Early Inhabitants and History of the St. Louis River in Duluth

If you’ve spent time in Duluth recently you’ve probably heard a little bit about the St. Louis River. For a long time we considered the St. Louis River to be Duluth’s best kept secret but now… the secret is out! Little by little folks are beginning to re-connect with this amazing gem and take advantage of new opportunities to explore the world’s largest freshwater estuary.

Great Blue Heron

We’re super excited because the St. Louis River offers amazing recreational opportunities AND tells an important story about Duluth. The river has a rich history and we love making sure that these stories work their way into our tours. Those of you who’ve had the chance to join our St. Louis River Estuary Kayaking Adventure know this fact: many stories from Duluth’s past and future can be told along the wooded shorelines, bays and backwaters of the St. Louis River.

Early Inhabitants of the St. Louis River

Long before the arrival of Daniel de Greysolon Sieur du Lhut and other early European explorers in the 1600s, the St. Louis River Estuary – located at the head of Lake Superior – with its vast wild rice beds and abundant fishery was a an important site for Native American trade and settlement. In fact, people started utilizing the Duluth area as soon as the glaciers began receding 14,000 years ago!

Ojibwe women in birch bark canoe

In more recent human history the Anishinaabe people, specifically the Ojibwe or Chippewa, inhabited the Lake Superior region for hundreds of years prior to Sieur du Lhut’s arrival and had established settlements at Spirit Island, Spirit Mountain, Indian Point, Rice’s Point, and Minnesota Point. Ojibwe oral history describes an epic migration from the Atlantic coast to the western Great Lakes region and, ultimately, what would later become Duluth. You can learn more about this story on the Onigamiinsing Dibaajimowinan – Duluth’s Stories Website.

Related: St. Louis River Estuary National Water Trail Master Plan

At the time of European arrival in the 1600s the Lake Superior region was home to the Dakota, Ojbiwe, Assiniboine and Cree. Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Luht, invited leaders from all four of these nations to gather for a meeting held at the west end of Lake Superior in 1679 to negotiate an arrangement that would ultimately open the region to the French fur trade.

The Ojibwe became important partners in the growing fur trade and facilitated commerce between the French and other Native peoples. They eventually became the dominant Native American group in the region and by the mid-18th century, occupied all of Lake Superior’s shores. For both the Ojibwe and the Dakota, early interactions with Europeans largely revolved around the fur trade and related activities.

With demand for beaver pelts to supply European fashion on the rise, Duluth became a hot-spot for the growing fur trade. In 1808, the American Fur Company was organized by German-born John Jacob Astor. The company began trading at the Head of the Lakes in 1809 and in 1817 erected a new headquarters at present-day Fond du Lac, on the St. Louis River.

There’s no doubt that the early inhabitants of the St. Louis River played an important role in opening the fur trade and, in doing so, changed the course of Duluth’s early history.

Join the St. Louis River Kayak Adventure to learn more about the history and future of the St. Louis River Estuary.

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