It was a hot and humid day like so many recently. The team of people slowly digging square pits on the banks of the St. Croix River were dripping sweat — while wearing face masks. Even the mosquitoes whining in their ears sounded warm. The young excavators scraped slowly at the soil using flat shovels, then sifted the dirt through screens.
A stone stood out. One edge was straight and sharp. It showed chips that hinted it was hammered into this shape.
The apprentice archaeologist who uncovered the stone handed it to her teacher, Dr. Ed Fleming of the Science Museum of Minnesota. He cleaned the dirt off with a soft brush, studied it, and agreed it appeared to be a scraper made by prehistoric people.
It might have last been held by human hands a thousand years ago.
Holding it made the heat and humidity only seem like another connection to its makers, people who would have also swam in the St. Croix to cool off on a steamy summer day.
Long before Europeans immigrated here, native people called the St. Croix River home. Several tribes of Ojibwe and Dakota still live in the area. The St. Croix is a priceless source of food and other resources, and was historically an important travel route.
Recent work by Fleming along the lower river has uncovered new artifacts, settlements, and understanding of these people who lived and traveled along the St. Croix before the first European visitors.
Anyone who visits the river today follows in the footsteps and paddle strokes of indigenous people.
Searching along the St. Croix
Archaeology is patient and methodical. It rewards attention to detail. It takes education and experience. Fleming was training a new generation of anthropologists and historians, archaeologists and teachers, by leading a University of Minnesota field school as he has for several summers.
Fleming’s field schools have previously conducted extensive excavations at the Sheffield Site, an approximately 700-year-old village south of Marine on St. Croix. They have also fanned out across the area, conducting preliminary searches and discovering more sites worthy of a full investigation.
Notes: For the purposes of protecting these invaluable historic sites and cultural resources, St. Croix 360 will not share their locations. Archaeology is regulated by extensive state and federal laws.
Fleming has come to know the region’s prehistoric people a little through his years of research. He knows they liked to live next to water, including the St. Croix, but also lakes in the area. The sites has he has studied have been 20 or 30 feet above the river, safe from floods. They have also often been near the mouth of a cold, clean, spring-fed creek.
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They crafted beautiful pottery and lived on both the corn and other crops they grew, and the abundant plants and animals of the valley that they foraged and hunted.
They would have traveled in birch bark canoes, perhaps dugouts before then. But those wooden vessels couldn’t survive the centuries.
They did not leave any written record of their existence, besides some pictographs and other rock art found along the river. Their historical record is tools, pottery, fire pits, animal bones.
History written in stone and clay
Photos courtesy Dr. Ed Fleming
While European people first came to the St. Croix about 400 years ago, and the first towns were established 180 years ago, there is evidence of other inhabitants going back more than 5,000 years.
One particularly promising site this summer turned up a stone point from the Archaic period, made by the people who inhabited the region shortly after the last glaciers melted away north. They did not farm, and lived off what they could hunt and forage.
Fleming decided to save a full excavation at the intriguing site for another season, while spending more time at a new location on the other side of the St. Croix.
The artifacts they found this summer were primarily from the Woodland Period, which occurred from roughly 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., spanning the lives of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed, the advent of democracy and the rise of modern societies.
The cultures of this time connected the earlier hunter-gatherer people to the cultures that were present when the first Europeans arrived in North America.
The clay the Woodland people used for ceramics was mixed with grit from basalt or other hard rock to strengthen it. The broken pieces of pottery Fleming found bore these specks of stone, and trademark patterns, often created with cord wrapped around sticks.
At the Sheffield Site and elsewhere, Fleming has also found artifacts from a slightly later culture, the Oneota. These people were primarily based on the prairies to the south and west, while Woodland people lived in the forests of the north and east. The Oneota people innovated a new pottery method by using ground up mussel shells to strengthen their clay vessels.
Long before voyageurs, lumberjacks, farmers, and other European settlers founded the region’s towns, logged the forests, and plowed the prairies, there were villages and campsites, temporary shelters under overhangs, rock quarries and workshops, and a river that provided for the people.
Evidence of early immigrants
Fur traders, soldiers, surveyors, and other European travelers all visited the St. Croix Valley before significant settlement, and left their own marks on the valley. Some of Fleming’s recent work has turned up interesting artifacts from these 19th-century visitors — findings that are outside his professional focus, but fascinating nonetheless.
Recently, Fleming acquired some small, intriguing artifacts: brass buttons. They had been found near this summer’s excavations by an individual who had surveyed the area using a metal detector. One in particular piqued his curiosity because it was stamped with “U.S.”
By contacting a specialist, the button was identified as coming from a U.S. Army greatcoat, produced in the 1830s.
That was the time when Fort Snelling was the only significant white settlement in the area. When Henry Schoolcraft led an expedition up the St. Croix after identifying the headwaters of the Mississippi and when Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, the infamous bootlegger and first resident of what is now St. Paul, arrived in the region. In 1837, treaties with tribes opened up the St. Croix to white settlement.
There is no known record from that era of a fort or trading post or any other settlement where the button was found. Its presence suggested something, but remained an enigma.
Then, one day this June, Fleming and his team were inspecting cliffs along the river on the Wisconsin side, not far from Stillwater. They were looking for signs of prehistoric rock shelters (like a similar one on the same stretch of river).
These sites under sandstone overhangs may have been used by small groups for millennia, and can contain rock art and artifacts. Such a shelter is always appealing to someone seeking somewhere for a meal, a night, or a rainstorm.
Up on a ledge below an overhang, Fleming’s student called out she though she found something. It turned out to be part of a pipe that would have been produced in the 1840s or 1850s. It bore a faint patriotic pattern.
Sitting by the St. Croix and smoking a pipe would have been an enjoyable, relaxing part of the day for someone back then, just as today. The smoker might have been white or native, a traveler, trader, a settler, a logger, a soldier, or someone else. There’s no way of knowing why the pipe was left there for nearly 200 years — forgotten or discarded or something else.
Archaeological excavations always seem to raise more questions than they answer.
With this year’s field school surveys now complete, Fleming will carefully clean and organize the artifacts. He will look for patterns and clues. He’ll read and research and discuss and piece together the past.
And we’ll keep wondering what else is still out there.
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Louise Watson says
I am disappointed to see that the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Oneida/Dakota potter was not introduced at the beginning instead of at the end of this story. As a descendent of these Ancients his/her people’s story should be told first. Are they invisible just because they don’t have buildings named after them? When they lived on the land of downtown Stillwater what was it called? Where is the wonder and respect for the descendents of those Ancients who live among us today? Let them tell us about the art, their “beginnings stories,” the names of their chiefs, their strategists, their leaders, their hunting grounds, ceremonial areas, and how they used the land and water without destroying it? Once this respect has been paid, then all the great science of anthropology can be universally enjoyed.
Greg Seitz says
I generally try to honor those predecessors, while letting contemporary indigenous people tell their own stories. As a settler, I don’t believe it’s my place to intrude. I try to make space and amplify their stories when possible. You’ll also note that early in the article, sixth paragraph, I note that the descendants still live in the area today and the river continues to serve as a cultural resource. One article cannot come close to sufficiently honoring their longtime presence and stewardship of the river and the surrounding region, but I seek to make that a message woven throughout everything I write.
Louise Watson says
Thank you Greg for your kind reply. I admire your stories. I almost did not send my thoughts. I am sensitive due to what I learned from my 6 years living and working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and 3 years working with the Colville Tribe in WA. Again, I am a fan of your work, and look forward to following you.