Minnesota Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Reaching farther north than any other state except Alaska, Minnesota was settled more slowly than other states in the center of the United States, which were more accessible to heavily populated eastern states.

History of Minnesota

Reaching farther north than any other state except Alaska, Minnesota was settled more slowly than other states in the center of the United States, which were more accessible to heavily populated eastern states. Despite its isolation, the fertile soils of the south and west, the pine forests of the northeast, and the hardwood forests between these regions eventually attracted settlers. The state’s access to Lake Superior, numerous rivers, and countless lakes also brought economic growth to the area. Much of Minnesota remains rural, in sharp contrast to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul near the eastern edge of the state.

Early History

The earliest people to inhabit the area, known as the Paleo-Indian culture, hunted bison and other large animals more than ten thousand years ago. About seven thousand years ago, the people of the Eastern Archaic culture hunted small and large animals and made tools from copper. The Woodland culture, starting about three thousand years ago, introduced the use of pottery and burial mounds. Starting about one thousand years ago, the Mississippian culture built large, permanent villages located in fertile river valleys and raised corn, beans, and squash.

Both the Woodland culture and Mississippian culture lifestyles lasted until Europeans arrived about three hundred years ago. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Minnesota was primarily inhabited by the Ojibwa in the north and east and the Dakota in the south and west. Conflicts between these peoples led to the Ojibwa forcing the Dakota to move further southwest in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Exploration and Settlement

The first European explorers to reach the area were the French fur traders Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, who traveled from Canada through Wisconsin and into eastern Minnesota in 1658. In September of 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur Dulhut, met with Native Americans near Mille Lacs Lake near the center of the region. As a result of this meeting, peaceful relations were established among the French, the Ojibwa, and the Dakota. Dulhut also claimed the area for King Louis XIV of France.

In January of 1680, the French missionary Louis Hennepin began a journey north along the Mississippi River into eastern Minnesota. In April, Hennepin was captured by the Dakota. During his captivity, Hennepin named a waterfall on the Mississippi River the Falls of St. Anthony, near the future site of the Twin Cities. Hennepin was rescued by Dulhut in July.

In 1682 the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the entire valley of the Mississippi River for France. He named this vast area, including western Minnesota, Louisiana. Meanwhile, French fur traders had established the first permanent European settlement in the region in the far north, at Grand Portage. Grand Portage soon became the center of the prosperous fur trade. Among the many noted French explorers who established settlements in the area were Nicolas Perrot, who founded Fort Antoine in 1686, and Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, who founded Fort Saint Charles in 1731.

The British and Americans

The wealth generated by the fur trade was part of the struggle for control of North America between France and England that led to the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The British took control of Minnesota east of the Mississippi River after the war. Western Minnesota, with the rest of Louisiana, had been ceded to Spain in 1762 but was returned to France in 1800.

Spain did little to settle the area, but England quickly established the North West Company at Grand Portage to take advantage of the lucrative fur trade. At the end of the American Revolution (1775-1783), eastern Minnesota officially became part of the United States. The North West Company did not leave Grand Portage until 1803, when it moved to Canada. It was replaced by the American Fur Company, established in 1808.

Eastern Minnesota became part of the newly created Northwest Territory in 1787. It became part of several different territories as the vast Northwest Territory was reorganized in the early nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1858, it was part of Indiana Territory, Illinois Territory, Michigan Territory, Wisconsin Territory, and Minnesota Territory.

Meanwhile, the United States purchased Louisiana, including western Minnesota, from France in 1803. From 1834 to 1849, eastern Minnesota was part of Michigan Territory, Wisconsin Territory, the Iowa Territory, again Wisconsin Territory, and Minnesota Territory.

Becoming a State

During this time, Minnesota remained a sparsely populated area isolated from the rest of the United States. In 1805, a military expedition led by Zebulon Pike failed to locate the source of the Mississippi but did manage to secure lands along a river from the Dakota Indians. In 1818 a treaty with England added a large area of land to northern Minnesota. In 1819 Fort Saint Anthony was established as the first permanent American settlement in the area. The site was renamed Fort Snelling in 1825 and went on to become the most important settlement in the area until the middle of the century.

The fur trade began to decline in 1837, with the first in a series of treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwa Indians that ceded large amounts of land to the United States. This encouraged settlers to enter the region and eventually made the lumber industry and agriculture more important than the fur trade.

The Minnesota Territory had about four thousand settlers in 1849, mostly near Fort Snelling. Most of these early settlers were from New England, although many had entered Minnesota from Canada. Within one year, the population jumped to more than six thousand. As the lumber industry grew more important, the population grew even more quickly. By 1857 the number of Minnesota residents, mostly from eastern states, reached more than 150,000.

The majority of new residents settled in the southeast part of the territory, near Fort Snelling. In the same area, St. Paul was founded in 1838 and became the territory capital in 1849. The nearby city of Minneapolis was founded in 1855. Minnesota became the thirty-second state, with much of its western lands removed and added to the Nebraska Territory, in 1858.

Wars and Industry

Minnesota was the first state to send volunteers to fight for the Union during the Civil War. More than twenty thousand residents of the state served in the war. Meanwhile, Minnesota faced its own violent conflict. In 1862 a rebellion by the Dakotas, confined to reservations within the state, eventually led to more than five hundred deaths within a few weeks. The defeated Dakotas were forced into reservations in western territories. The Ojibwas remained on reservations created for them in the north of the state.

After the Civil War, growth continued at a rapid pace. Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians arrived in large numbers. Other important sources of new immigrants were Finland, Poland, Bohemia, Ireland, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, Denmark, Wales, and Switzerland. During the 1880’s, the period of the state’s fastest growth, most settlers were homesteaders in western Minnesota or worked in the lumber industry. Flour milling was also a major industry in the Twin Cities, both of which tripled in population during this decade. Mining of iron ore began in 1884 and soon became a major source of income.

The Twentieth Century

Immigration during the early twentieth century was mostly to the Twin Cities and included Finns, Italians, Slovakians, Croatians, Serbs, Greeks, Jews, Ukranians, Russians, and Hispanics. African Americans from southern states moved to the Twin Cities also. In later years, Asians also immigrated.

Throughout the twentieth century Minnesota tended to be politically independent. It supported traditionally a wide variety of small political parties that influenced the policies of the major parties. The modern Democratic Party in Minnesota incorporates many of the ideas of the Farmer-Labor Party, while the modern Republican Party in the state is influenced by independents.

Loss of natural resources led to changes in the state’s economy during the twentieth century. Much of the most valuable lumber was cut by 1920, forcing the industry to turn to other trees. At about the same time, flour milling was moved from Minneapolis to Buffalo. The best iron ore was depleted by the late 1950’s. New techniques for using lower-grade iron ore led to a revitalization of the industry in the 1960’s, but low-cost imports led to another decline in the 1980’s. Despite a decline in agriculture after World War II, agriculture was still the state’s largest industry.

The early 1980’s brought a drop in crop prices, bringing hardship to farmers throughout the state. However, the nationwide recession of the late 1980’s had only a minimal effect on Minnesota. In the 1990’s, the state’s economy turned to industries such as printing, health care, scientific instruments, chemicals, and recreational equipment.

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