History of the Mississippi

The modern Mississippi River formed 12,000 years ago during the last ice age. While the Twin Cities region was covered and flattened by glaciers, the Great Lakes and a wall of hard rock diverted the ice flows away from southeastern Minnesota, leaving a glacier-free area known as a coulee.

As the glaciers melted they formed huge lakes (one, Glacial Lake Agassiz, was larger than all the Great Lakes combined, covering northwestern Minnesota and extending far into Canada). Their runoff carved the river valley through the Twin Cities flats and into the coulee.

Human activity

Humans arrived in the area 11,500 years ago. As the melting glaciers retreated to Lake Superior, human hunters moved north following mammoths, giant beavers and other megafauna. Evidence of these early humans has been found at sites throughout Minnesota, including some in Hennepin County. The most commonly found items are arrowheads.

Around 10,000 years ago a drought killed off the mammoths and cleared the way for the rise of the buffalo. Humans shifted to hunting this new animal, but otherwise remained nonomadic hunter-gatherers.

The first evidence of agriculture appeared 4,000 years ago with the rise of the Woodland people, who are best known for their burial mounds — many of which are still visible today. Lower Grey Cloud Island, just south of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi, is home to an Early Woodland site. You’ll find information on other sites on the Links page.

The Woodland people were part of a robust trade network that stretched across the continent. Some excavated mounds contained flint knives from the Rocky Mountains and copper axes — highly prized metal tools — from the Lake Superior area.

The Mississippian culture appeared about 1,000 years ago, featuring bows and arrows and a more advanced agriculture. They thrived for centuries until disappearing in the 1600s, forced out by other indian tribes and the arrival of Europeans.>

European exploration

The French were the first European explorers to enter Minnesota, coming down from what is now Canada. In the 1660s they explored the western end of Lake Superior. In 1673, A Catholic missionary, Jacques Marquette, and fur-trader Louis Joliet led a canoe expedition across Wisconsin, following the Wisconsin River to where it flows into the Mississippi near modern-day Prairie du Chien, on the Wisconsin-Iowa border. They were the first Europeans to lay eyes on the Mississippi.

Six years later, Sieur Du Luth (after whom the city of Duluth is named) traveled from Lake Superior as far south as Lake Mille Lacs, while Pierre and Jean Pepin, coming up the Mississippi from the south, explored the Lake Pepin area.

A year later, in 1680, Sieur de La Salle led an expedition to the juncture of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. While the main group turned back (they would return the next year and travel south to the Gulf of Mexico), he sent Michel Aco and Father Louis Hennepin north to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi. They discovered the source of the Mississippi and became the first Europeans to see (and name) St. Anthony Falls.


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