By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
ST. PETER — When some of the very first humans in southern Minnesota wandered the area, they found their way to a shallow, hard-bottom crossing of the Minnesota River on the north end of St. Peter.
During the next 10,000 years, Traverse des Sioux would be a gathering point, crossing and trading center for Indians and European settlers.
“I tell kids that the river was the Highway 169 of its day and Traverse des Sioux was the on/off ramp,” said Ben Leonard, director of the Nicollet County Historical Society.
A few years ago, when state archaeologists combed the area, they found a trove of artifacts — 10,000 objects in all, with the oldest being projectile points dated 9,000 to 10,000 years old.
“There were people coming here as long as there’s been humans here,” Leonard said.
Last year, Leonard and his son, while walking sand bars in the area, made a discovery of their own. They found more than 100 bones from bison, horses and cattle, many believed to be 150 years old or older.
Leonard said state archaeologists speculate the bones were washed out of a ravine that was used as a trash pit by Indians and early settlers who dumped animal carcasses.
Traverse des Sioux was home to one of the most important treaty-signing ceremonies in U.S. history, opening millions of acres of land to settlers and setting the stage for bloody conflicts to come.
The Dakota Indians called this place Oiyuwege, meaning “the place of crossing.” French explorers called it Traverse des Sioux, or “crossing place of the Sioux.”
Today the area is home to the Nicollet County Treaty Site History Center, just off Highway 169.
The actual site of the village of Traverse des Sioux is just north of the center and is owned and operated by the state as a historic site, featuring restored native prairie plants and walking trails.
The site grew as a trading post in the early 1800s, with Canadian traders and Indians bringing pelts via the Red River Ox Cart trail and the Minnesota River.
The thriving town of Traverse des Sioux had five taverns, two hotels, several churches, a brewery — some 70 buildings and a population of about 300. In 1856, nearby St. Peter was chosen as the county seat, and by 1869, nothing was left of the once-booming town.
In 1851, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota Indians at Traverse des Sioux. This treaty opened millions of acres to land-hungry settlers and speculators. The treaty provided reservation land along the upper Minnesota River and a promise of money and food for decades to come.
Just over a decade later, with funds not reaching the Dakota on the Upper and Lower Sioux agencies, and the Indians suffering from near starvation, the conflict of 1862 erupted, resulting in the execution of 38 Dakota in Mankato.
By Tim Krohn
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