Author’s note: Click on each image for the location of each marker, courtesy of the Historical Marker Database or Google Maps.
If you think about it, one of the primary ways most of us learn about history is through roadside monuments. We encounter them while walking, biking or perhaps while stretching our legs during a long car trip. Reading their few short paragraphs, the monuments’ words cast in bronze or carved in stone offer seemingly unimpeachable truth, incontrovertible evidence that this is no ordinary place. Something important happened here.
But these markers are not all trustworthy narrators of the past. Many were erected by local historical societies or civic organizations more interested in boosterism than historical accuracy. Others commit grave sins of omission, glossing over or leaving out painful truths. Many important people or events aren’t officially remembered at all. Because monuments require community investment in land and money, controversies and trauma get left out.
One of the best examples of lying by omission is the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial near the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Erected in 1903, this monument honors the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry’s pivotal and heroic actions in the Civil War. But it also specifically honors Josias King, a friend of James J. Hill and the first man to volunteer for the infantry.
Except King didn’t stay with the First Minnesota Infantry and wasn’t with them at their historic victory at Gettysburg. No, he was reassigned to the war against the Dakota, where he participated in war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Yet no one visiting this memorial would find any evidence of this dark and disturbing other side of King’s story.
Just a few feet away is another, much smaller historical marker, a flagpole commemorating the site of the world’s first school patrol crossing, which apparently happened at Summit and Kellogg in 1921. It’s a feel-good marker, I suppose, but once again it’s telling only part of the story. It leaves out the entire context of what is now 120 years of automotive traffic violence. Just a few years ago, 54 year old Dan Lytle was struck and killed by a driver at the very intersection where the school patrol began.
A better monument would have been a memorial to Arania Max, an 8-year-old girl who died in 1903 on Selby Avenue. She was St. Paul’s first pedestrian killed by an automobile. Yet young Arania has no such memorial. But the name of her killer, lumber baron Horace Irving, is memorialized in bronze on the front gates of the Governor’s Mansion. Such are the ironies of history.
Probably the most egregious examples of wildly inaccurate historical markers are near Bdote and Mendota at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Here next to the Sibley Highway is a monument “To the Glory of GOD and the Memory of General Henry Hastings Sibley.” Which is a strange way to remember a bigamist who transformed the fur trade with the Dakota into an industry of outright exploitation, and who later committed ethnic cleansing and genocide.
It’s hard to mince words about Henry Sibley, Alexander Ramsey and other European Minnesotan pioneers who profited immensely from forcing Native Americans from their homelands. And yet for decades we chose to elevate and celebrate them with place names and monuments like this. Erected in 1955, it’s fair to say this monument has more to say about the contemporary biases of the Daughters of the American Revolution than it does about Minnesota history.
But just a few hundred feet downhill at the Sibley Historical site, the Minnesota Historical Society’s monument offers little further context for the accomplishments of Henry Sibley. The plaque grudgingly acknowledges that the Dakota people lived here “by the 1700s,” but centers the rest of its narrative on Europeans and colonialism. It makes no mention of Sibley’s active role in ethnic cleansing, which is tellingly written in a passive voice: “Trade ended here in 1851, when the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota resulted in the removal of the Dakota to a reservation in the upper Minnesota Valley.”
It’s written as if all of this were inevitable, taking away all agency from the Dakota and all culpability from Sibley and his compatriots. Passive voice is a key giveaway that a historical marker is trying to hide something important.
Across the river channel on Pike Island, just below Fort Snelling, the Minnesota Historical Society’s marker likewise fails to mention the island’s importance to the Dakota as Bdote. Nor does it mention the use of the floodplains below the fort as a concentration camp in 1862-63. Instead, the monument is completely centered upon European exploitation of the land and weirdly conflates Pike Island’s history with Grey Cloud Island and Prairie Island farther downriver. The result is nothing short of a monument to historical erasure. Thankfully, this monument was quietly removed sometime this past summer during reconstruction of the trails below the fort.
Nonetheless, one might infer, as I did, that this marker was part of a triptych—that perhaps a second monument might be found on Grey Cloud Island. And one might, as I did, bike south to find out. There is indeed a historical marker on Grey Cloud Island at the end of an extremely quiet gravel road. It is this:
Friends, I cannot tell you what to make of this marker. Its claims are impossible to either confirm or deny. The “Shiely Historical Society,” if it exists, seems to be unknown to Google. And Conway Twitty is, sadly, deceased.
In a way, this backroad installation may be the most truthful monument on our tour. Its claims may be outlandish, but its hand-painted letters offer little authority. It is, in a sense, honestly implausible. We should probably apply the same amount of skepticism to any historical marker as we would to this curious artifact.
Returning upriver, we may observe that St. Paul seems to have a lot more historical markers than Minneapolis. Is it because St. Paul has a richer history? Are its citizens just more interested in events of the past? Or, perhaps, is this yet another compensation for the city’s inferiority complex in the shadow of its larger twin?
This name-dropping sign near Summit and Selby certainly suggests that the latter hypothesis may be correct. What else could explain such a cringeworthy callout honoring Garrison Keillor on a bronze plaque?
Nor should we forget that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had, at best, ambiguous feelings about St. Paul. They never returned after leaving in 1922. Most unflatteringly, F. Scott described Summit Avenue, the very street where this monument is located, as “a mausoleum of American architectural monstrosities.” We always seem to forget that quote here in St. Paul. Perhaps we’d be better off with a marker honoring Tom Wambsgans.
Farther west, in St. Paul’s quiet Desnoyer Park neighborhood, directly opposite the I-94 freeway wall, is a somewhat out of place monument commemorating the Red River Ox Cart Trail, a trade route used by the Metis People of the Canadian plains that ran from Winnipeg to St. Paul. For some reason, the annual arrival of their ox carts spurred romantic notions of the frontier among the quickly urbanizing citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Several monuments to the ox carts can be found throughout the Twin Cities.
But what none of them mention is precisely what the ox carts were carrying. More than anything else, they were carrying buffalo hides. The Metis held highly organized and efficient annual bison hunts. Their trade via St. Paul was a key contributor to the near extermination of the American Bison from the Northern Plains and its long-lasting consequences for the Native American peoples who relied upon them. Knowing this fact certainly deflates any lingering romanticism related to the ox carts.
Farther west in Minneapolis, historical markers aren’t much better. Take, for example, this rock near the east end of the Stone Arch Bridge honoring good old Father Hennepin.
When it comes to Minnesota historical mythologies, Father Hennepin is exceeded only by the Kensington Runestone hoax. “An egotistical and vain man,” Hennepin found himself in 1680 at Saint Anthony Falls (which he named) after being captured by the Dakota. Upon being released and returning to Europe, Hennepin wrote a sensationalized account of his journeys.
“From the start, Hennepin’s work was a blend of myth and fact. In his travel accounts he made waterfalls much higher and wildlife far more dangerous. He depicted the American Indian populations of North America as barbarous savages.”Minnpost: Legacy of Fr. Hennepin looms large on the Mississippi
Hennepin’s only real claim to fame is as the first European to see the Mississippi’s only waterfall. Yet, much like Columbus, his legacy endures — in this marker, in the name of the park surrounding it and in the name of Minnesota’s most populous county.
Yet even though the area around the falls has (by far) more historical markers than anywhere else in Minneapolis, a plethora of more modern signs do little to add historical context beyond the narrative of European colonization and industrialization. The Saint Anthony Heritage Trail, for example, offers dozens of signs on both sides of the river between Hennepin Avenue and the Stone Arch Bridge. But the vast majority of these markers, like the sign above, focus on European men and activities in early Minneapolis.
Of the 30 or so signs, only one briefly mentions Spirit Island, an island below the falls which was sacred to the Dakota but destroyed by white industrialists. Only two signs are about women: Lucy Wilder Morris and Eliza Winston. None focus on Minneapolis labor history. The vast majority of markers are about white men, their inventions and the growth of the city.
To make matters worse, the adjoining Water Power Park on Hennepin Island just below the Third Street Bridge offers another 20 or so historical markers created by Hess Roise Historical Consultants on behalf of Xcel Energy, which owns the property.
All of these markers are about industry and hydropower. The result reads like a corporate prospectus. Only 16 years after installation, the markers facing south are completely faded and unreadable. Unlike St. Paul, which is quick to cast its narratives in bronze, Minneapolis historical markers seem to be more temporary, as if history is somehow fleeting or provisional.
And yet the truly momentous events of Minneapolis’ past remain officially unacknowledged and rely on privately funded memorials. This plaque in the North Loop, for example, commemorates Bloody Friday. In July of 1934, Minneapolis police fired on striking Teamsters, killing two and injuring 67. The strike broke the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance, which had been using brute force, along with financial and political power, to keep unions out of the city for decades. The strike also had national reverberations and led to the formation of the National Labor Relations Board.
Yet, until 2015, no sign marked the location of this event. It took the cooperation of the Teamsters and a local building owner to install a sign at 701 North 3rd Street, without the participation of any historical society or city or state government.
What this plaque leaves out, however, is another consequence of the strike. In an attempt to mute annual labor movement remembrances of the strike, city business leaders founded the Aquatennial in 1940. Using bread and circuses, city leaders successfully changed the subject from socialism to summer fun and rebranded the Mill City into the City of Lakes.
In a similar private effort to acknowledge uncomfortable truths, a local arts organization and a few corporate donors erected a monument in 2011 to Arthur and Edith Lee, an African-American family who moved into the bungalow at 4600 Columbus Avenue South in 1931, only to be met with an angry white mob. The mob numbered in the thousands, and Minneapolis police did little to control it. Like the Bloody Friday plaque, no historical society or government agency seems to have been involved in creating this important monument to the city’s history of segregation. Sadly, the interpretive sign on the monument is already faded and curling at its edges. The Lee House, too, deserves its story to be cast in bronze.
And then there’s this bronze tribute to a different old house on the east shore of Bde Maka Ska. The blog Joy in Minnesota does a wonderful job breaking this monument down word by word. But let’s just say that the Pond brothers’ house wasn’t the “first dwelling in Minneapolis,” that they weren’t really missionaries, and that the monument was erected by a turn-of-the-century nativist society with a racist agenda.
Yet the Pond brothers weren’t horrible people compared with men like Henry Sibley. They and the Dakota community that welcomed them to the shores of Bde Maka Ska deserve a better monument than whatever this is.
Certainly, the inequity of historical markers can’t get any worse, right? Well, besides a parenthetical mention on a printed plaque at Fort Snelling, this marker in southwest Bloomington is the only monument I could find to Dred and Harriet Scott, arguably the most significant Minnesotans of the 19th century. They bravely sued for freedom from slavery after being brought north to the free territory of Minnesota. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them in 1857, stating that it did not consider African Americans to be citizens. The ruling guaranteed that the issue of slavery would not resolve itself as the nation grew westward. In fact, the Dred Scott decision was one of the primary causes of the Civil War.
In addition to the Dred Scott Playfields, the immediate area also offers a Dred Scott gas station and a Dred Scott mini golf. Yet nowhere is there a bronze plaque or statue commemorating the Scotts. Not at Fort Snelling, nor on capitol mall. (In fact, the Capitol has a spot open directly opposite the Minnesota Supreme Court where a statue of Columbus once stood. This would be an ideal location.) Of all the lies on all the historical markers in all of Minnesota, this lie by omission may be the worst of them all. It’s well past time for Minnesota to properly remember Dred and Harriet Scott.
Finally, I leave you with this marker near Minnehaha Falls, which was erected in 1969. It’s just a map of the park, but it has some small significance to our family. My father, Raymond Marshall, worked as a landscape architect for the Minneapolis Park Board at the time, and he drafted the map.
As a document, this marker is truthful enough, even though it leaves out the massive storm sewer outflow next to Minnehaha Creek’s confluence with the Mississippi, which probably wouldn’t have been relevant to most park visitors.
But if we created the same marker today, we would probably draw a very different map than my father did 54 years ago. And a map made in 1922 or 1839 or 1725 would be very different as well. Not only has the landscape itself changed through those years, but our cultural understanding of the landscape has changed as well.
Likewise, our understanding of history changes dramatically through the years. We once celebrated people like Henry Sibley whom we now judge more critically. And things we celebrate today may seem condemnable to future Minnesotans. Every historical marker we encounter, whether cast in bronze or printed on plastic, is in truth only an outdated map of the past which reflects all the biases and motivations of the people who paid to erect it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
All photos by the author