Storying the Mississippi

Ramona Kitto Stately is one of the women celebrated in the Women of the Mississippi River project, shown here at the Bdote of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Photo Sarah Whiting


written by Kristy Ornelas

For the majority of my life, the faces I saw recreating and educating on the Mississippi River did not resemble my own brown face. In 2018, I paddled the Mississippi River for 100 days and uncovered a love for it. Among the many mentions of figures such as Mark Twain from my fellow paddlers, I questioned why I never saw women or people of color representing or authoring the river’s history.

In 2020, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged parks to celebrate the contributions of women to the park system. As a rookie historian working at Mississippi Park Connection, the nonprofit partner to the park service, I coordinated our Women of the Mississippi River research project and learned about the women who contributed to the river. Their stories became a part of mine and will be with me forever.

The Women of the Mississippi project aims to celebrate and recognize the women who helped shape the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in the Twin Cities.

Some women have risen to the highest levels of government service or private industry. Others have led from positions unacknowledged by accolades or titles of distinction. Their stories, struggles, and successes must be recognized when discussing history in the United States, especially those of Black, Indigenous, and women of color.

Harriet Robinson Scott’s determination to free herself and her family in the 1800s changed the course of American history. Reiko Weston brought business development to the St. Anthony Falls region. Ramona Kitto Stately educates on the Dakota people’s story along the river. Former Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton helped transform the riverfront into what we see today. These are just a few of the stories included in the project, thanks to the help of dozens of volunteers who helped research and write them.

Learning about these women strengthened my relationship to the river. Every time I visit the water, I am humbled by its story and our dependence on it. I hope you read these stories and find inspiration to connect with the river, this air, and this land that is the life source for all of us who live in its path.

Harriet Robinson Scott

written by Ella Wagner

Harriet Robinson Scott was an enslaved woman whose determination to free herself and her family made history. She and her husband, Dred Scott, spent years living and working between the free territory of Minnesota and slave territories such as Missouri.

Harriet Robinson Scott

In 1846, Harriet and Dred Scott filed separate petitions in Saint Louis court to win their freedom. The couple had lived at Fort Snelling for many years, on the banks of the Mississippi. Several free states, including Minnesota, had laws that if an enslaved person lived in free territory for a certain length of time with their owner’s permission — as the Scotts had done — they would be freed. In 1850, their lawyers decided to merge their two petitions into one, and Harriet’s name was dropped in favor of her husband’s.

Finally, in 1857, the case, titled Dred Scott v. Sandford, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion. He argued that the framers of the Constitution had believed that Black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Enslaved or free, he ruled, Black people were not citizens of the United States. Dred Scott and other Black people therefore had no right to bring freedom suits. The Court also struck down the Missouri Compromise, federal legislation which had banned slavery in most northern states and territories while allowing new areas in the South to enter the union as slave states.

The Dred Scott v. Sandford decision contributed to the start of the American Civil War four years later. Historians regard it as one of the worst and most consequential Supreme Court rulings in U.S. history.

The loss of their case was a devastating setback, but the Scotts gained their freedom on May 26, 1857, when their owner — Taylor Blow — freed them. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis less than a year later. Harriet Robinson Scott remained a free woman in Saint Louis, where she worked as a laundress for many years. She died at the age of 61 on June 17, 1876, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, one of the first Black burial grounds in the city. Although her name is not as well known as her husband’s, her drive to secure freedom for herself and her family was equally powerful in changing the course of American history.

Reiko Umetani Weston

written by Trinity Ek

Reiko Umetani Weston. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Reiko Umetani Weston moved to Minnesota from Japan in 1953 and catalyzed the riverfront redevelopment that Minneapolis is still experiencing today. In 1968, she opened Fuji Ya on the riverfront, introducing Japanese food and culture to Minnesota. Since then, millions of dollars have been invested into the development near St. Anthony.

The abandoned mills and railroads left by the great milling industry of the 1800s intrigued Weston. Upon seeing the site of the Bassett Sawmill and Columbia Flour Mill for sale near St. Anthony Falls, Weston contacted the real estate company and made an offer. Railroad officials told her she was ridiculous for wanting to start a business there, but she trusted that the mighty Mississippi would bring the restaurant luck, as is believed in Japanese culture.

After acquiring the location, Weston and architects decided to build on top of the historic mill instead of destroying it. They incorporated the roaring sound of St. Anthony Falls into the dining experience.

In 1988, Weston died of a heart attack. Two years later, Fuji Ya’s presence on the riverfront came to an end. After an ongoing dispute over the land that Fuji Ya sat on, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board paid $3.5 million in exchange for the building and the roughly two acres of land to develop West River Parkway.

Through Fuji Ya, Weston reintroduced the beauty, value, and power of the Mississippi River to Minneapolis.

In 1968, Barbara Flanagan wrote in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, “Nobody looked twice at the riverbank site until Mrs. Weston got there. Leave it to a woman to show the way. Now everybody’s interested in the river.”

Weston’s interest in preservation sparked lasting interest in the river. The old space where the restaurant once stood will soon become Owamni, a restaurant run by Sean Sherman, also known as the Sioux Chef. Sherman seeks to revitalize and reintroduce Minnesota to “regional Indigenous foods on sacred Dakota land space.”

Ramona Kitto Stately

written by Kristy Ornelas

Ramona Kitto Stately at the Bdote of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Photo Sarah Whiting

After growing up in Florida, Ramona Kitto Stately found herself drawn to Minnesota where her people originally lived. Once in Minnesota, Stately began researching her Indigenous family history, which brought her to the Mississippi River and the story of her great-great grandmother, Pazahiyayewin (She Radiates in Her Path Like the Sun).

In 1859, Pazahiyayewin and her husband Mazaadidi (Walks on Iron) birthed a baby at Pike Island, commonly known as Fort Snelling. Just three years later, Pazahiyayewin, her children, and many other Dakota women and children endured the Death March of 1862, a 150-mile forced walk through battle towns of the U.S.-Dakota War, where Dakota women were attacked and their babies killed. Hundreds of Dakota women, children, and elders died on the six-day Death March. Soldiers imprisoned Mazaadidi, leaving Pazahiyayewin to solely care and hunt for her children during the Death March and for years to come. He later rejoined them in Santee, Nebraska, where Pazahiyayewin lived out the rest of her life. She never returned to Minnesota, as her great-great-granddaughter did.

Through her research, Stately learned about her great-great-grandparents’ time at the concentration camp at the Bdote (a Dakota word meaning “where two rivers come together”) of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. “That river was used as a weapon,” Stately says.

Although the Mississippi River was used to forcefully take Pazahiyayewin to South Dakota, and then to Nebraska, it has also brought Stately a sense of closure. Every other year between 2002 and 2014, Stately and her family walked the 150 miles that Pazahiyayewin walked in 1862.

“[When] that part of the healing was finished, I made prayer flags and walked the Mississippi with [water activist] Sharon Day and my children one more time,” Stately says. “It was a perfect way to close that ceremony and give our thanks to the Creator for being able to heal.”

Stately is an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Nation. She is educating the public on the Dakota people’s connection to the Bdote through immersive experiences with the Minnesota Humanities Center. She serves as the project director of We Are Still Here Minnesota.

Sharon Sayles Belton

written by Anna Waugh

Sharon Sayles Belton on the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. Photo Sarah Whiting

Sharon Sayles Belton has a spring in her step as she peers over the edge of the Saint Anthony Falls lock wall to view the cascading falls below. She looks up at the Minneapolis skyline along the Mississippi Riverfront, a landscape that she shaped as mayor from 1994 to 2001.

Look around on the lock wall, and nearly everything that can be seen has been touched by Sayles Belton’s vision. “The goal was to bring housing to the south bank of the central riverfront. I went looking for a partner and called Peggy Lucas, who worked at Brighton Development. She believed in the idea and developed the abandoned Northstar Woolen Building on the eastside of Portland Avenue. This project was the catalyst that attracted other housing and commercial development in the area.”

Today, thousands live along the vibrant downtown riverfront.

She also knew that the crossing at Washington Avenue needed improvement if people working downtown were to be comfortable walking to the river. Open Book and The Depot both took shape during her tenure — projects that supported the transformation of Washington Avenue’s vacant lots into a thriving corridor. The strategy was to link the rich history of the river’s past with a promise for a brighter future.

“The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Park Board, [and] the State Historical Society all came together with the residents on both sides of the river to forge a partnership that would strengthen the neighborhoods, expand commerce and the city’s tax base, and show respect and regard for the mighty Mississippi River.”

One of Sayles Belton’s most memorable experiences on the river was “walking across the fully restored Stone Arch Bridge [for the first time]. The once beautiful bridge had severely dilapidated over the years. I knew once restored it would attract a lot of people to come and marvel at the rushing water and the Minneapolis skyline.”

Last year, more than 2.1 million people biked, walked, and ran over the river on the Stone Arch Bridge.

Find the full NPS Women of the Mississippi River project.