The history of the U.S. state of Minnesota is shaped by its original Native American residents, European exploration and settlement, and the emergence of industries made possible by the state’s natural resources. Minnesota achieved prominence through fur trading, logging, and farming, and later through railroads, and iron mining. While those industries remain important, the state’s economy is now driven by banking, computers, and health care.
The earliest known settlers followed herds of large game to the region during the last glacial period. They preceded the Anishinaabe, the Dakota, and other Native American inhabitants. Fur traders from France arrived during the 17th century. Europeans, moving west during the 19th century, drove out most of the Native Americans. Fort Snelling, built to protect United States territorial interests, brought early settlers to the area. Early settlers used Saint Anthony Falls for powering sawmills in the area that became Minneapolis, while others settled downriver in the area that became Saint Paul.
Minnesota gained legal existence as the Minnesota Territory in 1849, and became the 32nd U.S. state on May 11, 1858. After the upheaval of the American Civil War and the Dakota War of 1862, the state’s economy started to develop when natural resources were tapped for logging and farming. Railroads attracted immigrants, established the farm economy, and brought goods to market. The power provided by St. Anthony Falls spurred the growth of Minneapolis, and the innovative milling methods gave it the title of the “milling capital of the world”.
New industry came from iron ore, discovered in the north, mined relatively easily from open pits, and shipped to Great Lakes steel mills from the ports at Duluth and Two Harbors. Economic development and social changes led to an expanded role for state government and a population shift from rural areas to cities. The Great Depression brought layoffs in mining and tension in labor relations but New Deal programs helped the state. After World War II, Minnesota became known for technology, fueled by early computer companies Sperry Rand, Control Data and Cray. The Twin Cities also became a regional center for the arts with cultural institutions such as the Guthrie Theater, Minnesota Orchestra, and the Walker Art Center.
Civil War era and Dakota War of 1862
Minnesota strongly supported the Union war effort, with about 22,000 Minnesotans serving. The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry was particularly important to the Battle of Gettysburg. Governor Alexander Ramsey happened to be in Washington D.C. when Ft. Sumter was fired upon. He went immediately to the White House and made his state the first to offer help in putting down the rebellion.
At the same time, the state faced another crisis as the Dakota War of 1862 broke out. The Dakota had signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Treaty of Mendota in 1851 because they were concerned that without money from the United States government, they would starve, due to the loss of habitat of huntable game. They were initially given a strip of land of ten miles (16 km) north and south of the Minnesota River, but they were later forced to sell the northern half of the land. In 1862, crop failures left the Dakota with food shortages, and government money was delayed. After four young Dakota men, searching for food, shot a family of white settlers near Acton, the Dakota leadership decided to continue the attacks in an effort to drive out the settlers. Over a period of several days, Dakota attacks at the Lower Sioux Agency, New Ulm and Hutchinson, as well as in the surrounding farmlands, resulted in the deaths of at least 300 to 400 white settlers and government employees, causing panic in the settlements and provoking counterattacks by state militia and federal forces which spread throughout the Minnesota River Valley and as far away as the Red River Valley. The ensuing battles at Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee, Fort Abercrombie, and Wood Lake punctuated a six-week war, which ended with the trial of 425 Native Americans for their participation in the war. Of this number, 303 men were convicted and sentenced to death.
Episcopal Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple pled to President Abraham Lincoln for clemency, and the death sentences of all but 39 men were reduced to prison terms. On December 26, 1862, 38 men were hanged by the U.S. Army at Mankato—the largest mass execution in the United States. Many of the remaining Dakota Native Americans, including non-combatants, were confined in a prison camp at Pike Island over the winter of 1862–1863, where more than 300 died of disease. Survivors were later exiled to the Crow Creek Reservation, then later to a reservation near Niobrara, Nebraska.
A small number of Dakota Native Americans managed to return to Minnesota in the 1880s and establish communities near Granite Falls, Morton, Prior Lake, and Red Wing. However, after this time Dakota people were no longer allowed to reside in Minnesota with the exception of the meritorious Sioux called the Loyal Mdewakanton. This separate class of Dakota did not participate in the Dakota War of 1862, since they were assimilated Christians and instead decided to help some of the missionaries escape the Sioux warriors who chose to fight.