George Catlin's Visit to the Pipestone Quarry


by George Catlin
(First published in London in 1844)



"From the Fall of St. Anthony, my delightful companion (Mr. Wood, whom I have before mentioned) and myself, with our Indian guide, whose name was O-kup-pee, tracing the beautiful shores of the St. Peters river, about eighty miles; crossing it at a place called "Traverse des Sioux", and recrossing it at another point about thirty miles above the mouth of "Terre Bleue", from whence we steered in a direction a little North of West for the "Coteau des Prairies", leaving the St. Peters river, and crossing one of the most beautiful prairie countries in the world, for the distance of one hundred and twenty or thirty miles, which brought us to the base of the Coteau, where we were joined by our kind and esteemed companion Monsieur La Fromboise, as I have before related.
[NOTE: The Coteau des Prairies - "Hills of the Prairies" is a range of "hills" rising from the prairie as the result of glacial deposits remaining following the last ice age.]
"This tract of country as well as that along the St. Peters river, is mostly covered with the richest soil, and furnishes an abundance of good water, which flows from a thousand living springs. For many miles we had the Coteau in view in the distance before us, which looked like a blue cloud settling down in the horizon; and we were scarcely sensible of the fact, when we had arrived at its base, from the graceful and almost imperceptible swells with which it commences its elevation above the country around it. Over these swells or terraces, gently rising one above the other, we travelled for the distance of forty or fifty miles, when we at length reached the summit; and from the base of this mound, to its top, a distance of forty or fifty miles, there was not a tree or bush to be seen in any direction, and the ground everywhere was covered with a green turf of grass, about five or six inches high; and we were assured by our Indian guide, that it descended to the West, towards the Missouri, with a similar inclination, and for an equal distance, divested of every thing save the grass that grows, and the animals that walk upon it.
"On the very top of this mound or ridge, we found the far-famed quarry or fountain of the Red Pipe, which is truly an anomaly in nature.

pipestone quarry
Catlin at his easel

"The principal and most striking feature of this place, is a perpendicular wall of close-grained, compact quartz, of twenty-five and thirty feet in elevation, running nearly North and South with its face to the West, exhibiting a front of nearly two miles in length, when it disappears at both ends by running under the prairie, which he comes there a little more elevated, and probably covers it for many miles, both to the North and the South. The depression of the brow of the ridge at this Place has been caused by the wash of a little stream, produced by several springs on the top, a little back from the wall; which has gradually carried away the super-incumbent earth, and having bared the wall for the distance of two miles, is now left to glide for some distance over a perfectly level surface of quartz rock; and then to leap from the top of the wall into a deep basin below, and from thence seek its course to the Missouri, forming the extreme source of a noted and powerful tributary, called the 'Big Sioux'.
"This beautiful wall is horizontal, and stratified in several distinct layers of light grey, and rose or flesh-coloured quartz; and for most of the way, both on the front of the wall, and for acres of its horizontal surface, highly polished or glazed, as if by ignition. At the base of this wall there is a level prairie, of half a mile in width, running parallel to it; in any and all parts of which, the Indians procure the red stone for their pipes, by digging through the soil and several slaty layers of the red stone, to the depth of four or five feet.
[NOTE: From the very many excavations recently and anciently made, I could discover that these layers varied very much, in their thickness in different parts; and that in some places they were overlaid with four or five feet of rock, similar to, and in fact a part of, the lower stratum of the wall. the two old women, the guardian spirits of the place, reside; of whom I have before spoken.]
"From the very numerous marks of ancient and modern diggings or excavations, it would appear that this place has been for many centuries resorted to for the red stone; and from the great number of graves and remains of ancient fortifications in its vicinity, it would seem, as well as from their actual traditions, that the Indian tribes have long held this place in high superstitious estimation; and also that it has been the resort of different tribes, who have made their regular pilgrimages here to renew their pipes.
"The red pipe stone, I consider, will take its place amongst minerals, as an interesting subject of itself; and the "Coteau des Prairies" will become hereafter an important theme for geologists; not only from the fact that this is the only known locality of that mineral, but from other phenomena relating to it. The single fact of such a table of quartz, in horizontal strata, resting on this elevated plateau, is of itself (in my opinion) a very interesting subject for investigation; and one which calls upon the scientific world for a correct theory with regard to the time when, and the manner in which, this formation was produced. That it is of a secondary character, and of a sedimentary deposit, seems evident; and that it has withstood the force of the diluvial current, while the great valley of the Missouri, from this very wall of rocks to the Rocky Mountains, has been excavated, and its debris carried to the ocean, there is also not a shadow of doubt; which opinion I confidently advance on the authority of the following remarkable facts:

pipestone quarry
Catlin's painting of the quarry
The "perpindicular wall" and the "five stupendous boulders" appearing in this Catlin painting can also be seen in the background of the old photograph on the previous page.

"At the base of the wall, and within a few rods of it, and on the very ground where the Indians dig for the red stone, rests a group of five stupendous boulders of gneiss, leaning against each other; the smallest of which is twelve or fifteen feet, and the largest twenty-five feet in diameter, altogether weighing, unquestionably, several hundred tons. These blocks are composed chiefly of felspar and mica,.of an exceedingly coarse grain (the felspar often occurring in crystals of an inch in diameter). The surface of these boulders is in every part covered with a grey moss, which gives them an extremely ancient and venerable appearance, and their sides and angles are rounded by attrition, to the shape and character of most other erratic stones, which are found throughout the country.
"That these five immense blocks, of precisely the same character, and differing materially from all other specimens of boulders which I have seen in the great vallies of the Mississippi and Missouri, should have been hurled some hundreds of miles from their native bed, and lodged in so singular a group on this elevated ridge, is truly matter of surprise for the scientific world, as well as for the poor Indian, whose superstitious veneration of them is such, that not a spear of grass is broken or bent by his feet, within three or four rods of them, where he stops, and in humble supplication, by throwing plugs of tobacco to them, solicits permission to dig and carry away the red stone for his pipes. The surface of these boulders are in every part entire and unscratched by anything; wearing the moss everywhere unbroken, except where I applied the hammer, to obtain some small specimens, which I shall bring away with me.
"The fact alone, that these blocks differ in character from all other specimens which I have seen in my travels, amongst the thousands of boulders which are strewed over the great valley of the Missouri and Mississippi, from the Yellow Stone almost to the Gulf of Mexico, raises in my mind an unanswerable question, as regards the location of their native bed, and the means by which they have reached their isolated position; like five brothers, leaning against and supporting each other, without the existence of another boulder within many miles of them. There are thousands and tens of thousands of boulders scattered over the prairies, at the base of the COTEAU on either side; and so throughout the valley of the St. Peters and Mississippi, which are also subjects of very great interest and importance to science, inasmuch as they present to the world, a vast variety of characters; and each one, though strayed away from its original position, bears incontestible proof of the character of its native bed. The tract of country lying between the St. Peters river and the Coteau, over which we passed, presents innumerable specimens of this kind; and near the base of the COTEAU they are strewed over the prairie in countless numbers, presenting almost an incredible variety of rich, and beautiful colours; and undoubtedly traceable, (if they can be traced), to separate and distinct beds.
"Amongst these beautiful groups, it was sometimes a very easy matter to sit on my horse and count within my sight, some twenty or thirty different varieties, of quartz and granite, in rounded boulders, of every hue and colour, from snow white to intense red, and yellow, and blue, and almost to a jet black; each one well characterized and evidently from a distinct quarry. With the beautiful hues and almost endless characters of these blocks, I became completely surprised and charmed; and I resolved to procure specimens of every variety, which I did with success, by dismounting from my horse, and breaking small bits from them with my hammer; until I had something like an hundred different varieties, containing all the tints and colours of a painter's palette. These, I at length threw away, as I had on several former occasions, other minerals and fossils, which I had collected and lugged along from day to day, and sometimes from week to week.

pipestone quarry
A wounded Griz - Big medicine for these brave hunters

"Whether these varieties of quartz and granite can all be traced to their native beds, or whether they all have origins at this time exposed above the earth's surface, are equally matters of much doubt in my mind. I believe that the geologist may take the different varieties, which he may gather at the base of the Coteau in one hour, and travel the Continent of North America all over without being enabled to put them all in place; coming at last to the unavoidable conclusion, that numerous chains or beds of primitive rocks have reared their heads on this Continent, the summits of which have been swept away by the force of diluvial currents, and their fragments jostled together and strewed about, like foreigners in a strange? land, over the great vallies of the Mississippi and Missouri, where they will ever remain, and be gazed upon by the traveller, as the only remaining evidence of their native beds, which have again submerged or been covered with diluvial deposits.
"There seems not to be, either on the Coteau or in the great vallies on either side, so far as I have travelled, any slaty or other formation exposed above the surface on which grooves or scratches can be seen, to establish the direction of the diluvial currents in those regions; yet I think the fact is pretty clearly established by the general shapes of the vallies, and the courses of the mountain ridges which wall them in on their sides.
"The Coteau des Prairies is the dividing ridge between the St. Peters and Missouri rivers; its southern termination or slope is about in the latitude of the Fall of St. Anthony, and it stands equi-distant between the two rivers; its general course bearing two or three degrees West of North for the distance of two or three hundred miles, when it gradually slopes again to the North, throwing out from its base the bend-waters and tributaries of the St. Peters, on the East. The Red River, and other streams, which empty into Hudson's Bay, on the North; La Riviere Jaque and several other tributaries to the Missouri, on the West; and the Red Cedar, the Iowa and the Des Moines, on the South.

pipestone quarry
Group of Iowas - Note pipes

"This wonderful feature, which is several hundred miles in length, and varying from fifty to a hundred in width, is, perhaps, the noblest mound of its kind in the world; it gradually and gracefully rises on each side, by swell after swell, without tree, or bush or rock (save what are to be seen in the vicinity of the Pipe Stone Quarry), and everywhere covered with green grass, affording the traveller, from its highest elevations, the most unbounded and sublime views of -- nothing at all -- save the blue and boundless ocean of prairies that lie beneath and all around him, vanishing into azure in the distance without a speck or spot to break their softness.
"The direction of this ridge, I consider, pretty clearly establishes the course of the diluvial cut-rent in this region, and the erratic stones which are distributed along its base, I attribute to an origin several hundred miles North West from the Coteau. I have not myself traced the Coteau to its highest points, nor to its Northern extremity; but it has been a subject, on which I have closely questioned a number of traders, who have traversed every mile of it with their carts, and from thence to Lake Winnipeg on the North, who uniformly tell me, that there is no range of primitive rocks to be crossed in travelling the whole distance, which is one connected and continuous prairie.
"The top and sides of the COTEAU are everywhere strewed over the surface with granitic sand and pebbles, which, together with the fact of the five boulders resting at the Pipe Stone Quarry, shew clearly that every part of the ridge has been subject to the action of these currents, which could not have run counter to it, without having disfigured or deranged its beautiful symmetry.
"The glazed or polished surface of the quartz rocks at the Pipe Stone Quarry, I consider a very interesting subject, and one which will excite hereafter a variety of theories, as to the manner in which it has been produced, and the causes which have led to such singular results. The quartz is of a close grain, and exceedingly hard, eliciting the most brilliant spark from steel; and in most places, where exposed to the sun and the air, has a high polish on its surface, entirely beyond any results which could have been produced by diluvial action, being perfectly glazed as if by ignition. I was not sufficiently particular in my examinations to ascertain whether any parts of the surface of these rocks under the ground, and not exposed to the action of the air, were thus affected, which would afford an important argument in forming a correct theory with regard to it; and it may also be a fact of similar importance, that this polish does not extend over the whole wall or area; but is distributed over it in parts and sections, often disappearing suddenly, and reappearing again, even where the character and exposure of the rock is the same and unbroken. In general, the parts and points most projecting and exposed, bear the highest polish, which would naturally be the case whether it was produced by ignition, or by the action of the air and sun. It would seem almost an impossibility, that the air passing these projections for a series of centuries, could have produced so high a polish on so hard a substance; and it seems equally unaccountable, that this effect could have been produced in the other way, in the total absence of all igneous matter.
"I have broken off specimens and brought them home, which certainly bear as high a polish and luster on the surface, as a piece of melted glass; and then as these rocks have undoubtedly been formed where they now lie, it must be admitted, that this strange effect on their surface has been produced either by the action of the air and sun, or by igneous influence; and if by the latter course, there is no other conclusion we can come to, than that these results are volcanic; that this wall has once formed the side of a crater, and that the Pipe Stone, laying in horizontal strata, is formed of the lava which has issued from it. I am strongly inclined to believe, however, that the former supposition is the correct one; and that the Pipe Stone, which differs from all known specimens of lava, is a new variety of steatite, and will be found to be a subject of great interest and one worthy of a careful analysis.

pipestone quarry
Comanche Warriors

"With such notes and such memorandums on this shorn land, whose quiet and silence are only broken by the winds and the thunders of Heaven, I close my note-book, and we this morning saddle our horses; and after wending our way to the 'Thunders' Nest' and the 'Stone-man Medicine,' we shall descend into the valley of the St. Peters, and from that to the regions of civilization; from whence, if I can get there, you will hear of me again. Adieu."