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Minnesota Territory - Early History

Early archeological sites in MinnesotaAfter the last Ice Age, the Sioux, Ojibwa and Winnebago Indians made their homes in what would become Minnesota.  Archeologists have unearthed human remains dating to 7700 BC at Browns Valley, to 7500 BC near Mille Lacs Lake and 6600 BC at Pelican Rapids.  Metal tools and other artifacts dating to 5000 BC have been found on the shores of Lake Superior. Remnants of the more urbanized Hopewell Indian culture (200 BC - 400 AD) have been found at various points along the Mississippi. 

Minnesota Archeology website

The Kensington Runestone, found near Alexandria, indicates that Viking explorers reached Minnesota in the 1300's.  Columbus was looking for a route to Asia when he discovered America in 1492, and Europeans continued to search for the “Northwest Passage” -- a waterway that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans - for the next 300 years.  As part of that quest, early explorers first came to the land that would become Minnesota. During his travels in 1680, Father Louis Hennepin, a Frenchman, became the first white man to see the waterfalls that, two centuries later, would transform Minneapolis into "the milling capitol of the world."  Hennepin called them the Falls of St. Anthony in honor of his patron saint.

In 1766, a British explorer named Jonathan Carver journeyed up the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  He lived with the Sioux, kept notes of his observations, and created many maps. He published the stories of his adventures and they were popular in both the American colonies and in England.  

In the northwestern part of Minnesota Territory, French-Canadian fur traders made their way south from Manitoba.  These men took Indians as their brides and created a unique culture (known as Meti).  These early inhabitants developed the ox carts that would eventually traverse the Red River Ox Cart trail, bringing goods and settlers from southern Minnesota to the northwestern part of the state.

The first white explorer along Minnesota's North Shore was Etienne Brule in 1623-24. He, too, was searching for the Northwest Passage.  Between 1654 and 1660, Medart Chouart des Groseilliers and his brother-in-law Pierre Esprit Radisson were the first serious explorers along Lake Superior. Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, a French soldier and explorer, traversed the upper Mississippi in the late 1600's and successfully negotiated peace talks with the Sioux at the place that is now the Great Lakes port that bears his name (Duluth).  Centered at Grand Portage, a busy fur trade developed along the North Shore during the 1700's.  David Thompson, employed by the fur-trading venture North West Company, was the first to complete a formal mapping of Minnesota.

American explorers became interested in Minnesota as a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Thomas Jefferson asked Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore the upper Mississippi and establish peaceful relations with the Dakota and Ojibway tribes there.  One of Pike's goals was to select sites for frontier military posts. In 1805, he landed on an island at the mouth of the Minnesota River.  After exploring the area, Pike determined that the bluffs overlooking the island between the two rivers would be an excellent location for the fort. That island eventually was named Pike Island, in his honor.Top of Page

upper midwest mapIn 1819, Colonel Henry Leavenworth led the first contingent of American soldiers to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.  Conditions were primitive, the weather harsh. Forty men died over the first winter.  A new commander, Colonel Josiah Snelling, took charge in 1820 and supervised the 4 year construction project that created the fort.    The first Mississippi riverboat to reach Fort Snelling was The Virginia, in 1823. General Winfield Scott came from Washington DC to inspect the fort in 1824.  He was so impressed by what Snelling and his men had built in the middle of the wilderness that he recommended to Congress that the fort be named after its commander.

The establishment of Fort Snelling and the early explorers paved the way for settlement.  They purchased land from the Indians, made maps to guide future travelers, and wrote about Minnesota’s vast resources.  Fur traders soon came to the area hoping to get rich - and they did.  The first American settlement in Minnesota was the village of Mendota (from the Dakota word mdo-te which means “meeting of the waters”).   Located across the river from Fort Snelling, this site became a fur trading center and was the home of Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Sibley. 

In the 1830's Pierre (Pig's Eye) Parrant arrived in Minnesota Territory.  He received his nickname because his face bore the scars of more than a few barroom brawls. He discovered a cave on the north bank of the Mississippi River about four miles down river from Fort Snelling that held a spring-fed stream perfect for brewing. The cave became known as Fountain Cave, and Pig's Eye made a good living selling his home brew to the soldiers. 

By 1838, there was great concern about a growing civilian population at Fort Snelling.  A new Commandant had the soldiers physically remove about 150 families from the military reservation and burn their homes.  The families relocated to the area around Pig's Eye's cave and named their community in his honor.  In 1841, Father Lucien Galtier constructed a small log chapel downstream and encouraged the citizens of Pig's Eye to attend services at his Chapel of St. Paul.  The residents of Pig's Eye wisely decided St. Paul sounded more civilized, and changed their settlement's name.   

When the Minnesota Territory was organized, its largest population center was at the confluence of the Heart, Knife and Missouri Rivers, where the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians had built their villages.  In 1848, there were only a few hundred Americans living in St. Paul,  a smaller number at St. Anthony (Minneapolis) and a few more spread along the St. Croix River centered at Stillwater.  Although there were small settlements along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers beyond Fort Snelling, agreements had not been reached with the Dakota Sioux and Ojibwa that would allow the lands to be safely opened for settlement. Small trading posts were scattered along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Fully a third of the territory's white population lived in and around the Pembina settlement on the Red River of the North.

CLICK HERE to read Mary Eastman's book

Dahcotah: Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling 

Made available on-line and at no charge by Project Gutenberg

For more about some of the earliest explorers and pioneers in Minnesota,
CLICK HERE

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