History: The Whitefish Chain’s First Residents

This grinding stone, left behind by some of the area's first inhabitants, was found near the Whitefish Chain. Photo courtesy of A Taste of History

More than 8,000 years ago, people began to inhabit the Whitefish Chain area of Minnesota. These people were the first to experience the area that we know and love today, but chances are it looked much different.

These people are now called the Paleoindians, who traveled eastward after their ancestors made the journey across the Bering Straits. They hunted giant bison and woolly mammoth with chipped stone spears. They shared the area with giant elk and beaver as well. Artifacts show that these first people used fire, not only for cooking but also as a hunting strategy.

North of the Whitefish Chain, in Itasca State Park, a bison ambush site shows evidence of the peoples' hunting techniques. It also had the remains of a dog, which suggests that the people had companion animals.

Large bison bones, unearthed from the shore of the Whitefish Chain, precede 1500 A.D. They sit next to 12 inch rulers and show a time when bison were as at home in the forests as they were on the plains. Photo courtesy of A Taste of History

These people changed over time, as did their environment. The giant animals began to disappear and the people turned to the smaller game still sought by many hunters today. By 3,000 years ago these people became known as the Archaic Indians. Their tools became more complex and they were semi-nomadic, following game.

Around 2,000 years ago, these people had continued to change. Today we call them the Woodland Indians. They were marked by the building of mounds as well as the making and use of pottery. In some cases they buried their dead under mounds in the fetal positions, and other times they buried the bones of the deceased after they had been placed in a tree or on a platform. Goods were buried with the dead.

Pottery pulled from the shore of Island Lake in the 1940s. It is not known when the pottery was made. Photo courtesy of A Taste of History

As time went on, the area and people changed, becoming inhabited by the tribes of people that we are more familiar with today, including the Dakota and the Ojibwe. Sometimes they clashed, as in the battle of Cross Lake.

These native people have left a lasting mark on the Whitefish Chain, and evidence of their existence is still found today. At least one area of burial mounds surrounds the Whitefish Chain and is on the national register of historic places. Huge buffalo bones that were dated at some time before 1500 AD were dredged from the lakeshore. Grinding stones, arrowheads and other stone implements commonly used by the tribes have been recovered from the water and areas around the Chain.

Though the landscape of the Whitefish Chain has changed greatly over the years, the area's first residents probably saw in the area the same thing that visitors and residents recognize today: the abundance of both natural beauty and natural resources.

Note: This information is from A Taste of History, an historical book about the Crosslake area compiled by the Crosslake Area Historical Society. Packed with both history and recipes, the book is available for purchase at Judy's House of Gifts in Crosslake. 

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