The Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site
Adapted from the Jeffers Petroglyphs School Programs Manual

      The Jeffers Petroglyphs are approximately 5000 American Indian images carved in quartzite outcrops preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society since 1966. This historic site contains 160 acres of native and restored prairie. It is located in southwestern Minnesota where the Sioux quartzite bedrock is exposed along an east-west trending ridge up to 50 feet high, three miles wide, and 25 miles long. Archaeologists date the carvings from as far back as 7000 years old to 250 years old. This area was purchased by the US government by treaty from the Dakota in 1851. The site is named for the last private owner of the site, W.R. Jeffers.

      Jeffers Petroglyphs is a living sacred site used by people for thousands of years. Today American Indians visit and worship at this sacred site. Many of those people whose ancestors are known to have lived in this area, the Iowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Dakota peoples come to pray at this sacred site. Elders from these Nations, along with archaeologists, rock art conservators, botanists, and Minnesota Historical Society staff guide the public interpretation and preservation of Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site. Elders have told us that Jeffers Petroglyphs tells the story of the survival of people in a formidable environment for thousands of years. It speaks of their deep connection with the land and their creator. It speaks of spirituality thousands of years old.

      Fourteen thousand years ago, mile-high glaciers forced their way from the northwest, scouring and smoothing the 1.6 billion year old Sioux quartzite rock formations in southwest Minnesota. Three thousand years later the climate warmed. In the shadows of retreating glaciers, American Indians lived in the cool and wet forest of southwest Minnesota. In time, as the weather continued to warm and dry, prairies replaced the forests and people began to write on the quartzite. On the polished face of the rock outcropping at this site are the carvings that record thousands of years of human interaction with a spiritual world. These carvings represent the prayers of people seeking spiritual guidance. They sought help in healing sickness, acquiring food and maintaining social relationships. These carvings also record stories, parables, and historic events. Several different communities of American Indians made them over a long period of time. The writing on the rock at this site documents the perseverance of people at this prairie for thousands of years. Most importantly, these engravings tell us that people survived on the prairie because of their deep understanding and intimate relationship with their physical and spiritual world.

      Minnesota contained the northeastern edge of a tall grass prairie that covered 400,000 square miles of North America. It extended to Manitoba in the north, Texas to the south, Montana to the west, and Indiana to the east. Today less than 1% remains. Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site is situated on the eastern slope of the Coteau des Prairies. This French phrase, meaning divide or edge of the prairies, refers to a broad highland that separates the Mississippi and Missouri watersheds. It ranges northwesterly from Jackson, Minnesota to Sisseton, South Dakota. This highland rises above the Minnesota River valley in a series of steps to a height of 1900 feet at Pipestone.

      Jeffers Petroglyphs has 160 acres of native, restored, and being-restored prairie and a commanding view of the countryside. It is located on the Blue Earth Till Plane. The black soil prairie adjacent to the outcrops overlays clay loam soils. The original 80 acres of the site, purchased from the Jeffers family in 1966, contains approximately 33 acres of relatively undisturbed prairie along the northern side. Like all prairies, it is a mixture of forbs (flowering plants) and grasses. The southern 47 acres was one of the first prairie restorations in Minnesota. This 47 acres was in cultivation when the site was purchased and had probably been farmed for much of the 20th century. In 1974, the cultivated 47 acres was planted with big blue stem, switch grass and Indian grass. Work is proceeding on restoring the newest 80 acres, purchased in 2002.

      Approximately 230 species of plants are found here, including some that are very rare. One of the largest populations of Prairie Bush Clover in the world thrives at Jeffers Petroglyphs. It grows only in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. This grassland is unique in other ways. Prairies are classified as wet, mesic, or dry. All three types are found here because of the rock formation. Because of the diversity of habitat, Jeffers offers a diversity of animal and plant species.

      A prairie, forest or desert is made of a system of inseparably integrated living and nonliving communities: animals, plants, bacterial, soil, air and water. This system of communities is called an ecosystem. A healthy prairie ecosystem contains 16,500 acres, a complete river drainage system, 200 species of plants, 250 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, as well as numerous fungus, bacteria, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. The plants included buffalo grass, big blue stem, cord grass, asters, and roses. Among the birds were prairie chickens, spotted sandpiper, grasshopper sparrows, burrowing owls and bald eagles. Moles, mice, badgers, fox, elk, buffalo and humans represent the mammals of the prairie. All ecosystems contain species that are key to its health. Two keystone species of the prairie are humans and buffaloes. With the prairie's grasses and forbs came buffaloes and people thrived; both their populations grew. Buffalo provided the large quantities of essential protein, vitamins, skin shelters, clothing, containers and tools that people needed to flourish in an otherwise sparse environment. The prairie fed the buffalo and provided other animal and plant food and raw materials to people. This seemingly lopsided relationship between people, buffalo and grasslands was perfectly balanced. Grazing buffaloes remove mature plants giving young plants and different species an opportunity to grow. Their manure adds nutrients to the soil. Each spring buffalo must remove their thick winter hair and they will scratch themselves on anything available. They rub against rocks, shrubs and trees, polishing the rocks and destroying the trees that encroach on the prairie.

      About 5000 years ago the climate changed from warm and dry to a cool and wet. Since trees replace grass if enough water is available, forest should have replaced the grasslands. However, when the weather conditions turned wet, buffalo and humans kept the trees at bay and preserved the prairie. This balance insured the survival of people, buffalo and prairie for thousands of years. They became intimately involved with each other. To encourage buffalo to graze near their villages, people burned the prairies destroying tough full-grown grasses and flowers. Thus assuring the new growth of the young tender grass and flowers that buffalo much preferred. Burning can improve prairies because unlike trees, the near ground growth structures of prairie plants are not affected by fire. In the spring, a fire-blackened prairie allows the spring sun to warm the soil promoting early growth. Most important, ash from the burned plants adds nutrients to the soil. Buffalo and people were so important to each other that according to prairie people they became honored relatives. The rhythms of the herds became the rhythms of human secular and spiritual life. We do not know the names of the earliest tribes that inhabited what is now southwest Minnesota. However, according to American Indian and Euro-American histories during the last four hundred years, Ottoe, Iowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Dakota peoples lived in this area.

      After the 1862 war, most of the Dakota were driven from Minnesota. Before they left some of their leaders prayed for guidance at this site that later became Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site. When the railroads arrived in the 1870's, European and American settlers came in large numbers. Their farming altered the landscape. Along the northern border of the site is a wagon trail created in the first years of settlement. These immigrants plowed the prairie, and introduced exotic plants from Europe, Asia and Africa. On the horizon you see the fields, houses, barns and grain silos of contemporary farmers. In the late nineteenth century, the dispersed Dakotas came back to Minnesota and settled in communities such as the Upper Sioux community at Granite Falls, the Lower Sioux community at Morton, the Shakopee community at Prior Lake and Prairie Island community at Welch. Sometime in the next century, the Dakota began to visit Jeffers for prayer clandestinely because the US government forbade them to practice their ceremonies until 1978. In the 1960s, local residents recognized the cultural and environmental value of the site. They cleared it of fieldstones and refuse, identified and recorded the carvings and plant life, and urged the Minnesota Historical Society to acquire the site. In 1966, the Society purchased the site with the hope of providing knowledge of and appreciation for the history of the rock carvings, the environment in which they are found, and of the people who made them.

      In 1974, MHS began to reconstruct a prairie ecosystem in 47 formerly cultivated acres by planting several species of prairie grasses. Twenty-four years later and after several planned therapeutic burnings of the grasses, a systemic survey pronounced the efforts successful. The reconstruction produced a maturing prairie ecosystem. This is a testimonial to health of its prairie and the commitment and hard work of many people to the preservation and interpretation of Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site.

      Built in 1998, a new visitor center contains hands-on activities, exhibits, a multimedia presentation, modern restrooms, and a gift shop. Jeffers Petroglyphs' professional staff and informative signs guide visitors through the prairie and carvings.

Main Page