Digging for the truth: U of M class to excavate at Old Wadena this summer

Stories of American Indian battles and fur trader exploits at the Little Round Hill in Old Wadena Park have helped formed the history of the area. But are the stories true or only legends? Archeologists have surveyed the area and a new excavation...

Kat Hayes
Photos by Sara Hacking Kat Hayes, assistant professor of anthropology, center, helps graduate students Linda Chisholm, left, Jeff Adams and Jenny Immich as they map out one of the areas an archaelogical field study class will survey in June and July.

Stories of American Indian battles and fur trader exploits at the Little Round Hill in Old Wadena Park have helped formed the history of the area.

But are the stories true or only legends?

Archeologists have surveyed the area and a new excavation will take place this summer when a field study class from the University of Minnesota arrives in June.

"We're trying to go for the early colonial period to see if there was a fur trade-related site here," said Kat Hayes, assistant professor of anthropology.

It's always difficult to answer the question of exactly what they're looking for at a field study, she said.


"What I'm really most interested in is the early colonial period, the fur trading-related site where we have interaction between French traders ... and most likely Ojibwe," she said referring to the oral history of the area.

Doug Birk, a Minnesota archeologist, conducted a survey in 1992 and discovered lead musket balls and glass seed beads used for trading, Hayes said. The class's field study is focusing on the two areas where those historical items were discovered.

According to the oral report a battle between the Dakota and a group of Ojibwe and fur traders took place at the site of the Little Round Hill. However, the previous survey only revealed one arrow head in the area.

"It's possible part or all of the story is false," Hayes said.

Although the survey revealed some material, it is not particularly diagnostic, she said. They couldn't nail down whether it was from the 18th or the 19th century.

Richard Paper of the Wadena County Historical Society is hopeful the field study will give a pretty good idea of what life was like here in the late 1700s, he said.

There are three sites right around the Crow Wing River that local historians are pretty sure are fur trading sites, Paper said. And the Crow Wing River area was once a "no man's land" contested between the Dakota and Ojibwe.

"We're hoping this is going to be an ongoing project for a few years," Paper said about the field study.


Around 10 undergraduate and graduate students will arrive in Wadena June 14 for the class. Hayes hopes they can start work June 15.

The excavation at the Little Round Hill is Hayes' first field work in Minnesota. Previously, she did some work in New York researching English settlers involved in the production of wampum, the main currency that was traded upstate for furs.

The field work at Old Wadena will include the use of some new technology for Hayes, which she has already found useful.

Hayes and several graduate students marked out a grid last week so they could do some geochemical testing. Hayes has never used a geochemical analyzer in the field before, she said.

"It's basically a point-and-shoot chemical analyzer," Hayes said about the tool that resembles a science fiction laser gun.

It can read for light elements on the periodic table that could indicate human


Last week, the team found a couple of "hot spots" during their geochemical testing, she said. A spike of phosphorous may indicate a garbage pit, food waste or human waste.


"I'm very pleased with how it went," Hayes said. "This is very promising."

The geochemical survey will help identify key areas the class will look at, she said. They will open up excavation units that are two meters square.

"We basically peel back the layers of dirt," she said.

They will keep peeling dirt back until they reach either sterile subsoil or they identify stains left in the soil from buildings, or trash pits or other human disturbance.

"And then of course we collect all of the artifacts that come up," Hayes said.

During preparation work last week, Hayes and her crew also cleared some vegetation from the areas they want to study. When she was researching Birk's report from his survey Hayes discovered he had not searched a large area of the site because of the prickly ash, she said. Hayes is interested in these areas because trees and brush often grow where human occupation sites were because of the excess of good organic material left in the soil.

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