The history of St Paul MN paints an interesting story of immigration and outsiders. From the first peoples who moved there fleeing invasion to the European immigrants who settled in the 1800s, from its origins as the home of a distilling operation to its time as a haven for bootleggers and gangsters, St Paul has remained a complex town both frontier wild and a center of industry and trade.
Come along and explore the amazing history of St Paul MN and discover how it transformed from its geological origin to the contemporary city it is today.
Geological History of St Paul MN
Approximately 500 million years ago, during the Ordovician period, the area that is now Saint Paul, Minnesota, was covered in shallow tropical seas. Below the water, sediment deposits started to compress into stone that now forms the city St. Peter’s bedrock consisting of Sandstone, Glenwood Shale, Platteville Limestone, and Decoral Shale.
As the Ice Age began around 20,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered the area, which created the St. Croix moraine in the Twin Cities. The ice sheets cut through the land, forming tunnel valleys and replacing melt-water resulting in a series of troughs in the limestone that eventually formed Lake Como and Lake Phalen.
Modern Land Formation
A prehistoric river called Glacial River warren drained into Lake Agassiz. This large body of water that existed between 11,700 and 9,400 years ago eventually outflowed and created the wide valley that now holds the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. This same flow caused the extreme erosion that led to the creation of high bluffs on each side of the Minnesota River that form the distinct landscape of Saint Paul.
The earliest records of human life in the St. Paul area come from burial mounds. The Hopewell people created these mounds around 2,000 years ago, presumably as part of a religious tradition that involved burying their dead with artifacts from their lives.
Around 1600 the Mdewankton Dakota of the Sioux tribe arrived in the area, fleeing the advancement of the Ojibwe people. They named the area Imnizaska after the white bluffs that surround the valley. They inhabited the Saint Paul area until, following the Treaty of St. Peters in 1837, the Dakota Sioux people were forced by these agreements to relocate to the west side of the Mississippi River.
While no longer stewards of this land, many members of the Dakota, Sioux, and Ojibwe peoples still live in the Saint Paul area.
In the 1700s, the European powers, England, France, and Spain participated in a colonial competition in North America, and the territory around Saint Paul was contested among them. European traders and explorers visited the area and engaged in trapping and trading with the native peoples.
The United States
In 1787, after the founding of the United States, the land east of the Mississippi, including the land that would eventually be Minnesota, was designated as the Northwest Territory. The United States claimed ownership of the land. In 1803 the western side of the river was added to the Louisiana Purchase and joined the United States.
In 1905 US Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike struck a deal with the Dakota to purchase 100,000 acres of land for use by the US military. Fort Snelling, also called Fort Saint Anthony, was built on this land in 1819. This put the area around the future Saint Paul at the heart of the fur-trading industry on the rivers.
After a series of treaties allowed the United States to seize the rest of the surrounding land from the Native American tribes in 1837, the area around Saint Paul grew from a few mostly French and French Canadian traders with shacks along the river into a small town. By 1840 the town had nine cabins placed around the Upper and Lower Landings.
As Fort Snelling built up populations of fur traders, Native Americans and military men moved into the area. As the population expanded, distilling operations started up, and whiskey became popular. Due to concerns over the drunkenness of soldiers, the military officers in Fort Snelling banned distilling on military land.
The French Candian fur trader turned bootlegger, Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, who had built up following distilling spirits, was forced to move his operation downstream to what is now the city of Saint Paul.
And so, Parrant founded the city that would later be called Saint Paul by building a small shack that was the city’s first house and first business around June of 1838. The bar became known as Pig’s Eye, and so did the area.
The growing community at Pig’s Eye gained additional residences, and Saint Paul was officially founded in 1841 by the French priest Father Lucien Galtier in the area formerly known as Pig’s Eye Landing. He changed the settlement’s name to Saint Paul in honor of Paul the Apostle and to move the city away from its unsavory origins.
Becoming the Capital
Saint Paul was incorporated as a city in 1849, and Minnesota was admitted to the United States in 1858, naming Saint Paul as its capital. There was a brief hiccup in this process. In 1957 the state voted to move the capital to Saint Peter, but legislator Joe Rolette stole the bill and went into hiding for 123 hours until the end of the legislative session, leaving the bill unpassed and allowing Saint Paul to remain the capital of Minnesota.
Saint Paul grew from a small town of 900 to a booming city of 10,000 between 1849 and 1860. Much of this early growth was from French Canadian immigrants.
Minnesota’s first newspaper, the Minnesota Pioneer, was established in Saint Paul in 1849 as Minneapolis’s milling boom led to the success of Saint Paul as a hub of financing and commerce. From breweries to butchering operations, the businesses of Saint Paul began to grow and flourish.
Continued immigration from Western Europe led to the growth of the city. Homesteaders, and merchants, all flooded into the city.
By 1891 horse-drawn streetcars and cable cars were replaced with electric streetcar lines that allowed the city to expand and grow into outlying neighborhoods along the lines. Unfortunately, transport and a dense population led to a typhoid outbreak in 1898. This outbreak hit soldiers encamped near the city on their way to fight in the Spanish-American war the hardest.
Steam and Rail Travel
With the growth of steamboat travel throughout the late 1800s, Saint Paul became a gateway for frontier settlers heading into Minnesota further west.
In 1862 the first train went out of Saint Paul on the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad. This railroad, the first active railroad in the state, connected Saint Paul to the western frontier and increased traffic into the city. In 1887 the railroad went bankrupt and was taken over by The Great Northern Railway which ran from Saint Paul out to Seattle, Washington.
The Rich Build
Men like James C. Burbank, the Minnesota Stage Company owner, began to spend their fortunes building grand estates in the city in the 1860s. Burbank’s house was one of the first mansions built on the bluff of Summit have. By the end of the 19th century, hundreds of mansions populated the Historic Hill District, West Summit Avenue Historic District, Woodland Park District, Dayton’s Bluff, and the Irvine Park Historic District.
As part of an architectural boom, the Germania Bank Building, the Manhattan Building, the Merchants National Bank, and Pioneer and Endicott Buildings were all constructed in the late 1800s.
The Poor Arrive
Meanwhile, on the east side, Swedish immigrants settled in Phalen’s Creek, after known as Swede Hollow forming shanty towns near growing brewing operations powered by water from the creek.
At the turn of the century, immigration shifted from Western Europeans to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Russia bringing their cultures into Saint Paul and forming ethnic communities and neighborhoods. These immigrants were largely unskilled and illiterate and formed the working poor of the city.
Into the 20th century
In 1902 the Landmark center was constructed and served as the Federal Court House for Saint Paul and the Post Office for the Upper Midwest. It still stands in Rice Park and is currently an arts and culture center.
Saint Paul and much of the Twin Cities were damaged by thunderstorms and tornadoes on August 20, 1904. $1.78 million dollars of damage occurred to hundreds of buildings, and a section of the High Bridge over the Mississippi River was blown down. Wind speed during these storms measured up to 180 mph, a record that has yet to have been surpassed.
Saint Paul gained a foothold as a hub for financing and commerce as Minneapolis grew as a milling city.
All kinds of businesses began to grow in this thriving city. Banks financed railroads, mills, and housing. The brewers Anthony Yoerg and Theodore Hamm opened breweries in this brewing town. Bohn Manufacturing Company grew from a cabinet-making company into Seeger Refrigerator Company. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company moved to Saint Paul in 1906, later becoming 3M.
Haven for Gangsters
In 1900 Detective John O’Connor was named Chief of Police in Saint Paul. Like many cities at the time, Saint Paul was struggling with lawlessness and crime. So he established The Layover Agreement; this unofficial contract was intended to keep crime out of Saint Paul by welcoming criminals into the city.
Under this agreement, gangsters were allowed to hide in the city as long as they checked in with the police when they entered the town at Hotel Savoy, agreed to pay bribes to police and city officials, and committed no major crime. This deal was extremely successful at keeping crime out of Saint Paul, though at the expense of other Midwestern cities.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Saint Paul was a safe haven for gangsters from other cities. Especially in the peak of Prohibition (starting in 1919), Saint Paul was a center for bootlegging and other crimes. In 1932 20% of the nation’s bank-robbing took place in Minnesota, though barely any in Saint Paul. The famous Barker-Carpus Gang was one of many that took refuge in the city to avoid prosecution for their crimes.
By 1935 politics had turned towards anti-corruption, and much of the police force was forced out of their jobs, ending Saint Paul’s time as a gangster city.
The population of Saint Paul grew during the first half of the century, reaching its peak in 1960 with over 300,000 residents.
Urban renewal projects led to the development of the redeveloping of many business and residential areas. There was a skyscraper boom that began the creation of the modern city center. Taller buildings like the Jackson and Sibley Towers in Galtier Plaza, The Pointe of Saint Paul, and Wells Fargo Place were constructed.
In 1979 the Department of Planning and Economic Development separated the city into 17 planning districts. Though these neighborhoods have not remained the same in the last 50 years as boundaries have been adjusted as population changes, they still have a significant voice in residential organization and development.
The Contemporary City
In 2020 the population of Saint Paul was 311,527, and it is the capital city of Minnesota. Saint Paul continues to thrive as a diverse city of immigrants, with robust Mexican, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, and Burmese populations. It is also a financial hub and the home of The Travelers Company. Many historic buildings from the city’s history remain standing, and the city still retains some of its origins with a thriving brewing culture.
Wrapping Up the History of St Paul MN
From its geological beginnings to the bustling city of today, the transformation of St. Paul Minnesota has produced a timeline rich in history, full of culture and life.
For more historical information about the great state of Minnesota, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge and The 11 Best Museums in Minnesota.
Still looking for more fun adventures? Then checkout all the great things to do in the Twin Cities!
- About the Author
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Born in Madelia, MN, to a now 5-generation Minnesota family, Ryan’s MN roots go deep.
A painter by day, Ryan founded Life in Minnesota in 2013 with his wife Kelly to chronicle their musings on everything Minnesota. Ryan and Kelly are raising their 7 kiddos in Maple Grove, MN.
When he’s not shuttling his kids around to hockey practice, you might find him in the shop working on his leatherwork. Undoubtedly, there will be a family trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area every summer, and of course weekends at Grandpa’s cabin up north in the summer.