Blood Run National Historic Landmark

Place: As it was, has been, will be

Landscapes contain the traces of past activities, and people select the stories they tell, the memories and histories they evoke, the interpretative narratives that they weave, to further their activities in the present-future.

It is through our experience and understanding that we engage with the materiality of the world. These encounters are subjective, predicated on our being in and learning how to go on in the world. The process by which we make landscapes is never pre-ordained because our perceptions and reactions, though they are spatially and historically specific, are unpredictable, contradictory, full of small resistances and renegotiations. We make time and place, just as we are made by them.

Bender, 2001:4

The Blood Run/Rock Island National Historic Landmark site (13LO2/39LN2) encompasses over 1.3 square miles (844 acres) along both sides of the Big Sioux River on the current Iowa/South Dakota border. Named for Blood Run Creek, the site was home to numerous prehistoric and protohistoric groups. Most notably, it is the largest known and most complex site of the late prehistoric Oneota tradition. The site consists of extensive village areas and numerous burial mounds, now protected by Iowa law. Euroamerican recognition of the site can be traced to the 1860s less than a decade after Dakota peoples relinquished title to the area. A little over a century later, the area was evaluated for National Historic Landmark status because of its extraordinary archaeological record and the immense history it tracks. 

Office of the State Archaeologist, 2011: 1

The Blood Run National Historic Landmark Site is located on both sides of the Big Sioux River in western Lyon County, Iowa and eastern Lincoln County, South Dakota.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

The geology of Blood Run stretches back millions of years into the pre-Cambrian period, when Sioux Quartzite, its ancient bedrock, was formed from compressed grains of quartz sand. Glaciers –advancing across the region some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago––deposited a layer, sometimes quite thick, of soil and gravel atop the bedrock. Finally, a mantle of loess, a fine-grained windblown material, covered the land as the glaciers retreated. Slowly over time, Blood Run Creek and the Big Sioux River have eroded the loess deposits and rearranged the gravel and sand deposits, carving a widening path through the rolling landscape. Prairie grasses and trees help keep erosion in check. 

State Historical Society of Iowa, Historic Sites, Blood Run, Site History (

But the most striking topographical feature of Lyon County is our grand prairie. Here there is a vastness, a beauty and sublimity that no pen can describe. From April to October there is one vast sea of green, varied in hue with myriads of wild flowers. Away as far as the eye can reach, stretches a boundless expanse of rolling prairie, till fading imperceptibly into the distant horizon. The esthetic beholder is lost in wonder and admiration, and mourns that there is no hand to transform these green slopes and rich valleys into productive farms and happy homes.

H.C. Hyde, 1873

The nation of the Maha according to the report of a voyageur who has seen them all assembled comprehends more than 400 dwellings. That is to say, there are about 1000 Men [see watercolor above for idealized representation of dwellings at Blood Run].

Pierre-Charles LeSueur, French trader, 1700–1702 (Quoted in Wedel 1974; 1981)

At the time of the creation of Buncombe County (now Lyon), in 1851, the title to the soil still vested in the Indians. However, on the 23rd of July, 1851, a treaty was concluded with the Sioux, by which they relinquished to the United States all their lands in Iowa.

The Yanktons and Tetons, tribes of the Sioux, formerly inhabited the region watered by the Big Sioux and Rock rivers and their tributaries, comprising what is now Lyon County. These were the most savage and warlike of any of the great Sioux nation, and maintained an almost constant warfare against the Iowas, Omahas and Ottoes, powerful rivals, who lived to the south.

Although the Indians relinquished all claim to their lands in Iowa in 1851, and stipulated to remove at once to their reservation on the Upper Missouri, they were loth to leave their favorite hunting grounds, and did not take their final departure until 
1869. Some lingered around their old council fires, and others returned on frequent hunting excursions.

H.C. Hyde, 1873

Martin Johnson homestead.

Whatever inducements Lyon County may offer to the manufacturer, the merchant, or those engaged in the various pursuits of life, the essential fact remains that in our soil there lies a sure foundation for future wealth and greatness. Here alone is there not only the source of abundant material wealth, but the capitalist, foreseeing what the future is to bring forth when the hundreds of thousands of our unplowed acres are brought under cultivation, will not hesitate to invest his treasure in the various enterprises necessary to our growth and prosperity. And the husbandman has reason for his faith in a soil which never fails to reward him generously for the labor bestowed in its cultivation.

H.C. Hyde, 1873

The railroad is the power that is transforming the wilds of the great West into the most productive portion of the earth, and is revolutionizing the commerce of the world. The intelligent pioneer now asks of a locality, "How far is it from the railroad?" with even more interest than "What is its soil?" We invite attention to our railway prospects [see photograph above, depicting railroad grade running through the Blood Run site].

H.C. Hyde, 1872

Construction of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railroad between Rock Rapids and Sioux Falls was completed 1886-1888. This work had a series of adverse effects on the Blood Run site, most of which are poorly documented. Not only did the railroad cross the site, erasing mounds and other evidence of Native American occupations, but a spur was built across Blood Run Creek onto the high terrace just north of the creek for gravel removal. Tons of gravel were taken for grade construction at this time, along with uncounted and virtually undocumented surface features…railroad construction was completed before the first description of the site was published.

Henning and Schermer, 2004: 399

Since 1976, burial mounds and all other types of burials are protected under Iowa law.
Click For More Information on Ancient Burial Protection

It [Blood Run] was beautifully situated on a high terrace overlooking the Big Sioux and the plains of South Dakota. The site extends for more than a mile along the Iowa terrace of the Big Soux, about a mile west of the little Rock Island station called Granite, and only two miles south of the South Dakota and Minnesota boundary lines. After sixty years of cultivation, the distinctive artifacts and refuse of an Ioway village continue as a never ending supply. 

Charles R. Keyes, 1926

Viewshed, facing northeast, with the Blood Run National Historic Landmark boundary shown in yellow.

This fine group of fifty-two large burial mounds scattered irregularly for half a mile along the crest of the terrace spur, with the valley of the Big Sioux and bordering Dakota bluffs on the West, and that of Blood Run and the Iowa hills on the East, must have been before the white men came, without peer in Iowa. Even now, with a part under cultivation and some of its mounds mutilated by relic hunters, it still stands unequaled in the State as an imposing monument to an unknown people, of whose history we in all probability will never know more than that these heaps of earth cover all that remains of them……Between 60 and 70 acres of the terrace spur should be acquired. Only the railroad right of way, to cross which an under crossing could be made, lies between the mound area and the highway. Unable to get prices for which it could be bought, or options. There are four different owners. It is important that immediate steps be taken to acquire this mound group. The sooner cultivation stopped, the better. If made a preserve, it would have a recreational as well as historic and scenic value. People of the prairies of Dakota as well as Iowa, resort to the Big Sioux, where there is native timber, for picnics and fishing. Often it is difficult to get permission to go in or on private land.

Ellison J. Orr, 1936

Click For More Information on Ancient Burial Protection

Blood Run is one of just 25 National Historic Landmarks in Iowa and one of just five designated primarily for its archaeological content. It was the second archaeological site (13LO2) to be recorded in present day Lyon County, Iowa. The site extends across the river into present day Lincoln County, South Dakota where it is designated as 39LN2, or the Rock Island site. With over four decades passed since Blood Run was designated an NHL, preservation efforts and development continues to trace the modern ‘history’ of the site.

John Doershuk, Office of the State Archaeologist, 2012

Small communities are finding new methods of preserving their traditional landscape and its associated cultural values. Although the idea that change can be substantially moderated is alien to United States thinking, the environmental movement and the recognition that there are a variety of nontraditional cultures worth preserving are changing our ideas of “progress.” Ultimately, these communities will have to recognize that all property has a community interest and find ways to incorporate this interest into both the institution of private property and its regulation.

Tarlock, 2000:537

Since it is our goal to create an awareness of Blood Run's importance, if nothing more, we feel our contact with students is essential. 

Nadene Pettengill, Lyon County Historical Society (Personal communication, September 2012)

References Cited

Bender, Barbara
2001    “Introduction,” in Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place, edited by Barbara Bender and Margot Winer, pp. 4. Oxford International Publishers, Ltd., Oxford, U.K.

Henning, Dale R., and Shirley J. Schermer
2004    Blood Run Archaeological Investigations. In Dhegihan and Chiwere Siouans in the Plains: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives, Part Two, edited by Dale R. Henning and Thomas D. Thiessen, pp. 399–434. Memoir 36, Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 192, Part 2. Plains Anthropological Society, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Henning, Dale R. and Gerald F. Schnepf
2012    Blood Run: The Silent City. Booklet sponsored by the Lyon County Historical Society and the U.S. National Park Service.
Hyde, S.C.
1975 (1873) Historical Sketch of Lyon County, Iowa. Perkins Brothers Printers and Binders, Sioux City Iowa. Reprinted Lost Cause Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

Keyes, Charles R.
1926    Notes on Blood Run, dated July 7-14, 1926. On file, OSA.

1927    Prehistoric Man in Iowa. The Palimpsest 8 (6):185-229.

Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa
2011    Blood Run NHL Documentation Improvement and Boundary Study - Tracking Land, Time and Traditions at Blood Run: A Prospectus Submitted to the National Park Service by the OSA The University of Iowa, Iowa City.

Orr, Ellison J.
1936    Report of a Statewide Reconnoissance [sic] Survey of Indian Mound Groups and Excavations of Camp Sites, under Project 1047 of the Iowa Planning Board, by Party under Dr, Charles R. Keyes, Sept. 17, 1934 to Mar. 7, 1935. Iowa Archaeological Reports Vol. 2.

Sauer, C. 1925, The Morphology of Landscape, University of California Publications in Geography, 22:19-53.

State Historical Society of Iowa, Historic Sites, Blood Run, Site History

Tarlock, A. Dan
2000    Contested Landscapes and Local Voice, In Evolving Voices in Land Use Law: A Festschrift in Honor of Daniel R. Mandelker, Washington University Journal of Law. & Policy 3:513