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‘Hennepin Plate’ returns to Webster Co.

Plate’s discovery led to founding of Dolliver State Park

October 9, 2007
By JESSE HELLING, Messenger staff writer
OTHO — A piece of Webster County history has made its way back to the area.

The famous ‘‘Hennepin Plate,’’ thought to have shed light on French exploration in the area but subsequently dismissed as a hoax, was returned to the county by the son of its discoverer Monday.

‘‘There’s not an individual right to history,’’ said Daniel Lee, son of Ruth Peterson Lee. ‘‘This is an opportunity for everybody to be able to see it.’’

Lee, accompanied by several relatives, donated the plate to the Webster County Historical Society.

Eventually, it will reside within the Webster County Museum in Otho.

The plate, a chance find during a family picnic, made a minor celebrity of Ruth Peterson.

On June 27, 1915, the then-11-year-old from Callender walked along a creek bed in what is now Dolliver State Park, where she discovered a lead plate with Latin inscriptions.

According to its message, the plaque was left in 1750, claiming the region for France.

At the time, the find was thought to alter the accepted history of French exploration in Iowa, attracting great attention.

However, incongruities in the dates — Father Hennepin, named on the plaque, died in 1706 — and the poorly written Latin raised questions about the plaque’s authenticity.

Eventually, Russell Whipple and Harry Helmstetter of Lehigh admitted creating and burying the plaque in 1913 as a boyhood prank.

Though the lead plate did not have profound historical ramifications, one side effect of the discovery is the eventual establishment of Dolliver Memorial State Park.

Historian Edgar Harlan, who led investigations into the tablet, during the process became interested in the area in which it was found.

His interest helped spark a countywide effort to purchase the area — then known as Black’s Pasture — and establish Dolliver Memorial State Park in 1925.

That’s the story Lee’s mother, who died at age 100 in 2004, wanted to be known, he said.

‘‘Where we’re standing today would not be a park if it weren’t for that lead tablet,’’ Lee said. ‘‘No matter what the beginnings were, it’s certainly an important piece of the area’s history.’’

According to Lee, his mother did not talk much about the plaque until later in her life.

‘‘I was almost oblivious to the whole thing,’’ Lee said.

In 2001, Lee returned to Webster County with his mother, who had since moved to Texas, on the occasion of her high school class reunion.

‘‘She showed us right where she found it,’’ Lee said.

Since its discovery, the plaque has followed various Lees through several relocations throughout the county.

Eventually, Lee’s brother James discovered the plaque among his possessions.

‘‘My brother gave it to me, and I decided to get it to the historical society,’’ said Lee, who traveled to Dolliver from his summer home in Mount Prospect, Ill.

There, the plaque will become part of an exhibit on the history of Dolliver Park, said museum director Phyllis Stewart.

Local historian Roger Natte, who said he’d first heard of the plaque shortly after coming to Fort Dodge in 1959, welcomed its return.

‘‘I always wondered what happened to this thing,’’ said Natte, who said he eventually wrote to Ruth Peterson Lee to ask questions. ‘‘I’ve always had hopes I would eventually be able to see this plaque.’’

Contact Jesse Helling at (515) 573-2141 or

Article Photos

Messenger photo by Jesse Helling
The “Hennepin Plate,” discovered by Ruth Peterson Lee in 1915, was returned to Webster County Monday by her son, Daniel Lee, shown here holding the lead plaque. Eventually discounted as a fraud, the plaque, which bears a Latin inscription claiming the area for France in 1750, helped spur interest in developing the area in which it was found as Dolliver Memorial State Park in 1925.



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