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Carver's Cave:
An Enduring Landmark on the Upper Mississippi River
Ramsey County

Alan R. Woolworth and Nancy L. Woolworth

During its passage through St. Paul, Minnesota, the Mississippi River flows through high bluffs of white St. Peter sandstone that are capped by a thin layer of tawny-colored Platteville limestone. These river bluffs are prominent in the Dayton's Bluff section of the city. It is here that the legendary landmark known as Carver's Cave is located. People have been attracted to the region for thousands of years by its natural beauty and food resources. And despite the passage of time, the ghostly presence of these Indian peoples is yet to be seen on the landscape.

 
 


About 2,000 years ago, a forgotten Indian group appeared and dwelt upon the land for perhaps a few hundreds of years. We can note their presence by their burial mounds which yet lie on top of the shining white sandstone cliffs, in a spot known as Indian Mounds Park. Some 1,500 years later, the Mdewakanton division of the Eastern Dakota or Sioux tribe erected buffalo-skin tipis near the banks of the Mississippi and named the vicinity "Im-in-jus-ka" or "White Cliffs".

At about the same time, a few adventurous Dakota youths proceeded to investigate a deep cave at the base of this cliff. Embarking with a canoe on the pond within the cave, they ventured into a deep darkness, lit only by a few sputtering bark torches. Soon, they were frightened back to daylight by strange sounds and flickering lights. Filled with awe, the local band began to call the cave "Waken Tipi" or "House of the spirits." It is doubtful that many of the Dakota went into its darkness from that time on. Even then, it is highly probable that there were many carvings of human figures, animals, birds and reptiles, incised into the soft white stone near the mouth of the cave. And it is logical to conjecture that some of the Dakota Indians added their own drawings to this gallery of prehistoric Indian art.

Slowly the years rolled on, and in mid-November of 1766, Captain Jonathan Carver, a Connecticut native engaged in the British fur trade, came to the upper Mississippi River. Although interested in exploration for the fur trade and financial gain, Captain Carver was observant and recorded much information with a lasting value concerning the country, its nat ural wonders, its vegetation, and its Indian peoples and their lifestyles. He did not record how he first learned of the cave, but it is probable that his party was told of the cave by locally resident Dakota Indians. Whatever the facts, it is significant that Carver examined this natural feature and recorded a considerable amount of details concerning it. Thus, he became one of the first white men to describe a cave within northern North America and to publish his data concerning it. This led to his name being applied to the cave.

Carver described the cave in his journal in these words:

November 14, 1766. This day arrived to the great stone cave calld by the Naudowessee [Sioux] Waukon Teebee, or in English the house of spirits. m is cave I found to be a great curiosity, in a rocky mountain just by the bank of the [Mississippi] river. The mouth of the cave fronting the river [is] on an ascent near 45, the enterence about ten feet broad and three feet high. I went in and measured the room upwards of thirty feet broad, and about sixty feet from the enterence of the cave [to] where I came to a lake. As 'twas dark I could not find out the bigness nor the form of it. The roof was about 20 feet high at the greatest elevation, the bottom clean white sand a little descending to the water from the mouth. I cast a stone which I could hear fall at a distance and with a strange hollow sound. I tasted of this water and found it very good.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The rock at the enterence of the cave is of a lightish gray colour and very soft like the grit of a grindstone. I found many strange hieroglyphycks cut in the stone some of which were very ancient and grown over with moss. On this stone I marked the arms of the king of England. Near this cave is the burying place of the Mottobauntoway band of the Naudowessee (Parker, 1976, p. 91-92).

After a winter of fur trading among the Dakota bands, Carver returned downstream. On May 1, 1767, he met with many chiefs of the several Dakota bands in a large tipi near the cave. Carver claimed to have spoken to this council and to have induced these people to ally themselves with the British (Ibid, p. 119-121). He then continued on his return over Lake Superior to Michilimackinac and sailed to England. Following many struggles, his travel account was published in 1778 and received a favorable reception. Ultimately, it went into many editions and was widely read in Europe and America. His glowing narrative accounts of the region, and of the cave led to its being called "Carver's Cave" thereafter.

Nearly 40 years passed before the next known mention of the cave recorded by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike when he visited the locality in the spring of 1806. Unfortunately, limestone debris had fallen from above, and had covered the cave's mouth so that it could not be located (Coues, 1965, p. 198-201).

From 1817 onwards a steady stream of army officers, Indian agents, and travelers visited the region. Many of them sought to find and to visit the famous cave. A typical visit was that of Major Stephen H. Long in 1817. He found that the entrance was only about 8 feet wide and so low that a man had to lie down while entering. At that time the cave was about 60 feet deep, 7 feet high, and slightly more than 22 feet wide. The cave was rapidly filling up with white sand and had only a small pool of stagnant water in it. In shape, the cave resembled a rounded baker's oven. Long's guide told him that he remembered when the cave had been much larger. At that time, the entrance had been about 10 feet high and the cave itself was of a greater length (Long, 1889, p. 31-32). During the summer of 1823, Colonel S.H. Long led an expedition up the Mississippi River which paused briefly to investigate the cave. The guide, who had been with Long 5 years earlier, told them that the cave was now closed up (Keating, 1959, p. 300).

Lawrence Taliaferro, Indian agent of the nearby St. Peter's Indian Agency at Fort Snelling, visited the cave and made a number of casual references to it. Early in 1826, he described the Dakota chief, Little Crow, holding a medicine dance above the "Big Stone Cave." This would of course have been on top of the bluff. In 1829, Taliaferro went to the cave for an ice fishing excursion, but found that the pond was frozen over. In the spring of the same year, his wife Elizabeth took a party of young ladies and gentlemen" to visit the cave and a nearby maple sugar grove which the local Dakota Indians used (Talisferro, 1820's).

An early geologist to visit the region, George W. Featherstonhaugh, was informed in 1835 by local Dakota Indians that there had formerly been a large cave in the vicinity, but that "the rock fell in and covered it up." Upon making a personal investigation, he noted that hundreds of tons of stone covered the slope where the cave had been (Featherstonhaugh, 1970, p. 256).

The next scientist to visit the cave was more tenacious and left a far more detailed record. Joseph N. Nicollet, a French cartographer, came to the site on July 3-5, 1837 with several companions. They found the entrance to the cave covered with fallen stone from the bluff above it. They worked for almost 2 days to find the entrance but found that the pond within it came almost to the roof. Near the entrance Nicollet noted the carvings of Dakota Indians who had visited the site (Nicollet, 1845, p. 72). At about the same time, Nicollet questioned the oldest living men of the Dakota villages who stated that they had never interred their dead in the cave. Instead, they placed them on funeral scaffolds on top of Dayton's Bluff. The cave had been a place for their children's sports. This location had been a popular one for them because it formed the intersection for trails between their three villages. The low grounds and marshes nearby had an abundance of maple sugar and wild rice. Hence, these people had made it a custom to prepare maple sugar there in the spring, and to harvest wild rice there in the fall (Nicollet, 1852, p. 97).

By 1851, the famous cave had come on somewhat better times. It was now owned by a Mr. Dayton who was busy removing sand from within it. Then, the cave was about 40 feet wide by 70 feet long. The roof was low, and a portion of it arched upwards into a domed vault (Minnesota Weekly Pioneer, August 28, 1851, p. 2).

In about 1857, the Reverend E.D. Neill had measurements made which showed that the cave entrance was then 39 feet wide and 5 feet high. The overall length was 117 feet, with a width of 45 feet at its widest part and a height of 19 feet to the roof of the circular dome.

 
 



Renewed interest focused upon Carver's Cave as the year 1867 approached and with it the centennial of Carver's visit to the cave in 1767. The Minnesota Historical Society held a Carver Centennial celebration at the cave on May 1, 1867, exactly 100 years from the day when Carver was last at the cave.



Members of the Minnesota Historical Society examining the interior of Carver's Cave by candlelight. An Indian drawing of a rattlesnake is incised on the cave ceiling. Drawn by Robert O. Sweeny. Credit Minnesota Historical Society.

 
 



 
 




The earliest known interior plat of Carver's Cave. Drawn by Robert O. Sweeny from data provided by Dr. Thomas Foster (?). Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.


Our earliest graphic depictions of the cave date from that event when the well-known St. Paul druggist, Robert O. Sweeny, made several sketches which depict the dignitaries gathering stones from the margin of the pool, boating on it by candles, and examining the carvings of rattlesnakes on the ceiling.

Sweeny also prepared a sketch map of the cave which is the earliest known plan of its interior. On it, the cave is shown as having an entrance 50 feet wide, and an approximate depth of 129 feet. Much of the ceiling was about 9 feet above the pool, but the rounded dome was 18 feet above the water level.

 
 



Progress in the form of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad began to encroach upon the cave because it lay along the river bank which was being used for a right-of-way and switch yards. In 1868 the Kelly brothers quartered some of their draft horses in the cave entrance. By August of 1869, a terse newspaper account stated that the Chicago and St. Paul Railroad had laid out an expansion of its trackage which would require removal of a portion of the bluff in which the cave was located (Saint Paul Dispatch, August 24, 1869, p. 4). Although different accounts vary in detail, there are indications that about 22 feet of the cave entrance, which contained many Indian carvings, was removed at this time. Quarrymen were removing limestone from on top of the bluff.

 
 



Archeological attention was at last directed to the cave in October of 1878 when Theodore H. Lewis, a local antiquarian, visited the cave and made detailed observations. At that date, the diminished cave entrance was 51 feet wide, 5 feet high, and had a depth of about 113 feet. The greatest width for the cave was about 54 feet. He also preserved for posterity tracings of four rattlesnake figures, and two animals which may be bears. There were also outline drawings of men, birds, fish, turtles, and perhaps one or two lizards (Lewis, 1901, pp. 231-233).



Drawings of four rattlesnakes, and two quadrupeds which may be bears. Drawn by Theodore H. Lewis (1878).

 
 



By 1886, evil days had come upon this local tourist attraction. A bustling railway switch yard lay in front of its entrance and more than 250 trains passed it each day. The cave chamber itself had been desecrated with kegs. A local historian summed up the deplorable situation in these terms:

The entrance to the cave is at present blocked by a railroad track. Its capacious chamber is filled with beer barrels. Its pearly stream has ceased to flow. It is slowly dying of I civilization, and in a few years will be known only in history, ... and the landmarks of the past are obliterated by the swelling wave of the human race (Newson, 1886, p. 5).

In 1901, archeologist Theodore H. Lewis pessimistically noted, "The whole face of the bluff has been so changed that the oldest resident could not point out its former location with any degree of certainty, so that henceforth it will only be known in history as having once existed" (Lewis, 1901, p. 233). Lewis was unduly pessimistic because the cave proved to be more durable than he had imagined. It was studied in 1907 by a photographer and newspaper reporter who visited the site with its owner, Henry O'Connor. They noted that the cave entrance was almost obscured by debris, and commented that the St. Paul Park Board should have acquired the property years ago so that it could have been connected with the well-known Indian Mounds Park located on top of Dayton's Bluff and a short distance east of the cave (Spencer, 1907).

Soon after this visit, the cave entrance was covered by more debris form on top of the bluff. It then lay buried and forgotten until the fall of 1913 when J.H. Colwell of the Dayton's Bluff Commercial Club and others raised funds and relocated the cave mouth with the aid of a horsedrawn scraper. Then, John W. Armstrong, Ramsey County surveyor, entered into a prolonged contest with the Dayton's Bluff group for control of the cave. Each tried to outdo the other, and there were locks on top of locks, lost keys, policemen, threats of lawsuits, etc. for some weeks (St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 12, 13, 17 and 21, 1913). Intense interest had been aroused by the publicity, and 2,000 people visited the cave on November 16, 1913 (Ibid).

Unfortunately, it was not feasible to add it to the St. Paul park system. Therefore the cave was again gradually forgotten by the general public. It continued to be a prominent part of the local folklore and was ever a popular topic for generations of small boys. Local Boy Scout troops explored it during the 1920's and 1930's to dream of others who had preceded them to this legendary spot. During the great depression, homeless men built their shacks in the cave entrance. In about 1938, the cave entrance was opened by Franklyn Armstrong, son of John W. Armstrong, for his young son's Wacouta Troop No. 4. These youths had a glorious time paddling about within the cave in a small boat.

Soon afterwards, the cave entrance was again covered by debris, and its precise location gradually forgotten. Interest in the cave revived with the Centennial of Minnesota Territory in 1949, but the cave was not opened officially. One good legend from this time states that a local policeman unplugged the elusive entrance, and flooded nearby railroad trackage with a torrent of water. This unfortunate event and a concern about possible injuries to people crossing its busy freight trackage caused the Northern Pacific Railroad to be very cautious about reopening the fabled cave.

Scientific interest in the cave was rekindled by about 1971. It was supported by a desire to make a detailed study of the site to learn how much of it had survived railroad expansion, erosion, and vandalism. A special interest was directed toward the fate of the once numerous Indian petroglyphs carved into the soft sandstone near the cave entrance. This effort lapsed before it had led to any results aside from the gathering of much historical information concerning the cave and a continued interest in it by the authors of this paper.

In 1976, John Ricci of the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department developed and led a search for the cave entrance as an official city Bicentennial project. In April of 1977, a small committee from the Minnesota Archaeological Society, headed by Alan R. Woolworth, then president of the Society and chief archeologist for the Minnesota Historical Society, contacted Mr. Ricci to express their interest, and to offer assistance in locating the elusive site. Thereafter, they cooperated with the City of St. Paul by furnishing historical and archeological data on the cave. Finally, on September 16, 1977, the cave entrance was found and the cave was briefly opened for inspection, under the direction of Roger Goski of the St. Paul Community Services Division, City of St. Paul.

Shortly thereafter, a number of local American Indians visited the cave and showed their concern that the cave be treated with care because of its association with the Indian history of the area. Fortunately, the St. Paul city officials shared this concern and were eager to work with members of the Minnesota Sioux tribe and other Indians in the formulation of a long-range plan for the development and interpretation of Carver's Cave as a unique natural feature with important traditional and historical associations. It is very probable that the cave will be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places so that it will have federal recognition and protection. For the interim, a pair of massive double doors have been placed over the cave entrance by officials to protect both the cave and the public.

 
 




American Indians at the entrance to Carver's Cave, September l7, 1977. Photo by Alan R. Woolworth



At present, a research grant is being sought to underwrite the costs of conducting a preliminary archeological, historical, and speleological study of the cave. The basic goals of this research would be to have I sufficient data for a preliminary evaluation of the significance of the cave and to guide the development of long-range plans for its preservation and interpretation to the public.

 
 



Carver's Cave is one of the oldest and best known natural landmarks on the Upper Mississippi River. Its associations with Dakota tradition and culture, and with the discovery, exploration, and settlement of the region give it an added significance as a major historic site. It is our sincere hope that it will be preserved and used as an important part of our heritage from the past.

REFERENCES
Coues, Elliott, 1965, The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, v. 1: Minneapolis, Ross & Haines, Inc.

Featherstonhaugh, George W., 1970, A canoe voyage up the Minnay Sotor, v. 1: Minnesota Historical Society.

Keating, William H., 1959, Narrative of an expedition to the source of St. Peter's River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, etc., performed in the year 1823: Minneapolis, Ross & Haines, Inc.

Lewis, Theodore H., 1901, Sculptures in caves at St. Paul, Minnesota: De Lestry's Western Magazine, v. 6, no. 6. 229-233.

Long, Stephen H., 1889, Voyage in a six-oared skiff to the Falls of Saint Anthony in 1817: Minnesota Historical Collections, v. 2, 7-88.

Mattocks, John, 1867,The Carver Centernary, an account of the celebration by the Minnesota Historical Society, on the one hundredth anniversary of the council and treaty of Capt. Jonathan Carver, with the Naudo- wessies, on May 1, 1767 at the Great Cave, ...: Minnesota Historical Collections, v. 2, 257-284.

Newson, Thomas M., 1886, Pen pictures of St. Paul, Minnesota and biographical sketches of old settlers: St. Paul, pub. by the author.

Nicollet, Joseph N., 1845, Report intended to illustrate A map of the ' hyrographical basin of the upper Mississippi River: Washington, 26th 3 Congress, 2nd session, S. Ex. Doc. no. 237 (H. Doc 52), 177 p.

Nicollet, Joseph N., 1852, Notices of the natural caves in the Sioux country, on the left banks of the upper Mississippi River, in: Schoolcraft, Henry R., ea., Information respecting the history, condition, and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States, v. 2, 95-99.

Parker, John, 1976, The Journals of Jonathan Carver and related documents, 1766-1770: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Spencer, George S., 1907, The Jonathan Carver cave and its historic associations of St. Paul: St. Paul Dispatch, May 4.

Taliaferro, Lawrence, 1820's, Manuscript Journals: Division of Archives and Manuscripts, Minnesota Historical Society.

 
 


 

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Updated 15 Oct 1999