The Big Woods

A Closer Look

When Taopi was digging ginseng in the Big Woods of Minnesota, much of the original three to six thousand square miles of this unique forest was still covered with trees. It stretched from near Faribault up to about St. Cloud, covering the area between the northern pine forests and the prairies of the south and west. The Big Woods was home to massive elms, sugar maples, basswood, red oak, and other trees.

The Big Woods today. Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

It is likely that Taopi and the other Dakota living on Alexander Faribault’s land also found ways to use the many ferns, mushrooms and over 50 types of wildflowers that grew in this forest. Many people also tapped the trees for maple syrup. (Even though Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book was called “Little House in the Big Woods,” she did not live in the Minnesota Big Woods in the book. She lived in Wisconsin, but the woods there were very similar.)

New settlers coming to Minnesota devastated the Big Woods. They used the trees for building and burning. They chopped down the trees and sold the wood. They also tried to get rid of the trees that they didn’t need, because they wanted clear land for farming. Today, only about 10% of the Big Woods that Taopi knew is still standing. One of the best examples of the Big Woods is near Faribault, in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Many people visit the park in the spring, when many types of spring wildflowers such as trillium and dutchman’s breeches carpet the forest floor.

Jack-in-the Pulpit at Nerstand Big Woods State Park.

Ultimately, the shrinking of the Big Woods drove much of Taopi’s family out of Faribault. When they began chopping down trees for firewood, Alexander Faribault asked the government to remove the Dakota from his land. Even though the Big Woods were still pretty big, there were fewer trees every year. They became more valuable. Alexander could not allow the Dakota to use them up. He needed the money he could get from selling them.

Students in Rice County have been involved in the DNR's Big Woods Project.

Twin Cities Public Television offers lesson plan ideas for studies of the Big Woods.


Alexander Faribault

Faribault's French House
Fur Trade
Making the Town Grow
Site of the Bluffs
Trading Post

Mary Whipple

Bed Bugs
Divinity Students
Emma and Eva Havens
Emma Willard School
Eva's Death
Hastings to Faribault
Hawaiian Fever
Letter of August 25, 1862
Longed to Travel
Mary's Wedding
Sandwich Islands
Soap to Sausages
Some Clothing
Sound of Bells


Big Woods
Fort Snelling
Saving Others
When it Started

Henry Whipple

Back Home
Bad Teeth
East to School
Gull Lake
Loved to Fish
Six Children
Time of Crisis
Treatment of Indians
Youngest Child

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©2003 City of Faribault Heritage Preservation Commission | Information for Teachers