The first inhabitants of Minnesota were Paleo-Indians as early back as 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. The Dakota (Sioux), and Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indians arrived later from the North and East. Nordic Vikings may have visited Minnesota in the 1300’s, but the only evidence of this is the controversial Kensington Runestone which was discovered in 1898 near Alexandria, MN.
The first documented Europeans to set foot in Minnesota were French-Canadian voyageurs and fur traders who arrived as early as the 1600’s from the East. The geography of Minnesota created an ideal habitat for animals that produced high quality furs and was a primary reason that fur traders were willing to come from such long distances in these early years.
In 1805, Zebulon Pike negotiated a deal with Native Americans for land at the intersection of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Construction of Fort Snelling followed between 1819 and 1825. The land east of the Mississippi was ceded to the U.S. in 1837; settlers and immigrants from the East began arriving to stake their claims in this new territory.
Early Explorers and Missionaries (by Year)
- Etienne Brule (born in France)
Fur Trader/Explorer; Brule is credited as being the first European to reach Lake Superior in 1622-23. Some historians believe that he may have reached the end of the lake, (present day Duluth), but most feel that he only traveled as far west as Isle Royale, and never set foot on the shores of present day Minnesota.
- Medard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson (both born in France)
Fur traders/Explorers; generally credited with being the first Europeans to set foot in the territory that would become Minnesota, along with his brother-in-law Pierre Esprit Radisson. In 1659, they reached the foot of Lake Superior (present-day Duluth).
- Frère Claude Allouez (born in south-central France)
Missionary/Explorer. In the 1665 he established a Jesuit mission in La Pointe, WI, and ventured westward to explore the northern and western shores of Lake Superior. By 1671, he produced the most accurate and earliest maps of Lake Superior, which indicated the existence of land on the western edge of Lake Superior (modern day Minnesota).
- Louis Joliet (born in Quebec City, Canada) and Father Jacques Marquette (born in France)
In 1673 Joliet (Fur Trader) and Father Jacques Marquette (French Jesuit missionary) were the first to reach and map the northern portion of the Mississippi River. They traveled about halfway down the Mississippi to about Arkansas, but turned back to avoid capture by the Spanish who were in the southern part of this territory.
- Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut
In 1678, reached the interior of Minnesota, but returned to Lake Superior, then traveled up the northwest shore to build a post on the Kaministiquia River. In 1679 he met with Dakota Indians near Mille Lacs.
- Father Louis Hennepin (born in the Netherlands)
In 1679, Hennepin sailed with Robert de LaSalle from Canada through the Great Lakes aboard Le Griffon to explore the unknown West. In 1680 they reached the mouth of the Illinois River. La Salle sent Father Hennepin northward on the Mississippi to explore the area now known as Minnesota. Hennepin is the first to discover St. Anthony Falls.
- Pierre and Jean Pepin
In 1679 explored and traded in the present-day Lake Pepin, Wisconsin area. They arrived in this area by traveling up the Mississippi from the south. Their name became attached to Lake Pepin (part of the Mississippi River), as well as the village and county of the same name.
- Robert de LaSalle (René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle – born in Rouen, France)
French explorer; In 1682, La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France, a huge area that included modern day Minnesota.
- Jonathan Carver (born in Weymouth, Massachusetts)
Explorer, surveyor and writer; in 1766, Carver was contracted by the British Army to lead an expedition to find a western water route to the Pacific Ocean, known as the Northwest Passage. In 1767, his team had to turn back due to lack of funding and badly-needed supplies.
- Pierre-Charles Le Sueur (born in Artois, France)
In 1700, Le Sueur and a group of men traveled up the Mississippi River from Biloxi, Mississippi and were the first explorers to arrive in Minnesota via a longboat. Le Sueur and his group of men later traveled up the “St. Pierre River”, (now known as the “Minnesota River”) and made the earliest known European contact with the Dakota and Iowa Indians living in the area now known as southwestern Minnesota. The county of Le Sueur was name after him.
- David Thompson (born Westminster, England)
Thompson was the first explorer to do a formal mapping of Minnesota. In 1797, he was sent south (from Canada) by his employers (the North West Company) to survey part of Canada-U.S. boundary from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods. By 1798 he had completed a survey from Grand Portage, Minnesota through Lake Winnipeg to the headwaters of the Mississippi Rivers, as well as two sides of Lake Superior.
- Henry Schoolcraft (born in Albany County, New York)
Geographer, geologist, and ethnologist; Was credited with the 1832 discovery of the source of the Mississippi River (Lake Itasca). As later learned, the actual source of the Mississippi is a small tributary (a natural spring) that flows into Lake Itasca.
- Joseph Nicollet (born in France)
Geographer and mathematician; Nicollet led three expeditions to explore the Upper Mississippi, mostly in the area that is now Minnesota. The first taking place in 1836–37 and included exploration to the source of the Mississippi (Lake Itasca) and a tributary, the St. Croix River (between present day central Minnesota and Wisconsin)
- Lucien Galtier (born in France, arrived in Minnesota in 1840)
Galtier was the first Roman Catholic priest to serve in Minnesota. He is also responsible for naming the city of St. Paul. He came to Minnesota as a Priest before Minnesota was a State. In 1841 he supervised the building of a small chapel called Saint Peter’s Church. St. Peter’s Church in Mendota, MN is the oldest Catholic church in Minnesota.
A listing of the early settlers who arrived before 1849, the year that Minnesota Territory became a part of the United States.
- Seth Eastman (Brunswick, Maine)
Graduated from West Point in 1829. In 1830 he was assigned to Fort Snelling, then an outpost in Indian territory. From 1841-1849 he served as Commander at Fort Snelling. He was an accomplished artist who produced an amazing portfolio of paintings of Indian life. He studied landscape painting at the United States Military Academy under Robert W. Weir, who was associated with the Hudson River School of artists.
- Mary Henderson Eastman (Warrenton, Virginia)
Author of “Dacotah, or Life and Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling”, a book which recorded local Sioux Indian culture around Fort Snelling in the 1840’s. Her husband Seth was the illustrator. He was also the Brigadier General and Commander of Fort Snelling from 1841-1949.
- Jean-Baptiste Faribault (Berthier, Canada)
Fur trader, militia officer, office holder, and farmer. In 1826 he arrived in St. Peter (Mendota, MN) and remained there until the last few years of his life, then spent with his children in the town of Faribault, MN (founded by his son Alexander).
- Ard Godfrey (born in Maine)
A skilled millwright who (at the request of Franklin Steele) came to Minnesota in 1847 to supervise the building of the first commercial dam and lumber mill at the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River, which opened in 1848. In 1849, Godfrey constructed a home nearby for his family. This house, now located two blocks from it’s original location, is the oldest surviving frame home in the Twin Cities.
- Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant (born near Sault Ste Marie, Michigan)
Parrant was the first person of European descent to live within the borders of what eventually became the city of St. Paul. He established the first settlement (named “Pigs Eye”) in 1838. It was located at Fountain Cave, alongside the Mississippi River just southwest of present day St. Paul. He was a “retired” French-Canadian fur trader who became a whiskey trader. His structure became known as the “whiskey seller’s cabin” because he supplied local Indians and soldiers with bootleg whiskey.
- Henry Hastings Sibley (Detroit, Michigan)
In 1838, Sibley built the first stone house in Minnesota, (“Sibley House” – Mendota, MN). He was the first Governor of the U.S. State of Minnesota. Sibley married Sarah Jane Steele. Sarah Jane’s brother was Franklin Steele (see below), a prominent Minneapolis businessman. In 1862, after the American Civil War began, Sibley was appointed colonel of the state militia. He was directed to protect exposed western settlements from the Sioux American Indians during the American Civil War.
- Franklin Steele (born in Pennsylvania)
In 1838, Steele claimed a half-mile of Mississippi riverfront which eventually became the industrial heart of Minneapolis. In 1847, Steele became the official landowner and obtained financing for development. In 1848 he platted the town of St. Anthony and built the first sawmill and dam alongside the river and incorporated the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company. During the 1860s, flourmills began to replace sawmills at the falls.
- John H. Stevens (born in Brompton Falls, Quebec, Canada)
Considered the “Father of Minneapolis” by his peers. Stevens arrived in the Minnesota Territory in 1849 and became the first authorized resident on the west bank of the Mississippi River, later to become Minneapolis. He was granted permission to occupy the site in exchange for providing ferry service to St. Anthony, across the river. His house was relocated to Minnehaha Park in south Minneapolis in 1896.