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Post-Contact Period

An Overview of Post-Contact Period Archaeology in Minnesota (1837 - Present)

The Post-Contact Period begins with the first major Indian treaty in Minnesota, opening the flood gates of Euro-American intrusion. The Minnesota Historic Preservation Office (MnHPO) has divided this period into eight major “historic contexts.” These contexts are: 

  • Indian Communities and Reservations (1837-1934)
  • St. Croix Triangle Lumbering (1830s - 1900s)
  • Early Agriculture and River Settlement (1840- 1870)
  • Railroads and Agricultural Development (1870-1940)
  • Northern Minnesota Lumbering (1870-1930s)
  • Minnesota's Iron Ore Industry (1880s-1945)
  • Minnesota Tourism and Recreation in the Lake Regions (1870-1945)
  • Urban Centers (1870 - 1940). 


Historic contexts combine a historic theme, geographic area, and time period. All archeological and historic sites in Minnesota should fit into one or more of these historic contexts. 

Historic contexts allow archaeologists and historians to better assess the significance of all historic properties dating to the Post-Contact Period. Historic properties include buildings, structures, cultural landscapes, and archaeological sites. As with most of the Contact Period, the archaeology of this Post-Contact period is called historical archaeology because researchers can use written records as well as artifacts and features to better understand past events and cultural processes. 

Post-Contact Indian Archaeology

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Minnesota was controlled by two Indian tribes, the Dakota (Sioux) in the south and the Ojibwe (Chippewa) in the north. In 1837, the first major Indian land cession was made by eastern Dakota and southern Ojibwe groups. This cession opened the land east of the Mississippi River below the mouth of the Crow Wing River to white settlement. Today this area contains all of Anoka, Benton, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Sherburne, and Washington counties as well as portions of Crow Wing, Morrison, and Pine. In 1851, the Dakota ceded the remainder of their Minnesota lands, which included all of southern Minnesota.

Additional Ojibwe cessions began in 1847 with the lands west of the Mississippi River and south of the Crow Wing River. Further Ojibwe cessions followed in 1854, 1855, 1863, 1864, 1866, and 1867. Only the land now encompassed by the Red Lake Reservation was not formally ceded by the Ojibwe, although the federal government obtained rights to it in 1889 by other means.

The Dakota treaties as ratified by the Senate involved land cession and payments, but did not involve the establishment of formal reservations in Minnesota. The upper Minnesota River reservations initially promised in the 1851 treaties were used, however, as a re-settlement area for the Dakota. The western Minnesota Dakota groups -- the Sisseton and Wahpeton (the "Upper Sioux") -- were allowed to settle along the Minnesota River above the Yellow Medicine River. Meanwhile the eastern Minnesota groups -- the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute (the "Lower Sioux") -- were allowed to settle below the Yellow Medicine. 

In 1862, Dakota frustration over their mistreatment erupted in open conflict resulting in the death of over 500 white settlers and numerous Dakota. As a result of the U.S.–Dakota War, the federal government abrogated all Dakota treaties and banished the Dakota from Minnesota. Over the next quarter century, small groups of Dakota continued to live in the state, occupying scattered lands of private benefactors. Finally in 1887, the government purchased some small parcels of land at Birch Coulee, Shakopee, Prior Lake, and Prairie Island for the Dakota. Additional land was purchased at Prairie Island and Birch Coulee in 1889. These lands became the core properties for the modern Dakota communities of Lower Sioux, Shakopee, and Prairie Island. 

The Upper Sioux Community was not formally established until 1938. Archaeological work has been done at a number of U.S.-Dakota War sites, most notably Fort Ridgely. University of Minnesota excavations at the Little Rapids Dakota village site included a Post-Contact Period occupation. 

The Ojibwe fared better than the Dakota in the retention of land largely because the poorer farm lands of northern Minnesota were not as much in demand for white settlement especially after the white pine had been removed. The first U.S.-Ojibwe land cession treaties in 1837 and 1847 did not establish any reservations, but most of the cession treaties that followed did. The Grand Portage and Fond du Lac Reservations were established in 1854, the Mille Lacs and Leech Lake Reservations were established in 1855, the Nett Lake (Boise Forte) Reservation was established in 1866, and the White Earth Reservation was established in 1867. The Red Lake Reservation is unique in that its lands were never formally ceded and the tribe resisted land allotment. Most archaeological work on the Contact and Post-Contact period Ojibwe has been done in Voyageurs National Park.

Lumbering Archaeology

Lumbering was the first industry of Minnesota. Minnesota was in a perfect position to become a logging center with dense forests in the north connected by rivers to water-power sawmill sites in the south. In addition, the Mississippi River was a natural highway to float sawn lumber to the booming cities south of Minnesota. Lumbering began in Minnesota with the construction of Fort Snelling in the 1820s. Soldiers from the fort initially cut timber in the immediate vicinity of the fort and also on the St. Croix. In 1821, a sawmill was built on the west side of St. Anthony Falls and timber was cut not far upstream on the Mississippi River. 

Commercial lumbering began in earnest in the late 1830s after the first major Indian treaty opened areas adjacent to the Rum and lower St. Croix rivers to lumbering. The Ojibwe portion of the ceded lands was white pine country and white pine was the most sought-after timber. With additional Ojibwe treaties, lumbering moved north and eventually peaked in the first decade of the 20th century. By the 1920s, most of Minnesota’s white pine forest were gone and sawmills rapidly closed. By the 1930s, Minnesota’s lumber industry was a pale shadow of what it had been.

Archaeological sites associated with lumbering include logging camps as well as remnants of transportation features such as dams, roads, booms, and railroads. It is estimated that perhaps 10,000 logging-associated sites exist in Minnesota. Of these, only about 700 have been recorded as archaeological sites and most of these are camps in Minnesota’s two national forests. No logging camp has been subjected to intensive archaeological excavation in Minnesota, although several have been tested. Archaeologist Douglas Birk has been studying transportation features north of Brainerd. 

Farmstead Archaeology

People have been growing crops in Minnesota for thousands of years, but with the onset of intensive Euro-American settlement and technological improvements in the mid-1800s, the scale and scope of farming changed dramatically. Census data reflects the rapid growth in Minnesota farms:

  • 1850 – 157 farms
  • 1860 – 18,181 farms
  • 1870 -  46,500 farms
  • 1880 – 92,386 farms
  • 1890 – 116,851 farms
  • 1900 – 154,659 farms
  • 1910 – 156,137 farms
  • 1920 – 178,478 farms
  • 1930 – 185,255 farms. 


The peak year for farms in Minnesota was 1935 with 302,302 farms. We have been falling ever since, with a current total of about 81,000 farms.

Farming in Minnesota before the Civil War was largely subsistence farming, as most farmers had to clear their land of trees or break the tough prairie sod, so only a small acreage was farmed and transportation to major markets was difficult without roads and railroads. Residences were crude log cabins, sod houses, or dugouts. There were few barns and out-buildings. 

The Civil War and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 dramatically slowed Euro-American settlement of Minnesota, but with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and the end of the Civil War, settlement and farming greatly increased in the late 1860s. Railroad construction in the 1870s and 1880s allowed farmers to have broader access to markets. As more land was farmed, more land was put in cash crops, primarily wheat. Wheat soon dominated Minnesota farming and Minnesota led the nation in wheat production in the 1890s. Farms became larger and buildings more permanent. Despite the continued dominance of wheat, more farms diversified and included animal production and dairying. This diversification led to many new types of out-buildings. 

Wheat’s dominance began to fade in the 1890s and diversification continued. Agriculture even expanded into the cut-over regions of northern Minnesota. Farm prosperity increased steadily until the stock market crashed in 1929 and drought characterized much of the 1930s. New Deal programs gradually stabilized prices and brought improvements like electricity and telephones to farms. Recovery was spurred by international food needs brought on by World War II.

Farmstead archaeology in Minnesota is still in its infancy. There are currently almost 300 farms listed in the State Archaeologist’s inventory. About a third of these are from a survey of Camp Ripley in Morrison County. Just over 30 farmsteads have been subjected to detailed archaeological examination and, of these, only three are considered to be excavated sites. One site is the Keefe farmstead in Benton County where St. Cloud State University archaeologists have held several Archaeology Week public excavations. Another site is the interpreted Gibbs Farm historic site in Ramsey County. The third is the Backes-Geers farmstead in Stearns County that was impacted by highway construction.  

There is an excellent study of historic and archaeological aspects of farming on the Minnesota Department of Transportation website.

Industrial Archaeology

Industrial archaeology often is not archaeology at all, as industrial archaeology is defined as the study, interpretation, and preservation of historically significant industrial sites, structures, artifacts, and technology. Archaeological methods usually have little to do with studying existing buildings and structures and the machines they contain. When archaeological methods are used and the research location can be classified as a historical archaeological site, this is truly archaeology and industrial archaeology becomes what the name implies.

The first industrial sites in Minnesota were mills mostly associated with lumber or flour milling, but included other industries such as textiles and metal working. Most mills were initially powered by water, then by steam, and eventually by electricity. A few early mills in Minnesota were even wind-powered. There have been as many as 1,000 flour mills at over 800 discrete locations in Minnesota since the first one was built by Fort Snelling soldiers at St. Anthony Falls in 1823. Of these, 466 were water-powered mills and 319 were steam-powered according to a Minnesota Historical Society study by Robert Frame in 1977. Ruins of some of the large commercial flour mills at St. Anthony Falls have been exposed in what is called Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis. Impressive flour mill ruins can also be seen in Dundas (Archibald Mills), Hastings (Ramsey Mill), and near Cannon Falls (Oxford Mill). 

Along with lumbering in the mid-19th century came sawmill sites, first powered by water and then steam. The first commercial sawmill was at Marine on St. Croix in 1839. In the 1840s, large sawmills were established in Stillwater and then on the east side of St. Anthony Falls in what was to become Minneapolis. By 1870, there were over 200 sawmills operating in Minnesota and by 1890 there were over 300. Besides Minneapolis and Stillwater, sawmilling centers were soon established at Anoka, Winona, Duluth, St. Cloud, Brainerd, and Crookston. 

Several sawmill sites in Minnesota have been excavated, mainly along the west side of the central Minneapolis riverfront associated with the construction of West River Parkway. In 1999, the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology (IMA) excavated a sawmill complex impacted by the Carlton County highway project at Scanlon. The complex included both a sawmill and a boarding house associated with the mill.

Urban Archaeology

Some of the most important archaeology in the world has been done in cities. Most early archaeology focused on ancient cities, some of which happened to be buried beneath modern cities like Athens and Rome. In the mid-20th century, European archaeologists began to be interested in “modern” cities, focusing on the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1960s, American archaeologists began to look more broadly at modern cities, examining all the various systems that typify them: industry, residences, transportation, utilities, and more. Out of this came the archaeological concept of an integrated approach called “the city as a site.”

Although various Minnesota historical archaeologists had looked at isolated sites in urban settings in the 1970s, it was the proposed West River Parkway project in Minneapolis that led to the first extensive urban archaeology. Beginning in 1983, archaeologists from the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) examined the route of West River Parkway along the west side of the Mississippi River from Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis to just south of Washington Avenue near the University of Minnesota campus. Over the next three years, MHS archaeologists examined railroad roundhouses, sawmills, ironworks, early bridge remains, commercial districts, residential districts, and breweries. When the southern segment of the road was under construction in 1989, additional archaeology was done. Two other major urban archaeology projects were also done in Minneapolis in conjunction with the replacement of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge in the late 1980s and the construction of the nearby Federal Reserve Bank in the early 1990s.

A major urban archaeology project in St. Paul was done prior to the construction of the new Science Museum of Minnesota in 1997. A late 19th century to early 20th century neighborhood was examined including the sites of several brothels and a saloon. This archaeology provided insights into the sordid side of life in St. Paul. Other locations of urban archaeology include the Elliot Park neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis and the Old City of Moorhead.

Underwater Archaeology

Most people think of the Mediterranean Sea when they think of underwater archaeology. Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) diving was invented by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan in the south of France in the 1940s. In the 1960s, National Geographic began to cover the shipwreck explorations of George Bass off the coasts of Greece and Turkey. The ships that Bass was excavating were thousands of years old, they were in warm water, and they were rarely over 100 feet deep. 

Some of the earliest underwater archaeology done in North America was done in Minnesota. The same year that George Bass was exploring his first shipwreck off the coast of Turkey, underwater archaeologists from Minnesota and Ontario were searching for the wrecks of fur trade vessels in the U.S.-Canadian boundary waters. The Superior-Quetico project was jointly sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) and the Royal Ontario Museum. From 1960 through 1976, dive teams explored multiple river rapids looking for the remains of canoe accidents. Almost every rapid’s site had fur trade artifacts. Extensive underwater excavations were done in the Pigeon River at Fort Charlotte at the interior end of the Grand Portage in Cook County.

In the 1990s, the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office (MnHPO) received several legislative grants to examine shipwrecks in Minnesota waters of Lake Superior. Archaeological explorations of the shipwrecks of Lake Superior are very different in age and setting than Mediterranean wrecks. Most of the wrecks are only a century old and the water is clear, but very cold. The results of these explorations can be viewed on the MHS website. MnHPO also examined wrecks in the interior waters of Minnesota in the 1990s.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society (GLSPS) is currently finding and exploring deep wrecks in Lake Superior utilizing new technologies such as side-scan sonar and mixed-gas diving. A private organization, Maritime Heritage Minnesota, is continuing to explore the inland waters of Minnesota.
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