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A (Very) General Overview of Minnesota History up to 1862

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December 14, 2019 by Pamela Nowak


The earliest inhabitants of the area that became Minnesota were migratory hunters.  Evidence of settlement, possibly as early as 3000 BC, can be found at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site. By the time Europeans began to explore the area, it was occupied by Dakota tribes of Sioux and the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa or Anishinaabe). Dates for this occupation range from 1620 to 1700. Most believe the Dakota migrated from the east as other tribes were being pushed into their areas. By the 17th century, the Sioux were engaged in almost constant warfare with the Chippewa.  

The first Europeans entered the area around 1650 in exploration of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groseilliers were among those who explored the Lake Superior area. Sieur de La Salle was among those exploring the rivers. Father Louis Hennepin “discovered” Saint Anthony Falls in 1680 while he was a captive of the Dakota. After initial exploration, fur trappers and missionaries came into the area. For the most part, early interaction between the Sioux and Europeans was peaceful. By the 1830s, however, the number of Whites entering the area began to increase, with impacts on game and cultural conflicts.

Construction of Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers began in 1819 and a town (Saint Anthony) sprang up at the falls on the east side of the falls. When the Ojibwe signed away lands in 1837, John H. Stevens saw potential for a town on the west side of the falls. Stevens received a claim from the military for that purpose in 1850 and platted Minneapolis in 1854. The two cities merged in 1872.  

In the next years, settlements began in Mendota (Henry Hastings Sibley, 1838), Stillwater, St. Paul, and Winona (among others) were formed. Milling and logging fed the early cities. Minnesota Territory was formed in 1849.

With the formation of Minnesota Territory came a push to increase population toward gaining statehood. New towns were formed, farmers began to settle outlying areas. Regions far to the west were advertised in eastern newspapers by land companies. One of those was the Dakota Land Company (at that time, areas of today’s North and South Dakota were part of the Minnesota Territory). These promoters offered large portions of land to settlers and gave glowing testimony of the new towns forming in the west. Many of these towns were either simply parcels of platted land or non-existent. The ads attracted large settlers, none-the-less.

By 1857, the territory had almost enough people for statehood. Unknown at the time, the census undertaken to prove population included some of these non-existent towns reporting hundreds of inhabitants. The fraud was not discovered until a few years later, after Minnesota became a state.

While growing numbers of settlers helped Minnesota gain statehood, the influx of Whites created competition for game and it grew ever more scarce. For the Santee Sioux, who depended on the game, this was a disaster.

In addition, from the start of the westward push, the Whites had coveted areas inhabited by the Sioux. Two treaties were signed in 1851 with Dakota tribes ceding lands. In exchange, they received reservations (the Upper and Lower Sioux Reservations) stretching ten miles on either side of the Minnesota River. Payment was to be a combination of cash and annuities (food, clothing, farming equipment). From the start, the payment system was doomed to fail with frequently delayed annuities and corruption among traders and Indian agents alike. By 1857, the increasing number of Whites led to a new treaty which cut Dakota lands in half with final payment much lower than promised.

As 1862 progressed, the Santee tribes were disillusioned, hungry, and angry at the treatment they were receiving. The Whites were discovering new lands and moving ever further into areas occupied by non-reservation bands. The Civil War was wreaking havoc on delivery of annuities. The stage was being set for conflict.

(More detailed information on the factors leading to the Dakota Conflict will be offered in future weeks’ posts).

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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