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Indian Mounds Park, St. Paul

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Color image of Indian Mounds Park, 2016. Photograph by Paul Nelson.

Indian Mounds Park, 2016. Photograph by Paul Nelson.

The six burial mounds at St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park are among the oldest human-made structures in Minnesota. Along with mounds in Crow Wing, Itasca, and Beltrami Counties, they are some of the northernmost burial mounds on the Mississippi River. They represent the only ancient American Indian burial mounds still extant inside a major U.S. city.

It is estimated that there were once tens of thousands of ceremonial, effigy, and conical mounds in the eastern half of North America. About a third of these were built in what are now Wisconsin and Minnesota; perhaps two thousand of them stood in sight of the upper Mississippi River. Conical mounds were often used for burials. The six that remain in St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park are some of the tallest, oldest, and most distinctive of these.

Archaeologists date the construction of the surviving mounds to between 200 BCE and 400 CE (a period called Middle Woodland) based on their similarity to mounds elsewhere in the Midwest. The tallest mound at the St. Paul site fits the pattern, observed elsewhere, of being the oldest.

The size, contents, and location of the mounds suggest that they held great religious or ceremonial importance for their builders. Archaeologists have concluded that they were American Indian people who shared some cultural characteristics with, or at least had contact with, the mound-building people of southern Ohio and western Illinois, and that the ideas and practices that motivated mound building moved north along the Mississippi. The cultural complex of these other mound builders bears the name Hopewell, from a farm in Ohio.

Certainly, the various peoples of North America maintained vast exchange networks: grave goods in the Upper Mississippi valley have included obsidian from Wyoming and shells from Florida. The mounds have been a sacred site for some modern and early modern Native people—particularly the Dakota—since before the mid-1700s.

The first person to map the St. Paul mounds, Theodore H. Lewis, began around 1880. He determined that there had once been fifty-eight mounds at the brow of what came to be known as Dayton’s Bluff, a promontory two hundred feet above the Mississippi River where it takes a turn south toward the Gulf of Mexico. At the top stood a group of eighteen, some of them tall and cone-shaped. The rest, most of them low, trailed along the bluff as it descended toward the north. Most of these were only a foot or two above the natural surface. When Lewis mapped them, only thirty nine remained.

Developers destroyed many of the small mounds in the late nineteenth century in order to build the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. The City of St. Paul razed seven more mounds in 1895 in the grading of Mounds Park Boulevard and the creation of Indian Mounds Park. It preserved the six tallest, which are also believed to be the oldest.

Looters, investigators, and road workers dug into at least seventeen of the mounds. Inside, they found wood and stone burial chambers, copper and stone grave goods, sea shell beads, mussel shells, and the remains of approximately fifty people, including a few children. The most remarkable object removed, in 1882, was a small child’s skull bearing a clay mask. The known excavations began in 1856 and ended in 1895, but looters may have been active both before and after.

Some of the objects and remains taken from the mounds were destroyed in a fire at the state capitol in 1881. Others, held at Macalester College from 1887 until 1955, including a copper breastplate, were stolen by collectors. The Minnesota Historical Society holds the only known surviving artifacts from the St. Paul mounds: seventeen projectile points, a small earthenware vessel, a box of small shells, and a glass bottle of red ocher.

Archaeologists completed a survey and some testing of the site in 1981, but the mounds themselves were not entered. In 2013, archaeologists used modern methods (including radar and magnetic gradiometry) to examine the mound site, with scant results. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which became law on November 16, 1990, regulates management of the remaining artifacts that had been acquired by museums and other public institutions.

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Anfinson, Scott. “Cultural and Natural Aspects of Mound Distribution in Minnesota.” Minnesota Archaeologist 42, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1984): 3–30.

Arzigian, Constance M., and Katherine P. Stevenson. Minnesota’s Indian Mounds and Burial Sites: A Synthesis of Prehistoric and Early Archaeological Data. St. Paul: Minnesota Office of the State Archaeologist, 2003.

“The Capitol of Minnesota Destroyed By Fire March 1, 1881.” Pioneer Press, March 2, 1881.

Laws of Minnesota for 1976. Chapter 48–HF No. 1904.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?id=48&year=1976

Lewis, T. H. “Pre-Historic Remains at St. Paul.” American Antiquarian 18, no. 4 (July 1896): 207–210.

——— . “Mounds and Stone Cists at St. Paul, Minnesota.” American Antiquarian 18, no. 4 (July 1896): 314–320.

Minnesota Office of the State Archaeologist. Burial Sites Protection.
https://mn.gov/admin/archaeologist/government/burial-sites/

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Indian Mounds Park Mound Group.
https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/14000140.pdf

Nelson, Paul. “St. Paul’s Indian Burial Mounds.” St. Paul: Macalester College Staff Publications, 2008.
http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/igcstaffpub/1/

White, Bruce. “Minnesota’s Disappearing Mounds.” MinnesotaHistory.net (blog), July 11, 2005.
http://www.minnesotahistory.net/MHNet18.htm

Winchell, N. H. The Aborigines of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1911.

Woolworth, Nancy. An Historical Study and Cultural Resources Survey of Indian Mounds Park (21RA10) Ramsey County, Minnesota. Report prepared for the City of St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation by Woolworth Research Associates, 1981.

Related Images

Color image of Indian Mounds Park, 2016. Photograph by Paul Nelson.
Color image of Indian Mounds Park, 2016. Photograph by Paul Nelson.
Black and white photograph of Mounds Park, St. Paul, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of Mounds Park, St. Paul, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of two of the mounds, with walking path, at Indian Mounds Park, ca. 1900.
Black and white photograph of two of the mounds, with walking path, at Indian Mounds Park, ca. 1900.
Black and white photograph of Mounds Park, 1910.
Black and white photograph of Mounds Park, 1910.
Black and white photograph of Mounds Park ca. 1910. This image shows a commanding view of the river canyon from the mounds.
Black and white photograph of Mounds Park ca. 1910. This image shows a commanding view of the river canyon from the mounds.
Colorized post card view of Indian Mounds Park, 1904.
Colorized post card view of Indian Mounds Park, 1904.
Colorized post card view of Indian Mounds Park, 1908.
Colorized post card view of Indian Mounds Park, 1908.
Scan of Mr. T.H. Lewis' survey of the mounds on Dayton's Bluff in 1882.
Scan of Mr. T.H. Lewis' survey of the mounds on Dayton's Bluff in 1882.
Scan of a survey of lower mounds at Dayton's Bluff done in 1866.
Scan of a survey of lower mounds at Dayton's Bluff done in 1866.

Turning Point

Between 1894 and 1896, the City of St. Paul secures the site as a park and preserves only the six tallest mounds. With the razing of seven others, destruction and looting of the earthworks effectively end.

Chronology

ca. 200 BCE to 400 CE

Ancient Native people construct burial mounds at St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park.

1856

In the first public and documented entry, clergyman Edward Duffield Neill excavates the tallest mound.

1866–1891

Alfred Hill, Charles deMontreville, William Kelley, William Gross, and Theodore Lewis excavate sixteen more mounds.

1881

A fire at the Minnesota State Capitol destroys an unknown number of remains and objects taken from the mounds.

1887

Artifacts taken from the mounds, including a copper breastplate, are given to Macalester College. Collectors steal almost all of these over the next seventy years.

1895

The City of St. Paul destroys seven mounds in the grading of Mounds Park Boulevard and the creation of Indian Mounds Park. (It later builds walking paths on some of the surviving mounds.)

1976

On March 19, the Minnesota legislature amends a state law (307.08) to include specific protections for American Indian burial grounds.

1981

Surveyors study the Mounds Park site in preparation for a rehabilitation project.

1985

Demolition workers remove some of the aging park’s facilities.

1987

Treasure hunters participating in the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s annual medallion-search activity dig in the Mounds Park area, damaging the site.

1990

City of St. Paul workers erect protective fences around the mounds.

1990

On November 16, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) becomes law.