The Rise of Milling in the Cannon Valley and its Archaeological Consequences on Graveyards

Annie, Clara, Loren, and Hank

“Compared to the usual fieldwork experienced by the archaeologist, with all of its dust and heavy shoveling under a hot sun, this type of archaeology certainly is most attractive. All of the artifacts are on top of the ground, the sites are close to civilization, and almost all cemeteries have lovely, shady trees” (Deetz and Dethlefsen 510).

Figure 1: A Sampling of Cemeteries in the Cannon Valley in Close Proximity to Mills

This project is intended to explore the various avenues that the Graveyards surrounding the Cannon river connect with the milling industry of the region. We hope to use the graveyards to trace population growth and decline, as well as other developments corresponding with the rise and fall of milling in the region. Our project only covers a very small portion of the mill towns of the Cannon river valley, Dundas, Northfield, and Waterford. This leaves a lot of other graveyards with potentially important data untouched, and cataloging/documenting these other graveyards would make a great follow up or continuation to this project. If we had more time and resources, we would go to Red Wing as it really was a hugely important city for the milling industry on the junction of the Cannon river and the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, it is quite a drive, so any group looking to undertake this project would have to plan a serious trip to gather all the necessary data.

Investigating graveyards in connection to the local milling industry may seem like a weird connection to make, but in reality they are more closely tied than you might imagine. For the Cannon river valley, the local milling industry was a driving force behind the local economy. While each mill may have only directly employed roughly 30 men, those men would all bring their families into town, schools would open for their children, restaurants and bars would open for the adults. Those 30 jobs provided the stable base around which the rest of the local economies could be built up, and if you removed those jobs, most other jobs that indirectly relied on the mills would disappear. You still may be wondering what this has to do with graveyards. Maintaining graveyards and the manufacture of headstones are businesses like any other, which follow demand. No undertaker would move out to an area that has a very small population and doesn’t look like it would increase anytime soon. So just like schools or restaurants, graveyards were businesses that indirectly relied on the business provided by the local milling industry.

Figure 2: The headstone of archaeologist James Deetz. The design incorporates some of the motifs epitaphs from New England stones he studied for his book, In Small Things Forgotten. The photograph was taken by his daughter, Tonia Deetz Rock, in 2010.

Deetz points out that from a broader archaeological standpoint, the study of mortuary art provides a “tightly controlled body of material in which to observe stylistic change in material culture, and to relate this change to changes in the society that produced it” (Deetz 89). Cemeteries can be particularly interesting to archaeologists, in that they mimic a an ideal “laboratory situation,” as their “spatial, temporal, and formal dimensions can be carefully calibrated and controlled” (Deetz 90). In short, when building a social history of a place, it is just as important to look at individuals deaths as their lives.

Due to a lack of scholarship and sources on the subject, we were unable to to study the specific iconography and symbolism on headstones in the Cannon Valley as Deetz did. Instead, we chose to analyze headstone design, material, and number as it corresponded with the milling industry, focusing more on the overall physical qualities of headstone rather than their makers and carvers.

The study of cemeteries also offers a unique opportunity for archaeologists to study both the individual and the collective, as well as the movement and negotiation between the two. For our project, we studied cemeteries holistically, treating individual stones as data points. However, we also completed case studies tracking the evolution of personal expression and identity within specific families.

Figure 3

We chose four cemeteries that are all somewhat near Mill sites, to see how the growth and decline of the Milling Industry affected gravestone designs. We looked at Red Rose Cemetery in Waterford, Northfield Cemetery in Northfield, Groveland Cemetery in Dundas, and Oaklawn Cemetery in Northfield. All of these cemeteries range in size from 400 gravestones to over 5000 gravestones. We selected a sampling of approximately 200 graves in each cemetery. Approximately 20% of each sampling was comprised of gravestones erected during the milling period between 1860-1910. Figure 3 shows the cumulative number of gravestones added to Redrose, Northfield, Groveland, and Oaklawn during the pre, during, and post milling periods (1860-1910). The massive spike between 1890-1900 is perhaps the result of the last remaining workers of the mills. Following the final end of the milling period, and no new incoming workers, we can see a dramatic drop back to pre-milling era population levels reflected by the drop in new graves added to the cemetery.

Figure 4

We then took note of and calculated the number of gravestones with iconography, made of marble, or otherwise intricate, expensive, or elaborate looking. From this data we hoped to see if we could detect any trends in the rise of more expensive graves alongside the growth of the milling industry. The initial proportional drop in percent of intricate gravestones probably reflects the sudden influx of new mill workers in the region. Since the workers were new, and presumably did not have much excess cash yet, it makes sense that the relative proportion of elaborate graves would drop following a massive proportional income in low wage workers. Figure 4 represents that data, while Figure 5 is picture of the math that used in creating the graph.

Figure 5

The individual pages on each cemetery dive into more depth about particular trends in gravestone iconography and changes in the material of the gravestones. Perhaps we should have detected that there would not be strong trends in the percentage of elaborate gravestones that overlaps with the expansion or growth of the milling industry in our overall sampling data in the above graph. It is important to bear in mind that sampling by 5 years is random, leaves gravestones unaccounted for, and not all people buried were involved in the milling industry. The trends on our individual pages are likely most helpful in tracing specific trends in material and elaborateness of gravestones. Each page follows a slightly different format based upon personal interests in investigating each gravesite in connection to the milling industry.

More Information:


Dethlefsen, Edwin, and James Deetz. “Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries.” American Antiquity 31, no. 4 (1966): 502-510.

The Plymouth Colony Archive Project (Figure 2)

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten : The Archaeology of Early American Life. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977.