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Carver’s Cave historical marker removed by city — then stolen

4October 2020

In June, not long after widespread social unrest led to the toppling of Christopher Columbus statues in Minnesota and other states, the city of St. Paul quietly removed a long-standing bronze marker from a river overlook dedicated to another European explorer.

The joint St. Paul/Minnesota Historical Society monument — which described the history of “Carver’s Cave” from the first European encounter in the 1770s onward — was stolen from city hands soon after.

“Carver’s Cave has been a landmark on the Mississippi River for more than a quarter millennium,” said Greg Brick, a former research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“I noticed the monument missing on June 13, replaced by an orange traffic cone,” said Brick, who called the plaque atop a limestone structure a point of local pride. “I think what we have here is a result of improper use of state and city funds.”

Not everyone mourns the loss of the 1990s-era monument, which has been criticized for being too Eurocentric in its telling of the cave’s history. The city’s decision to remove the monument followed the recommendation of tribal officers from the four federally recognized Dakota communities in Minnesota.

“The plaque describes Euroamerican discovery of the cave … and the cave’s use as a tourist attraction in the 19th century,” said Clare Cloyd, a spokeswoman for St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

‘DWELLING OF THE GREAT SPIRIT’

Nevertheless, removing the plaque now leaves no marker at all for the cave, and eliminating its limestone base makes a culturally respectful replacement plaque even less likely.

Long before their first encounter with Europeans, the Dakota people knew the cave located off the Mississippi River near the base of Dayton’s Bluff as Wakan Tipi, which roughly translates as the “dwelling place of the sacred” or “dwelling of the Great Spirit.”

It was also said to be neutral territory — a place where members of individual Native nations met to form alliances that allowed them to share the river system in peace.

“I think that the (monument) removal wasn’t because of the name being offensive,” said Maggie Lorenz, executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project, which is building its own Wakan Tipi nature center a mile west of the cave.

“It was more that it was just outdated,” said Lorenz, who is Native American. “In decades past, stories of different sites have been told from one perspective, and we’re incorporating more perspectives.”

WHO WAS JONATHAN CARVER?

A man is silhouetted inside Carver’s Cave, located near the Mississippi River at the base of Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul, in a black and white photo taken in approximately 1920. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

In 1776, colonial explorer and mapmaker Jonathan Carver marveled at the cave’s white sands, soft sandstone walls and petroglyph carvings of bears, turtles, snakes, fish and humans. Inside, the spring-fed lake that began 20 feet from its entrance extended, in his words, “an unsearchable distance.”

“I threw a small pebble towards the interior parts of it with my utmost strength,” said Carver, in writings that would gain him international attention throughout Europe and the colonies. “I could hear that it fell into the water, and notwithstanding it was of so small a size, it caused an astonishing and horrible noise that reverberated through all those gloomy regions.”

Carver, the first white man to enter the cave, spent that winter with a band of Dakota he befriended, an adventure he would later chronicle in his book “Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America.”

Carver’s writings would earn Wakan Tipi the common title Carver’s Cave, frequent visits from geologists and spelunkers, and the monumental plaque erected at the overlook above the site by the city and Minnesota Historical Society in 1996.

The inscription read, in part:

“In April 1767, Carver returned to this spot with 300 Sioux, and here he took part in a great Indian Council. When he was asked to speak, the explorer warned the Indians in their own language against alliances with the French and attempted to impress them with the power of Great Britain.

“When Minnesota was settled, Carver’s Cave became a popular tourist attraction and was regarded a century ago as ‘the foremost relic of antiquity’ in the region.”

Steve Trimble, a member of the Ramsey County Historical Society and former member of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, said he would welcome different wording.

“No one wants to call it Carver’s Cave anymore. That’s fine,” said Trimble, who lives a block away from Indian Mounds Park. “He didn’t really ‘discover’ it. … (But) just take the plaque off. Why sort of bulldoze the whole section? … You could just unscrew it, and then put another one on that says ‘Wakan Tipi overlook.’ ”

CAVE CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC

Brick, who has been visiting the cave since 1988 and has written about it extensively, said a railroad expansion project in the late 1800s destroyed the petroglyph carvings.

A combination of natural erosion, landslides and manmade activity — including steel doors installed in 1977 — have eaten at the cave entrance, eroding it back several feet. It can only be accessed by crawling.

Brick was taken aback when the nearly chest-high limestone monument disappeared in June, and even more disappointed to learn that the city had used funding related to trail work around the nearby burial mounds, including state Parks and Trail Legacy funding and federal regional transportation money.

“We St. Paulites have a shared history, and sometimes it’s not merely one group versus another,” Brick said. “Carver was a friend of the Dakota and lodged with them during the winter of 1766-67. (Now it) sounds like he doesn’t deserve to exist?”

When he asked for more details from city officials, he was told the monument had since been stolen. It was reported missing July 9.

“The sign was removed and salvaged onsite to be stored with Parks Maintenance,” reads the city’s official letter of response to his inquiry. “Unfortunately, the sign was stolen from the park.”

Hand in hand with trail removal in Indian Mounds Regional Park, the city conducted a Cultural Landscape Study to determine historic features worth special preservation. The sign didn’t pass muster.

According to the city, cultural landscape specialists, landscape architects and interpretation experts hired for the study “determined that the Carver’s Cave sign does not have historical significance similar to other modern roads, trail systems, buildings, structures and small scale features (signs).”

“In addition,” they wrote, “the overlook is not associated with or located within the National Historic Site, and it was constructed in 1996 outside of the period of significance.”

Jessica Kohen, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Historical Society, said that while historical society officials “knew about (the monument’s elimination) through communications with the city, MNHS has not been involved in its removal.”

To date, the Lower Phalen Creek Project has raised $5.3 million of the $7.7 million it needs for design and construction of the long-awaited Wakan Tipi Center, an interpretative nature center planned toward the entrance of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. A groundbreaking could take place in spring 2021.

Lorenz said the future nature center will feature information about the cave, and it’s possible plaques or other markers will be reinstalled over the river in the future.

More information will be released during a virtual launch event on Oct. 12, which is Indigenous Peoples Day. Registration is online at LowerPhalenCreek.org.

CARVER’S CONTROVERSIES

Carver’s life was not without controversy. The third edition of his book claimed two Dakota had granted him an estimated 12,000 square miles of land for resolving a dispute between them and a neighboring group. Those claims were repeated by his descendants but never confirmed, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Though born and based in Massachusetts, Carver considered himself a British subject, and left his first wife and seven children behind in 1769 to travel to London and raise money for his journals. He would never see them again.

Instead, he remarried in London and worked with editor Alexander Bicknell, who helped him spice up the text for “Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America,” which became a bestseller too late for Carver to benefit from his own success. He died in poverty in 1780, two years after publication.

Controversy followed Carver into death. In the 1800s, historians questioned whether he had made the whole thing up and written “Travels” while he was in London, according to the historical society.

A letter he wrote to his first wife, discovered in 1909 and printed in a 1768 edition of the Boston Chronicle, dispelled some of those suspicions because it detailed many of the same facts as the book.

In 1854, former Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey suggested the name Carver for a town along the Minnesota River. The surrounding county was named after Carver the following year.

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