Much of Minnesota’s early history is lost.
This is not because anyone set out to hide it. But the early residents, the Dakota, were a semi-nomadic people. They have songs and legends, but songs and legends can only tell so much. And when the first Europeans came to the area, they often kept what they learned deliberately secret — many could not read or write, and in any case they were out for profit of one sort or another. Mostly, they wanted furs — which meant trading posts and trade routes. Initially the French did most of the exploring, working their way up the Great Lakes from Quebec. René Robert Cavalier de la Salle was the first to really explore the upper Lakes. He built a ship, the Griffin, in 1675, and sailed up the largely uncharted waters of Lakes Erie, Huron, and Ontario. The boat was eventually lost, but de la Salle and his men — including Father Louis Hennepin — had by then gone on to explore the Mississippi River. Even before that, a French explorer, Etienne Brûlé, described a body of water west of Lake Huron which some think was Lake Superior.
As the years passed, a new kind of French fur trader came to the area. These were the voyageurs, who regularly came to the area to collect furs from the natives. They were mostly poor, uneducated men, but they learned about the rivers and woods of Minnesota and Canada. Consider how many places in Minnesota still bear French names: The St. Croix River. Grand Marais. Mille Lacs (lake). Lac Qui Parle. In Wisconsin, there were places such as Prairie du Chien and the Big and Little Eau Pleine (which we shall meet later).
And as the voyageurs worked and explored, they sang. Singing helped pass the time, and it also helped with the rhythm of paddling. Theirs were the first European songs ever sung in Minnesota. Mostly they sang simple tunes about women and home (not too surprisingly for men a thousand miles from the nearest woman who spoke their language and perhaps four thousand miles from home).
As the British established more of a foothold in North America, they set out to explore in more detail. Voyageurs were often part of these explorations. Alexander Mackenzie was accompanied by voyageurs when he became the first European to see the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. When it came time to map the Arctic coast, voyageurs accompanied expeditions by John Franklin, Simpson and Dease, and George Back to map the region from the Coppermine River to Bathurst Inlet, plus the region of Chantry Inlet.
Those explorers were searching the Arctic for something they had wanted to find in Minnesota: the Northwest Passage — that is, a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of Canada. At one time, it was hoped that the Great Lakes or the Minnesota River would lead there. Obviously, they didn’t.
Explorers eventually realized that the Passage was far north of Minnesota, too far north to use; the ice blocked the passage. John Franklin in fact died in the 1840s when the ships of his expedition were trapped in the ice, as is told in “Lord Franklin”:
With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May.
To seek the passage around the pole,
Where we poor sailors must oftentimes go.
Through cruel hardships they mainly strove;
On mountains of ice their ships were drove.
Only the Huskimaw (Eskimo) in his skin canoe
Was the only one who ever came through.
Disasters like that didn’t do much for British control of North America. If you had been gambling, around 1700, on which nation would end up controlling the area that is now Minnesota, you probably would have bet on France. The British had colonies on the Atlantic seaboard of North America, of course, and fishermen based in Newfoundland, and the Hudson’s Bay Company had been founded in 1670 to exploit trade in the far north. But the French, through the voyageurs and the Saint Lawrence river and their settlement in Quebec, controlled the best route to the Atlantic from what is now the Midwest, and were the ones with “boots on the ground” in Minnesota. Had things been allowed to take their course in the New World, the French would probably have eventually settled Minnesota.
Events in Europe changed that. France and England were in almost constant conflict in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most important of those wars, at least for North America, was the Seven Years’ War, known on this side of the Atlantic as the French and Indian War. In the course of that war, the British captured Quebec and Montreal (Borneman, pp. 204-279), and the portion of Minnesota east of the Mississippi river became British territory.
It is unlikely that anyone in either nation really cared about that part of the continent; even the American Revolution went almost unnoticed in what would later be Minnesota. No battles were fought in Minnesota; there were, as far as we know, no Colonials in the entire area in the 1770s. But the peace following the Revolutionary War was significant: The British, rather than trying to maintain their hold on land they could hardly reach, freely granted the United States all their lands south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi. Although the region was poorly mapped, the territory the British gave up contained a significant portion of Minnesota, including most of what is now the city of Saint Paul, part of Minneapolis, Duluth, and the areas in between.