Lake Mille Lacs: Early Human History

The Dakota at Lake Mille Lacs

Father Louis Hennepin

Little is known about human activity at Lake Mille Lacs before 1000 A.D. The earliest known evidence of Human activity around the lake comes from copper tools thought to be about 5000 years old. From 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., various different tribal groups referred to collectively as the “Woodland People” lived at the lake, with the last groups of these probably being Dakota. Before the Ojibwe who now live at the Lake Mille Lacs were around the lake, the Dakota had many settlements around the lake. When Father Louis Hennepin visited the lake in 1680, he reported that not only was the lake considered sacred by the Dakota, but that Lake Mille Lacs, and especially the settlement of Izatys, was actually a focal point of the Dakota nation. Lake Mille Lacs was the central spot from which various Dakota tribes and bands spread out into different parts of the continent. The first European to visit Lake Mille Lacs was the Frenchman Daniel DuLuth, who first arrived at Izatys at Mille Lacs’ southern shore in 1678 with a band of eight men. A year later, DuLuth and his men returned and planted the French flag at Izatys, claiming the land to the north and west for hunting grounds, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and the Rum River, which would rapidly become an important lumber waterway.

The Ojibwe

Tapping for Maple syrup at Wigwam Bay, 1925

In 1659, long before ever setting eyes on Lake Mille Lacs, Daniel DuLuth negotiated peace between the frequently warring Dakota and Ojibwe people in the area. They would go on to share the bounty of the forests of Eastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin in peace for many decades afterwards. The Ojibwe, thought to originally have come from what is now the Atlantic Coast of Canada, had been migrating steadily westward and had just arrived around the southern shore of Lake Superior at that time. In the 1730s, this unsteady peace between the Dakota and Ojibwe came to a bloody end, and violence and killings repeatedly broke out between the two groups. Sandy Lake would be the Ojibwe’s first settlement in Dakota territory, and from there they would move further into the territory, taking Leech Lake, Red Lake, Gull Lake, and finally, Lake Mille Lacs sometime between 1745 and 1750 in a bloody three day battle.

Ojibwe Children at Lake Mille Lacs

It is thought that many Dakota had already begun to migrate from the Mille Lacs area in a southerly direction, with many of them located in Anoka at this point, so the Dakota population that was overtaken was likely already depleted. The Ojibwe now living at Lake Mille Lacs supported themselves by hunting deer, bear, moose, water fowl and small game. They also went fishing on Mille Lacs, and also ate wild rice, maple syrup, berries and cultivated edible plants.