Ancient mysteries on Minnesota’s Iron Range

Iron Range newsCindy Kujala at the Hometown Focus includes a buffet of interesting mysteries and factoids about Iron Range history in her column this week. Most of it is reprinted from a project compiled by the Iron Range Historical Society and University of Minnesota at Duluth.

My favorite excerpt:

There is a place where the Embarrass River leaves Lake Esquagama a few miles south of Biwabik where strange earthen mounds of different sizes and shapes can be seen. They have been there for a very long time. When the Ojibwa people first moved to the region, just before our Revolutionary War, the mounds were already there. Indian people always regarded these mounds as sacred.

In the 1880s Iron Range explorer George Stuntz was positive that these mounds were built by an advanced civilization and he described the mounds as “so situated as to command the earliest rays of the rising sun.” According to Stuntz, from the largest of the mounds one could get a beautiful view of the “Mesabi-Watchu,” the big man hills. Our Mesabi Range is named after these hills. This same mound can still be seen on the Esquagama Club golf course.

We know today that these Esquagama mounds are cemeteries for people. Anthropologists call them secondary burial mounds because each mound was the second place in which the dead were interred. For some reason these strange “Laurel people,” as they were called, placed their dead in some other area and, only after a time, moved them to a final resting place in the mound.

The Laurel people lived in the Esquagama region and near Lake Vermilion before Columbus discovered America. Their mounds are probably the oldest man-made constructions in Iron Range country.

Minnesota was full of these mounds until Europeans started arriving. They’re at least 10,000 years old, and yes — they long predate even the Indian peoples who were here before resettlement.


  1. The mounds are a link between ancient indiginous and modern.
    The mounds are actually a sort of ancient “time capsule” and if presented to schoolchildren that way can truly excite their minds and imaginations…. as often they have set up their own “time capsules”.
    There are mounds all over Hennepin County, a huge one in Excelsior that has a modern graveyard
    on it. There was one in Wayzata that was cut off and a police station put on top. Look for Mounds Boulevard. There it is/was.
    Grand Mound up near Baudette is gorgeous. Cahokia (St. Louis) is monumental. The snake mound in southern Ohio was a pilgrimage point for the Hopi Tribe of the southwest.
    The reason settlers named the city of Cairo is because they were so in awe of the mounds in that area (confluence of Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, southern point of Illinois) they thought maybe the natives had come from Egypt. This is a wonderful way to teach American History… and it honors
    indiginous America which is really essential today.

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