Autochthonous Minnesota

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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future


The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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Autochthonous Minnesota

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | May 30, 2012
I am just back from a hike in the Bandelier National Monument where one can climb a series of ladders and enter cliff dwellings, go down a ladder into a kiva, or walk along ledges littered with prehistoric pot shards. The vacation reminded me of my neglected work duties and how long it has been since I posted another of Minnesota’s best books and the magical place reminded me of one of the indisputably best Minnesota books for this list.

Winchell, Newton Horace. The Aborigines of Minnesota: A Report on the Collections of Jacob V. Brower, and on the Field Surveys and Notes of Alfred J. Hill and Theodore H. Lewis / Collated, Augmented and Described by N. H. Winchell. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1911.

Minnesota is blessed with [if not confused by] three geologists named Winchell. Our author [and collator, augmenter, and describer] N. H. Winchell was the Minnesota State Geologist for the last 28 years of the nineteenth century before he became the head of Archaeology at the Minnesota Historical Society. And sorry but I have to sneak this in a biographical tidbit - N. H. also rode with Custer on the General’s first expedition to the Black Hills!

Aborigines is a monumental book of 761 pages, fifty years in the making, and a publishing nightmare. It is lavishly illustrated with thirty-six halftone plates, twenty-six foldout inserts and six hundred and forty-two figures that accompany the text. Clark Dobbs in his A Brief History of Archaeology in Minnesota calls Aborigines “the most comprehensive published collection of information on the mounds, earthworks, and other early archaeological information from Minnesota, as well as the ethnography of the Ojibwe and Dakota.” The work documented the quickly disappearing pre-White contact archaeological landscape of Minnesota. N. H. Winchell played down his hard work in producing this volume, saying “Mr. Hill plowed the field where Mr. Lewis sowed the seed, the fruit of which Mr. Brower garnered.”

There was a time that this book was so common and so cheap that the MHS was giving them away as premiums to anyone who became a member for $5. An old time book dealer told me that they were used as doorstops at the MHS and eventually the many unsold copies were sent off to Horner-Waldorf to be recycled into Wheaties boxes. Now the book is findable but rarely in very good condition and often at prices exceeding one thousand dollars.

This loss of the book was just fine in most people’s eyes because it is so comprehensive that unscrupulous, unethical, and unlawful pot hunters were using it to locate, unearth, and remove the archaeological record. For the armchair archaeologist this “Best Minnesota Book” will provide hundreds of hours of pleasurable browsing.