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Discover the Amazing History of Minneapolis

Minneapolis is one of the most unique and culturally important cities in the United States. It’s also one of the most underrated and overlooked because of its northern and midwestern location. There are few cities with as storied a history as that of the Twin Cities. This article aims to do them justice by taking an in-depth look at the history of Minneapolis. We’ll look at how the city began and how it’s evolved through the years.

Minneapolis Minnesota at sunset on the Mississippi river,

Native American Settlement

As is the case with nearly all American cities, the history of Minneapolis starts with the Native American people who were here long before European settlers. The area in Minnesota, now known as Minneapolis, was first inhabited by Dakota Sioux and Obijwa tribes. They did so hundreds if not thousands of years before the first white settlers.

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how long Native Americans inhabited the city. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, there’s proof that they came as early as 9,000 to 12,000 BC. Still, there’s no way to know precisely. The Dakota Sioux are the earliest known inhabitants of Minneapolis. Still, they were there long before Minnesota was a state or Minneapolis was a city.

European Exploration

The first noted exploration by European adventurers into the Minneapolis area came in 1680. The expedition was led by a Frenchman named Daniel Greysolon, Sieur de Lhut. His goal was to increase and expand France’s footprint in the New World to compete with other European powers, namely England.

While he was exploring the eastern border of Minnesota, Greysolon got wind that some of his fellow countrymen were being held hostage by the Dakota Indians. The most noteworthy was Father Louis Hennepin, who later went on to discover and name Saint Anthony Falls, which would later become one of the focal points of Minneapolis.

Later, through a series of treaties, deals, and trades with various factions of the Dakota, the United States managed to claim Minnesota as their own. First, however, they had to go through the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase, and various explorations. By 1803, with the conclusion of the Louisiana Purchase, all of Minnesota became officially owned by the United States.

Minneapolis Skyline and Mississippi River, Minnesota

Anthony and Minneapolis

The first notable establishment in the Minneapolis region was Fort Snelling, which doubled as a military outpost and a significant economic giant in the area. While deterring the onset of wars between the Dakota and Obijwa tribes, the fort also attracted fur traders, trappers, merchants, and hunters.

The two biggest competitors in the Minneapolis region in regards to settling the land were Franklin Steele and Joseph Plympton. Both men had big ambitions and dream about what Minneapolis could eventually become and played a major role in the history of Minneapolis.

As a result, both men were anxious to purchase as much land as possible from the United States government and the Dakota Indians, who still held claim to some of the lands.

Steele was quicker on the draw and managed to claim all the good land between the Mississippi and La Croix Rivers in 1838. Plympton, however, was still able to claim some less desirable pieces of land. Still, it wouldn’t be enough to make a substantial settlement. Steele also went on to claim some land west of the rivers in the late 1840s.

The land that Steele claimed east of the Mississippi River became known as St. Anthony Falls and was officially deemed a city in 1856. While Steele also owned land west of the river, most of it was owned by a man named John Stevens. Stevens managed to develop his portion of the land even better than what was done at St. Anthony. The area became known as the city of Minneapolis.

St. Anthony and Minneapolis functioned as two separate cities for nearly 15 years before they were merged in 1872. The merger was called Minneapolis and has remained so-named to this day.

Early Business and Industry

The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Flour Mills

Much of Minneapolis’s early commerce and industry was tied to the development of St. Anthony Falls. The falls were the highest on record on the Mississippi River, and harnessing their power was what allowed early settlers to open flour and lumber mills. While lumber played a massive role in the area’s early development, flour mills played a bigger and longer one.

By 1876, just four years after the merger between Minneapolis and St. Anthony, there were 18 flour mills in the area, and the city was a leading producer of flour in the US.

That number went on to increase through the years, thanks in large part to two of the world’s biggest flour and wheat moguls. Cadwallader C. Washburn, the father of General Mills, and Charles A Pillsbury, founder of the Pillsbury Company, got their start in Minneapolis. To this day, Minneapolis remains one of the world’s top producers of wheat and flour.

Lumber Mills

Aside from flour mills, lumber was the second most important economic strength of the Minneapolis region. There was a surplus of lumber in the area thanks to northern Minnesota’s vast and untouched wilderness. While both industries propelled Minneapolis forward, the flour industry eventually won out as the top area of commerce in the city and state.

Hydroelectric Power

The history of Minneapolis and its flour and lumber production wouldn’t have been possible without hydroelectric power. Lumber and flour mills obtained this power by harnessing the energy of St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River. It’s unclear who the early leaders of hydroelectric power were that helped aid the production of flour and lumber.

However, in 1882, there was a clear-cut leader in the world of hydroelectric power. Charles F. Brush, the founder of the Brush Electric Company, opened two power plants near St. Anthony Falls. The plants managed to provide light and electricity to the entire city by 1882 and forever changed the way the Minneapolis residents lived their lives.

Aside from Charles Brush, another tycoon in the electricity industry was a man named William de la Barre. Brush’s company became part of CenterPoint Energy. In contrast, de la Barre’s company became a major part of Xcel Energy. Electricity and flour production are just two parts of the history of Minneapolis that directly ties into the development of the United States.


While flour, electricity, and lumber spurred the development of Minneapolis, it wouldn’t have been possible without railroads. The railroad competition was fierce, confusing, and manipulative in the early days. However, each railroad built in the city and state played a significant role in making Minnesota the flour and wheat king of the world from 1880 to 1930.

A Shot of the Historic Maroon and Gold Oak-Xerxes Trolley Car on the Como-Harriet Line at the Linden Hills Station

Notable Structures

Hennepin Avenue Bridge

The Hennepin Avenue Bridge was originally built in 1856 and was allegedly the first permanent structure built across the Mississippi River, connecting the east bank to the west. It was named in honor of Father Louis Hennepin, and the bridge underwent several renovations, the most recent being in 1990.

Mill City Museum

The Mill City Museum opened in 2003 and is meant to give people an idea of what it was like to work and live in the early flour mills. Because the history of Minneapolis is tied directly to the success of the early flour mills, the museum is a great way to pay the early workers the respect they deserve. Life in the flour mills was brutal but necessary.

The Target Corporation

While you may not have known that flour, lumber, and hydroelectricity were integral parts of the history of Minneapolis, most all residents know about the Target Corporation. Target is one of the biggest and most successful department stores in the world, and it was founded in Minneapolis in 1962.

Historic Fort Snelling

Minneapolis also wouldn’t be where it is today without the development of Fort Snelling. The fort was instrumental in bringing peace to the Minneapolis area and the early fur trade that first brought popularity to the city. It also played a massive role in wars and military operations throughout the years.

If you visit Fort Snelling today, you’ll see that it was added to America’s Most Endangered Places list in 2006. Restoration efforts at the fort are ongoing, and it continues to be a treasured component of the history of Minneapolis and Minnesota at large.

Fort Snelling was significant in the history of Minneapolis

Political History of Minneapolis

While once a Republican stronghold, Minneapolis has been led by Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party since 1973. The MDFLP is an affiliate of the Democratic party and merged with it under the guidance of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the early 1940s.

Humphrey would eventually become the mayor of Minneapolis in 1945 and lay the groundwork for what Minneapolis is today. He became a Senator in 1948, thanks in large part to his role in the Civil Rights Movement. Then, from 1965 to 1969, Humphrey was the United States Vice President under Lyndon B. Johnson.

Humphrey and the Democratic party played a massive role in the history of Minneapolis. They’re a big reason why the city is similar to New York City in terms of diversity and culture.

Religious History of Minneapolis

Catholicism had long been the main religious movement in Minneapolis, and the first church was founded in 1854, several years before Minneapolis even became an official city. However, thanks in large part to the Lutheran and Evangelical movements throughout Minnesota, Protestants now make up a majority of the religious affiliation in Minneapolis.

While Protestants make up the majority, Minneapolis is open and accepting of all faiths and religions. There are Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, and dozens of other religious groups with established places of worship within the city.

Arts and Education History of Minneapolis

Although Minneapolis isn’t always thought of as an artistic or educational powerhouse, both art and education played an important role in the history of Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota, currently a member of the Big Ten Conference, opened its doors in Minneapolis in 1851.

Minneapolis is also home to the Minneapolis Orchestra, founded in 1903, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, founded in 1883. Both institutions are instrumental, no pun intended, in making Minneapolis the diverse and classy city that it is today.

Symphony orchestra on stage

Population Growth

Since its official founding in 1956 and again in 1872 with the St. Anthony merger, Minneapolis grew in population for over half a century. It grew from just a few thousand people in the early years to 200,000 in 1900. That number then exploded, thanks in large part to the flour and hydroelectric industries but also because of an innovative public transit system of streetcars.

By 1950, the population was at its highest in the history of Minneapolis, at just over 520,000 people. Unfortunately, for several reasons, that number steadily declined before stabilizing in the 1990s. The current population of Minneapolis today is just under 430,000 people, roughly 90,000 less than the all-time high in 1950. However, Minneapolis remains the most populous city in the state.

Reshaping Downtown Minneapolis

Like most major cities in the country, Minneapolis has seen its fair share of ups and downs through the years. The city was a boomtown from the mid-1800s until the Great Depression in 1929. During that time, the downtown Minneapolis area remained relatively the same. It wasn’t until the residents started moving to the suburbs that roads were redirected, and one-third of the downtown buildings were leveled.

Since 1950, much work has been done to reshape the downtown Minneapolis area and skyline. Major corporations, such as Target, have made their home in the city, as have a number of professional and collegiate sports teams. The city also experienced a condo and apartment boom in 1970, which made a definite impact on the downtown area.

Minneapolis Today

The history of Minneapolis has had its ups and downs, much like any other major city. Today, however, Minneapolis is experiencing one of its many ups. The city has become a major player in the racial and cultural problems that headline national news. Minneapolis is also one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the country.

While it has its fair share of historical buildings, museums, structures, and monuments, Minneapolis is also loved for being the gateway to the great outdoors. The same wilderness and river systems that made Minneapolis the city it is today are still present and more beautiful than ever.

Minneapolis Cityscape - Dusk

Wrapping Up the History of Minneapolis

While the history of Minneapolis hasn’t been perfect, it’s been unique and eventful. It’s a city that strives to do the right thing for its inhabitants and for the world at large. There truly are few cities within the United States that can boast as interesting a history as that of Minneapolis.

For more information about some of Minnesota’s great history, check out the 11 Best Museums in Minnesota.

Still looking for more fun adventures? Then checkout all the great things to do in the Twin Cities!