Indian Mounds Park to land in National Registrar

The burial mounds at Indian Mounds Park sit 200 feet up a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. They’ve been around for over 2,000 years and have special significance with the Dakota Indians who once called the area home. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The earthen mounds at Indian Mounds Park could look like little more than landscaping curiosities at a quick glance.

But it doesn’t take much to recognize the bold shapes are much more than that. They hold over 2,000 years of human history, and date back to the time of early Egyptian civilizations and the great Chinese dynasties.

And the East Side slice of history will likely be on the National Register of Historic Places in short order.

The Minnesota Historical Society hired an independent archeological team to perform a thorough review of the site and has submitted it for consideration. State archeologists say it should make it into the register without a hitch.  It passed through the state historical review board on Aug. 20 to be sent on to the national level.

David Mather, National Register archeologist for the Minnesota Historical Society, say’s the East Side site is the only of its kind in Minnesota and a good candidate for national recognition.

“It’s the best preserved example of an ancient earthwork site in the Twin Cities area,” he said.

The six mounds sit on a 200-foot-high bluff overlooking the big bend in the Mississippi River, just south and east of downtown St. Paul. The mounds that remain are thought to be from the Hopewell era, dating back as many as 2,000 years, Mather said.

The Hopewell tradition was an American Indian culture that originated in what’s now Ohio, Mather said. It was a vast trading network used to ship goods across long distances. With the trading of goods, there was also a cultural exchange that made a lasting impact on various American Indian tribes.

The East Side mounds make up the only known classic Hopewell site in Minnesota.

The Twin Cities once held many similar mounds, Mather said. But as the area was taken over by development, virtually all of the mounds went away.

“As the Twin Cities grew, all of these mounds... were being destroyed, unfortunately,” he said. The mounds at Indian Mounds Park were deliberately preserved, although ironically, in preserving some, others were ironically destroyed to develop the park and improve the view.

Mather said that along both the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, there were once hundreds of mounds built by American Indians, starting around 2,000 years ago. In fact, not far from the park, an ancient burial mound can been seen next to the Lower Afton Road park-and-ride lot along U.S. Highway 61.

Early archeology dig

Indian Mounds Parks has history in more than one way -- it could also very well be the first archeology site in the state, Mather said.

In the 1860s, antiquarian archeologists dug up some of the mounds.

According to a City of St. Paul site on the park, human bones were found in the mounds, among grave offerings like shells, perforated bear teeth, copper ornaments. Also found was a skull covered with red clay, which produced the image of the wearer’s face before death, dubbed the “death mask.”

Mather said there are likely still artifacts buried below some of the destroyed mounds.

Surveying the ground with non-invasive techniques like ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer, archeological contractors found variations in the parts where there were once mounds. For now, all that’s known about what lies in the ground comes from these radar scans and speculation.

Out of respect for the dead, “it would not be appropriate to dig there,” Mather points out.

“Burial mounds were created as sacred places, with a great amount of ritual ... it’s sacred architecture,” he added. He likened the mounds to a church, with aspects of the building process itself symbolic of religious ideas.

Mather cited a 1977 cemetery sites law which protects burial sites from archeologists.

“It would be illegal to try to do a research excavation in a burial site,” he said. “I think that’s a very good law to have.”

Mather’s job is to submit areas of historical significance within the state to the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the National Register website, “authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

Mather said having the site in the National Historic Register is another way of connecting the mounds with the deep history of the area.

“A place like Indian Mounds Park lets us experience it a bit,” he said. “(It has) that integrity of setting still. It’s a magnificent place to visit.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at

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