First Peoples

Grand Mound Grand Mound is a site of deep historic and rich cultural significance. Located along the Rainy River near International Falls, it comprises five sacred burial mounds, ancient villages, and sturgeon fishing sites developed approximately 2,000 years ago. (Image: Minnesota Historical Society)

Lake Superior has drawn people to its western shores for millennia—long before anyone thought to name a community centered on its convergence with the St. Louis River “Duluth.”

We can’t know what the first peoples called themselves, but archaeologists—who name cultures and describe them by the artifacts they leave behind—refer to the people who first moved to the area about fourteen thousand years ago as Paleo-Indians. They hunted large game, including mastodons, at the end of the last Ice Age. About 7000 BCE, as the weather warmed, the large game died out, other foods became more plentiful, and the Eastern Archaic culture arose. People thrived along the developing Great Lakes, hunting a broad range of game with more effective tools, including some made of copper mined on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. Three thousand years ago, Woodland mound-building cultures followed; people grew corn, beans, and squash, made pottery, and established seasonal village sites.

By 1600, when European explorers began to write about the area, the people living in what is now northern Minnesota called themselves Dakota; their neighbors were the Assiniboine and Cree. The Dakota—the region’s largest group, with a large population on central Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs—understand that they have always lived in what is now Minnesota. Dakota origin stories hold that the Dakota came from the stars. Most anthropologists believe that they are descended from the Woodland people.

The Ojibwe arrived in the seventeenth century following a long migration. In the 1840s, Ojibwe historian William Warren recorded an Ojibwe oral tradition that identifies the tribe’s origins “on the shores of the Great Salt Water in the east,” thought to be southeastern Ontario or New Brunswick. “While they were suffering the ravages of sickness and death,” a prophecy told Ojibwe leaders to follow images of the megis shell, sacred to their Midewiwin beliefs, until they reached a place where “food grows on water”—a journey that lasted centuries.

Competition for resources with other Native nations probably also played a part. By the 1500s, they were living at Bahweting at the mouth of the St. Marys River—today’s Sault Ste. Marie—and trading with the French, who had laid claim to the Great Lakes region and beyond, calling it New France. Here the Ojibwe split into two groups, one moving north and west into what is now Canada and northeastern Minnesota, the other moving south and west into today’s northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota.

From Sault Ste. Marie the southwestern Ojibwe pushed west to Moningwunakauning (Home of the golden-breasted woodpecker), known today as Madeline Island, largest of the Apostle Islands. In 1659 French Jesuit missionary Claude Allouez recorded that about four thousand Ojibwe lived in the Apostles and along the surrounding Chequamegon Bay. From this base on Lake Superior they ventured out to its western shores and indeed found food growing on water—manoomin (wild rice)—at Manidoo-zaaga’igan (Spirit Lake), a widening of the St. Louis River in what is now western Duluth. As the beaver population surrounding Chequamegon declined, the Ojibwe began resettling farther west along Lake Superior’s south shore, the interior of today’s Wisconsin and Minnesota, and up the St. Louis River to a point below its dalles. To the Ojibwe, Lake Superior was Gichigami (Great Sea) and the St. Louis River was Gichigami-ziibi (Great-Sea River). The Nemadji River, which helped form Wisconsin Point, they called Namanjii-ziibi (Left-Handed River) because it was located left of Gichigami-ziibi as one canoed from the lake through the natural entry between Minnesota and Wisconsin Points.

When the Ojibwe first arrived at Lake Superior, the Dakota had a presence on the western and southern shores of the lake, which they called Mdeyata. According to Ojibwe historian Anton Treuer, the Dakota welcomed the Ojibwe and the two peoples initially got along well as trading partners, creating an alliance in 1679 that lasted nearly sixty years. But following a conflict in 1736 that pitted the French, Cree, and Assiniboine against the Dakota, the Ojibwe were forced to choose which of their allies to side with, the Dakota or the French. Ultimately, they chose the French.

This led to a long and often violent conflict between the Dakota and Ojibwe over territory in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Ojibwe eventually forced the Dakota west, and by 1770 they controlled the northern half of Minnesota. While the conflict continued, war parties became smaller, and by the 1850s both peoples faced a bigger concern: the massive influx of Americans and European immigrants. They fought no major battles after 1862, and in 1877 the Dakota gave the Ojibwe the ceremonial Big Drum as a peace offering, an action that ended the conflicts and resulted in peace between the tribes that continues today.

By 1800 the Ojibwe had established settlements on Minnesota and Wisconsin Points and along the St. Louis River nearly twenty miles upstream to Wayekwaagichigamiing (end of a great body of water) below the river’s dalles. There they established a village centered on Nekuk (Otter) Island, tending vegetable gardens on the adjacent Amik (Beaver) Island and burying their dead in a cemetery located above the river’s northern shore. Other burial sites were located on Minnesota, Wisconsin, Conner’s, and Rice’s Points. When maple sap flowed in the spring, sugarbush camps dotted the hillsides from Wayekwaagichigamiing to today’s eastern Duluth. Spirit Lake, Spirit Island, Spirit Mountain, and Point of Rocks were considered sacred places. While it is unknown exactly when Wayekwaagichigamiing became an Ojibwe village, it was the site of the 1679 gathering that created the Dakota-Ojibwe alliance.