Iron Range: Indigenous People and the Voyageurs

Indigenous People

Big Game/Paleo-Aboriginal Peoples

Not much is known about the first peoples to inhabit the Iron Range.  The best estimates indicate that these peoples first arrived at the Range around 7,000 B.C.E. as part of the long, slow movement from Asia across the ice bridge from Russia to Alaska.  These peoples were nomadic and lived in a type of culture often referred to as “big game” or “paleo-Aboriginal.”  Obviously, due to the climate of their chosen homeland, these peoples made extensive use of fire and animal skin clothing.  Because they did not take advantage of the unique attributes of the various locations in which they lived, there probably was a great deal of behavioral and cultural homogeneity in their society, despite the fact that they lived in small extended family groups or clans.  Some of the only remains of these peoples are the fluted stone points that they used for hunting.  These points, which demonstrate some skilled craftwork, were made of chert, flint, and chalcedony.

Eastern Archaic Peoples

Around 5,000 B.C.E, a new group of peoples arrived on the Range.  These “Eastern Archaic” peoples, as archaeologists call them, creatively made extensive use of the physical geographies in which they lived.  This led to semi-nomadism and regional cultural variations for the first time.  In the western Great Lakes region, one of the more unique local adaptations that developed was the use of the region’s accessible copper resources.  Indeed, these peoples were great innovators in the working of metal for their time and were the first in the Americas to use metal implements. It is both fitting and a great historical irony that some of the original inhabitants of the Iron Range developed the technology  necessary for metalworks in the Americas.  It is fitting because the region has during European occupancy been nearly entirely metal-driven.  It is ironic because the first metal-using region on the continent is now dependent on external domestic technological innovations as well as internationally developed mining and metalworking techniques

Woodland Cultures

Beginning sometime around 1,000 B.C.E, yet another set of cultures developed in the Midwest and consequently on the Range.  These cultures, ofted referred to as “Woodland Cultures,” were the first to use agriculture and pottery on the Range.  They are also responsible for the burial mounds still found in St. Paul and other Midwest locations.  Populations of the Woodland Culture peoples were small in Minnesota until they started harvesting wild rice, which allowed the development of permanent villages.

The Ojibwe

The Ojibwe peoples, the American Indians present on the Range at the time of the arrival of Europeans, first came to the region around 1600 C.E.  They are believed to have migrated from northern Atlantic seaboard.  Much has been written about the Ojibwe peoples, and much of this lies outside the scope of this web page.  It is important to note, however, that the Ojibwe thrived – and still thrive – by making ingenious use of the physical geography of the region.  Fish, wild rice, wild berries and sugar maple trees are important parts of traditional Ojibwe cuisine.  In addition, game, and to a lesser extent, fur-bearing animals, play an important part of Ojibwe culture.

While there are no Ojibwe reservations on the Iron Range, at least as it is defined by this web page, the Ojibwe definitely occupied the region prior to white settlement. In fact, most – if not all – the iron of the Vermillion and Mesabi originally belonged to the Ojibwe.  Some of this land was “legally” gained from the Ojibwe through treaties, but much of it was also appropriated from the Ojibwe through a variety of extra-legal and immoral means.  The very name “Mesabi” comes from the Ojibwe word “Missabe,” which translates to “sleeping giant.”

The Voyageur Era

The next group of people to arrive in northern Minnesota were the French fur traders commonly known as “voyageurs.”  Covered more extensively in the Brainerd section of this web site, the voyageurs were the mainstay of the fur trade in North America.  Their reign lasted from the 1600s through about 1855, when fur hats – the fur hat industry drove the fur trade – went out of fashion in the western world due to the rising popularity of silk hats.  Prior to 1855, it was very common to find the rich and famous of Europe in beaver hats.  Beaver hats played such a large role in the upper echelon of European society that according to an IRRRB-produced book on the Iron Range, “people were talking about…the St. Louis River long before there was a Chicago.”

It is commonly believed that the voyageurs trapped beavers themselves.  This is a misconception:  voyageurs traded European goods with indigenous peoples, who did the trapping.  The voyageurs lugged a large variety of Europeans products with them to trade, including axeheads (ironic, considering the iron deposits the indigenous peoples of the Range had), knives, flintlocks and ammunition, blankets, beads, and of course, liquor.  According to a number of sources, the voyageurs had a terrible job.  The pay was bad and the work, which involved carrying huge loads of supplies at portages, was treacherous. Fur companies mainly recruited farmers from around Quebec and the St. Lawrence River to do the work.

The Voyageurs, The Ojibwe and The Dakota

The fur trade with the Europeans changed forever the lives of the Minnesota Ojibwe.  The Ojibwe’s primary role in the trade was as middlemen between the Dakota, who produced the fur, and the French traders, who traded various items to obtain the fur.  Indeed, Ojibwe territory was advantageously located directly between Lake Superior, which represented the French voyageurs main transport corridor, and Dakota territory.  The Ojibwe were able to gain hunting and fishing rights from the Minnesota Dakota in exchange for a continuing supply of European goods from the French.  The Ojibwe and Dakota were able to develop a mutually beneficial, peaceful economic relationship because of the trade.

However, when the French built Fort Beauharnois in 1727 at the upper end of Lake Pepin in southeastern Minnesota, the Ojibwe were cut out of the fur trade.  In site and situation terms, the Ojibwe essentially lost their entire situational advantage. The Dakota consequently blocked the Ojibwe’s access to Dakota hunting and fishing grounds – they no longer needed the Ojibwe to trade with the French.

The Ojibwe and Dakota quickly entered into an armed conflict that would last the better part of the last half of the eighteenth century.  By the 1770s, the Ojibwe had gained much territory, taking over much of northern Minnesota.  The war was finally settled in 1825, when French fur trading interests’ efforts to reestablish profitable trade in the interior of Minnesota finally paid off.  At the Treaty of Prarie du Chien in 1825 and Fond du Lac in 1826, the two groups decided on territorial boundaries.  While temporarily beneficial to both parties, the two treaties would represent the beginning of a long and reprehensible history of white-imposed boundaries for Native peoples.