Red Wing Locality on Minnesota Map
Institute for Minnesota Archaeology logo From Site to Story logo

Red Wing Locality








Overview of Environment and Archaeology
    Geography (map)
    Topography and Environment
    Precontact Cultures 
    Precontact Sites  (site map)
    Historic Archaeology (site map)


Southeast from St. Paul, and below the mouth of the St. Croix River, the Mississippi becomes the boundary between the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Here it flows through a wide valley that was carved into the midcontinental bed of limestone as glaciers advanced and melted away over the region for millions of years. Marshy areas and wetlands fill the valley, interspersed with sandy islands. Picturesque limestone bluffs dominate the landscape.

Red Wing Locality map
The Cannon River enters the Mississippi from the west approximately forty miles below St. Paul. Almost opposite the Cannon on the east side of the Mississippi is the mouth of the Trimbelle River, a smaller stream that rises in Wisconsin. The high blufftops that overlook the Cannon and Trimbelle deltas, including eastern Goodhue and western Pierce counties, define the area archaeologists call the Red Wing Locality.

Just above the mouth of the Cannon is Prairie Island, a long expanse of sandy fields and low-lying woods that is separated from the western bank by a narrow stream. About four miles below the end of Prairie Island the main channel of the Mississippi swings eastward around a tall bluff that rises nearly in the middle of the valley. Its distinctive shape has earned it the name of Barn Bluff, and at its foot is the town of Red Wing. Some five miles below this point is the head of a broad body of water known as Lake Pepin, a widening of the Mississippi more than twenty miles long.

Red Wing painting by Henry Lewis
Barn Bluff rises on the left in this painting by Henry Lewis, ca. 1840. A Dakota Indian town and the houses of missionaries then occupied the site of Red Wing.
The corporate limits of Red Wing have been expanded to include the lower valley of the Cannon River and the southern part of Prairie Island. The island is the home of the Prairie Island Band of Dakota Indians. Some members are descended from the band who once inhabited Red Wing and whose chief gave the town its name. Immediately beside the Dakota community is a nuclear plant operated by Northern States Power Company. A good share of Red Wing's commerce comes from the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi, where the nearest towns are Hager City and Diamond Bluff.

Red Wing Stoneware Industry
Red Wing grew as a center for grain shipping and for light manufacturing that included pottery and shoes.

Topography and Environment

The shape and feel of the Red Wing Locality is largely a result of the most recent glaciation of the upper Midwest. As the glaciers advanced, sediments in the outwash pouring down the Mississippi settled near the margins of the channel. Shifting currents carved these deposits of sand and gravel into terraces of different heights. Prairie Island is one such terrace structure, even though it has been separated from the valley wall by a branch of the Vermillion River.

While the glaciers and glacial remnants were present, plant and animal species adapted to a cold and highly seasonal environment. Open tundra and spruce forest dominated the vegetation during the early part of the late glacial period. With the recession of the ice sheets and with warmer conditions, deciduous trees appeared and eventually replaced the spruce forest. The combination of plants and animals present during this period was unique, and it included several animal species that are now extinct.


After the torrents of melt water subsided (9,500 to 7,000 years ago) sediment from tributaries began to fill the Mississippi's valley. As tributary deltas built up, they deflected the river's main channel, making it bend and twist within the wide valley. The large fan-delta of the Chippewa River constricted the channel so much that it created Lake Pepin, which at first extended all the way up to St. Paul. In the millenia since the lake's formation, however, sediments out of tributaries upstream have been building a delta within the valley itself. This delta at the head of Lake Pepin is extending progressively downstream.

Lake Pepin draing by Henry Lewis
Lake Pepin as painted by Henry Lewis, ca. 1840.

The period between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago, known as the Altithermal, brought significant changes. The climate was warmer, and the upland areas, dominated by prairie and oak savanna, were dry enough to be affected by wind erosion. As a result, wind-blown sediments capped some of the river terraces formed long before. Plants and animals that could not tolerate the dry upland conditions may have survived in the river valleys -- especially the Mississippi with its many backwaters -- during this time.

A climatic shift toward cooler and wetter conditions began about 4,000 years ago and continued into the 19th century. This brought no great changes in the shape of the Red Wing Locality, although deciduous forests advanced into the upland prairie. A variety of plants and animals also settled in the area.

The greatest changes since glacial times have taken place in the last 150 years. Land clearing for agriculture, urbanization, and manipulation of the river channel for navigation have all dramatically reduced the amount of natural space and altered the face of the Red Wing Locality. Increased sedimentation has accelerated the retreat of Lake Pepin (which was at the mouth of the Cannon River a thousand years ago), and the Cannon delta itself has been buried in nearly ten feet of additional dirt since about 1860.

Prairie Island
The Prairie Island nuclear plant is owned by Northern States Power Company. The houses near the top of the picture are part of the Prairie Island Indian community.

Precontact Cultures

Paleo-Indian hunters and later peoples of various Archaic traditions undoubtedly inhabited the area around Red Wing. There is scattered evidence that sites dating from these early times exist in the vicinity, but none has been recorded or investigated by archaeologists.

Archaeological study in the Red Wing Locality has been dominated by a series of dramatic changes that took place in the Mississippi Valley a thousand years ago. At that time, it appears that the peoples of the Upper Mississippi may have altered their way of life from mostly hunting animals and gathering wild plant foods to sowing crops that came to dominate their food supply. Downriver from Red Wing, a powerful and widespread culture developed that archaeologists call "Mississippian." Its great center was at Cahokia, a city and ceremonial location in southwestern Illinois, where East St. Louis now stands. Cahokia's influence spread across the continent, and its impact on people living at Red Wing created a cultural "hybrid" that is unique in the upper Midwest.

The population in the Red Wing Locality expanded during this period. A number of large villages developed, but within a relatively short span of 300 years the population decreased. How and why did these changes come about? In what sequence and by whom were the towns built and occupied? What trading connections did their people have? Why were they abandoned? Where did the people go? Archaeologists have been searching for the evidence to answer these questions.

Spring village illustration
Nine centuries ago the people of the Red Wing Locality planted crops, built homes and villages, and left their mark on the landscape in the form of hundreds of mounds and earthworks. Courtesy Goodhue County Historical Society.

Red Wing people developed relationships with other cultures up and down the Mississippi River and along the waterways connecting with it, as well as westward into the plains. Artifacts with Mississippian-like characteristics have been found at several Red Wing sites dating to between 700 and 1,000 years ago, leading archaeologists to believe that people in Red Wing may have had close ties with people at Cahokia. Yet, these artifacts are found with the more traditional local types of pottery, beads, and tools that follow patterns established by what scholars call Woodland and Oneota peoples.

Red Wing Cahokia map
Map showing connection between Red Wing and Cahokia.

Two major types of cultural materials and living patterns have been discovered for this period at Red Wing. One resembles styles in use among Mississippians at Cahokia. It is thought that people at Red Wing depended on intensive farming in the flood plains of the Mississippi, while they also fished in the rivers and hunted game. They stored food for the winter in large pits dug into the ground. Their mounds and earthworks suggest complex religious and social systems, and they had an sphere of trading and cultural influence.

Lewis map
Red Wing site with a typical Middle Mississippian flat-topped mound, sometimes called a "temple" mound.

Oneota is the other culture represented by artifactual evidence. These peoples were horticulturalists and used both river and forest foods. Oneota society was not as politically complex as Mississippian society, but the Oneota came to be a major culture in the Mid-Continent.

The most distinctive artifacts displaying differences between Oneota and Mississippian origin is their pottery. In most places, the ceramics made by the people of these two cultures is easily separable, but in Red Wing there is a third major ceramic type that appears to blend Oneota and Mississippian elements into a single unique type.


Metate for grinding corn
Metate for grinding corn, found at Red Wing.

Mero site excavation
Postmold found at Mero site.


Archaeologists believe that the large-scale villages, dense population, and flourishing culture that developed at Red Wing did so at least partly because of influence from Mississippian peoples to the south, although with a distinctly local flavor. It was apparently the farthest northern extension of the rich and complex culture centered at Cahokia. At any particular time between 900 and 1300 A.D., it is likely that there were several thousand people living in the Red Wing Locality, making it the most densely populated part of Minnesota during the centuries before Europeans arrived.

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers served as "gateways" to areas where the Mississippian could acquire exotic goods for trade or prestige. The Red Wing Locality probably served as the northern "gateway" to the plains, to the wild rice beds of northern Minnesota, and to the extensive native copper deposits of the western Lake Superior region.

Pottery and tools made by the prairie peoples of southern Minnesota and the Middle Missouri region of the Dakotas have been found in trash pits at each of the Silvernale phase villages. This suggests that the primary route of trade and transportation was the Cannon River. As quickly as this unique cultural phenomenon developed, it waned and disappeared. The larger village sites fell into disuse around 1300 A.D., just after Cahokia began to decline. Its demise has left archaeologists to puzzle over more than 2,000 mounds and earthworks, eight major village sites, and dozens of smaller secondary sites, all within an area of some 58 square miles.

Precontact Sites

Red Wing Locality Precontact and Historic Sites Map

The most distinctive precontact culture at Red Wing is the Silvernale Phase, named for the site where archaeologists first saw evidence of local participation in the Mississippian system. Artifacts found at Silvernale Phase sites show that people in the Red Wing Locality were influenced by the Middle Mississippian culture.

Within the Red Wing Locality four major sites are predominantly associated with the Silvernale Phase. One of these (Mero-Diamond Bluff) is in Wisconsin and situated on a high glacial outwash terrace overlooking the delta of the Trimbelle River. The other three Silvernale sites are along the south side of the Cannon River in Minnesota.

The Silvernale site is on a low terrace near the mouth of the Cannon and overlooks its delta. The Energy Park Site (now the Red Wing Archaeological Preserve) is roughly a mile upriver from Silvernale and is situated on a high glacial outwash terrace overlooking the Cannon. The Bryan Site is roughly three-quarters of a mile beyond Energy Park on the same terrace.

There are at least three other smaller villages. The Mississippian-like Silvernale ceramic series is almost absent at the Adams, Bartron, and Burnside School villages. Instead, these villages seem to have been occupied by people with Oneota material culture, most closely related to items associated with peoples of the Blue Earth River Valley.

All of the places where precontact Red Wing peoples lived are associated with earthen mounds. However, the physical setting, composition of the mound groups, and character of the village sites is different. At both Mero-Diamond Bluff and Silvernale, the number of mounds is exceptionally large (more than 300 in each case) and both sites contain a variety of mound forms. The village site at these places is roughly 15 acres in extent. Bryan is surrounded by a group of at least 173 earthworks and the habitation area may be as large as 20 acres. At Adams, Bartron, and Energy Park the number of mounds is considerably less and the village sites are smaller.

One unique feature of the Red Wing Locality is the presence of stone cairns -- or mounds built by piling up loose stones. These are not associated with village sites but usually appear on the crest of bluffs overlooking the valleys. Their use and significance is unknown.

People seem to have lived at these various sites between about 1050 and 1300 A.D. Although the actual period may have been shorter, the available radiocarbon evidence is not precise enough to give the true length of occupation. Some scholars believe that the Mero-Diamond Bluff and Silvernale sites are earliest, followed closely by occupation at the Bryan site during the flowering of cultural interaction at Red Wing. The Adams and Bartron sites are not adequately dated, but archaeological evidence suggests they were probably occupied at the same time as the other villages. Archaeological studies indicate people probably lived at the Energy Park and Burnside sites somewhat later than the other villages in the Red Wing Locality.

Historic Archaeology

Historic archaeology in the Red Wing Locality has been very limited. A number of sites offer potential for study, including those left by early industries such as iron working and pottery in Red Wing itself. On Prairie Island early records suggest that one or more fur trading posts were established, and some attempts have been made to locate them. The historic site, however, at which the most extensive excavation has been carried out is in Red Wing’s Central Park, where the first building of Hamline University once stood.



Sources Stories Credits Search Contents Links
Northern Headwaters Twin Cities Metro Area Red Wing Locality

From Site to Story web address
© 1999 The Institute for Minnesota Archaeology
Email us:
Updated 30 Sep 1999