Archeology lecture dispels several local legends

PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM TROW This landscape is the area in which Tom Trow researched in the Root River valley.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM TROW Tom Trow shared an example of a chert nodule that was found in Mower County.

MICHELLE ROWLEY/NEWS LEADER Tom Trow answers questions from participants of the lecture “Archeology Mysteries along the Root River” held in Lanesboro on Sunday, April 28.
By : 
Michelle Rowley

Over 85 attendees gathered on Sunday, April 28, to hear Tom Trow reveal the “Archeology Mysteries along the Root River.” This lecture was a fundraiser for History Alive! Lanesboro, a nonprofit led by Jane Peck. History Alive! tells the stories of the people and events that happened long ago in Lanesboro through theatre, music and dance.

Sunday’s lecture was originally scheduled to take place at Thompson House Bed & Breakfast, but due to a concern about audience size, the lecture was moved to Discovery Faith Community, a church near the B&B. Even with the change of venue, the event became, as one board member described, a “bring your own chair” occasion with organizers scrambling to find extra seating.

Trow was formerly an archaeologist with the Minnesota Historical Society’s State Historic Preservation Office. With a crew of researchers, Trow conducted a field survey in southeastern Minnesota, investigating the history of the lands along the Root River, including those in Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties.

Unlike archeological excavation, a field survey researches the land to collect information about the historical past of a geographical area and the people who lived there. “Our job in the Root River drainage basin was to get out there and both record new archeological sites and also investigate any previously known sites,” explained Trow during his lecture.

Trow and his crew explored multiple locations throughout the three counties each day. The survey was conducted during the late 1970s and early ‘80s using topographic maps, which enabled them to see the change in elevation for the areas they were researching. Many of the survey locations included personal property, primarily farms. “We could not go on anyone’s property without asking permission, and I’m happy to say that, in these three counties, we were never denied permission.”

Although Trow included the word “mysteries” in the lecture’s title, the survey was conducted in a scientific fashion. “There’s a lot of pseudo history – fake history – that is on TV these days. Normally I would advise people to be skeptical of TV shows and lectures that contain ‘mystery’ in their title,” proclaimed Trow. Yet he chose to use “mysteries” as a reminder that every survey, while being conducted in a scientific fashion, is done to determine the unknowns of a region or object. He also quipped that given the size of the audience, he was glad he used the word in the lecture’s title.

The survey supported evidence that there are a number of Native American burial mounds in the region. Yet, in a “myth buster” fashion, some of the premises that prevailed were debunked by his and previous research.

When the burial mounds were first discovered in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the prevailing thought was that the mounds were built by the first Europeans residing in the region. “The assumption was that these were so well made, they couldn’t be made by the native people, and therefore the mounds must have been made by early Europeans,” explained Trow. “This was the narrow perspective held by many in this time period.”

Prior to Trow’s study, in fact over 140 years ago, Newton Horace Winchell conducted "The Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota" in which he proposed that the 20 to 40 burial mounds known as “The Lanesboro Group” were the result of a battle between Native American tribes. Trow explained that it is hard to research these mounds because they no longer exist. Winchell’s suppositions, however, were published in Lanesboro’s local newspaper in 1879, which created great public interest in discovering bones and other artifacts in these mounds.

“There were so many bones coming out – reportedly 600 individuals meaning there were thousands of bones,” explained Trow.“They thought it was a battle because the human remains were jumbled together.”

Trow went on to explain that it is not unusual to find a number of bones in a burial mound because they are grave sites for generations of native people. “A mound is not a single event. It’s a place where people have been burying the dead for centuries,” said Trow. “I’d be extremely skeptical to say there was ever a battle here. There just is not enough evidence to support that notion.”

Through Trow’s and his crew’s research, they were able to discover the possible hunting patterns of Native Americans who lived in Fillmore and Houston counties. From surveying the lands, the crew set to prove a hypothesis that the native people who lived here would hunt buffalo that traveled from the plains to the ravines where it was warmer.

“When we got to the top where there was just plowed field, we found a horseshoe shape all around the top of the ravine,” Trow explained. “We did not find weapons but flakes of chert.”

Chert, also known as flint, was used for many purposes including nodules, anvils and hammer stones – all instruments contained in a Native American’s hunting kit.” It was very easy to envision struggling large bison coming up, exposing their belly, and being an easy kill under those circumstances,” Trow added.

During this survey Trow’s crew also investigated a site in Mower County. He revealed some of their findings for the first time during Sunday’s lecture. Trow’s discoveries of Native American hunting practices in Mower County will be part of a new exhibit next fall at Mower County Historical Society in Austin.

After the lecture there was a reception at Thompson House B&B with hors d'oeuvres and live music by Heidi Dybing.

The next History Alive Lanesboro Lecture, “The Underground Railroad in Southeast Minnesota” will take place at the Sons of Norway Lodge on Sunday, May 26, at 7 p.m. The speaker, Laura Deering, is a history researcher living in Rushford. Admission to the lecture is $10 with all proceeds going towards the production of this year’s History Alive! Lanesboro Pop-Up Plays.  

The History Alive Lecture series began in 2017. Last year’s lecture by Ted (Theo) St. Mane, told the history of Lanesboro’s stone damn, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018.