skip to content

Contact Period

An Overview of Contact Period Archaeology in Minnesota (1650 – 1837)

The Contact Period is named for the initial contact between Europeans and Indians in Minnesota. It is a time dominated by the economy of fur trading, first by the French, then the British, and finally Americans. It is also a time of great tribal movements. Indian peoples were still largely in control of their own lives during this period, although European diseases led to significant population declines in many areas and European trade goods greatly changed Indian material culture with the disappearance of stone tools and native pottery. 

The period ends with the first major Indian treaty that ceded east-central Minnesota to the United States, leading to the beginning of Euro-American settlement of Minnesota. Most Contact Period historic properties in Minnesota are archaeological sites, but a few are categorized as buildings or structures such as those at Old Fort Snelling. 

The Fur Trade

French fur traders and missionaries first entered the Upper Midwest via southern Great Lakes routes. Prior to the actual arrival of Frenchmen, some European trade goods made their way west into Minnesota by the early 1600s. 

The French

Radisson and Groseilliers reportedly entered east-central Minnesota in 1669, and while we don’t know the exact location, we do know they met Dakota people who they called “nation of the beef,” referring to the importance of bison hunting. We know Duluth entered northeastern Minnesota in 1679 by following the south shore of Lake Superior. Louis Hennepin reached Lake Mille Lacs in 1680 by coming west from the Illinois country and then up the Mississippi and Rum rivers. Twenty years later, French fur posts were being established in southeastern Minnesota, most notably on Lake Pepin, on Prairie Island, and on the Minnesota River near present-day Mankato.

By the 1730s, French fur posts were being built in northern Minnesota. One French post dating to 1732 was on an island in Lake of the Woods and called Fort St. Charles. It was relocated by Jesuit historians in the early 1900s and reconstructed by the Knights of Columbus in 1950, but no formal archaeology was done. Artifacts and human remains taken from the site by the Jesuits were destroyed in a fire at Winnipeg’s St. Boniface College in 1925.

Most French posts in Minnesota were located along the Canadian border or along the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. There were perhaps only five active French posts at any one time and never more than 20 in the state. A notable example is a post just north of Little Falls in central Minnesota. This is probably Fort Duquesne built by Joseph Marin in 1752. The site was re-located by archeologist Douglas Birk in the 1970s and excavated by him throughout the 1980s. 

The British

When the British defeated the French in 1760 ending the French and Indian War, British dominance of the North American fur trade begins, even though France ceded their lands west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana Territory) to Spain and Napoleon got them back for France in 1800. British dominance did not end with the termination of the Revolutionary War in 1783 or the sale of Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. It effectively lasted until after the end of the War of 1812 in 1815. 

When first entering Minnesota in the mid-1700s, British fur traders re-occupied many French post locations in the far north and then established new posts in the interior of northern Minnesota, along the Minnesota River, along the Red River, and along the Mississippi River. They had as many as 50 fur posts in Minnesota. Their most famous Minnesota fur post was at Grand Portage in Cook County. The British first occupied Grant Portage in 1768 and soon multiple companies had large depots there. The British abandoned Grand Portage in the early 1800s, relocating at Fort William in Canada. 

Grand Portage has been excavated by archaeologists on and off again since the 1930s. It was reconstructed in 1940, but burned in 1969. The post was reconstructed again in 1973. Declared a National Monument in 1958, it is a National Park Service interpreted site open to the public. Another British post that was excavated, reconstructed, and now open to the public is the Northwest Company Post near Pine City run by the Minnesota Historical Society.

American Independence

In 1814, United States sovereignty over all lands east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada was confirmed, as well as sovereignty over the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Thus all of Minnesota became part of America in the early 19th century. Following the Louisiana Purchase, Zebulon Pike was sent to explore the northern reaches of the new territory just as Lewis and Clark were sent to the western reaches. In 1805 as he headed up the Mississippi River in Minnesota, Pike signed a treaty with the Dakota at Mendota, obtaining two small parcels of land for the United States. One was at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers (Mendota) and included St. Anthony Falls. The other was at the junction of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. 

In 1819, Colonel Henry Leavenworth arrived at the mouth of the Minnesota River to start building what would become Fort Snelling. Colonel Josiah Snelling completed the stone fort in 1823 and this became the first node of American settlement in Minnesota. 

American fur traders were working in Minnesota shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, but no fur posts were established until after the War of 1812. After the war, John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company rapidly expanded in Minnesota, establishing posts at Fond du Lac and Mendota prior to 1820 and then posts throughout much of the state in the 1820s and 1830s. Between 1816 and 1851, perhaps 75 American fur posts were established throughout the state. Excavated American Period fur posts include Fort Renville in Lac Qui Parle County and an American Fur Company post on Big Sandy Lake in Aitkin County.

Beginning with the French and ending with the American post extending into the 1850s, there were perhaps 100 unique location fur posts in Minnesota. Of these, fewer than 50 have been relocated by archaeologists and only about 20 have been excavated or tested by archaeologists. There are also portages associated with the fur trade; archaeological excavations have been conducted along the Grand Portage in Cook County and at Savanna Portage in Aitkin County. The Superior-Quetico underwater archaeology project (1960 to 1976) examined a number of locations where fur trade canoe accidents had occurred along the U.S.-Canadian border. 

Contact Period Indian Sites

Sioux and Dakota

When the French first entered the Upper Midwest in the mid-1600s, Sioux Indians controlled almost all of what was to become Minnesota. Sioux Indians are sometimes divided into three groups based on their Contact Period locations and language differences: Eastern (Dakota), Middle (Nakota) and Western (Lakota). 

The Eastern Dakota or Santee are made up of four discrete bands -- Mdewaketon, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Wahpakute -- who lived in east central Minnesota centered around Lake Mille Lacs. The Nakota, sometimes referred to as Western Dakota, were made up of the Yankton and Yanktonai in southwestern and northwestern Minnesota respectively. The Lakota Sioux or Teton lived along the western border. When the French entered Minnesota, Ojibwe expansion into the state had not yet occurred. 

In 1680, a French missionary named Louis Hennepin was captured with his two French companions by a Dakota war party somewhere just southeast of Minnesota. Hennepin and his companions were brought to a major Dakota village on the south side of Lake Mille Lacs. Hennepin lived in the village for several months and even accompanied a Dakota hunting party to western Minnesota before returning to Canada via the Rum River, the Mississippi River, and the Wisconsin River. 

As Hennepin went through what was to become Minneapolis in late 1680, he saw and named St. Anthony Falls. He published an account of his journey in 1683, the first published account of Minnesota history. Hennepin described the Dakota as cooking in earthen vessels, living in bark lodges, eating wild rice cooked with dried blueberries, and hunting bison on the prairies. 

Early French trade goods associated with Sandy Lake and Ogechie ceramics have been discovered by archaeologists working at sites in Kathio State Park on the southwest edge of Lake Mille Lacs.  

Drawn westward by the increasing attraction of bison hunting on the prairies and pushed south and west by Ojibwe intrusions into northeastern Minnesota beginning in about 1740, the Dakota eventually abandoned their homeland in central Minnesota. By the end of the 18th century, the Teton ended up in the western Great Plains, the Yankton and Yanktonai dominated eastern South and North Dakota, and most of the Santee resided in southern Minnesota. By the time of the first major treaty in 1837, few Dakota lived east of the Mississippi River in central Minnesota and much of the area north of the Minnesota River had become a contested zone with the Ojibwe. After the Treaty of 1851, all Dakota groups still residing in Minnesota were forced to live along the upper Minnesota River. 

Little Rapids (Inyan Ceyaka Atonwan), a major late Contact Period Dakota village on the south bank of the Minnesota River near Jordan, was excavated by Janet Spector of the University Minnesota in the early 1980s. Her 1993 book What This All Means described the Eastern Dakota lifeway of the early 19th century. The Dakota at Little Rapids had a gardening-hunting-gathering economy that followed a yearly cycle or what Spector describes as “seasons of the moon.” In the spring, the geese were laying their eggs, rivers were opening up for travel, people were planting and then hoeing gardens, and strawberries were ripening. In the summer, the chokecherries were ripe, the corn was harvested, and wild rice was gathered. In the fall, wild rice was dried and the deer were rutting. Winter was a time of hardship.

Ojibwe

As noted above, the Ojibwe did not live in Minnesota in any great numbers until after 1740. When first encountered by the French in the mid-1600s, they were centered at Sault Ste Marie. By the late 1600s, large groups of Ojibwe were moving west along the south shore of Lake Superior and some were established at Chequamegon Bay in northern Wisconsin by about 1685. The Ojibwe were originally middlemen in the fur trade, but as French posts were established in Minnesota and the French began to trade directly with the Dakota, the Ojibwe needed to obtain fur directly so they moved west and southwest seeking new hunting grounds. 

By the mid-1700s, the Ojibwe had villages in the interior of northwestern Wisconsin and were moving west from Lake Superior into northeastern and east-central Minnesota. This led to open warfare with the Dakota in their east-central Minnesota heartland and the Dakota were forced to retreat west and south. The Ojibwe continued their expansion to the west and south, but halted when they reached the prairie in west-central Minnesota. 

The Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1825 attempted to establish a boundary between the Dakota and Ojibwe, extending west from the St. Croix River just north of Stillwater to about Alexandria and then northwest to the Red River at Moorhead. Neither the Ojibwe nor the Dakota initially paid much attention to this boundary, but it did become the official line on the map for subsequent treaty rights. The first major Minnesota Indian treaty in 1837 involved lands in east-central Minnesota about equally divided between the Ojibwe and Dakota, so both groups had to sign the treaty. Subsequent Indian treaties in Minnesota were with individual groups who were recognized as having exclusive control over the ceded area. 

The Ojibwe way of life in northern Minnesota is well described by Ojibwe author William Warren in his History of the Ojibways (1885). This way of life is also the ethnographic analogy used by archaeologists to understand Late Prehistoric lifeways in the same region. The traditional Ojibwe subsistence pattern, like the Dakota, seasonally focused on one or two resources, but utilized a wide range of wild foods. By the Post-Contact Period, it included some gardening of corn and potatoes. In the spring was maple sugaring, in the summer the gathering of roots, nuts and berries, in the fall wild rice harvesting, and in the winter hunting. Fishing and hunting were important during all seasons. Deer were an especially important food source in the winter. During the fur trade, trapping became an important activity mainly in the winter. 

Ojibwe villages were usually located on lakes and streams. In the summer, hunting and gathering took place within a 50 mile radius of the village. In the fall, camps were established near wild rice beds. In the early spring, wigwam camps were located near sugar bushes. Winter villages were located in sheltered areas near good hunting grounds. In the warm season, birch bark canoes provided rapid transportation over the waterways and were light enough to carry over the many portages. Snowshoes often were essential in the winter.

Other Contact Period ethnographic groups in Minnesota include the Ioway in the southeast, the Oto in the south-central, the Assiniboine in the northwest, and the Cree in the northeast. By the time the United States government began to enact Indian treaties in the mid-19th century, few members of these groups still resided in Minnesota as the Ojibwe had pushed the Assiniboine and the Cree north and west and the Dakota had pushed the Ioway and Oto south. In the mid-19th century, there were attempts to settle Sauk and Winnebago Indians from Wisconsin in Minnesota, but these settlements did not last.

back to top