Tail County probably has the oldest resident
of North America
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 Steffn, who
was following the machine, thought he saw
something odd. Stopping for a closer look,
he was shocked to see empty eye socket of
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 Steffens
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
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
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
Minnesota Man" (the name officially
changed in 1976 to "The 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
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 Pharoahs of Egypt, and beyond
the written history of humanity.