Jeffers Petroglyphs

Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site and Jeffers Petroglyphs: Southern Minnesota Historical Road Trip

September 12, 2019

Our kids are 15 and 12, a great age to take day trips during their summer break. Since we are making an effort to see more of our own backyard, this summer we took a day to explore two important historical sites in southern Minnesota: the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site in St. Peter and the Jeffers Petroglyphs near Jeffers. The combination of the two sites, both managed by the Minnesota Historical Society, was a very doable day trip from the Twin Cities and provided a great chance to immerse us in Minnesota’s American Indian history.

Why We Went

As background, several years ago, our son participated in a Minnesota Studies class, which devoted a fair share of its curriculum to the state’s American Indian history and treatment by white settlers. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when he asked to see the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site, which is about an hour from where we live, after learning about it and its significance in Minnesota history. Since he first asked to go, we had the best of intentions, but we just had never gotten there yet.

Fast forward three years, and our daughter completed the same Minnesota Studies curriculum. She became enamored with seeing the Jeffers Petroglyphs, about a 30 minute drive from where I grew up in southwestern Minnesota. Between the two requests, a day trip idea was born.


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Traverse des Sioux treaty site

Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site in St Peter

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, “For thousands of years, the Dakota lived and worked at Traverse des Sioux, located on the lower Minnesota River. By the early 19th century, European American fur traders, missionaries, and adventurers were frequent visitors. Then in 1851, this site witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux between the US government and the Dakota.” 

The History Center

The Minnesota Historical Society and the Nicollet County Historical Society manage this important historical site, which includes a museum (that showed a great 15 minute video summarizing the historical events), as well as a walking trail that tells the story of the 1851 treaty that signed over 24 million acres of what is now the state of Minnesota. (Part of the trail is often flooded, as it’s very close to the Minnesota River. Be sure to check the website to see if the whole trail is open.) The government did not hold up their end of the bargain, as they removed a key component of the agreement that would have formed a reservation of land along the Minnesota River; the US government also kept over 80% of the money promised to the Indians in the treaty.

Traverse des Sioux treaty site
Traverse des Sioux treaty site

The history site provides a stark reminder to visitors of the life and culture of the the Dakota that lived in the area, and the impact of the treaty on their lives moving forward. It also informed visitors of the the role the treaty played in the US-Dakota War that followed later. Both of our kids agreed that the movie in the history center was definitely the highlight of the visit, as it told the story in a way their screen-trained brains could grasp more than a walk through the prairie with interpretive signs.

Traverse des Sioux treaty site
Small memorial at the assumed site of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux signing, in a residential area of St. Peter, MN.

The Actual Site of the Treaty Signing

Interestingly, the site of the history center is not the actual site of the treaty signing. To find the actual site, we asked one of the Historical Society volunteers for directions. You have to cross to the other side of Highway 169 and into a residential area. It is not well marked, but there is a marker in the approximate area where the signing occurred.

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Jeffers Petroglyphs
Guides do not wear shoes on the rocks where the petroglyphs are. They spray water on them so they are more easily seen.

Jeffers Petroglyphs in Jeffers

After our visit to Traverse des Sioux, we headed about an hour west (and a little south) to the Jeffers Petroglyphs in southwestern Minnesota. These petroglyphs are about 30 minutes from where I grew up, but inexplicably I had never visited them before our summer day trip.

Jeffers Petroglyphs are also part of the Minnesota Historical Society. According to their website: “Jeffers Petroglyphs is home to about 5,000 sacred rock carvings, also called petroglyphs, made by the ancestors of today’s Native Americans. Jeffers tells the story of this continent like no other place — connecting visitors to those who lived and traveled in ancient times across what is now known as North America.”

The Petroglyphs

The petroglyphs found at this site were created anywhere from 1,000 to 7,000 years ago. If you are averse to tours, you really need to let that go for this experience. Jeffers Petroglyphs is a place where you definitely want to take a tour, as the guides can find the petroglyphs on the rocks and spray them with water so you can see them more clearly. They also provide probable explanations of the drawings’ significance through consultation with Native Americans. 

Other Things to Do

While our kids found the petroglyphs fascinating, they may have had the most fun throwing spears using an atlatl, a lever held in your hand to launch the spear two- to three-times farther than by holding the spear directly. A volunteer staffed the atlatl station, gave coaching, and retrieved the spears. And of course, our kids had to compete to see who could throw it farther.

Jeffers Petroglyphs
Our daughter trying out the atlatl technology.
Jeffers Petroglyphs
Our son looking like a pro with the atlatl.

We also took in a trail walk through the prairie, which included a stop by the “buffalo rub,” a rock outcropping rubbed smooth by bison. It was a great place to stretch our legs before our trip home.

Jeffers Petroglyphs
Siblings walking through the prairie at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site.
Jeffers Petroglyphs
Buffalo rub

If you’re looking for more experiences to boost your knowledge of Native Americans’ lives and treatment in Minnesota, Fort Snelling does a good job of educating visitors about the Dakota who lived at the sacred confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers before the land was taken for the fort. It also educates about how the fort served as an internment camp for Dakota after the US-Dakota War. 

The Verdict

Both kids enjoyed their eye-opening visits to Traverse des Sioux and the Jeffers Petroglyphs. Visiting these sites brought their school curriculum to life and hammered home the injustices dealt to the Dakota Indians here in Minnesota, as well as the aftershocks their people still face today.

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Travers des Sioux Jeffers Petroglyphs


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