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Jeffers Petroglyphs

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Digitally enhanced petroglyphs

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.

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Primary

Native American oral traditions shared by Joe Williams (Dakota), Jerry Flute (Dakota), Francis Brown (Arapaho), George Sutton (Cheyenne), Tom Ross (Dakota), Vernell Wabasha (Dakota), Carolyn Schommer (Dakota), David Larsen (Dakota), Robert Larsen (Dakota), Gordan Wasteste (Dakota), Aaron McKay (Dakota), Sandra McKay (Dakota), and Margaret Roscelli (Dakota).

Secondary

Anfinson, Scott. Southwestern Minnesota Archaeology: 12,000 Years in the Prairie Lake Region. Minnesota Prehistoric Archaeology Series, no. 14. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997.

Buhta, Austin A., Jack L. Hofman, Eric C. Grimm, Rolfe D. Mandel, and L. Adrien Hannus. “Investigating the Earliest Human Occupation of Minnesota: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Modeling Landform Suitability & Site Distribution Probability for the States Early Paleoindian Resources.” Archeological Contract Series, no. 248. Sioux Falls, SD: Archaeology Laboratory of Augustana College, 2011.
https://mn.gov/admin/assets/2011-Investigating-the-Earliest-Human-Occupation-of-Minnesota_tcm36-187379.pdf

Keyser, James D., and Michael Klassen. Plains Indian Rock Art. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Sanders, Tom. “Jeffers Petroglyphs: A Recording of 7000 Years of North American History.” Unpublished report, 2014. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society Library.

Sanders, Tom, Joe Williams, and Tom Ross. “Ancient Carvings. Living Symbols. Sacred Space. Unlocking the Mysteries of Jeffers Petroglyphs.” Curator: The Museum Journal 60, no. 2: (April 2017) 175‒189.

Related Images

Digitally enhanced petroglyphs
Digitally enhanced petroglyphs
Main outcrop at Jeffers Petroglyphs
Main outcrop at Jeffers Petroglyphs
LiDAR map of the Red Rock Ridge and its cultural sites
LiDAR map of the Red Rock Ridge and its cultural sites
Looking west from the outcrop at Jeffers Petroglyphs
Looking west from the outcrop at Jeffers Petroglyphs
Hand Petroglyph
Hand Petroglyph

Turning Point

In 9000 BCE, Native Americans recognize the sacredness of the Red Rock Ridge, and the first carvings are made.

Chronology

12000 BCE

Glaciers reach their maximum extent in North America, pushing west through present-day southwest Minnesota and scouring the exposed Sioux quartzite into a smooth surface that can be carved.

10000 BCE

Sedges and spruce forests dominate southwest Minnesota. Post-glacial animals and plants continue to provide food and raw materials for foraging humans.

9000 BCE

People of the Clovis and Folsom cultures leave behind projectile points near Jeffers. Native Americans recognize the sacredness of the Red Rock Ridge, and the first carvings are made.

8000 BCE

Swamp-like conditions create an environment in southwest Minnesota much like that of present-day northern Minnesota. A glyph of a baby moose is carved at the site.

7500 BCE

A warmer and drier climate supports the growth of prairie grasses, herbs, and shrubs. People focus on large communal animal drives to obtain food and raw material. Seeds and plants are increasingly used, and animals images dominate the site.

3000 BCE

The climate cools. Buffalo herds move west and humans add other animals and plants to their diets. Polished and pecked stone tools become more common, as do bone tools like fish hooks.Glyphs of ceremonial human figures begin to dominate the site.

1100 CE

Agriculture is practiced in sedentary villages in southwest Minnesota. People bury their dead in mounds.

1200‒1700 CE

The Mandan, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Iowa, Otoe, Omaha, Ponca, and Dakota live in what is now southwest Minnesota.

1700‒present

The Dakota maintain communities in southwest Minnesota.

1851

Much of southwest Minnesota is sold to the United States government through the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota.

1966

The Minnesota Historical Society purchases Jeffers Petroglyphs from the Warren Jeffers Family and begins on-site preservation and education efforts.

1970

Jeffers Petroglyphs is added to the National Register of Historic Places.