FACTS - Coldwater Springs ::::
compiled by Susu Jeffrey

• Largest limestone bedrock spring in the Twin Cities.

• Flows at 144,000 gallons a day.

• At least 10,000 years old, formed by glacier melt channeling through Platteville limestone, possibly older than the most recent (Wisconsin) ice age.

• 47-degrees Fahrenheit year around, ice-free in winter & filled with ducks.

• The springs form Coldwater Creek which tumbles down the Mississippi River gorge into a wetland & a waterfall before emptying into the great river.

• In the1880s a limestone well tower & pump house was built & the reservoir holding pond expanded by Fort Snelling soldiers. Spring water was piped to the fort until the 1940s.

• There has never been a hydrology study to determine the source(s) of Coldwater Spring.


• A 9,000-year old flint spear point was discovered in Mendota, near the confluence of the Mississippi & Minnesota rivers. The 5-inch projectile was used to hunt giant bison, about twice the size of today’s buffalo, typically ambushed in a swampy area. These huge animals died out after the ice age.

• Paleo-Indians also hunted woolly mammoth & mastodon (ancient elephants). The big game hunters & gatherers lived a migratory lifestyle following the food cycle. Flint for this spear point was mined out of limestone along the Minnesota River near Mankato. The flint, found 70-miles from its source, probably indicates the people’s harvest path or perhaps trade.

• As ice retreated with drying winds, the prairie spread & deciduous woods grew only in river valleys & around large lakes. For thousands of years people lived without evidence of warfare.

• By 1500 BCE squash & wild rice were added to a varied diet of greens & plants like prairie turnips, berries & buffalo, moose, deer, small game & fish.

• 500 BCE first pottery appeared. Extensive trade, semi-permanent villages & more harvested plant food. Corn introduced.

• 500 BCE-500 great mound building period. Evidence of large gatherings but no evidence of collective warfare.

• 500-1650 small settlements scattered along Minnesota River & tributaries with corn, beans, squash & buffalo. In the north with a lake/woodland habitat, people lived in larger villages hunting & fishing, with intensive wild rice cultivation & tobacco. Bow & arrow hunting replaced atlatls (throwing sticks). Archaelogical studies indicate an increasing, healthy population at peace with neighbors.

• 1650-1805 measles, small pox & population pressure from native peoples pushed westward, precede the Europeans. The series of deadly epidemics devastated the continuity of native societies.

• Trade goods & furs moved along water highways. The French also brought whiskey & missionaries.

• Horses came to the northern Great Plains by the end of the 1600s. "Spirit dogs" revolutionized plains society & encouraged a flowering of Dakota culture, ironically just before the buffalo population collapsed.

• September 23, 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike signed a treaty with the "Sioux Nation of Indians" for 9-miles of land on either side of the Mississippi River from below the confluence with the Minnesota, north to the Falls of St. Anthony. The United States of America was granted "full sovereignty & power over said districts forever" for the "purpose of the establishment of military posts" while the native people retained the rights to "pass, repass, hunt or make other uses of the said districts, as they have formerly done." In trade for the land use, the assembled Dakota people got 60 barrels of whiskey & $200. The treaty was never ratified & has not been tested in the courts.


• In the fall of 1819 soldiers built Fort New Hope on the backwaters of the Minnesota River, below Mendota (Dakota word for "meeting of waters"). Tainted meat & poor sanitary practices resulted in 20-percent mortality.

• May 5, 1820, soldiers followed Indian trails up the west bank of the Mississippi bluff to Coldwater Spring & took possession. "The clear, cold spring water helped restore the men & their families, who lived in tents & elm bark huts here during three summers while they built the permanent stone fort nearby."

• Camp Coldwater was born.

• Limestone was quarried out of the bluffs right there & hauled to fort construction at the point above the confluence of the Mississippi & Minnesota rivers.

• The road to the lumber mill, Hiawatha, ran between the fort & the Falls of St. Anthony. To the Anishinabe (Ojibwe) the falls was Ka-kah bi-kah, "split rocks" named for the great hunks of limestone that broke off when water dug out the soft sandstone beneath the harder rock. Dakota people called it Minnehaha, "waterfall." What we call Minnehaha today was "Little Falls."

• A pioneer settlement grew around Camp Coldwater to supply & service the fort, including Swiss, French, Canadian, Irish, English, Native & African-Americans. Pioneers built farms, trading posts, steamboat landings, a hotel, blacksmith shops, stables & worked at the fort as servants, baby-sitters, interpreters, missionaries & guides.

• In the late 1830s the military began to forcibly evict civilians away from lands near the fort, ostensibly to preserve game & firewood. Authorities lost control of the mix of natives, soldiers & settlers living around the fort. Their solution was to dilute the concentration of people & whiskey. It was a time of huge population transfers within America & from Africa & Europe to America.

• Pioneer leader Abraham Perry built his homestead beside Coldwater Falls, on a small stretch of prairie half way down the great river bluff. In 1838 Perry, his wife & 6 children were driven out of their home, taking only what they could carry, & put on a ferry across the Mississippi. Soldiers ripped-off the roof of their log cabin, smashed household goods & set all afire. Pieces of Marie Ann Perry’s broken China pop out of the ground each spring after the thaw. She was the community’s midwife.

• Pig’s Eye Parrant removed his notorious liquor business from Mendota, safely downstream of the military reservation to become one of the founding father’s of what people called Pig’s Eye, later St. Paul.

• After a series of battles between the Dakota & Anishinabe, Indian people were also "expelled" from the Coldwater area.

• As game became more scarce government & missionaries increasingly pressured Indian people to become farmers & Christians.

• 1836-40 Dred Scott lived at Fort Snelling, in the Wisconsin Territory, a "free territory" where slavery was prohibited. He had lived at Fort Armstrong in the free state of Illinois with his master, Army surgeon John Emerson, from 1833-35.

• Scott was born Sam Blow in Virginia in 1795. The family & slaves moved westward settling in St. Louis, Missouri. He changed his name after his first wife was sold "down the river." He ran away as Sam, was caught & beaten by a gang of young thugs who returned a changed man, Dred Scott, to his master for the reward money.

• Dred Scott, his wife Harriet & their two daughters, lost their 11-year battle for freedom in the "most unpopular Supreme Court decision in the 70-year history of the court." Into the rising fire of Abolitionist sentiment, Scott v. Sanford (1846-57) declared Dred Scott to be ineligible to file a suit in federal court because he was not a person.

• Dred Scott walked here. Coldwater Springs furnished drinking & cooking water to the fort for a hundred years, hauled in barrels on "water wagons" until after the Civil War.

• In 1843 the Coldwater area was declared to be within the Fort Snelling Military Reservation along with most of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington & Richfield. The army continued to evict people in order to secure its water source & enough surrounding land for gardens, firewood, hunting & military control.

• 1851 Treaty negotiations at Mendota with Mdewakanton Dakota people were accelerated by the denial of rations (beefsteak). Millions of acres of southern Minnesota was ceded to the US for white settlement for a few cents an acre including: Fort Snelling, Coldwater & lands west of the Mississippi.

• Traders received $410,000 of Dakota treaty money to cover inflated debt for trade goods. Minnesota territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey was found "free from blame" for his part in engineering the treaty.

• 1851-63 Annunity payments & the reservation system was organized to "civilize the Dakotas" in permanent homes along the Minnesota River.

• 1855 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha was published. Hugely popular, it brought tourists by the boatload. Those who landed below Fort Snelling followed the trail to Coldwater Spring, then north (11&Mac218;4 miles) to Minnehaha Falls, site of the "Indian" Victorian romance.

• 1858 Minnesota statehood, St. Paul, largest city, became the state capitol; St. Anthony, second city got the state university while Stillwater, the state prison. Slavery was the major federal issue, this was the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

• 1862 The Dakota Uprising resulted in 644 white deaths. Native deaths were not recorded. 38 Dakota men were hanged at Mankato the day after Christmas. 1600 Dakota people were interned over-winter in a squalid camp on the river flats below Fort Snelling. Accounts vary about how many died (at least 130) & where they were buried.

• A removal bill was enacted in March 1863. Two months later more than 1300 Dakota Indians were shipped down the Mississippi & up the Missouri to Crow Creek, South Dakota, in boats so crowded 300 people died. Conditions were comparable to the Middle Passage of the slave trade.

• Parts of Minnesota were declared "Indian free." A bounty was offered for native scalps. At this time Minnesota troops were fighting & dying in the American South to free blacks from slavery. In fact Dakota men were in the Union Army.

• Dakota people who were neutral during the uprising or who acted as "friendlies" could neither go to a reservation nor remain near white settlements. Although "any meritorious individual…who exerted himself to save the lives of the whites in the late massacre" was granted 80 acres, in reality they became landless, homeless & were compelled to live hidden as outlaws.

• In the 1870s Indian people began to come out of invisibility & to return to their homelands from the reservations. Assimilation pressures intensified. Some Mendota Dakota "friendlies" squatted across from Fort Snelling along the south bank of the confluence of rivers where they were flooded out nearly every spring.

• 1885 Minnesota legislature allocated money for Minnehaha State Park, first state park in the US (second is Niagara falls). It was Horace Cleveland’s vision & energy that preserved the land from the falls to the fort.

• 1890-1978, Indian religious practice was outlawed in America.

• An aerial photograph from the 1930s shows two pow wow circles just south of 54th Street, on federal land. (Pow wows are social-cultural events.)

• During the 1950s & 1960s plans to preserve Camp Coldwater & to excavate some of the historic sites came to naught.

• 1959 Government officials considered building a nuclear reactor at Coldwater Springs.

• 1960-97 a portion of the federal land was fenced by the US Bureau of Mines for Cold War research. There was little news from inside the compound however, once in the 1970s Coldwater Springs was open to the public during a drinking water emergency.

• The Bureau of Mines has been reabsorbed back into the Department of Interior & Camp Coldwater has been vacated.

• MAC (Metropolitan Airports Commission) holds a signed agreement with Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton to receive title to Camp Coldwater for an 850 car parking lot for employees. The land is in the flight path of the NE-SW runway extension. If Camp Coldwater becomes an Airport Sacrifice Zone all buildings would be demolished & removed with 7 acres of surface parking & some landscaping.

• March 19, 1999, Eddie Benton Benais, Grand Chief of the Mdewiwin (Medicine) Society, Anishinabe spiritual elder from Lac Courte Oreilles, Wisconsin, gave court-ordered testimony in the State Office Building of the Minnesota Capitol grounds about the cultural significance of the Camp Coldwater area. "My grandfather who died in 1942…many times he retold how we traveled, how he & his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls & the (spring) sacred water place….We know that the falls which came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, was a sacred place, a neutral place, a place for many nations to come….And that the spring from which the sacred water should be drawn was not very far…a spring that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremony….How we take care of the water is how it will take care of us."

• February 7, 2000, University of Minnesota historical anthropologist Bruce M. White, PhD, released a report calling the Camp Coldwater settlement "a dream archaeological site. The birthplace of Minnesota [is] a rich, culturally diverse area in which Indian people, whites, fur traders, missionaries, soldiers & settlers came together to create the basis for the state as it is today.


• Anderson, James K., Cultural Chairman, Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community

• Barr, Kelton, hydro-geological consultant to the Minnehaha Creek Watershed Distrtict

• Blegen, Theodore C., Minnesota: A History of the State, University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

• Brick, Greg, 1989 inventory of springs of the Twin Cities for the Minnesota Polluntion Control Agency

• Brown, Robert A., Chairman, Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community

• Clouse, Robert, PhD, head archaelogist, Minnesota Historical Society

• Fehrenbacher, Don Edward, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, Oxford University Press, 1978.

• Fudally, Dave, Camp Coldwater history expert, impetus behind the Minnesota Historical Society’s 1991 plaque at the site

• Hill, Frederick Trevor, Decisive Battles of the Law: Narrative Studies of Eight Legal Contests Affecting the History of the United States Between 1800-1886, Harper and Borthers, 1907.

• Iverson, Mary Jo, Green Cities Inc., researcher, documentarian

• LaDuke, Winona, Last Standing Woman, Voyageur Press, 1997.

• Meier, Peg, "Digging the Past," Star Tribune, 12/1/98, pp. A 14-15.

• Meyer, Roy W., History of the Santee Sioux: United States Indian Policy on Trial, University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

• Mosedale, Bob, historic preservation researcher and activist

• Red Hawk, Jay, Lakota enrolled at Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota

• Wilson, Charles Morrow, The Dred Scott Decision, Auerbach Publishers, 1973

Researched & written by Susu Jeffrey


Camp Coldwater - Birthplace of Minnesota
by Bruce White and Dean Lindberg
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