Pilot Knob placed on National Register of Historic Places
It’s a well-known name and a wonderful lookout, but few people know its historic significance.
“Throughout recent history, people have known Pilot Knob either as the name of the road that dead-ends at this site or as a place to go to see a pretty view,” says Gail Lewellan, co-chair of the Pilot Knob Preservation Association. “It’s so much more than that.”
In March of this year, Pilot Knob, or Oheyawahi, as it’s known in the Dakota language, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After more than a decade of work, this 112-acre historic site, made of public and private land, is finally getting the designation and recognition many feel it deserves.
“I am thrilled that Oheyawahi has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, not only because of its importance in Dakota and Minnesota history, but because Dakota people still cherish this place, as we always have done,” Darlene St. Clair, associate professor at St. Cloud University and a citizen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, says in a press release.
“I hope this new protective status will also usher in a time when Dakota peoples’ efforts to maintain our relationship with this place is supported by the wider community.”
A long time coming
Lewellan says work on getting Pilot Knob added to the register has gone on since at least 2003. An application was submitted and the register board found it to be eligible. However, one of the requirements for listing on the register is a majority of private landowners who do not object to the designation.
“We didn’t think we could pass that threshold back in 2003 because of the ownership by the developers and the contract the Acacia Park Cemetery had with the developer to sell property there,” Lewellan says.
The preservation association decided to wait for a better time and spent the next years building relationships, working with Mendota Heights and talking to the private landowners.
Come 2015, Lewellan says the association felt it was in a solid place to get Pilot Knob added to the Register and its efforts were renewed.
The group applied for and received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to update the application.
“A lot had changed,” Lewellan says. “25 acres used to be owned and under application for a permit to build townhomes and now it was owned by the city.” She notes natural restoration had happened at the site, as well. “We moved a long way since the early years.”
Pilot Knob holds importance as a sacred site where traditional Dakota cultural practices occurred.
Lewellan says the preservation association’s mission is to “preserve that essential character of Pilot Knob and to educate people about its unique and sacred history”
One strategy of fulfilling that mission was getting Pilot Knob on the National Register of Historic Places.
Native people have been coming to Pilot Knob for thousands of years.
“The Dakota name means ‘a sacred place much visited,’” Lewellan says. “The place where people go for burials.”
Lewellan says this translation says a lot about the importance of the site to the people who originally lived in the area.
The site was recognized early on in the writings of Lt. Zebulon Pike in 1805. Seth Eastman, an officer at Fort Snelling in the 1850s, painted a number of watercolor depictions of the view and the activities in the Pilot Knob area, including sacred ceremony and burial scaffolds.
Lewellan says the Treaty of 1851, which led to the acquisition of 35 million acres of land for the United States, was signed near Pilot Knob.
There’s a quote from Henry Sibley, the first elected governor of Minnesota, that Lewellan says is her favorite.
The quote reads, “[I] was much impressed with the picturesque beauty of the spot and its surroundings, when seen from the high ground overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and especially Pilot Knob.”
This is true to this day — on a clear day, the tall buildings in both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul can be seen from Pilot Knob, Lewellan says.
Taking it back in time
Looking at Eastman’s depictions of Pilot Knob, there is a noticeable difference in its appearance in the mid-19th century to modern times.
“Knowing that this is an important historic site, we thought the very most appropriate way it could look is like it did back before it was changed,” Lewellan says.
Great River Greening restoration ecologist Wiley Buck says restoration work at Pilot Knob began back in 2004. The site had gone through a lot of different uses since it was its original oak savannah ecosystem. Buck says there had been buildings, grading for farming and that developers had gotten their hands into it, too.
“When we started managing it, that’s kind of the condition it was in — it was a really beat up, old field with lots of woody problems,” Buck says
Since then, things have turned around. Native plants now dominate Pilot Knob and many of the human relics, like buildings, were removed.
Pilot Knob’s original condition, oak savannah, is an ecosystem that is prairie with scattered oak groves. The prairie grasses stand upright during the winter and the prairie flowers can range in color from yellows to purples to blues. At Pilot Knob, there are four different tree groves.
This type of ecosystem brought in wildlife and edible plants, which made it livable for the Native Americans in the area.
To help maintain the oak savannah, Buck says methods such as burning and grazing are used. Sheep and goats will graze on invasive plants and their hooves help work seeds into the soil.
On March 14, the United States Department of Interior approved Pilot Knob to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was a culmination of a very long effort. We knew it was important but it didn’t have that broad recognition,” Lewellan says. “This designation opens the way for many other people to share our joy in having a gem in our midst.”
The designation does not carry any legal prohibition of what can and can’t be done at the site.
Lewellan says the designation might create opportunities for grant funds that would help with interpretation of the site’s historical and sacred significance.
As more people become aware of its significance, she says, there may be less inclination to think of the land as a place for houses or commercial development.
“The residents of Mendota Heights are honored to have such an historical site in our city,” Mayor Neil Garlock says. “I encourage everyone to spend some time at the site and learn about its importance in our history.”
Lewellan says the core importance of the site is that a lot of Dakota neighbors still honor it as a sacred place, important in their spiritual practices.
“I think we have a moral obligation to honor and respect that,” she says. “I think this National Register designation is one further step in that honoring.”
Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or firstname.lastname@example.org