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The First Archaeologists

The first Euro-American settlers in Minnesota found evidence of earlier settlers all around them. Over 12,000 artificial earthen mounds dotted the land's surface with some mound groups containing hundreds of mounds. When these mounds were intentionally or inadvertently disturbed, most revealed human remains initially thought to be of a long-lost race called "The Mound Builders." As agricultural fields were tilled, roads built, and building foundations dug, chipped stone spear-points and grooved stone mauls were revealed. Unlike the mounds, these were immediately attributed to ancestors of Indians who still inhabited most of Minnesota.

The first "archaeologists" in Minnesota were not professionally trained, but simply individuals interested in the past. In 1856, the Reverend Edward Neill dug into a mound in what is now Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul and briefly discussed his findings in his History of Minnesota (1858). In 1855, an Englishman named Alfred Hill moved to St. Paul and was intrigued by the myth of the Mound Builders. He and a companion from the Minnesota Historical Society excavated a mound in Mounds Park in 1862, leaving a detailed manuscript account of their findings. In the late 1870s, Francis Babbitt of Little Falls began examining quartz chippings in the vicinity and was convinced they were left by very early inhabitants. She also became the first woman archaeologist in Minnesota.

With greatly intensified Euro-American settlement after the Civil War, Alfred Hill became increasingly disturbed with the rapid destruction of burial mounds in Minnesota. In 1881, he hired an Ohio surveyor, Theodore H. Lewis, to make detailed maps of mound groups throughout the Upper Midwest. For the next 15 years, Lewis roamed Minnesota and adjacent states keeping detailed notes of his mound mapping activities. A St. Cloud lawyer and legislator, Jacob Brower, also begin mapping mounds in the late 19th century, concentrating on areas of central Minnesota not examined by Lewis. Both Lewis and Brower were convinced the mounds had been built by the ancestors of American Indians. In 1911, the Lewis and Brower notes along with other material about the Indian history of Minnesota were compiled by State Geologist Newton Winchell into a large volume entitled The Aborigines of Minnesota.

The Origins of Professional Archaeology in Minnesota

Professional archaeological research in Minnesota did not begin until 1932 when the University of Minnesota investigated five prehistoric sites in northern Minnesota, under the direction of anthropologist Albert Jenks. In 1937, Jenk's assistant, Lloyd Wilford, finished his Ph.D. at Harvard University, presenting the first overview of Minnesota prehistory in his dissertation. He returned to the University of Minnesota and in 1938 replaced Jenks, becoming the first professionally trained archaeologist in the state. Wilford took out University field crews to investigate archaeological sites every summer from 1932 through 1942 when World War II interrupted research. The mid-1930s and early 1940s also featured Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) archaeological excavations at both prehistoric and historical sites.

Following World War II, Wilford re-started University of Minnesota field research and Leland Cooper began to pursue research at Hamline University. In the late 1950s, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) began excavations at Fort Snelling and Elden Johnson led St. Paul Science Museum excavations at prehistoric sites on Spring Lake near Hastings. Johnson replaced Wilford at the University of Minnesota in 1959 and a year later Alan Woolworth joined MHS as their archaeologist. MHS began underwater archaeological explorations along the Canadian border in 1960.

In 1963, Minnesota was one of the first states in the nation to pass a comprehensive archaeological law. The Minnesota Field Archaeology Act established the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) and promoted professional archaeological research. Three years later, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was passed and the era of cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology began. The NHPA established the National Register of Historic Places and state liaison offices that later became the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office's (MnHPOs). Section 106 of the NHPA required that federal agencies consider impacts of their actions on important historic properties and consult with the SHPOs about these actions. The gradual implementation of Section 106 in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to the great expansion of CRM.

The early 1970s saw great improvements in Minnesota research archaeology with archaeological undergraduate programs beginning at Moorhead State, Bemidji State, Mankato State, and St. Cloud State universities. The archaeological faculty at the University of Minnesota expanded and the Science Museum of Minnesota continued its archaeological activities. By the mid-1970s, CRM archaeology was not only protecting sites, but contributing to archaeological research with Trunk Highway and County Highway survey programs at MHS, the appearance of private contracting firms, and widespread federal agency interaction including archaeologists at Chippewa and Superior National Forests. In 1977, the Legislature began funding the MnHPO's Statewide Archaeological Survey, a program that lasted until 1981. The founding of the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology (IMA) initiated a new research era in 1982 with a privately based effort.

The 1980s witnessed CRM archaeology's increasing dominance over academic research archaeology in terms of employment and funding, although the various universities in Minnesota and the IMA continued to have robust archaeological research programs. This changed in the 1990s with the University of Minnesota abandoning its summer field schools, the archaeological program at Bemidji State disappearing, and the programs at St. Cloud State and Mankato State entering a temporary period of inactivity. Only Moorhead State and Hamline University continued to have strong field research programs by the end of the 1990s. The IMA filed for bankruptcy in 2003, a year that in many ways represents a low point for Minnesota research archaeology.

Minnesota Archaeology Today

Today, Minnesota archaeology has been re-invigorated by new personnel at the University of Minnesota, Moorhead State, Mankato State, St. Cloud State, Hamline, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. All these institutions are once again involved in robust field research, artifact analysis, and training of the next generation of archaeologists. The passage of the Minnesota Legacy Amendment in 2008 has provided significant funding for a Statewide Survey of Historical and Archaeological Sites in recent years. While the purpose of the survey is not research, site preservation cannot be done without knowing where sites are located and which ones are worthy of preservation.

Completed reports for the Statewide Survey are published on a designated page on this website. The Minnesota Historical Society also has a grants program funded by the Legacy Amendment that is available for those performing archaeological research.

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