Aboriginal Background

The Indian occupancy of the area and earliest use of catlinite from the quarries has long been discussed, but archeological studies over the past 30 years have greatly improved knowledge in this field.


The proto-Mandan people who once frequented the area are not believed to have used catlinite.  The first quarrying here was probably done by people associated with the Oneota Aspect, about 1600 to 1650 A.D.  In the earliest historic times these tribes were known as the Ioway and the Oto.

Carving the Bowl

Using a sharpened rock, the carver outlines the bowl on a rectangle of pipestone about 6 inches long.  Excess stone is cut away.  The relatively soft pipestone yields to a flint "saw" as the carver forms the rough bowl.

Quite early in historic times the Sioux (or Dakota) moved to the west and southwest.  They were better armed than the Ioway and Oto through their trade contacts, but restrained on the north by the Cree and pressed from the northeast by the Chippewa.  By about 1700 A.D. the Sioux were in control of the Coteau and remained so until the end of tribal days about a century and half later.  Catlinite received its most widespread use during Sioux times.

Early Visitors

The French were trading on the upper Mississippi by the 1690’s, and maintained a number of temporary trading posts within 125 miles of pipestone quarry by 1750.  It seems likely that some of their men visited the quarries, but no direct record is available.  Territorial Governor Sibley referred to such visits in some of his writings.

Major Taliaferro of the Sioux Agency mentions a visit by unidentified persons to the quarry in 1831 in his Journal.  Later that same year, the well-known trader, Philander Prescott, visited the quarry on his way to build a wintering house on the Big Sioux River.    Prescott reported that “We arrived at the famous place called the pipestone quarry…We got out a considerable quantity but a good deal of it was shaly and full of seams, so we got only about 20 good pipes after working all day…This quarry was discovered by the Indians but how and when we have never learnt…” He also mentioned his return by way of the quarries in the spring of 1832.


Joseph LaFramboise, a mixed blood trader for the American Fur Company, supposedly quarried pipestone here in 1835 for use in trade.


Most widely publicized and long believed to be “the first white visitor” was George Catlin, who visited the quarries in September 1836.  Catlin was the first quarry visitor to “break into print”, and his writings and lectures were popular and widely known.  Dr. C.T. Jackson of Boston, to whom Catlin had given samples of stones, originated the term “catlinite,” still applied to the pipestone from these quarries.


Less than 2 years later, Catlin’s friend and host, LaFramboise, guided the first truly scientific expedition to the pipestone quarry.  With it the period of Federal contract began.

At this stage the carver rounds the edges by scraping the bowl against stone--perhaps a chunk of quartzite removed during quarrying.


Carving Pipes from Stone

The work of native American pipecarvers takes many forms.  Since the mid-19th century, the inverted T-shaped calument has been perhaps the shape most recognizable as Plains Indian work.  Metal tools acquired from white traders in historic times facilitated more detailed carving, but even in many highly ornate effigy pipes the basic calument shape is distinct.


The shape is further refined by filing. Carvers sometimes postpone filing until after drilling, since the boring process can split the stone.  The bowl is secured to prevent movement as the stem hole is drilled through the longer leg of the inverted T, a connecting shaft to hold tobacco is bored perpendicular to the stem hole.

Today craftsmen use power saws and drills for speed and precision.  Though tools are more sophisticated, the process is similar to that of the age when carving implements were made of stone and wood.  These drawings illustrate how calumets might be made without modern technology.

The hand drill shown is wooden with a flint bit and leather thong.  George Catlin in 1841 described a drilling process whereby the carver rolled a sharpened stick between his hands; sand and water poured in the hole intensified the abrasive action of the wooden point.


Digging the Pipestone

Late summer and fall are the most desirable times to dig, at other times of the year water collects in the pits.  After the soil is shoveled away, the top layer of quartzite is broken up carefully with a sledgehammer and wedge to minimize damage to the relatively soft pipestone underneath.


Since the pipestone bed slopes downward to the east, quarries must dig through an increasingly thick layer of quartzite as they quarry new pipestone.  Under the quartzite are 1 to 3 inch sheets of catlinite.  Quarriers lift the broken sheets from the pits, and then cut them into smaller blocks from which the pipes are carved.


Quarrying here has always been accomplished with respect for the earth and for what it yields.  The Sioux traditionally leave an offering of food and tobacco beside the group of boulders known as the Three Maidens in return for this land’s gift of stone.


After drilling, the bowl might be left plain, or decorated by carving it into a human or animal effigy or by inlaying bands of metal.  Finally, the pipe is polished with a sand rubbing, then buffed to a gloss.

Making the Stem

Stems are hewn from branches of ash or other hardwood.  After rough shaping, the branch is split lengthwise.  The pith is scraped from both halves to create a narrow shaft.  The halves are rejoined and secured with a sap glue and cord.  Alternatively, a heated wire is run through the core of a sumac branch to burn out the pith, eliminating the need to split the stem.  Traditionally, plains women “dressed” the stem by wrapping porcupine quills around part of its length.  Paint, carvings, feathers, beads, and even animal heads adorned the stem and signified the pipe’s ceremonial role.