Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony
Stephen A. Douglas Volk
Painted by Douglas Volk in 1905, Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony is the artist’s depiction of the moment that Father Louis Hennepin, traveling on Mississippi River in 1680, first saw the waterfalls that he renamed St. Anthony in honor of St. Anthony of Padua. These falls have been historically called Owamni Yamni (Three Whirlpools) by the Dakota and Gakaabikaang (The Falls) by Ojibwe people in Minnesota.
In April of 1680, while looking for the source of the Mississippi River, Hennepin and two of his French companions were captured on the Mississippi River by a Bdewakantunwan (Spirit Lake People) Dakota and brought to their community near what is now known as Lake Mille Lacs (Bde Wakan or “Spirit Lake” in Dakota). Three years later, while in France, Hennepin published an account of this time. Though some argued that Hennepin exaggerated and took great liberties in his writings, much can still be learned from his documentation of this time period. He stated that the Dakota treated him well, noting that they were most interested in new technologies and in the sharing of knowledge across cultures. Hennepin’s writings document Dakota customs and lifeways (he had accompanied them on seasonal hunting trips), describing how the Dakota utilized canoes made of birch and stating that surrounding tribes considered Dakota warriors to be exceptionally brave and skilled in their usage of the bow and arrow.
Douglas Volk imagined a scene of Father Louis Hennepin encountering the waterfalls on the Mississippi River in the 17th century and rechristening them St. Anthony Falls. Placing this illustration in a place of prominence in the Minnesota State Capitol in 1905 emphasized the importance of colonization, of missionaries, and of economic development to Minnesota. But this romanticized view also marginalizes indigenous peoples and depicts them in an inaccurate and offensive manner.
MNHS staff interviewed a wide range of people with various perspectives on the painting. Interview subjects included Minnesota state legislators, historians, experts on western art, members of Minnesota’s Native American communities, and descendants of both the Dakota and the settlers involved in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Their words illuminate the challenge of restoring the past in a building meant to represent all the people of Minnesota.