Houses of the Mdewakanton Tribe

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When preparing a sketch of the villages and village sites of the Mdewakanton, it is quite natural to begin with a brief description of the site of the village to which Father Hennepin was led captive, during the early spring of the year 1680. On the afternoon of April 11 of that year, while ascending the Mississippi with two companions, he was taken by a war party of the Sioux, and after much anxiety and suffering reached the Falls of St. Anthony, which he so named. Thence, going overland through the endless forests, they arrived at the village of their captors. Soon Indians were seen running from the village to meet them, and then it was that “One of the principal Issati Chiefs gave us his peace-calumet to smoke, and accepted the one we had brought. He then gave us some wild rice to eat, presenting it to us in large bark dishes.” From this place they were later taken in bark canoes “a short league, to an island where their cabins were.” [1]

Northwest shore of Mille Lac, 1900. Site of an ancient Sioux settlement
Plate 20a - Northwest shore of Mille Lac, 1900. Site of an ancient Sioux settlement

The Mdewakanton “mystery lake village,” of the Santee or eastern division of the Dakota, were considered by some as “the only Dakota entitled to the name Isanyati (‘Santee’), given them from their old home on Mille Lac, Minnesota, called by them Isantamde, ‘Knife Lake.’” There is no doubt of the Mdewakanton being the Issati of Hennepin, to whose principal village he was taken, and where he remained for some weeks during the year 1680. It has always been acknowledged that the village stood on or near the shore of Mille Lac, but not until 1900 was a site discovered which appears without doubt to indicate the position of that ancient settlement. The outlet of Mille Lac is Rum River, which enters the Mississippi at Anoka. The stream soon after leaving the lake expands into a series of small lakes, usually designated as the First, Second, and Third Lake, from the outlet at Mule Lac. Rum River leaves Mille Lac near the southwest corner, but soon turns eastward, therefore the three lakes are rather parallel with the south shore of the great lake. At the upper end of Third Lake is an isolated mass, rising some feet above the highest stage of water, and having a superficial area of several acres. On May 29, 1900. this spot was surrounded by a marsh, in places overgrown with rushes, with pools of water, more numerous on the north side. But a short time has elapsed since all the lakes were somewhat deeper and more water flowed in Rum River. And at that time the waters surrounded this elevated mass and it stood as an island at the head of Third Lake. When the surface of this island was examined it, was found to be strewn with innumerable fragments of pottery, some fractured stones, and a few stone implements. The amount of pottery was greater than is often found on any site, in any part of the country, and it was quite evident this island was once occupied by a large, permanent native settlement. Without doubt this was the site of the village to which Hennepin was taken in a bark canoe, “an island where their cabins were.” At present this is in Sec. 25, T. 42, R. 27, Mille Lacs County, Minnesota.

No description of the ancient village has been preserved, but it undoubtedly resembled the settlements of other tribes living in the midst of the great forests. The structures were probably bark or mat covered, many of an oval form quite similar to those of the Ojibway, who later occupied the near-by sites on the shores of Mille Lac. And like the Ojibway, the Mdewakanton may have had more than one type of dwelling in the same village, or structures of different forms may have served different purposes.

The shores of Mille Lac, one of the most beautiful sheets of water in Minnesota, abound in traces of the ancient settlements which stood generations or centuries ago. Near several of the sites are groups of a hundred or more burial mounds, all of which may be attributed to the Siouan tribes. One village, the site of which is marked by a large number of mounds; stood on the shore of the bay in the northwestern part of the lake, shown in the photograph reproduced in plate 20a.

The sacred island in the southern part of Mille Lac, May 1900
Plate 20b - The sacred island in the southern part of Mille Lac, May 1900

The sacred or mysterious island, known as such to the Sioux and later to the Ojibway, is in the southern part of the lake, several miles from the south shore. It is a remarkable spot, one to be looked upon by the Indian as a place of mystery. So small that often it is not visible from the shore, it consists of a great quantity of blocks of granitic formation which are piled to a height of 20 feet or more upon a ledge which comes to within a foot or less of the surface of the lake. The island is about 250 feet in length from east to west, the width from north to south being about one-half the length. Some of the great blocks are 10 or 12 feet in length, 4 or 5 feet in thickness and width, and would weigh many tons. The ledge extends for a distance of about 150 feet to the north and east of the island, covered by a foot or more of water. There is no soil on the island, no vegetation, and its only occupants are numbers of gulls. A photograph of this most interesting spot, made by the writer May 20, 1900, is reproduced as plate 20b.

According to the stories of the old Ojibway who were still living on the shore of Mille Lac during the spring of 1900, the Mdewakanton were driven from that region about the middle of the eighteenth century, and moving southward settled along the banks of the Mississippi. Descendants of these were occupying well-known villages on the Mississippi and Minnesota during the summer of 1823, when Major Long and his party ascended the rivers from Prairie du Chien.

Before leaving Prairie du Chien to discover the course of the Minnesota, or St. Peters, as it was then designated, the members of the expedition were divided into two groups, one to go overland to the mouth of the St. Peters, the other to convey the supplies by boat to that point. Both parties visited the principal villages on the way. First following the route of those who went overland, on June 26, 1823, they encountered a village of five lodges, evidently on the Iowa River, in the present Winneshiek County, Iowa. Two days later, June 28, they arrived at the more important village of Wabasha, in the present Wabasha County, Minnesota, and as told in the narrative: “Whatever might be the reveries in which the party were indulging, they were soon recalled to the dull realities of traveling, by the howling and barking of a band of dogs, that announced their approach to an Indian village consisting of twenty fixed lodges and cabins. It is controlled by Wa-pa-sha, an Indian chief of considerable distinction. In his language, (Dacota) his name signifies the red leaf. A number of young men fantastically decorated with many and variously colored feathers, and their faces as oddly painted, advanced to greet the party. One of them, the son of the chief, was remarkable for the gaudiness and display of his dress, which from its showy appearance imparted to his character foppishness. The chief is about, fifty years of ago, but appears older. His disposition to the Americans has generally been a friendly one.” [2] Hennepin’s reception by the ancestors of the same people, in their ancient village near Mille Lac, about a century and a half earlier, may have been quite similar to this accorded the members of the Long expedition in 1823.

On the evening of June 30 the party going by land arrived “at an Indian village, which is under the direction of Shakea, (the man that paints himself red;) the village has retained the appellation of Redwing, (aile rouge,) by which the chief was formerly distinguished.” This was on the site of the present Red Wing, Goodhue County, Minnesota. There the party remained overnight, and on the following morning, July 1, 1823, the boat bearing the supplies belonging to the expedition, on its way from Prairie du Chien to Fort St. Anthony, reached the village, and “The whole party being again united, the chief invited them to his lodge, with a view to have a formal conversation with them. As a compliment to the party, the United States flag was hoisted over his cabin and a deputation of some of his warriors waited at our encampment to invite us to his lodge. We were received in due ceremony; the chief and his son, Tatunkamane, (the walking buffalo,) were seated next to the entrance. We took our stations near them, on the same bed-frame, while his warriors seated themselves on the frame opposite to us.” This was followed by handshaking, and the smoking of the pipe of peace.[3]

The two parties again separated and those passing overland arrived at the fort the following evening.

The boat party, ascending the Mississippi, arrived at ” Wapasha’s village” on June 29, soon after the departure of the others who were going overland. They left Redwing early in the afternoon of July 1, and on the following day passed the St. Croix. Continuing, they “passed an Indian village consisting of ten or twelve huts, situated at a handsome turn on the river, about ten miles below the mouth of the St. Peter; the village is generally known by the name of the Petit Corbeau, or Little Raven, which was the appellation of the father and grandfather of the present chief. As the village was abandoned for the season, we proceeded without stopping. The houses which we saw here were differently constructed from those which we had previously observed. They are formed by upright flattened posts, implanted in the ground, without any interval except here and there some small loopholes for defense; these posts support the roof, which presents a surface of bark. Before and behind each hut, there is a scaffold used for the purpose of drying maize, pumpkins, &c. “Late in the same day they arrived at the fort.[4]

Whether the method of constructing lodges by forming the walls of upright posts or logs was of native conception or was derived from the French is now difficult to determine. In referring to the customs prevailing in the Mississippi Valley, particularly the French portions, about the year 1810, Brackenridge said: “In building their houses, the logs, instead of being laid horizontally, as ours, are placed in a perpendicular position, the interstices closed with earth or stone, as with us.” [5] The old courthouse at St. Louis was built after this method. Again, among some tribes along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, as will be told on another page, were to have been found small, well-protected lodges formed of upright poles, and in this instance there is no reason to suspect European influence. Therefore it is not possible to say definitely whether the structures standing on the banks of the Mississippi during the summer of 1823 were of a primitive, native form, or if they represented the influence of the early French who had penetrated the region many years before.

Just three year’s before the Long expedition passed up the Mississippi and prepared the preceding descriptions of the Sioux settlements Schoolcraft went down the river, and in his journal are to be found brief references to the same villages. To quote from the journal, August 2, 1820: “Four miles below Carver’s cave, we landed at the village of Le Petit Corbeau, or the Little Raven. Here is a Sioux band of twelve lodges, and consisting of about two hundred souls, who plant corn upon the adjoining plain, and cultivate the cucumber, and pumpkin. They sallied from their lodges on seeing us approach, and gathering upon the bank of the river fired a kind of fue-de-joie, and manifested the utmost satisfaction on our landing. We were conducted into his cabin which is spacious, being about sixty feet in length by thirty in width-built in a permanent manner of logs, and covered with bark.” [6] The following day at noon the party arrived “at the Sioux village of Talangamane, or the Red wing, which is handsomely situated on the west banks of the river, six miles above Lake Pepin. It consists of four large, and several small lodges, built of logs in the manner of the little Raven’s village. Talangamane is now considered the first chief of his nation. Very few of his people were at home, being engaged in hunting or fishing. We observed several fine corn fields near the village, but they subsist chiefly by taking sturgeon in the neighboring lake, and by hunting the deer. The buffalo is also occasionally killed, but they are obliged to go two days journey west of the Mississippi, before this animal is found in plenty. We observed several buffalo skins which were undergoing the Indian process of tanning.” [7] The third settlement was reached during the afternoon of August 4, 1820, at which time, to quote from the journal, “we made a short halt at the Sioux village of Wabashaw, which is eligibly situated on the west bank of the Mississippi, sixty miles below Lake Pepin. It consists of four large lodges, with a population of, probably, sixty souls. A present of tobacco and whiskey was given, and we again embarked at twenty minutes before five o’clock.” [8]

The question now arises, Were the various structures seen by Schoolcraft, those “built in a permanent manner of logs,” constructed of “upright flattened posts,” as mentioned in the Long narrative? If so, it is evident similar habitations were reared by the Foxes and were encountered by Schoolcraft at the Fox village standing on the left bank of the Mississippi, below the mouth of the Wisconsin, August 6, 1820. However, the statements are rather vague, and the various dwellings may have been quite similar to the bark houses more clearly described in later narratives. But it is beyond question that some of the structures were strongly built, and Long on July 16, 1817, wrote: “Passed a Sioux village on our right containing fourteen cabins. The name of the chief is the Petit Corbeau, or Little Raven. One of their cabins is furnished with loop holes, and is situated so near the water that the opposite side of the river is within musket-shot range from the building. The cabins are a kind of stockade buildings, and of a better appearance than any Indian dwellings I have before met with.” [9]

"Kaposia, June 19th, 1851" F. B. Mayer
Plate 21 - "Kaposia, June 19th, 1851" F. B. Mayer

One of the most interesting accounts of the villages just mentioned is contained in the journal of a traveler who visited them in 1849, the year the Territory of Minnesota was created. On May 16 of that year he “passed Wapasha’s Prairie, a beautiful prairie in Minnesota, about nine miles long and three miles wide, occupied by the chief Wapasha (or Red-Leaf) and his band of Sioux, whose bark lodges are seen at the upper end of the prairie.” [10] And later in the day, after leaving Lake Pepin, “an Indian village, called Red Wing, inhabited by a tribe of Sioux is seen on the Minnesota shore. It appears to contain about one dozen bark lodges, and half as many conical lodges, covered with buffalo skins; also, a log or frame house, occupied by a missionary. Indian children were seen running, in frolicsome mood, over the green prairie, and Indian females were paddling their canoes along the shore. This village is near the mouth of Cannon River.” On the following day, May 17, 1849, Seymour passed the village of Kaposia, occupied by the chief Little Crow, or Little Raven. It stood on the west bank of the river about 5 miles below the then small town of St. Paul. The Indian village at that time consisted of about 40 lodges, having a population of some 300. A few days later he went to the village, and regarding the visit wrote: “During the time I visited them, the Indians were living in skin lodges, such as they use during the winter, and when traveling. These are formed of long, slender poles, stuck in the ground, in a circle of about eight feet in diameter, and united at the top, and covered with the raw hide of the buffalo, having the hair scraped off. They are in the form of a cone, and can be distinguished from those of the Winnebago and other Indians as far as they can be seen. During the summer they live in bark houses, which are more spacious, and when seen from a distance, resemble. in form and appearance, the log cabins of the whites. When passing in sight of the village, a few days afterward, I noticed that they had removed their skin lodges, and erected their bark houses. The population of this village, as I before remarked, is from 250 to 300 souls.” He entered one of the small skin-covered lodges. “An iron kettle, suspended in the center, over a fire, forms the principal cooking utensil. Blankets spread around on the ground, were used as seats and beds.” [11][[11]]Seymour, E. S., Sketches of Minnesota. New York, 1850, pp. 137-138.[[1]] A cemetery, with its scaffold burials, stood on the bluffs in the rear of the village. There is reason to believe these were the first skin covered tipis encountered by Seymour while ascending the Mississippi. It will be noticed that in the preceding description of Kaposia no mention is made of log structures, such as were alluded to by Long and Schoolcraft. Only the typical bark house and the conical skin covered tipi were seen by Seymour. Fortunately a most valuable and interesting picture of the village, as it appeared on June 19, 1851, is preserved and is now reproduced in plate 21. Both forms of habitations are shown, and in the distance, on the left, are indicated the scaffold burials standing on the bluffs in the rear of the settlement. On the extreme right is the prow of a canoe, evidently on the immediate bank of the Mississippi. Having this remarkable sketch, it is gratifying to find a brief description of the two forms of lodges, and also to know that the notes may have referred to Kaposia in particular. It tells that “the lodges are from eight to fifteen feet in diameter, about ten to fifteen feet high and made of buffalo-skins tanned. Elk skins are used for this purpose also. The summer house is built of wood, or perches set upright, twenty or thirty feet long, by fifteen or twenty wide. The perches are set in the ground about one foot, and are about six feet out of the ground. Over this is put a roof of elm bark. They are very comfortable for summer use. The lodge of skin lasts three or four years; the lodge of wood seven or eight years.” [12]

"Dakotah Village" - Seth Eastman
Plate 22a - "Dakotah Village" - Seth Eastman

The bark houses, which resembled “the log cabins of the whites,” were shown by Capt. Eastman in one of his paintings. It was used as an illustration by Schoolcraft, and is here reproduced as plate 22a. It is less interesting than the sketch of Kaposia, but in many respects the two are quite similar.

Several bark houses of the form just mentioned stood on the shore of Mille Lac, forming part of the Ojibway village visited in 1900, and similar to these were the “winter habitations,” occasionally erected by the Menominee, as mentioned and figured by Hoffman as plate xviii in hits work on that tribe.[13] It is rather curious that these should be described as “winter habitations ” among that Algonquian tribe, and as being occupied during the summer by the Siouan people. As a matter of fact this strong distinction may not have existed. The use of this type of house by the Foxes has already been mentioned. Whether these may be regarded as representing as purely aboriginal form of structure is not easily determined, but they will at once recall the unit of the long communal dwellings of the Iroquois. The slanting roof. the flat front and back, and the upright walls, all covered with large sheets of bark, were the same.

"Dakotah Encampment" - Seth Eastman
Plate 22b - "Dakotah Encampment" - Seth Eastman

Again returning to the narrative of the Long expedition. Early in July, 1823, the party having rested at the mouth of the Minnesota, or St. Peters River, began ascending that stream. Having advanced a short distance they arrived at the village of Taoapa, better known as ” Shakopee’s Village,” from the name of the chief of this band of the Mdewakanton. It stood in the present Scott County, Minnesota, and in the summer of 1823 “consisted of fifteen large bark lodges, in good order; they were arranged along the river. Some of them were large enough to hold from thirty to fifty persons, accommodated as the Indians usually are in their lodges. The ground near it is neatly laid out, and some fine corn-fields were observed in the vicinity. There were scaffolds annexed to the houses, for the purpose of drying maize, etc.; upon these we were told that the Indians sleep during very hot nights.” Near the village were seen various scaffold burials, while “In the midst of the corn-fields a dog was suspended, his head decorated with feathers, and with horse-hair stained red; it was probably a sacrifice for the protection of the cornfields during the absence of the Indians.” Six miles above the village was Little Prairie.[14] Quite likely the structures at this village were similar to those described above, which resembled in outline the log cabins of the white settlers.


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  1. Shea, John Gilmary, A Description of Louisiana, by Father Louis Hennepin. New York, 1880, pp. 224-225.
  2. Keating, William H., Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols., I, pp. 249-250.
  3. Keating, William H., Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols., I, pp. 251-252.
  4. Keating, William H., Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols., I, pp. 288-289.
  5. Brackenridge, H. M., Views of Louisiana; together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River, in 1811. Pittsburgh, 1814, p. 119.
  6. Schoolcraft, Henry R., Narrative Journal of Travels . . . in the year 1820. Albany, 1821, pp. 317- 318.
  7. Schoolcraft, Henry R., Narrative Journal of Travels . . . in the year 1820. Albany, 1821, p. 323.
  8. Schoolcraft, Henry R., Narrative Journal of Travels . . . in the year 1820. Albany, 1821, p. 334.
  9. Long, Stephen H., Long, Stephen H., Voyage in a Six-Oared skiff to the Falls of Saint Anthony in 1817. In Collections Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. II, pt. 1. 1860, pp. 68-69. First Expedition. See James, Edwin. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols.. Second Expedition. See Keating, W. H. Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols., p. 31.
  10. Seymour, E. S., Sketches of Minnesota. New York, 1850, p. 75.
  11. Prescott, P., Manners, Customs and Opinions of the Dacotahs. In Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History, Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, 1851-1857. 6 vols., IV, p. 67.
  12. Hoffman, Walter James., The Menomini Indians. In Fourteenth Annual Report Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, 1896, p. 255.
  13. Keating, William H., Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols, pp. 329-330.

MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922. Web. 24 April 2014. - Last updated on Mar 17th, 2012

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