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Stories - Overview








Steamboats on the Mississippi painting
View on the Mississippi - Also known as Steamboats on the Mississippi by Ferdinand Reichardt; oil on canvas, 1857 - Minnesota Historical Society Collections


For more than ten thousand years the Mississippi River has carried a mighty load from the heart of North America to the Gulf of Mexico: torrents of melt water white with sand and gravel from retreating glaciers; trees and logs from northern forests; black silt from prairies and plowed fields; wastes from cities and mills. It has provided a habitat and pathway for countless marine creatures, a broad flyway for millions of waterfowl, and a highway for human trade and migration. People have an affinity for the river, and as they have lived beside it and traveled on its current, they have left a record of their passage and of the lives they led. From Archaic buffalo hunters in the bogs by Lake Itasca to the builders of towns and temples at Cahokia, to the pilots of paddle wheelers and the designers of bridges and cities, locks and dams -- all have left traces. And the sites where those traces are found tell us the stories of the great river and its peoples.

ďI look back at what the Mississippi is to me, and itís the giver of life. Everything is a circle -- a circle of life. That riverís been around here for thousands of years, and people have been using it for thousands of years. And people will continue to use it for the next thousands of years. As long as we keep that circle, donít try to sever all the spines that go to it, because the Mississippi is just one part of that web.Ē

   -- Jim Jones, Jr., Bemidji, MN
   Anishinabe (Ojibwe) Indian, Leech Lake Pillager Band
From the Many Voices of the River Exhibit (audio recording), at the East Coon Rapids Dam Visitor Center, courtesy of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, National Park Service. See: Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Glacial map showing Lake Aggassiz
This map shows central North America shortly after 10,000 BP (8,000 BCE), when ice from the last glaciation was receding toward the arctic and a lake of melt water covered most of the Red River Valley and what is now Manitoba. Blocked to the north by ice, this lake drained to the south through the Missississippi River.

In the upper third of its course, the Mississippi flows through a land that has been molded and reshaped time and again by advancing and retreating sheets of ice. The wider story of this glaciation over millions of years is told elsewhere. In the parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin that our story covers, the landscape we now know was formed during the last 13,000 years.

Mammoth kill drawing
Drawing by Lee Radzak

As the walls of ice retreated and the low, brushy vegetation called "tundra" offered food for animals and birds, humans also moved into the region. The earliest were probably bands of hunters following herds of large animals, like bison, elk, and mammoth. Archaeologists call them "Paleo-Indians." As the climate warmed and vegetation changed over the millenia that followed, many groups of early Indian people came to the upper Mississippi valley. Some stayed and some moved on. We know them only vaguely by the traces they left in the ground.

The story we read there is one of constant adaptation to changing environments and the gradual enriching of life through the use of new resources. This was made possible by new ideas and new technologies that in turn gave rise to more complex relationships of people with each other and with the forces of the natural world. To spears were added atlatls and later bows and arrows; travel became faster and fishing easier when canoes replaced rafts; wild berries, seeds, and roots were supplemented by a few cultivated plants; the technique of making pottery vessels allowed easier cooking and better food storage, and in turn harvesting of crops like wild rice became more feasible. With greater abundance came more population and new social organization and community rituals. The use of pottery was accompanied by the custom of building earthen mounds in sacred places, and corn agriculture introduced from the south brought more permanent villages and elaborate burials.

We invite you to read an essay written by Jim Jones, Jr., of Bemidji, MN, an Anishinabe (Ojibwe) Indian, titled "Windows of the Past," to gain another perspective on the meaning and value of archaeology.

Archaeologists have defined the changes they found as certain cultural stages. The usual classification of these stages and a few of the objects associated with them in this region are shown in the accompanying time line of cultures.

Next we send you to see something of the stories that have been studied by archaeologists along three parts of the upper Mississippi: its Northern Headwaters, the five Minnesota counties that form the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area, and the Red Wing Locality.

Also available is a special section called Doing Archaeology in Minnesota that briefly summarizes the practice of archaeology in Minnesota.



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Northern Headwaters Twin Cities Metro Area Red Wing Locality

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© 1999 The Institute for Minnesota Archaeology
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Updated 30 Jun 1999