Wednesday, June 19, 2024
Dakota County Historical Society
To preserve, interpret and promote the history of Dakota County.

Around 9,000 years ago glaciation and erosion created the geography of the hilltop without a peak or bluff top. Instead there is “knob-like” formation.

Evidence the Mentonwan and Mdewakanton Bands of the Dacotah lived in the area dates back to around 1500. They called the hill, O-He-Ya-Wa-He, meaning “a place much visited.” Sometime in the early 1600s, it is believed, the last battle for control of the Mdo-Te between the Dakota and the Iowa took place on the back slope of Pilot Knob. Around 1800 French explorers first make mention of a hill where the Indians bury their dead, calling it “Les Buttes Des Morts” meaning “Knoll of the Dead.”
Up to the 1820s US Military personnel note the hill when assessing the threat it poses to Fort Snelling as a superior position for enemy artillery to potentially shell the fort. However, no such conflicts are expected and a location on the Western side of the valley is instead chosen for the fort’s location.
In 1834 the “Indian Dances” Minnesota’s white settlers and stationed troops enjoyed while they stayed at Fort Snelling or Camp Coldwater were held on the slopes of Pilot Knob. The precise location of the dancing remains unknown due to poorly detailed accounts. Indian Dances on the hill continued through the 1840s. Around this time riverboat captains are historically credited with giving the hill its current name as a navigation landmark.

On July 29, 1851 treaty negotiations with the Dakotahs begin in a warehouse owned by the American Fur Company, but the space proved too small to accommodate all who attended. The hundreds of Dakotah who attended to witness the Treaty negotiations wanted the meeting moved up onto Pilot Knob the next day. An arbor was constructed probably on what is today called the “Garron” property (the North slope). Just North of this site was a gully through which passed the “Big Sioux Trail” to Hastings, about where Highway 55 runs today. The treaty negotiations took about a week, culminating a mutual signing on August 5th.

In the original bill written by US Senator Steven Douglas for the creation of the Minnesota Territory, Pilot Knob was proposed as the place for the new capitol. Henry Sibley, though, rejected the site and suggested Saint Paul – which became the capitol and remains so to this day. Henry Sibley owned the land at the time and didn’t want to compromise his integrity by profiting from the land sale involved to transfer Pilot Knob into government ownership.

In 1852, just one year after the Treaty, construction began on a new St. Peter’s Church (the previous church had been located below the present site since 1842). Most of the funds came from Henry Sibley and construction finished in 1853. Like many Christian churches built during that era it was purposely placed on a site previously used for Indian ceremonies.

Through the late 1800s, as local historians tried to compile information on the founding of the area, the idea that the Treaty of 1851 was signed on Pilot Knob was investigated because of uncertainty as to where the treaty signing had actually taken place.

By 1922 the Daughters of the American Revolution had placed a plaque on Pilot Knob commemorating the signing of the Treaty of 1851. The plaque can be seen today just inside the gates of Acacia Cemetery.

The plaque read: “1851-1922 To commemorate the Treaty at Mendota negotiated on PILOT KNOB whereby the Sioux Indians ceded their lands in the Territory of Minnesota and State of Iowa to the United States Government. Placed by Mendota Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. SAINT PAUL, MINN.”

The first efforts to preserve Pilot Knob as a historic site were proposed in the Minnesota State Legislature in 1925. Those efforts proved unsuccessful, however. This was mid-way through the construction of the Mendota Bridge (1924-1926), and there may have been concerns that designating the hill a historic site would jeopardize the bridge project.

In 1926 Acacia Cemetery purchased Pilot Knob and started a landscaping project to create Acacia Park. As part of that project they removed the top 20 feet of the hill – the distinguishing knob-like formation for which the hill was named! Digging on the hill also turned up Indian remains in the 1920s. An arbor was constructed at the top of the hill similar to the one shown in paintings of the signing of the Treaty of 1851 in a likely inaccurate recreation (given that the accuracy of the paintings on which it was based is questionable).

In 1932 the Daughters of the American Revolution place another plaque and marker on the hill commemorating the 1851 treaty – the plaque says that the treaty was negotiated on Pilot Knob but the location of the marker is not the site of the treaty negotiation.
During the 1960s reconstruction of Highway 55 was underway. This project removed highway access to Pilot Knob resulting in dead ended roads today.

The area was again studied in the early 1980s as a reconstruction project was planned for the Mendota Bridge. Mendota Bridge was repaired and placed on the historic register in the early 1990s. During reconstruction, almost two million cubic yards of dirt were removed from the incline on the East end of the bridge. The steepness of the hill, though, is still apparent in aerial photographs. The Garron site (the place believed most likely for the actual signing of the Treaty of 1851) also went up for sale.

In 2002 Acacia Cemetery, disallowed from selling plots on the East side of Pilot Knob hill, placed “investment land” along the cemetery’s Northern border up for sale. This is soon followed by a development company’s plans to build high-density townhomes in the area.

The proposed construction project becomes the center of a controversy over encroaching development and the site’s historic significance to both Native Americans and Minnesota’s heritage. On June 23, 2003 Pilot Knob was officially nominated for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. In July 2003 discussions began on forming a non-profit group to advocate conservation of Pilot Knob and future solutions for what to do with the acreage. In August a self-appointed sub-committee presented an exhibit at the Mendota Pow-wow (held on the grounds of St. Peter’s Church in Mendota) hoping to raise awareness of Pilot Knob’s historical significance and the threat posed by development.

Visit one of these Dakota County Historic Sites