 10,000 years ago. As the Ice Age ended and glaciers retreated, tall grasses quickly grew in the area and it became a prime hunting ground for bison and other large animals.
Tribes, including the Dakota (Sioux), thrived in the area for hundreds of years until the first settlers arrived in the 1800s. By the 1850s, settlers increasingly pushed Native Americans off of the lands, and tensions between the United States government and the tribes grew. Treaty violations by the U.S. government, and late or unfair annuity payments, resulted in increasing hardship for the tribes. Tensions broke out into conflict in 1862, leading to the U.S.-Dakota War. The war ended with the execution of 38 Dakota men – the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
While the Dakota story in Minnesota was marked by tragedy, today the Jeffers Petroglyph site serves as a symbol of the tribe’s heritage and continues to be a spiritual place for Native Americans. It not only celebrates and preserves the sacred location; it’s also helping preserve the state’s historic tallgrass prairie. At one time, there was more than 400,000 square miles of prairie in North America. Today, less than one percent remains. The Jeffers Petroglyph’s 160 acres is part of an effort to restore native prairie, bringing the land back to its original state when Native Americans lived and hunted in the area.
Pipestone, MN: Sacred Prairie Town
Further away in Pipestone, MN a sacred place of peace commemorates the more than 3,000 years Native Americans have come to the area in search of a rare soft reddish stone, Pipestone, for use in ceremonial pipes. The area was neutral territory, where all tribes could come to quarry the stone. Even in warring times, tribes would quarry side by side in peace.
By the 1700s, the Dakota became the dominant tribe in the area. When explorer George Catlin arrived in the area in 1836, Native Americans were carving the soft stone into elaborate shapes, including animals and intricately carved pipes.
When Native American tribes were pushed off the land and onto reservations, they preserved access to Pipestone through the Treaty of 1858. Despite attempts to protect the site, the treaty was violated numerous times, and the tribe spent decades seeking compensation through the Indian Court of Claims established by the U.S. Congress. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in the tribe’s favor and ordered payment of more than $300,000 in damages.
The site became Pipestone National Monument in 1937 and today is still open to quarrying by Native Americans with special permit.
Kensington Runestone: Early Europeans in America?
About two hours northwest of Minneapolis / St. Paul, MN is a unique artifact believed to tell the story of early Europeans who explored North America. The Kensington Runestone is now on display at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, MN, adding mystery to the debate over who truly “discovered” North America.
The 200-pound Kensington Runestone – a stone tablet with Scandinavian runic inscriptions on its top and sides – was discovered in 1898 by Minnesota farmer Olaf Ohman on his land near Kensington, Minnesota. It was said that he found the stone in the ground, wrapped in the roots of an aspen tree. The stone’s inscription, translated as follows, indicates it was left on the land by Scandinavian explorers in the year 1362:
“8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on exploration journey from Vinland over the west. We camp by 2 skerries one day-journey from this stone. We were and fished one day. After we came home, 10 men red with blood and tortured. Hail Virgin Mary, save from evil. Have 10 men by the sea to look after our ship, 14 day -journeys from this island year 1362.”
Over the century since its discovery, a range of experts have studied the stone, including researchers at the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Smithsonian and Cornell University. Experts have disagreed over the authenticity of the stone, and in the past some have even accused Ohman of forging it. However, the Minnesota Historical Society’s team of five experts declared the stone authentic, and it was even on display for a short time at the Smithsonian.
In 2000, Minnesota geologist Scott Wolter was hired to use new techniques to investigate the stone. Using scanning electron microscopy and other tools, Wolter dated the weathering of the stone to determine that it must be more than 200 years old, thus verifying that Ohman himself could not have forged it. Other evidence, including dotted R’s and hooked X’s on the stone that Wolter discovered through this investigation further support the stone’s 14th century date.
The Runestone: Beginnings of the "New World"
If Scandinavians came to Minnesota in 1362, how did they get here? According to archeological findings along existing water pathways, they could have come down from Hudson Bay, through the Nelson River to Lake Winnipeg, and then to the Red River. In fact, numerous Viking artifacts have been found in these areas, including characteristic triangular holes cut into rocks, which was a known way Vikings anchored their boats triangular anchor rocks.
Norwegian records show that in 1354, King Magnus Ericson sent an expedition, led by explorer Paul Knutson, to determine whether colonists had abandoned settlements in Greenland, amid reports that they had escaped to North America. Records indicate the expedition set out in 1356 and returned in 1363 or 1364. It is this expedition that is believed to have left behind the runestone. Additional artifacts, including an alter rock found near Sauk Center, Minnesota, are said to have been left behind by the Vikings.
Over the years, additional evidence of Vikings in North America has emerged. Fifteen campsites from Hudson Bay, Canada to Sauk Center, Minnesota have been uncovered, containing characteristic triangular holes cut into rocks, which was a known way Vikings anchored their boats. A number of Viking tools have also been found which mirror tools on display today in Scandinavian museums and known only to be a Viking style.
Artifacts found on the East Coast of the United States have further solidified the belief that not only were the Vikings here hundreds of years before Columbus, but that Europeans had visited North America has early as 22,000 years ago. A new book released in 2012, “Across Atlantic Ice,” by a prominent Smithsonian Institution archaeologist, argues that stone age Europeans known as Solutreans from what is now Spain, Portugal and France visited the East Coast of the United States up to 21,000 or 22,000 years ago. The theory is supported by numerous artifacts of that age, including an anvil, blades and other tools, found on the coast of Maryland and Virginia.
These early explorers, including the Vikings, may not have received the credit they deserve, but visitors to Alexandria, MN can see the Kensington Runestone on display at the end-of-the-road Runestone Museum, part of the Alexandria visitor's center and Fort Alexandria heritage site. While the museum itself isn't fitting for an artifact of such significance, true history buffs who visit the museum are able to see the stone up close, and view Viking tools and other artifacts found in the area. Outside, tour authentic 1880s buildings at Fort Alexandria, including a one-room school house and store.
Center of Commerce: Early Visitors Arrive to Establish World Trade Routes
While the debate goes on as to who arrived in North America first, and when they arrived, it’s clear that by the mid-1600s, Minnesota was well on its way to becoming a center of world trade. By that time, French explorers known as voyageurs made their way to the state in search of beaver pelts that would be made into high-end fur hats that were popular throughout Europe at that time.
They arrived by canoe, thinking they could travel across the land by river. When they reached the shores of Lake Superior, they found the area to be impassable by water. They would need to pass by 20 miles of waterfalls and rapids, including the state’s tallest waterfall that today is known as the High Falls of the Pigeon River.
With the help of Native Americans living in the area, including Ojibwa and Cree tribes, they learned about “Gitche Onigaming,” literally translated to mean “The Grand Portage” – an 8.5 mile passage by land that allowed traders to continue inland for trade. With a new route across the land and with the help of Native Americans in the area, trading thrived. By the late 1700s, the Northwest Company had established a trading post at the site.
“Without help of the Native Americans here, there wouldn’t have been a fur trade,” explained Sharon Layton, a National Park Service interpreter at the Grand Portage National Monument site in the far northeastern tip of Minnesota’s North Shore. “They were interpreters and guides. They provided canoes and tools.”
Every summer, more than 1,400 traders would descend on the site. Furs came from the inland forests and were sent by boat back east to Canada and then on to Europe where they were made into luxurious hats, coats and other items.
“At that time, more people around the world knew about Grand Portage than New York City,” said Sharon. “There were once more millionaires here than anywhere in the world.”
Today, the site is a National Monument, with a new visitor center and interpretive site that recreates the trading post that was once a center of international trade.
Seeing Minnesota History
On the vast and quiet prairie in southwest Minnesota, or the grand forests and waterways of Northeast Minnesota, it’s hard to imagine the rich history of hunting and trade that once took place across the state. These untouched landscapes provide a glimpse into the very land early Minnesotans called home – providing a view of our state just as it would have been seen hundreds and thousands of years ago.
If You Go:
Minnesota’s early history is celebrated across the state. Several of these sites are protected by the federal government, including Pipestone National Monument and Grand Portage National Monument. Pipestone is open year round, while Grand Portage National Monument is open seasonally, May through October.
The Jeffers Petroglyphs site is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society and is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
Admission charges apply for these historic sites.
While You’re There:
In southwest Minnesota, don’t miss the views of the prairie at Blue Mounds State Park.
While visiting the Kensington Runestone, be sure to stay for a Weekend Away in Alexandria, MN to enjoy the lakes.
“Runestone.” Kensington Runestone Museum. https://www.runestonemuseum.org/runestone/ Accessed Aug. 22, 2010.
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