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Friday, May 6, 2016

Minnesota and Early American History

When people think of early American history, Minnesota probably doesn't come to mind. On the east coast, there are a wealth of historical events and people that we think of, pushing their way from the Atlantic Ocean, over the Appalachian Mountains, onward toward the Mississippi.

But, Minnesota? What was happening there?

For me, when I think of early American history, I almost always think of Minnesota first. Why? Because I've been studying my state's history since I was a teenager, and there are a surprising number of important historical events and people who impacted not only early Minnesota history, but also a broader scope of American history.

The five biggest influences in early Minnesota history were explorers, fur traders, missionaries, warring Native American tribes, and the military presence.

Father Hennepin discovering St. Anthony Falls on the
Mississippi (present-day Minneapolis), in 1680
Minnesota is blessed with two significant bodies of water that impacted early American history. Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. The first European to find Lake Superior is Etienne Brule in 1623. He was a French fur trader and explorer. Some believe he made it all the way to present day Duluth, MN. In 1659, two more French fur traders and explorers made it to what is present day Minnesota. They were Medart Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson. On their heels were French explorers and missionaries, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette, who found and mapped the upper portion of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to what is now Arkansas.

French explorers and fur traders on Lake Superior.
With the discovery of those significant bodies of water, other explorers, missionaries, and fur traders soon followed.

One notable explorer was Zebulon Pike, for whom Pike's Peak is named in Colorado. In 1805, he was sent by the United States government to find the source of the Mississippi and to locate an ideal spot for a military fort. He met with some success, as he acquired over 100,000 acres of land where Fort Snelling (near present-day St. Paul) was built in 1819. While traversing up the Mississippi, an early winter set in and he built a fort and stockade near present-day Little Falls, MN (my hometown). His men wintered there while Pike continued north. He thought he had found the source of the Mississippi, however, he was proven wrong in later years.

Zebulon Pike
Fur trading and missionary work make up the bulk of European involvement in early Minnesota history. But Native American history is also an important aspect of that time period.

Ojibwe Chiefs in the early 1800's.
Around the time of European entrance into Minnesota, the Ojibwe Indians, who had been occupying parts of Canada and Michigan, and working with the French fur traders, acquired weapons and moved into the Upper Mississippi region, pushing their enemies, the Sioux, to southern Minnesota. For over two centuries, the Ojibwe and Sioux fought, and the area where I live in central Minnesota was a contested zone that both tribes claimed. Another military presence was needed in this area, so in 1849, Fort Ripley (then called Fort Gaines) was built.

This is just a tiny glimpse into Minnesota history and all the people and events that helped shape this beautiful and diverse state. Maybe, just maybe, Minnesota will come to mind the next time you think of early American history.

Your Turn: Are you surprised at how early Europeans discovered Minnesota? Did you realize so much was happening in this Midwest state at such an early date? Do you have any questions about Minnesota history?

Gabrielle Meyer lives in central Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River with her husband and four young children. As an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society, she fell in love with the rich history of her state and enjoys writing fictional stories inspired by real people and events. Gabrielle's next release, A Mother in the Making, will be available in September from Love Inspired Historical. She can be found at www.gabriellemeyer.com where she writes about her passion for history, Minnesota, and her faith.              

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  1. Gabrielle, I had no idea Minnesota played such a part in our early history. Thank you for sharing this and the pictures.


    1. My pleasure, Tina! I love Minnesota history, and I'm always excited to share it with anyone who will listen. :)

  2. Hey Gabrielle, Being from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a lot of the Minnesota history overlaps with ours! Such a rich history and I'm so glad you joined us here on Colonial Quills! Too often we are only looking at the original colonies on the East Coast and not all of what became the America we have today.

    1. You're right, Carrie. Minnesota does share a great deal of common history with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, mainly because of the Great Lakes, but also because of the missionary involvement with the Ojibwe Indians and the extensive fur trading. I'm happy to be a part of Colonial Quills and to bring Minnesota into the conversation about early American history.

  3. Thank you for this posting.
    I also wrote a few of my own postings in my Passion for the Past blog about early American history here in Michigan, which is very closely related to Minnesota's.
    I think you might enjoy this one in particular: http://passionforthepast.blogspot.com/2015/09/life-on-18th-century-frontier-lac-ste.html
    Anyhow, this was very enjoyable to read. Thank you again.

    1. Yes, Minnesota and Michigan have very similar histories. Thank you for sharing your post link!

  4. Thanks for the small glimpse into Minnesota history. I have recently learned a little about the Kensington Runestone, dating back to around 1362, which was apparently left here by Scandinavian explorers. It is wonderful to learn more about the state I live in.

    1. I'm very familiar with the Kensington Runestone, which was found about forty-five miles away from where I live. There is much controversy over the stone, but it's fun to think about early explorers in Minnesota. Thank you for sharing, Betti! I love hearing from a fellow Minnesotan, and I agree that it's fun to learn more about the state we live in.


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