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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Minnesota’s recorded history begins at the Jeffers Petroglyphs

photo of jeffers petroglyphs
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Digitally enhanced petroglyphs at the Jeffers site, ca. 2018.

Jeffers Petroglyphs is an internationally significant Native American sacred site and the location of the largest group of Indigenous petroglyphs (rock carvings) in the Midwestern United States. Situated in Dakota homeland, it is sacred to multiple Native American nations, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Iowa, and Ojibwe.

The Jeffers site is where Minnesota’s recorded history began. It is embedded in a rich natural and cultural landscape made up of petroforms (boulder outlines), pictographs (rock paintings), campsites, quarries, sacred springs, and water falls. The 160-acre site is best known, however, for the estimated 8,000 Native American petroglyphs (rock carvings) pecked into its horizontally exposed Sioux quartzite outcrops. There, the sloping terrain and shifting depth of bedrock provide an unequal distribution of soil depth and water retention that creates diverse micro environments with many distinct plant, insect, and animal species.

Jeffers Petroglyphs is part of the Red Rock Ridge, which rises some 100 to 300 feet above the landscape in northeast Cottonwood County and dominates the surrounding terrain. Twenty-three miles long and 800 feet wide, it contains 209 exposed outcrops―protrusions of bedrock that were ground smooth and flat by glaciers 14,000 years ago. Of these 209, twenty-four have petroglyphs carved into them, giving the ridge the largest concentration of such carvings in the Upper Midwest. One irregularly shaped, 300-yard-long by fifty-yard-wide outcrop at Jeffers contains most of the 5,000 total carvings found on the ridge.

The petroglyphs illustrate animals and tools that were important to the people who carved them: bison, salamanders, turtles, elk, human stick figures, birds, leather bags, and various weapons (atlatls, spear points, arrowheads, and lances). They were made over an estimated 11,000 years, with the earliest dating to 9,000 BCE and the most recent to the 1600s or 1700s CE.


Certain glyphs prevailed during specific time periods. At first, carvers etched the shapes of elk and buffalo; a baby moose was carved around 8,000 BCE. Animals remained the most popular symbol until about 3,000 BCE, when they were joined by human figures representing ceremonies. (A combination of carbon dating and comparisons of subject and style with other sites has allowed archaeologists to arrive at these estimates.)

Native American elders believe that the glyphs were made directly by spirits and/or by inspired humans using a rock hammerstone, such as a chert cobble, that was as hard as or harder than the quartzite base. The multiple carvings styles are found at other sites across the North American continent, including the Peterborough Petroglyphs in Ontario.

Jeffers is unique in the age and scope of the Indigenous cultural relationships it preserves. Elders (Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ojibwe, and Iowa) state that it is a place where people retreated to fast, seek guidance, commune with spirits, and conduct ceremonies. More than art or mimicry of the natural environment, the carvings are eloquent cultural symbols of rich and complex Native societies.

They also point out that there were many reasons for carving the glyphs. Elders taught philosophy to younger generations through parables pictured on the rock, and travelers used them to write directions for those who were to follow them. Some depict spirits; many record the visions of holy people. Others are healing altars or prayers to the Great Spirit, or to one of the helping spirits. Above all, it is a spiritual place where grandmother earth speaks of the past, present, and future.

The descendants of those who carved the images consider the site a place of worship. In the twenty-first century, some still pray and conduct ceremonies there. Dakota elders Joe Williams, Jerry Flute, Tom Ross, and Robert Larsen state that the carvings at Jeffers, like those found elsewhere on the Red Rock Ridge, are an encyclopedia of Native American history that records historic and cultural knowledge. They believe that the petroglyphs are the only remaining evidence of the existence and lifeways of some of North America’s Native peoples. Because of this geographic and spiritual link to the past, Jeffers allows Native people living today to build and deepen their connections to their traditional culture.

Editor’s note: Chronologies provided here are approximate and dependent on multiple methods of date determination.

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

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/04/2019 - 07:08 pm.

    Thanks much for this report….it is the most special place.

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