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History of the Minneapolis Riverfront District and vicinity

Early settlement, the Minnesota Territory, and statehood

Minnesota had a long history before it became a part of the United States. Its first inhabitants probably came to the region at least 10,000 years ago. These Native Americans lived on the land and enjoyed its bounties for thousands of years. From the 1600s onward, they were joined by European fur traders, missionaries, and adventurers. Starting in 1671, European colonial powers laid claim to the land around St. Anthony Falls; first the French, then the Spanish, and then the English took possession of the area through a series of treaties. In 1783, England recognized American sovereignty over the lands east of the Mississippi. The area west of the Mississippi came into American ownership in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1805, the U. S. government, eager to learn more about its new lands, sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore its northern regions. He met with Dakota leaders and secured a treaty ceding to the government lands at the mouths of the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers, including land on both sides of the Mississippi up to St. Anthony Falls. American interest in the area remained dormant until after the War of 1812, when Washington embarked on the creation of new outposts in its western territories. It was not until 1819 that the government established its first presence in Minnesota through the construction of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Shortly thereafter, the Fort Snelling garrison took advantage of the waterpower of the Falls, ten miles upriver, with the construction of a waterpowered sawmill in 1821 and a grist (flour) mill in 1823. These were the first structures built by European-Americans around the Falls and marked the start of exploitation of the Falls as a source of power.


Franklin Steele ca. 1856
Officially-sanctioned settlement around the Falls remained limited for the ensuing two decades, as the land remained under the control of Fort Snelling and off-limits to private ownership. By the late 1830s, though, over 150 squatters, including farmers, fur traders, and whiskey-sellers, had established unofficial claims near the Fort. Fort Snelling commander Joseph Plympton saw in this a tempting business opportunity and, in 1838, received permission from Washington to redraw the boundaries of the reservation to exclude lands on the east bank near the Falls, thus opening them for sale to private parties. His own entrepreneurial ambitions were thwarted by a canny move by the young
settler Franklin Steele, who staked a pre-emptive claim on the east bank even before the land was officially opened to settlement. When Plympton’s men arrived to stake his claim, they found Steele already in possession of the choicest plots near the Falls. Steele would remain a powerful force in the development of the towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis over the next several decades. Land on the west side of the river around St. Anthony Falls did not become available to private claimants until 1855, although squatters had been present there well before that.

Much of this maneuvering for land ownership took place even before Minnesota became a territory. In 1849, when the Minnesota Territory was created, fewer than 5,000 white people inhabited an area which extended far to the west and south of today’s state boundaries. The first territorial census, taken in 1850, recorded 6,000 settlers in the Territory’s nine counties. The census did not record the approximately 31,700 Native Americans who were Minnesota's
first inhabitants--and made up 84 percent of the population in 1850. The non-Indian population grew rapidly over the next decade. Just two years after Minnesota became a state in 1858, the white population reached 172,000.
  1854/55: First bridge over the Mississippi River

Two separate communities shared the resources of the Falls. St. Anthony, the slightly older town on the east side of the Mississippi, was first settled by the early entrepreneur Franklin Steele in 1838, platted in 1849 (when its population was already well over 600), and incorporated in 1855. The younger community
on the west side of the river took the name Minneapolis,  which combined a part 
of a Dakota Indian for "Laughing Waters" with a Greek word--polis--which meant city. Minneapolis was incorporated in 1856, just after Fort Snelling relinquished control of lands on the west bank of the Falls. Both towns grew quickly and developed a number of industries at the falls. The earliest waterpowered facilities were sawmills;
shortly thereafter, enterprising business people constructed grist and flour mills along the river. Flour mills ground wheat into flour with giant stones powered by water. Grist mills used the same means to turn a variety of grains, like corn and barley, into a fine "grist," or powder. St. Anthony and Minneapolis were rivals through most of these years, each trying to outdo the other in developing the resources of the Falls.

For the first several years, cross-river transportation between the two fledgling settlements was primitive and tenuous, depending on a rope-drawn private ferry service, or, in winter, crossing on foot across the frozen river. The most intrepid might pick their way between the east bank and Nicollet Island on the floating log booms that often jammed the channel. In 1852, Franklin Steele anticipated that the area’s population would soon grow beyond the capacity of these facilities, and he formed a company to capitalize on the expected demand. In 1854, this company built a 620-foot-long suspension bridge near the site of the old ferry, linking the west bank to Nicollet Island. The bridge, with its characteristic shingled wood towers, was opened with much civic pride in January 1855. Together with a shorter bridge Steele had built in 1853 to span the east channel, this was the first permanent bridge to span the Mississippi at any point along its length. Both as a symbol and an actual means of travel, it helped link the two cities, which merged in 1872 and took the name Minneapolis.

More information on the first suspension bridge