On the trail of an old trail


Here’s the old story of American settlement: There were “good guys” (settlers or cowboys) and “bad guys” (Native Americans). But as our country became more diverse and we learned of the rich cultures associated with non-European ethnicities, we found that the American story has always been a tapestry woven from many strands that cannot be separated.

A similar change in perspective affected a view of the property formerly known as Gibbs Farm Museum.

Here is the story we used to know: Jane DeBow lived in Minnesota as a child, moved to Illinois, married Heman Gibbs and moved back to Minnesota. The Gibbs family farmed (and rented out) a 160-acre parcel of land. Children visiting the site a few years ago would learn about pioneer life, farming and skills associated with early Minnesota history.

But here is the story in expanded form: Jane grew up in Minnesota on the banks of Lake Calhoun, where she lived among Cloud Man’s band of Dakota, learning to speak their language and appreciate their way of life. When the Gibbs bought their property in 1849 (the year Minnesota became a territory), they discovered an Indian trail crossing it. Jane was “overjoyed” when she realized that it was her friends from Lake Calhoun who were using the trail as they made their annual migration north to the wild-ricing, fishing and hunting grounds. Each year the band, sometimes 150 strong, stayed as the Gibbs’ honored guests, often for three weeks at a time.

The museum is now known as the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakota life. In addition to learning about early American farming and crafts, visiting children now learn about traditional Dakota migratory life. They can see a tipi and a replica bark lodge as well as a Dakota medicine garden. Both sides of early American life are represented.

The trail the Gibbs found on their property was made by a travois. The disassembled tipi poles were first tethered to a dog or horse and then loaded with the tipi cover, packs of food, supplies and other personal belongings. The path of the travois was two deep grooves made by the poles, with shallower tracks on either side made by the animals’ feet.

Many letters and stories refer to the trail that went through the Gibbs property. A map of the trail suggests that it began at Lake Calhoun, crossed the Mississippi River near St. Anthony Falls and continued on, finally cutting through St. Anthony Park. Some who have lived in the area for many years have heard stories about the trail and may even have some idea where it went.

The Ramsey County Historical Society (RCHS) has purchased the property west of the current museum and has hired an archaeologist, Steven Blondo, to assemble a comprehensive account of what archeology has already taken place on both sites, survey the newly purchased parcel and attempt to locate the trail that crossed the farm.

The archaeological work will take place over the next few months and will consist of background research; a pedestrian survey; and excavations involving shovel testing, soil screening and – possibly -recovery of artifacts.

RCHS is seeking personal memories, stories and photos from people who have heard of an Indian trail in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. If you have a story or memory to share, please contact Mollie Spillman (222-0701 x227,

mollie@rchs.com) to receive a form to record your memory. These stories may or may not be included in RCHS publications, but copies will remain in their archives.

To learn more about the archaeological survey and the search for the Dakota trail, join Steven Blondo on Sunday, June 27, from 1 to 3 p.m., at the museum. He will discuss industry standards and the modern challenges that archaeologists face. He will also display any artifacts he has unearthed during dig tests at the site.

Terry Swanson, the museum’s program manager, said that June 27 will be “Dakota Day.” A program, from noon to 4 p.m., will focus on five areas of Dakota life as well as on the archaeological study. There will be stations explaining the travois, maple sugaring and muskrat hunting (spring activities), the bark lodge (used in summer), wild ricing (a fall activity), and winter life in the tipi, including food, games and crafts.

Swanson is passionate about passing on information about the Dakota. “If we learn about each other, maybe we can learn to get along,” she said.

She is encouraged by the interest children show in both cultures and the diversity she sees every day in class field trips. “For these kids, this story is what they are used to – different cultures living side by side and learning from each other.”