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Environment and Archaeology of the Rice Creek Drainage

One of the Twin City Metro Area's most interesting and best-studied sections is the Rice Creek drainage. Indians occupied it throughout the last 12,000 years, but population increased dramatically during the Middle Woodland period (2,600 to 1,100 years ago).


Rice Creek flows through a series of lakes and marshes in southern Anoka and northern Ramsey counties, eventually joining the Mississippi near Fridley. Its drainage basin is in the southern portion of the Anoka Sand Plain, which was formed after the last glacier retreated from the region about 12,000 years ago.

Anoka Sand Plain map
As the glacial ice quickly retreated, meltwater spread a wide deposit of sand and gravel over roughly 850 square miles in parts of nine counties, including Anoka, Ramsey, and Washington.

In the millennia that followed, lakes formed in depressions left behind and streams created shallow valleys. Intiallly the Sand Plain was covered with spruce forest. However, as the climate warmed and the glacial ice melted, spruce was replaced by mixed conifer-hardwood forest.

The landscape was relatively stable until about 9,000 years ago, when the climate became both warmer and drier. Forest was then replaced by more drouth-tolerant prairie, and lake levels and water tables fell. Strong northwesterly winds easily eroded the dry and unprotected soils, forming dunes throughout the Sand Plain. Because most of the lakes in the Rice Creek drainage are no deeper than five feet, many probably dried completely during this period.

By about 4,000 years ago these inhospitable conditions began to improve as the climate became wetter and cooler. It has remained this way, with some variations, until the present time. Water levels rose, trees reappeared, and dune formation ceased. Gradually stands of wild rice developed.


Archaeological research began in the late 1800s when Theodore H. Lewis mapped many sites in the area. Between 1930 and 1960 Lloyd A. Wilford of the University of Minnesota visited the area, most notably the Howard Lake site (21AN0001). During the late 1970s portions of Anoka and Isanti counties were included in the Minnesota Historical Society's statewide archaeological survey, and many of the sites now known were recorded then. More recently, surveys and excavations have been conducted as part of cultural resource investigations for construction projects. Among them was an excavation at site number 21AN106, which was conducted by IMA Consulting in advance of a pipeline being constructed by Northern Natural Gas Company.

Although many sites within the Rice Creek drainage are on privately owned land, 25 are included in the Rice Creek / Chain of Lakes Regional Park. These were nominated for the National Register of Historic Places as an archaeological district, but the nomination failed.

Archaeological research shows an interesting pattern of settlement that is unique to the Rice Creek drainage. Although humans first arrived shortly after the last glacier had retreated, evidence for habitation prior to about 2,600 years ago is rare. Projectile points that probably date to the Paleo and Archaic periods have been found at a handful of places, but there is no evidence for intensive occupation. However, beginning with the Middle Woodland period (2,600 to 1,100 years ago) the number of sites increases dramatically.

Middle Woodland sites are usually located near lake shores, especially by inlets and outlets. As time passed, population density in the Rice Creek drainage seems to have decreased, although some occupation continued.

These settlement patterns can be explained in part by changes in the environment. A variety of plants and animals probably existed after the retreat of the ice, but Paleo-Indian peoples lived by following herds of large animals and seldom settled long in one place. Although lifeways became more sedentary in the Archaic period, conditions in the Rice Creek drainage were by then unfavorable. Archaic peoples probably sought out more hospitable places, such as major river valleys. As lake levels rose and vegetation increased with a cooler and wetter climate, more human settlement was attracted. It is likely that stands of wild rice flourished in the shallow waters by the Middle Woodland period, when people of the region began to depend on it as a food staple. At a later time higher lake levels may have discouraged its growth.



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Updated 29 Jun 1999