The American Revolution
Twenty years after Great Britain acquired the land east of the Mississippi River, the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which recognized the independence of the United States, took it away.
No fighting took place in or even near Minnesota during the Revolutionary War, and fur traders continued their work with scant regard to the battles in the East since a British defeat was unimaginable. Their defeat sent shock waves around the world, but life for the British in Minnesota, a western outpost far too remote for the Americans to worry about, continued just as before.
The year after the treaty was signed, Simon McTavish’s newly organized North West Company, the primary competitor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, based its inland operations at Grand Portage. All pelts coming out of northern Minnesota and western Canada passed through this gateway, which was conveniently located as far west as the voyageurs could travel in a year and still make it back to Montreal.
This isolated site had been a busy trading center for many decades, but McTavish transformed it into one of the most important fur-trading posts in the New World.
In 1800 the French briefly returned to Minnesota after they reacquired the Louisiana Territory from Spain, but the land west of the Mississippi joined the United States just three years later when Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon completed the Louisiana Purchase.
That same year the North West Company’s Grand Portage settlement was abandoned. Inland operations were moved up the shore to Fort William in Canada under the assumption that the Americans would soon try to tax them.
The Americans Take Control
Though the North West Company packed up their main base, trade at most of their other outposts continued unabated. In order to secure their hold on the new land and its inhabitants, both British and Indian, 20 soldiers led by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike set out on the first U.S. expedition through Minnesota in 1805. His orders were to find the source of the Mississippi River, choose sites for army posts, reel in the British, and foster peace between the Dakota and Ojibwe.
Land along the Mississippi at the mouths of the St. Croix and Minnesota Rivers was purchased from the Dakota for future military posts, but this was the only goal of the expedition that was truly met. Pike misidentified the mighty river’s source as Leech Lake, and the North West Company never kept their promise to begin paying duties on their furs.
Although many factors contributed to the War of 1812, it was the quest for land that ultimately led the Americans to declare war against the British. The Dakota, Ojibwe, and most other northeastern tribes fought alongside the British, who almost immediately retook most of the Great Lakes region before the Americans put up a strong, and often successful, fight there.
Though the British had also sacked Washington, D.C., torching the Capitol and White House in the process, two years of fighting had resulted in a near stalemate; thus, the Treaty of Ghent, which required each side to return conquered territory and join a commission to formalize the Canadian border, was a logical move.
The Convention of 1818 set the U.S.-Canadian border between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods as the Pigeon River and then the forty-ninth parallel west of Lake of the Woods, but because the 1783 Treaty of Paris was based on errant maps, nit-picking over the exact boundary along Minnesota continued until 1931. Following the (theoretical) drawing of the border, British traders finally faced reality and left Minnesota or accepted the American offer to remain and become citizens. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company filled the void in Minnesota and elsewhere in the western United States until the fur trade crashed in the 1840s.
The United States officially staked its claim in Minnesota in 1819 with the construction of Fort St. Anthony (renamed Fort Snelling upon its completion in 1825) high atop a bluff at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. For a decade and a half this was Minnesota’s main white settlement, and its founding marked the beginning of modern Minnesota history.
Even up to this point little was known of Minnesota beyond its major rivers. A bevy of explorers, some on government business, set out for the thrill and glory of the adventure, all seeking the fame sure to befall the discoverer of the source of the Mississippi River. In 1832 Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who had been poking around the state for over a decade, set out on an official mission to quell disturbances between the Ojibwe and Dakota and vaccinate as many of them against smallpox as possible. Though diligent in his orders (Douglass Houghton, the party’s doctor, vaccinated over 2,000 people), he also decided to solve once and for all the great mystery of the Mississippi.
So confident was he this time that he derived the grand name Itasca (in Latin “true head” is veritas caput; Schoolcraft just trimmed the outer syllables) before even setting out. Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe guide Ozawindib led him upstream to what the Ojibwe knew as Elk Lake, and though he wasn’t the first white man to visit it, none before had recognized its importance. Schoolcraft gained eternal fame for his explorations, but his most important work came as an ethnologist, and he is regarded as the foremost pioneer of Native American studies.
By 1837 four states—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan—had been carved out of the Old Northwest and tens of thousands of immigrants had flowed into what would become Wisconsin, but most of the land in Minnesota remained with the Dakota and Ojibwe nations. That year the inevitable began, and they signed treaties relinquishing their lands (5,000 sq. miles) between the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. Congress ratified the treaties the next year and on July 15, the very day word of the final agreement reached Fort Snelling, settlers branched out to make claims.
Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, an aging voyageur with a nasty disposition, settled at the future site of St. Paul and built a shanty tavern. The eventual state capital soon became a steamboat port and trading center, replacing Fort Snelling as the most important settlement on the Upper Mississippi River.
While some settlers came here to claim land for farms, most, including a large number of New Englanders, had their sights set on the vast and valuable stands of timber. Orange Walker and L. S. Judd came to the St. Croix River from Illinois and had a sawmill, the state’s first (besides the small one used for the construction of Fort Snelling), running at their new town, Marine on St. Croix, by August of 1839.
Franklin Steele also had lumbering in mind when he made his claim at the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River, an obvious place to build a sawmill, but it would take him a decade to get things up and running. His settlement later evolved into Minneapolis.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition