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Lake Agassiz: Heart Of The Red River Valley


Doris Giffen


When we think about this area, we usually think of thehundred years that Minnesota has been a state, the 300 years since it becameknown to the white man and the thousands of years during which the Indianslived here. But Minnesota's real history starts as far back as the geologicaltime when the rocks on which it rests were laid down. This period starteda million years ago with events which might be called the beginning of Minnesota.

About a million years ago, the climate of the NorthernHemisphere changed. The temperature changed so much that the snow in themountains didn't even melt during the summer months. Each year it snoweda little more and the snow began to pile up so much that it began to flowdown into the valleys as glaciers. This glacial period was to be the turningpoint in the history of the Red River Valley because more lakes were addedand the country side became rugged and hilly.

After the glaciers began to recede they left a great lakein the Red River Valley area. This lake became known as the glacial LAKEAGASSIZ. It became so huge that it is larger than any lake today.

Many years passed but soon the glacier ice began to retreatand with the retreating ice came plants and animals. Also man was followingat the heels of the ice. These men had found some human remains under thesediment left by the glaciers but there were no records of the whole event.Soon men began to realize that the soil left by the glaciers was rich withminerals and they began moving into this area and named it the Red RiverValley. The Red River Valley soon became known as the greatest grain regionin the world. Farmers lived in luxury watching the wonderful seeds growinto bright golden stems of wheat blowing in the summer wind. But therewas hardship too, for these men had to work hard each spring to get theircrops in on time and to watch the weather but they didn't seem to mind itall when they saw the first wheat sprouting from the ground.

The land was not the only part of the valley that was inuse. The many lakes that were left by the glaciers also came in handy forthe explorers, fur traders, voyagers, missionaries and early settlers. Theywere also travel routes. Supplies were brought in, furs sent out in cargoes,barges, boats, and steamboats. On the rivers, logs were floated to millsin a great lumber industry. Lakes and streams had much to do with the citiesand towns and the progress of the Red River Valley. Soon many people hadmoved into this area and not one of them ever gave any thought to how thearea was formed. But in 1890, a Swiss scientist, Louis Agassiz, announcedhis conviction that the Red River Valley and the area around it was formedby glaciers.

At the age of 21, Louis Agassiz wrote to his father "Iwish it may be said of Louis Agassiz that he was the first naturalist ofhis time, a good citizen, and a good son, beloved of those who knew him"(1) All this and more came true. He became the greatest authority of hisday on zoology and geology. Louis Agassiz was born in Motiers, Switzerlandbut later adopted America as his home land. As a boy, Louis loved birdsand beasts, and fishes and insects, and he loved searching for new creatures.In 1829, Louis Agassiz began doing research in Europe and soon hebecame interested in the United States because it offered him many opportunitiesfor scientific research. He cane to America and remained here until hisdeath in l873. After his death a boulder was placed on his grave. This boulderhad come from one of the glaciers with which he was doing much researchand also pine trees from Switzerland were sent over to put on his graveand it was once said, "The land of his birth and the land of his adoptionare united in his grave."

But today although Agassiz is dead the name of Agassizwill live on in the hearts of Minnesotans for in Roseau County near ThiefRiver Falls there is a Lake Agassiz Wildlife Reserve. This reserve likemany others provides hours of enjoyment to thousands of people in this areaand to visitors from long distances. Many kinds of animals are protected.There are birds, deer and other small game animals. But to build up thepopulation of many wildlife types, good farming and conservation practicesmust be pursued. More field shelter belts, wind strip-cropping and grassstrips are needed to protect the animal population. Various agencies areavailable for assistance and should be encouraged to cooperate.

But with all these factors it is still hard to believethat we are living at the bottom of a glacial lake and maybe someday wemay experience it again but by that time we will be ready for it and fornow we can continue passing down the story of the glaciers to our childrenand grandchildren.

(1) Louis Agassiz; Compton's Encyclopedia; A-Vol. 1, p.45.




Bell, Gordon; RED RIVER OF NORTH DAKOTA. Conrad PublishingCo. 1963

Blegen, Theodore; MINNESOTA, HISTORY OF THE STATE; Universityof Minnesota Press; l963.

Bray, Edmund; "Glacial Story of the State"; MILLIONYEARS IN MINNESOTA; Science Museum; 1962.

Murray, Stanley; VALLEY COMES OF AGE; Lund Press; 1967.


Murray, Stanley; VALLEY COMES OF AGE; Lund Press; 1967.