For centuries, possibly longer, Dakota Indians forded the Minnesota River at a place they called Oiyuwege, a shallow crossing near modern-day St. Peter.

When French explorers arrived in the area to trade and trap furs, they named it Traverse des Sioux, or “crossing place of the Sioux.”

After 1851, when the Dakota signed a treaty with the U.S. government allowing white settlers into their territory, a village called Traverse des Sioux sprang up and thrived for several decades. It was later annexed into St. Peter.

“The crossing, that’s why we’re all here,” said Ben Leonard, Nicollet County Historical Society director. “This place has been a gateway and a gathering place for thousands of years.

“It’s the most important historical fact of St. Peter, of Nicollet County.”

Sometime in the last 200 years, as the river shifted its course and bridges replaced fords, the location of the crossing was forgotten. But through historical documents and modern surveying technology, Traverse des Sioux has been rediscovered.

Perfect match

Bob Sandeen, historical society research coordinator, said the actual site of the crossing long had been the subject of rumor and speculation. Many claimed to have learned the location from a grandparent or local old-timer, but the stories often conflicted.

“Since this was oral tradition and not based on any documentary evidence to back it up, we were naturally somewhat suspicious of these stories,” Sandeen said.

The key was found in “Old Traverse des Sioux,” an account of the village published in 1929 by historian Thomas Hughes. In addition to recording eyewitness accounts of the crossing, Hughes included a small map that showed its exact location.

“(Hughes) was doing the book at a time when there still would have been physical evidence,” Leonard said.

After finding the map, the historical society brought in Dick Gardner, a surveyor for engineering firm Bolton and Menk. In 2000, Gardner was contracted by the Minnesota Historical Society to map the remains of the village of Traverse des Sioux.

Gardner scanned the Hughes map into a computer and blew it up. Then, he overlaid his own map of the village. He was amazed to find them a perfect match.

That such a precise map was created more than a century ago, Gardner said, was “totally unbelievable.”

Through the millennia

Last week Gardner and staff from the historical society trudged through mud and thick weeds near the Minnesota River to find the crossing. Its north and south ends, now no longer in the river channel, were marked with PVC pipe.

“The river has changed so much, the historic crossing has no real relationship to the river anymore,” Leonard said. “... Just boating down the river or walking to the site, you really would have no idea it’s there.”

Leonard said the trail system around the Treaty Site History Center on Highway 169 may be expanded to allow visitors down to the crossing. When it is, visitors will stand on ground crossed by innumerable travelers.

Leonard said the Minnesota Historical Society conducted an archaeological study of the Traverse des Sioux area in the 1990s and turned up two projectile points estimated to be about 9,000 years old. The modern Minnesota River is estimated to have begun flowing only about 10,000 years ago.

“People have been at this spot as long as the river has been here, and they’ve been here because of the crossing,” he said.

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