Twelve Thousand Years Ago
As the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago, glacial melt waters poured down what is now the Minnesota Valley and created the broad canyon of the Mississippi River below present day St. Paul. Since that time, the falls have worn their way up-stream to their present location.
The falls may once have measured two miles wide and 200 feet high, swollen by melting glaciers. By the late 17th century, the crest was below Hennepin Island. By the 1850s, the cataract was approaching the upper limit of the limestone ledge that sustained it.
The Dakota called the Mississippi River, Hahawakpa, "river of the falls." A nearby rocky islet known as Spirit Island was significant in Dakota traditions and was once a nesting ground for eagles that fed on fish below the falls. Oral tradition also suggests that Dakota camped on Nicollet Island to fish and tap the sugar maple trees.
The Mississippi River served as a major highway for trade and travel by the Dakota, Ojibwe and other American Indians before them. A portage trail climbed a bluff located in what is now Hennepin Bluffs Park and followed the east bank along what is now Main Street to a point well above the falls.
The falls were first seen by Europeans in 1680 when Louis Hennepin, a Catholic friar in the service of France, was brought there by the Dakota. Father Hennepin named the falls for a Christian saint, Anthony of Padua, and his published memoirs introduced the area to Europeans eager to learn more about the New World.
After the nations of Europe assumed the right to make boundaries, the falls lay between lands claimed by England, France and later Spain. The lands west of the Mississippi were included in the Louisiana territory purchased by the United States from France in 1803. Fur traders changed the local economy and lifestyle of the Dakota and Ojibwe, but Indians still controlled the lands around the great falls.