The oldest existing human-made structures in the Twin Cities are so much older than anything else that the rest of the constructed landscape around it, from the past 150 years, seems paltry. These ancient structures are the cities’ Hopewellian mounds, circular earthworks built thousands of years ago, found all across the continent. In Minnesota, there are 15,000 mounds. There are more than 1,100 in Hennepin County alone, with many more in Ramsey and Scott Counties, as well.
Most notable among these are the six mounds located at what is now called Indian Mounds Park on Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul. This is the largest assemblage of them in the area, and before many of them were destroyed in the 19th century, there were nearly 40, ranging in height from 18 inches to 18 feet.
These mounds were built sometime between 200 BCE and 400 CE by an early society living in the region. It’s so far back and so little is known about this society, other than that they may be related to the Dakota, and were very likely the northernmost outpost of an interconnected network of civilizations located throughout the Midwest (now known as the Hopewell culture, or the Hopewell Exchange System), all of whom built these types of mounds.
The mounds here were originally filled with fragments and partial skeletons of some of the community’s dead, as well as other objects like pipes, beads, shells, tools, and, in one remarkable case that has tragically been stolen, destroyed or lost, the clay death mask of a child. The mounds are not like cemeteries, exactly, but more like commemorative memorials, since the community didn’t seem to bury all of their dead inside. They were the resting place of just a select few, the selection process being impossible to know now. To be in the presence of something made by human hands as a final resting place for select members of a community, so long ago, and located so close to a contemporary urban center, is awe-inspiring and a little humbling.
Yet, walking around the mounds on a winter morning 1,500 years later, the reasons their builders constructed them in that place is as obvious now as it would have been then. The sense of continuity is striking. Anyone would have chosen to build important cultural structures in that same place. It’s a beautiful spot, high atop those bluffs, as scenically remarkable as any point along the Upper Mississippi River.
Looking down on the river valley, it’s easy to understand why St. Paul is located where it is, and why people have lived near this part of the region for thousands of years. The river bends elegantly after converging with the Minnesota a bit upstream, resting in a flood plain that recedes into gently rolling, heavily forested hills surrounding it. St. Paul looks, from high atop the bluff, a great place to live: cozy, safe, convenient, and with plentiful natural resources. Those are more or less the reasons people chose to live there then, and if you live in St. Paul, it’s probably for some variation on those reasons, too. This spot overlooks all of that, and viewed from up there, one feels now what someone then would have felt standing in the same place: a sense of pride in one’s home (again, assuming one lives in or near St. Paul), and of awe at the landscape.
The people who built these mounds didn’t seem to live in the immediate vicinity of them; where exactly they lived isn’t known, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate it was somewhere within modern-day St. Paul city limits. The mounds are a place apart from where everyday living took place. Their habitation of the area was probably seasonal, so walking around the mounds in the winter, covered in snow and crisscrossed with animal tracks not visible during the warmer months, is an off-season experience. After some pretty mild ones, this winter we’re in the middle of now is closer to what those pre-modern prairie winters must have been like. Our predecessors in this region, quite sensibly, may have spent the snowier months elsewhere to the south, returning again in the spring. But the fact that their dead were laid to rest here gives a pretty good indication of where home really was.
The mounds that remain are impressively constructed, but they’re also human scale. I like how it’s put by Macalester historian Paul Nelson, whose paper on the mounds is terrific, and the source for a lot of the factual information in this column. Nelson compares it to “an Amish barn-raising,” in the sense of being an effort that has as much to do with the communal aspects of its creation as anything. Certainly it would be difficult to build such a mound, but not impossible, given a community-wide effort on the part of a few hundred people. This is not to diminish their accomplishment as impressive physical structures – they way the mounds line up along the bluff and reach heavenward is so quiet and orderly and complementary against the wild backdrop of the natural world – but to emphasize the way they were made by regular members of the community, working in collaboration to create something bigger and more eternal than themselves.
Not only that, but the mounds have specific regional variations that differentiate them from other mounds in Midwestern states like Ohio or Illinois – in other words, the mounds have a specifically Minnesota accent. These Hopewellian earthworks are the most lasting legacy of the network of cultures that exchanged goods, information, ideas, and cultural influences up and down the waterways of the eastern United States and southern Canada. Mounds of all kinds were built all throughout this cultural network, for all kinds of reasons – some were burial sites, and others seem to have an astrological or religious significance. But they varied widely in that geographic range. Compared to what’s found elsewhere, the mounds in St. Paul are more circular in shape, more modest, less likely to be in a line or oval or animal shape, and less likely to be filled with precious metals and artistic objects. It’s a lesson in how culture shifts and mutates and changes as it travels across distances – how communities, cities, states or nations adapt cultural concepts to meet their own needs.
The surrounding park gives one of the truly outstanding views of the area. Located off in the distance, you can see the Cathedral that gives the city of St. Paul its name, named in honor of a historical figure who lived roughly the time some of these mounds were built. It, too, is a domed structure located high atop a hill, connoting a lot of the same ideas you encounter in the mounds: closeness to the heavens, prominence in the skyline when viewed from below, circular bases and round shapes that indicate cyclical death and rebirth, and scale meant to inspire awe. The two sites echo each other, hundreds and hundred of years apart, from opposite sides of the same valley.