On March 14, 2017, Pilot Knob was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the official federal registry of historically significant sites worthy of preservation. For centuries, Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob has been a sacred indigenous burial ground and gathering place, earning its Dakota name “Oȟéyawahe,” meaning “a sacred place much visited; the place where people go for burials.” It continues to be a Dakota ceremonial site and a place where people can learn about history and culture that predates Minnesota statehood. The view from Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob was frequently referenced in early explorers’ and settlers’ writings including Lt. Zebulon Pike in 1805. The Treaty of 1851 was signed here, ceding 35 million acres of land to the United States.
Of the designation, Darlene St. Clair, associate professor at St. Cloud State University and a citizen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, states, “I am thrilled that Oheyawahi [Oȟéyawahe] 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. 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.”
The 112-acre site on the Register comprises both public and private land in Mendota Heights. People can experience spectacular views by visiting Historic Pilot Knob, a 25-acre natural area owned by the City of Mendota Heights. From the parking lot at the north end of Pilot Knob Road, a trail leads through a prairie restoration to three overlooks. Views include the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, Historic Fort Snelling, and the skylines of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob played an important role in Minnesota’s early territorial and state history. The formation—or “knob”—atop the hill (removed in 1926), was an early prominent natural landmark for travelers and steamboat pilots. Because Pilot Knob was such a distinctive landmark, Senator Stephen Douglas in 1848 proposed it as the site for the territorial capital. Overlooking Pike Island, the property is believed to have served as a burial place for some of those who died in the island’s fenced Dakota internment camp during the winter of 1862-63.
The stunning vistas from the bluffs of Pilot Knob take in a panoramic view that reflects much of the early history of the state itself. Across the river valley lies the historic Fort Snelling military post, completed in 1825. To the north is the Church of St. Peter, the oldest church in continuous use in Minnesota. Seen across the valley in the west horizon is the Minneapolis skyline, and to the north, downtown St. Paul. Below the bluff lies the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, known as “Bdote Minisota” to the Dakota, which later led to the naming of the nearby village of Mendota, a bustling fur trading center in the early 1800s. Mendota became the home of the state’s first elected governor, Henry H. Sibley, originally a fur trader for the American Fur Company. In a letter to a newspaper Sibley noted he “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.”
In 2002, a private developer had plans to build high-density housing on the northern portion of the historic site. In response to the proposal, Dakota and Ojibwe communities, historians, archaeologists, religious institutions, environmental organizations, and area residents raised objections and urged the City of Mendota Heights to purchase the acreage slated for development and to permanently preserve it as public open space. From 2006 to 2008, the city of Mendota Heights acquired 25 acres through a combination of grants and funding from governmental entities, organizations, the city, Dakota County, and individuals.
Over the past decade, the city’s 25-acre parcel has been undergoing restoration to oak savanna by Great River Greening, a non-profit that leads community-based vegetative restoration efforts. The oak savanna restoration at Historic Pilot Knob is believed to reflect the native vegetation that existed at the site before European settlement. A simple trail system, which includes interpretive signage, allows visitors to experience the site’s impressive historic vistas. Two overlooks incorporate public art works designed as tributes to the Dakota heritage of the area. A third overlook is a sculptural work of art by local artist Seitu Jones—seven blocks of carved stone set in a circle, engraved with the names of the seven council fires of the Dakota Nation. Additionally, Historic Pilot Knob is situated within an Important Bird Area of the Mississippi Flyway—one of the world’s crucial migratory corridors.
Today, the acreage owned by the city of Mendota Heights that lies within the overall 112-acre historic site is stewarded in collaboration with the Pilot Knob Preservation Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The city of Mendota Heights recognizes this jewel in its midst.
“The residents of Mendota Heights are honored to have such a historical site within our beautiful city,” says Mendota Heights Mayor Neil Garlock. “Our residents are greatly encouraged to visit the site and take advantage of this educational opportunity.”
For directions to Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob and for more information, visit pilotknobpreservation.org. Brochures are available for download from the website, at City Hall or at Pilot Knob.