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The Mounds of Red Wing

"I landed at Red Wing in June, 1849, and remember that a row of mounds extended along the southwestern border of the Indian corn fields, the ground now occupied by streets and buildings in this city . . . scarcely any of them are now visible . . . There were other mounds one half-mile southwest, on a flat or bench of land rising some 50 feet above the city [of Red Wing] . . . the mounds [are] generally circular and even-shaped, and about 6 feet high in the center . . . there was another mound on Barn Bluff . . ." (Letter by Theodore H. Lewis, Jan. 19, 1867)

Numerous mounds and earthworks are concentrated in a very small area in Goodhue and Pierce Counties. More than 2,000 of these structures were present when Europeans first arrived. Many were associated with the large Native American villages of the region and must have been constructed over a short period of time. There were also groups on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, Cannon, and Trimbelle Rivers.

Between 1880 and 1895, the Northwestern Archaeological Survey mapped more than 12,000 mounds in seven midwestern states. The survey was privately funded by Alfred J. Hill, who had become wealthy investing in land in Minnesota.

His younger collaborator, Theodore Hayes Lewis, was a trained surveyor. Both men shared a passion for the antiquities of the Midwest and both realized that many sites were being destroyed as the land was cleared for cultivation.

During the course of the survey, Lewis traveled more than 10,000 miles on foot and mapped hundreds of mound groups. Many of these sites are now destroyed and his records are the only source of information now available for them.

Large flat-topped mounds were built by the Middle Mississippian peoples at Cahokia and other sites. At Red Wing, two platform mounds are also present, a flat-topped conical mound on Prairie Island and a rectangular platform mound in a group of mounds between the Bryan and Silvernale sites. The flat-topped pyramidal mound was 4 feet high and 40 by 60 feet on a side when surveyed by T. H. Lewis in the mid-1880s. It now has been largely destroyed by cultivation.

The early inhabitants of Minnesota constructed mounds for a variety of purposes, including burial of the dead. Some mounds and earthworks, however, appear to have served different functions, particularly around the larger villages. Mounds are and were sacred places to American Indians.

Modern legislation has fortunately ensured that archaeologists and curious amateurs alike do not disturb graves located in mounds or on archaeological sites. See: Doing Archaeology in Minnesota - Laws.

It is important, however, that we know the location and extent of these sacred sites, since thousands of Minnesota's mounds have been destroyed through farming, construction and gravel mining activities.

 

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Updated 21 May 1999