Ancient Minnesota

When the first French fur traders arrived in Minnesota in the 17th century, they found that the area was occupied by Indian nations from two different language groups: Algonquian (primarily Anishinabe or Ojibwa) and Siouan (primarily Sioux). The French found that the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and the Yanktonai Sioux were engaged in a war.  

At the time the French first entered the region, the First Nations had an economy that was based on a combination of farming (corn, beans, squash, and tobacco), hunting (deer and moose were most important), fishing, and gathering wild plants. Agriculture was of less importance to these tribes than to the tribes farther east because of climatic conditions: there was a relatively short growing season in many areas.

Like other areas of North America, the region that would later become Minnesota had been inhabited by American Indians for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived. American Indians were not-and are still not-a static people with unchanging cultures. In the millennium prior to the arrival of the French, American Indian cultures in what would become Minnesota had undergone many changes.

By about 650 CE, the cultural tradition which archaeologists call the Blackduck Complex was developing in what is now Minnesota and Manitoba It was a cultural complex based on the exploitation of a number of resources, including sturgeon, moose, black bear, beaver, turtle, snowshoe hare, wolf, clams, martin, and muskrat. In the southern portion of the Blackduck range, people also collected wild rice.

The Blackduck people manufactured pottery which had a round base and a constricted neck with flattened and thickened lips. The pottery was made with a paddle and anvil technique. Some of the pots were decorated. Decorating techniques included cord-wrapped stamping, comb stamping, punctuation of various kinds, and vertical brushing.


Blackduck pottery is shown above.

Archaeologists tend to feel that the Blackduck Complex was associated with Algonquian groups.

By 700 CE, the culture which archaeologists refer to as the Effigy Mound Culture had spread through Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Effigy mounds occurred in groups situated on elevated terrain overlooking streams and lakes. Groups of up to 20-30 mounds were fairly common, but isolated mounds are occasionally found.

Eight effigy mound types are generally recognized: panther, bear, bird, deer, buffalo, turtle, canine, and beaver. About 5 human figures have been identified. However, archaeologists point out that the current naming designations for the mounds probably do not accurately reflect the intentions of the mound builders.

Very little is actually known about the lifestyles of the Indian peoples who constructed the effigies. Their material culture included the use of cord-marked pottery (pottery which had been decorated by pressing cords into the wet clay prior to firing) and triangular stone spear points. In general, the Effigy Mound Culture was based on hunting and gathering with some agriculture. The seasonal cycle involved harvesting nuts and deer in the late fall, winter, and early spring; then a concentration of lowland resources, including aquatic resources, in the late spring, summer, and early fall. Gardens were planted in late spring. While Effigy Mound people tended to live in small seasonal camps with some small wide-spread villages, there are a few sites with substantial occupation. Mounds were constructed during the summer.

Construction of the mounds involved more than just heaping dirt on the ground. The mound construction began by digging out a precise intaglio of the effigy which was to be constructed. The mounds were built up over time with successive layers of different colored earths, termed “ceremonial earths” by archaeologists. In between there would be fire- blackened strata which appear to demark different periods of construction.

About 800 CE, the Blackduck culture was beginning to replace the earlier Laurel culture at the Grand Mound site. The Blackduck people were now using the bow and arrow instead of the atlatl. They were also more dependent on wild rice.

By 900 CE, a couple of regional cultural variations are seen in Minnesota. In some areas of Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa, Indian people were building villages which were located on the edge of a first terrace immediately above the floodplain or shallow lake. These villages were not fortified, indicating that there was little endemic warfare. Archaeologists call this the Great Oasis Phase.

Great Oasis ceramics were generally globular-shaped jars with rounded shoulders and bottoms. The exterior of the ceramics tended to be smooth, or smoothed over cord-marks. With regard to subsistence, corn was important at many of the sites. In addition, the people hunted a wide variety of mammals including buffalo, deer, ground squirrel, beaver, wolf, and rabbit. Birds and fish were also important in the diet. Their only domesticated animal was the dog.

In Minnesota, the main Great Oasis sites are the Great Oasis site (for which the phase was named) and the Big Slough site. The Great Oasis site appears to have been intensely occupied.

At this same time, the Oneota culture began to develop in southern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. One of the characteristics of this culture was the use of red pipestone (catlinite). The Oneota people lived in large villages with long houses. These people were making a number of products from pipestone, including pipebowls, which were traded to other tribes. In addition to corn and other food crops, they also cultivated tobacco.

Oneota ceramics are also distinctive. The Oneota potters were using a shell-tempered paste in creating their ceramics. Shells were broken up and mixed with the clay to temper it. The most common vessel form was a squat jar that often had trailed designs on the shoulder.

One example of an Oneota site in Minnesota is the Bartron site which was established about 1050. This village, located on a low island in the Mississippi River flood plain, covered 7 to 10 acres and was palisaded.

Oneota culture is ancestral to the Chiware which, in turn, is ancestral to the Iowa, the Oto, the Winnebago, and the Missouri. Over the next several centuries this culture spread throughout the region. By 1300, the Oneota culture could be found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Illinois. By 1300, archaeologists feel that Oneota was associated with the Siouan-speaking peoples, particularly the Iowa, Oto, Missouri, Winnebago, and Kansa.

By 1000 CE, the central forests of Minnesota were supporting a large population of wild-rice gatherers. In fact, the wild rice subsistence base appears to have supported a larger population than did the corn-based agriculture found to the south. This wild-rice based culture, called Psinomani by archaeologists, lived in  large, semi-permanent, palisaded villages. The use of palisades around the villages is an indication of inter-group conflicts. Sites used for gathering wild rice and for fishing are commonly associated with Psinomani.


Psinomani pottery is shown above.

The Psinomani also engaged in seasonal buffalo hunting in the prairie near Red River. One of the sites near the Red River which was used for buffalo hunting was the Shea site.  While the main subsistence activity at this site was buffalo hunting, archaeologists have found evidence showing that other animals were also hunted and that the occupants engaged in some corn agriculture. The village was surrounded by a palisade. The Shea site appears to have been a seasonal site occupied during the warm months and then abandoned during the winter. It was in use until about 1460.

Psinomani is a Dakota word which means “wild rice gatherer.” Psinomani is generally felt to be ancestral to the Santee Dakota.

In north-central Minnesota, the Wanikan Complex (seen by some archaeologists as a variation of Psinomani) began about 1100. This complex is associated with pottery which includes varieties with smooth surfaces, with vertical cord marks, and with check stamping. Other traits include burial mounds, and triangular projectile points. The people were gathering wild rice and living in seasonally occupied sites. While bison hunting was the main form of subsistence in the plains area, there was also some corn agriculture. It is believed that the Wanikan Complex was associated with the Assiniboine and Santee.  

Also at this time-about 1000 CE-a phase which archaeologists call Cambria begins in southwestern Minnesota. The sites associated with this phase are located along the trench of the Minnesota River from near Cambria in the southeast to around Lake Traverse in the northwest. Cambria has distinctive pottery which includes globular jars with constricted necks, pronounced shoulders, and smooth surfaces. Ceramics are made with a grit temper.

Four different kinds of sites are associated with Cambria: large village sites on terraces; secondary villages located near the large villages; small upland prairie-lake and riverine sites; and burial sites. The Cambria site is a large horticultural village which covers about 3.5 acres. It is located on the southwest side of the Minnesota River about 15 miles northwest of present-day Mankato. The Price site is a smaller site located near the Cambria site. Hunting appears to have been more important at this site.

The different kinds of Cambria sites suggest a seasonal subsistence pattern that involved agriculture at the large village sites, bison hunting on the prairies, and the exploitation of many different plant and animal resources.

With regard to burial practices, the Cambria phase people used earthen burial mounds. Such mounds are associated with most of the villages.

One of the largest and most complex Native American civilizations was Mississippian which was centered at Cahokia near present-day St. Louis. Mississippian spread over a wide area and by 1125 Mississippian people were occupying the Byran Site in Minnesota.

About 1190, Indian people established a large village and earthen burial mound complex at the Byran site.  The site was situated on a high terrace overlooking the Cannon River not far from its juncture with the Mississippi River. The people built square to rectangular houses. A log palisade, 10-12 feet high, surrounded the village. The people at the Byran site were raising corn. The pottery at this site is Mississippian, but the stone, bone, and antler tools at the site show a connection with Plains cultures to the west.

Some archaeologists feel that the intrusion of Mississippian cultural traits into Minnesota may have been the result of a Cahokia sphere of economic and religious influence. There may have been a Mississippian network which expanded into the area for the purpose of resource extraction. Acting as traders to groups farther west, the Minnesota sites may have been able to provide the people of Cahokia with buffalo robes, dried meat, and other items.  

By 1200, there were many changes occurring among the tribes who inhabited Minnesota. The influence of the Mississippian cultures to the south fades and the dominant influence in Minnesota following this time appears to have been Oneota.

In the centuries just prior to French exploration of Minnesota, there had been a number of migrations and tribal expansions. As the fur trade with the Europeans became more important to the eastern tribes, there was an expansion westward resulting in dislocations, warfare, and migration. Part of this was caused by the Ojibwa expansion westward which pushed the Menominee south and helped to create an alliance between the Menominee and the Winnebago. During this time, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and various Sioux groups begin their migrations from the eastern woodlands out onto the northern plains.  

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