Twin Cities Metro Area on Minnesota Map
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Twin Cities Metro Area








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


Rivers are the outstanding geographic features of the five Minnesota counties (Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington) included in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. Here the Mississippi pours over the only waterfall in its entire length and is joined by the Minnesota River from the west and the St. Croix from the northeast. A lock now brings watercraft past the Falls of St. Anthony to the upper harbor, in downtown Minneapolis.

Map of the Twin Cities Metro Area



St. Anthony Falls Painting by Henry Lewis
The Falls of St. Anthony, given its present name by French missionary Louis Hennepin, is shown in this painting by the artist Henry Lewis as it looked in the 1840s.

St. Anthony Falls Sawmill drawing
Prized by Euro-Americans for its water power, the falls became a saw-milling center and the nucleus of an industrial city in the 1850s. Drawing from Harpers Monthly Vol. XXX No. 1534.

St. Anthony Falls Milling drawing
In the 1870s and 1880s sawmills at the falls gave way to flour mills, and Minneapolis became famous as the world's breadbasket. Drawing from Harpers Monthly Vol. XXX No. 1534.

Below the falls, the banks of the river rise steeply, forming a narrow gorge, and it is joined by Minnehaha Creek. This stream rises in a cluster of lakes to the west of Minneapolis. As it approaches the Mississippi, it pours over a scenic waterfall.

Minnehaha Falls  Painting by Henry Lewis
Minnehaha Falls as painted by Henry Lewis ca. 1840.

Farther on, at the mouth of the Minnesota River, the U.S. Army established Fort Snelling in the early 1820s. At this point the Mississippi makes a sharp turn and loops east and north through downtown St. Paul.

St. Peter's  Valley Painting by Henry Lewis
The Minnesota River rises on the Minnesota-South Dakota border and flows eastward into the Mississippi. Its valley was the home of the Dakota Indians, as shown in this painting by Henry Lewis, ca 1840.

St. Paul Painting by Henry Lewis
The hamlet of St. Paul (then called Pig's Eye) was settled in 1839 at the first convenient steamboat landing downriver from Fort Snelling. Painting by Lewis, ca. 1840.

1853 St. Paul Painting
In 1853 St. Paul was a thriving center of river commerce and the capital of Minnesota Territory.

At St. Paul, the Mississippi turns to the southeast and enters a majestic valley, lined by bottom lands, backwaters, terraces, and bluffs. Between St. Paul and Hastings, Minnesota, many of the low-lying islands and marshy areas in this wide valley have been flooded since the building of the Hastings lock and dam in 1931. Opposite Hastings, the St. Croix River flows in from the east. It rises in northwestern Wisconsin, and for most of its length it is the boundary line between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Below the mouth of the St. Croix, the Mississippi River becomes the state boundary.

St. Croix River  Painting by Henry Lewis
The mouth of the St. Croix showing a raft of logs being floated downstream to one of the many mills along the Mississippi. Painting by Lewis, ca. 1840.

The rich stands of pine in the St. Croix Valley drew lumbermen from New England as soon as the land was ceded by the Dakota and Ojibwe Indians. Stillwater, Minnesota, an early lumbering center on the St. Croix, is now part of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area.

Bird's Eye View of Stillwater
Bird's eye view of the city of Stillwater, Washington County, 1870. Drawn by A. Ruger.

Topography and Environment

Like the rest of the upper Mississippi Valley, the Twin Cities Area is a dynamic landscape. Its northern edge is crossed by a wide ridge of glacial deposits known as the St. Croix Moraine. Part of this now forms the Anoka Sand Plain. Farther to the south, the glacial till covers a layer of hard limestone and a thinner layer of shale. Both of these rest on a thick deposit of soft sandstone. As glaciers have advanced and retreated during past ice ages, their melt waters have carved many different channels through the soil and rock. Those seen today were made by the modern Mississippi and St. Croix. Some 12,000 years ago, at about where downtown St. Paul now stands, the Mississippi cascaded over a limestone ledge into a deep valley formed in an earlier age. Fed by torrents of melt water, the fall reached from bluff to bluff and was many times the volume of Niagara.

Sketch of limestone/sandstone formation, showing action of the falling water.

As centuries passed, the shelf of hard limestone cracked and fell as falling water wore away the soft sandstone beneath it. Gradually the waterfall moved upriver.



Journey of the falls

Mississippi River, recession of the falls through time.



Precontact Archaeology

Over thousands of years early Indian people left countless traces of their presence throughout the Twin Cities. Early observers and cultural resource surveys conducted in recent years have identified some of these sites, but only a few have been scientifically studied. Most of them are now gone. Native Amercan traditions tell us that the spiritual power of St. Anthony Falls was greatly venerated, but no material evidence of this remains.
Twin Cities Metro Area Precontact Sites Map
Woodland peoples left hundreds of earthen mounds on the shores of Minnetonka and neighboring lakes; farms, homes, and roads have destroyed nearly all. Beneath Dayton's bluff in St. Paul a sacred rock-art site, known as Carver's Cave was described by early European travelers, but railroad construction demolished most of it. Above this cave, on the crest of the bluff, rose a striking group of mounds. Several still stand in St. Paul's Indian Mounds Park. Down the Mississippi from St. Paul at Newport was the Red Rock, a large granite boulder painted with sacred symbols. The boulder survives, but its original markings have been lost. Farther on, in the Spring Lake area, numerous mound groups indicated early Indian occupation, and several Woodland habitation sites were studied in the 1950s.

Archaeology has also been done at two sites on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River. The Harvey Rock Shelter north of Stillwater was investigated in the 1930s, and in the 1990s evidence of an Archaic bison kill was found at the Cross Site, just south of Marine on St. Croix. But only among the chain of lakes that make up the Rice Creek Drainage Basin in Anoka County have undisturbed Woodland habitation sites in the Twin Cities Area been carefully studied with modern techniques. For an in-depth look at the archaeology done at that place, see 21AN106.

Historic Archaeology

Europeans imposed new patterns on the landscape and brought different lifeways. From the material record they left in the earth we can learn vital facts about daily habits and about the complex urban and industrial systems through which they have related to the natural world. The field for historic archaeology is almost unlimited in the Twin Cities, yet comparatively little has actually been done. Twin Cities Historic Sites
The most concentrated single project has been at Old Fort Snelling, where the Minnesota Historical Society, through forty years of archaeological study, has laid the groundwork for restoration and interpretation of this military outpost of the 1820s. Old Mendota, which includes the Henry H. Sibley House, the Jean Baptiste Faribault House, and a few related structures has also been the subject of archaeological work by the Sibley House Association and the state historical society. Various historical and civic organizations have also done research at the Gibbs Farm in Roseville, the Gideon Pond House in Bloomington, Grey Cloud Townsite, Miller Brothers General Store in Eden Prairie, and a few others.

Only in recent years has archaeological evidence been used in studying the development of the Twin Cities as an urban center. Projects along the Minneapolis riverfront have led the way in this effort. Extended information on archaeology that has explored the development of industry at the Falls of St. Anthony can be found among documents in the Sources section of this web site. The stories of two other city sites, the Bridgehead and the Federal Courthouse, both in Minneapolis, are described here in greater depth. Significant archaeology has also been done at the Washington Street Residential District in St. Paul. Although by necessity this kind of urban archaeology has been conducted on an emergency basis and without a clear research plan, it still has given fresh glimpses into the lives of working people and immigrants in the expanding Twin Cities of the 1880s and 1890s.



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Updated 29 Sep 1999