Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

St. Paul’s Indian burial mounds are among the state’s oldest human-made structures

Along with mounds in Crow Wing, Itasca, and Beltrami Counties, they are some of the northernmost burial mounds on the Mississippi River.

The six burial mounds at St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park are among the oldest human-made structures in Minnesota. Along with mounds in Crow Wing, Itasca, and Beltrami Counties, they are some of the northernmost burial mounds on the Mississippi River. They comprise the only ancient American Indian burial mounds still extant inside a major U.S. city.

It is estimated that there were once tens of thousands of ceremonial, effigy, and conical mounds in the eastern half of North America. About a third of these were built in what are now Wisconsin and Minnesota; perhaps two thousand of them stood in sight of the upper Mississippi River. Conical mounds were often used for burials. The six that remain in St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park are some of the tallest, oldest, and most distinctive of these.

Article continues after advertisement

Archaeologists date the construction of the surviving mounds to between 200 BCE and 400 CE (a period called Middle Woodland) based on their similarity to mounds elsewhere in the Midwest. The tallest mound at the St. Paul site fits the pattern, observed elsewhere, of being the oldest.

The size, contents, and location of the mounds suggest that they held great religious or ceremonial importance for their builders. Archaeologists have concluded that they were American Indian people who shared some cultural characteristics with, or at least had contact with, the mound-building people of southern Ohio and western Illinois, and that the ideas and practices that motivated mound building moved north along the Mississippi. The cultural complex of these other mound builders bears the name Hopewell, from a farm in Ohio.

Certainly, the various peoples of North America maintained vast exchange networks: grave goods in the Upper Mississippi valley have included obsidian from Wyoming and shells from Florida. The mounds have been a sacred site for some modern and early modern Native people—particularly the Dakota—since before the mid-1700s.

The first person to map the St. Paul mounds, Theodore H. Lewis, began around 1880. He determined that there had once been fifty-eight mounds at the brow of what came to be known as Dayton’s Bluff, a promontory two hundred feet above the Mississippi River where it takes a turn south toward the Gulf of Mexico. At the top stood a group of eighteen, some of them tall and cone-shaped. The rest, most of them low, trailed along the bluff as it descended toward the north. Most of these were only a foot or two above the natural surface. When Lewis mapped them, only thirty nine remained.

Developers destroyed many of the small mounds in the late nineteenth century in order to build the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. The City of St. Paul razed seven more mounds in 1895 in the grading of Mounds Park Boulevard and the creation of Indian Mounds Park. It preserved the six tallest, which are also believed to be the oldest.

Looters, investigators, and road workers dug into at least seventeen of the mounds. Inside, they found wood and stone burial chambers, copper and stone grave goods, sea shell beads, mussel shells, and the remains of approximately fifty people, including a few children. The most remarkable object removed, in 1882, was a small child’s skull bearing a clay mask. The known excavations began in 1856 and ended in 1895, but looters may have been active both before and after.

Some of the objects and remains taken from the mounds were destroyed in a fire at the state capitol in 1881. Others, held at Macalester College from 1887 until 1955, including a copper breastplate, were stolen by collectors. The Minnesota Historical Society holds the only known surviving artifacts from the St. Paul mounds: seventeen projectile points, a small earthenware vessel, a box of small shells, and a glass bottle of red ocher.

Archaeologists completed a survey and some testing of the site in 1981, but the mounds themselves were not entered. In 2013, archaeologists used modern methods (including radar and magnetic gradiometry) to examine the mound site, with scant results. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which became law on November 16, 1990, regulates management of the remaining artifacts that had been acquired by museums and other public institutions.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.