Minnesota Family History Research

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This entry was originally written by Carol L. Maki and Michael John Neill for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Minnesota Family History Research series.
History of Minnesota
Minnesota Vital Records
Census Records for Minnesota
Background Sources for Minnesota
Minnesota Maps
Minnesota Land Records
Minnesota Probate Records
Minnesota Court Records
Minnesota Tax Records
Minnesota Cemetery Records
Minnesota Church Records
Minnesota Military Records
Minnesota Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Minnesota Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Minnesota Immigration
Minnesota Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Minnesota
Minnesota County Resources
Map of Minnesota
County Map of Minnesota

History of Minnesota

Minnesota has been claimed by four nations since the first Europeans explored its terrain. Nine different territories or government subdivisions of the United States have maintained jurisdiction over its land. Understanding its multiple dominions and authorities is essential in researching early Minnesota residents.

With the erection and blessing of a great wooden cross at Sault de Ste. Marie on 14 June 1671, Simon Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, claimed for the king of France an area that included present-day Minnesota. French exploration followed, forts were built, and the fur trading industry created economic and family relationships between the French and the Native Americans. In 1762 France secretly ceded to Spain the Minnesota country west of the Mississippi River, which resulted in the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis briefly being French and Spanish. History intervened the following year when territory east of the river and free navigation on it was acquired by England by the Treaty of Paris. By proclamation, northeastern Minnesota was forbidden trade and settlement. In 1774 that same area became part of the Province of Quebec and ten years later a United States territory. It remained unorganized until the Northwest Territory was created in 1787 and became part of the Indiana Territory in 1800. A northwestern section of the future state remained English until 1818. The southwestern section was Spanish until 1800 when it was ceded to France for another three years. It then became part of the District of Louisiana and subsequently the Louisiana Territory from 1804 to 1812.

The northeastern section of Minnesota, which had been Indiana Territory, became part of the Illinois Territory in 1809 and Michigan Territory in 1818. The balance of the state was in Missouri Territory from 1812 through 1821, but unorganized from then until 1834 when all of Minnesota country was attached to Michigan Territory. This temporary arrangement lasted two years. It became the Wisconsin Territory in 1836.

Two years later Minnesota divided again and placed the country west of the Mississippi River with Iowa Territory until 1846. The eastern section remained part of Wisconsin Territory until 1848. On 29 May of that year, Wisconsin obtained statehood, with the western border being essentially the St. Croix River. This left Minnesota as an abandoned area without any organized government. The Stillwater Convention of 1848, despite a couple of false starts, produced a document organizing the Minnesota Territory. In March of 1849 Congress passed the proposal, and Minnesota finally came into existence. Included was part of what is now eastern North and South Dakota. Minnesota was admitted to the Union as the thirty-second state in May of 1858.

Early settlement in Minnesota was affected by several factors, including the fur trading industry, the Catholic missions, and the military, which all brought white settlers to the area. The first American military post was the primitive Cantonment New Hope near Mendota. Established in 1819 by Col. Henry Leavenworth and the Fifth United States Infantry, the camp was later renamed Camp Coldwater and moved to higher ground in the spring of 1820. Shortly thereafter it was replaced by a permanent stone fort originally called Fort St. Anthony, but changed to Fort Snelling in 1825. The fort became a nucleus from which early Minnesota settlements evolved. Refugees from the Selkirk Colony in Canada tried to make new homes on or near the military reservation, and French-Canadian traders and voyagers settled their families at Mendota across the river from the fort. Indian treaties in 1837 opened an area in 1838 between the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, the first available Minnesota real estate. The logging industry and the evolving sawmills established a St. Croix River valley community, the second focus of white settlement in Minnesota. On the east bank of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls, the third center of pre-territorial population developed, eventually becoming the city of Minneapolis.

Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851 opened the territory west of the Mississippi River to settlers, and the Rock Island Railroad opening in 1854 brought many new Americans. Later, the Homestead Act of 1862 was a very positive incentive for immigration to Minnesota.

Minnesota immigrants from 1820 through 1890 were from the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia, for the most part, although there were small groups of Czech and Polish farmers and those from Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. All these groups continued to arrive in Minnesota after 1890, but beginning in 1890 and continuing through 1920 there was also a new group of immigrants—those without financial means to purchase property but eager to fill the employment opportunities in the new industries and in the transportation systems. Their nationalities varied, many coming from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Immigrants also included Italians, Greeks, Russian-Germans, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Finns.

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