Many local residents have forgotten, but Pelican Rapids rates a prominent place in state history and there is a monument commemorating the event just 3 miles north of the city on U.S. Highway 59.
A monument (right) sands on the site of the discovery of “The Minnesota Women” the skeletal remains of a woman that were believed to be at least 10,000 (possibly as much as 20,000) years old.
It was June 16, 1931 and a highway department crew was at work leveling what engineers had labeled “frost boil five” when the grader blade suddenly bit into soft earth. Crew member Carl Steffen, who was following the machine, thought he saw something odd. Stopping for a closer look, he was shocked to see empty eye socket of a human skull peering up at him.
Mr. Steffen tells it best. “We had this tough old guy who came over and said, ‘this won’t take long!’ and jammed his shovel into the ground. But I warned him away from it. ‘We’ll make a man out of it,’ I said.”
Steffen indeed tried to “make a man out of it,” by exhuming the bones, and laying them out in anatomical order in the ditch. Today such an unintentional discovery of human remains would stop a project cold, while experts were hustled in to make a thorough evaluation of the undisturbed site. But this was 1931 and interestingly enough, the bones lay there overnight until retrieved by the district supervisor who eventually got them to Dr. Albert Jenks from the University of Minnesota, while the road work continued.
At least two artifacts — a conch shell pendant and a dagger made from an elks’ horn — were discovered with the bones.
It did not take Jenks and his colleagues long to realize they had a find of immense importance. The pelvis immediately identified it as a mature female, but young enough to never have borne children. From Steffen’s description of how the bones lay, experts reasoned they had not been ritualistically buried, so an accidental death was was suspected. Though the crew had effectively destroyed the site, Steffen had noted the bones had been covered with a layer of deteriorated clam or mussel shells.
That layer of shells proved extremely troublesome — an inconvenient piece in the scientific puzzle — for it indicated death by drowning. Perhaps she had broken through thin ice, or perhaps she had been fishing and had fallen from a log or crude raft. Then her body had sunk into the mud and had slowly been covered with other layers of silt and sand.
There had been no water there for at least 10,000 years, when glacial Lake Pelican included all the lakes in the Pelican River Chain, and covered considerable high ground, as well. And the soil covering the body had been laid down centuries before that. In fact, the lake had been formed by the melting of the great glaciers which covered most of our continent long ages ago.
Prior to 1926, most scientists believed human beings’ appearance in North America dated from about the last couple thousand years. The discovery of what was to become known as The original plaque was labeled “Minnesota Man” (the name officially changed in 1976 to “Minnesota Woman”) pushed the date even beyond that, back further than many were willing to concede.
But eventually, the evidence became irrefutable. Science now recognizes this Minnesota Girl (who is sometimes referred to as “Lady of the Lake”), as a proto-Indian, a member of a race who lived virtually in the shadow of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. Her forebears had come from east-central Asia, perhaps by walking across the Bering Straights on ice, perhaps on a “land bridge” exposed by lower sea levels. Retreating glaciers left a band of rich alluvial soil at their bases, upon which grew lush grasses to feed great herds of bison, elk, perhaps wooly mammoths, as well. And wherever there was game, there were bands of pre-historic hunter-gathers.
Thus Otter Tail County may claim to have been the home of one of the first human beings to have lived on the North American continent during the Pleistocene Epoch age. If scientists are correct, this Pelican Rapids teenage girl dates back beyond the days of the Pharaohs of Egypt, and beyond the written history of humanity.
Thanks to The Otter Tail County Historical Society
who contributed greatly to this page.
For more information see:
Otter Tail County Historical Society
1110 Lincoln Avenue West
Fergus Falls, MN 56537
*Source: Pleistocene Man in Minnesota, Univ. of Minn. Press. 1936
by Dr. Albert Ernest Jenks (1869-1953)