Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pipestone National Monument

April 19, 1858: The Yankton Sioux sign a treaty today. Article 8 provides for the Indians to retain access and use of the red pipestone quarry in southwestern Minnesota.

(Catlin image courtesy of NPS)

An account of the origin of the pipestone, as recorded by George Catlin, 1836:

At an ancient time the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it.

(Image courtesy of

(The following is from

According to geologists, pipestone was formed when a stream system deposited layer upon layer of sand and other sediment. The sand was eventually compressed into sandstone, and the red clay under it into clay stone. Some sediment was removed by one of the four glaciers which traveled through the area and scraped the land down to the sandstone. Under the weight of the glaciers and with extremely high temperatures, the sandstone became quartzite and the red clay sediment turned into pipestone.

The vein of pipestone is sandwiched between two layers of hard quartzite, four to twelve feet below the earth's surface.

Outcroppings of pipestone are also found in Montana, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Ohio. Pieces of pipestone from Minnesota's quarry have been found in burial mounds in many different sections of North America, leading historians to believe that various tribes journeyed thousands of miles to quarry here. During the summer, tribal bands would divide into groups, each with its own task to complete. While some parties hunted buffalo, others would travel to the quarry to get pipestone.

.... Philander Prescott, who worked for the North American Fur Company, was probably the first white man to see the quarry and document his visit. In 1831 he wrote, "Indians have labored here very hard with hoes and axes, the only tools except large stones...we found a six pound cannon ball that the Indians have brought there from the Missouri to break the rock."

Joseph Nicollet, a French scientist on a U.S. government-sponsored exhibition to map the upper Mississippi area, explored the quarry in 1838. Nicollet and his party left their initials on the northern end of the quartzite ledge, where they are still visible today.

... In an effort to gain control of more territory, the U.S. government, through the general Indian Appropriations bill of 1851, negotiated a treaty for the title to all of their Minnesota lands, which was most of southern Minnesota. The Sisseton and Wahpeton bands ceded their lands, including the pipestone quarry, in a treaty signed at Traverse des Sioux in 1851. However, the Yankton tribe was not part of the treaty and objected to losing the quarry. They tried to gain compensation by demanding a part of the revenue given to the Sisseton and Wahpetons, but were unsuccessful.

Seven years later, the Yanktons ceded eleven million acres of their land and were guaranteed "free and unrestricted use of the red pipestone visit and procure stone for pipes so long as they shall desire." A 650-acre reservation was created around the quarry.

This by no means settled the conflict between the Native Americans and white people. With the coming of settlers Pipestone City was planned, and by 1881 a large quartzite building-stone quarry was opened by a white settler. Two years later white pioneers including the mayor, C.C. Goodnow, settled on the reservation, filed claims and began to build homes. They refused to leave until four years later when a corps of ten enlisted men sent from South Dakota ordered the settlers to move.

An act of Congress provided for the establishment of Indian Industrial Training Schools in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. The government took possession of the Pipestone reservation when the school was established there in1892. Some tribal members wanted compensation for land, others wanted to retain the quarry altogether. A vote was taken of the male tribal members and by a narrow majority title to the reservation was ceded for $100,000; the government agreed to preserve the quarry as a national park. But this bill was never ratified by Congress.

Over the next few decades, the Yanktons fought to retrieve the money for their land through the U.S. Court system. Finally the Supreme Court ruled that the government was liable to compensate the Yanktons when it took possession of the entire reservation for the training school.

A total of $328,558 in principle plus interest was awarded in 1929. With the payment of this judgement title to the land passed to the United States, and all treaty rights of the Yanktons were at an end. Pipestone National Monument was signed into legislation in 1937.

Today, only Native Americans are allowed to quarry pipestone. It may take up to three to six weeks to complete the quarrying process, which usually occurs from late may to late October. Only hand tools, such as sledge hammers, chisels, wedges and shovels can be used.

The quarrier sets a wedge into visible cracks in the quartzite and drives it in with a sledge hammer. Large chunks of quartzite loosened and pried away from the quartzite wall until the pipestone layer is exposed. Although the layer of pipestone may be fourteen to eighteen inches thick, only two inches of it are suitable for carving pipes.

(Map courtesy of

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