Historians and archeologists know little about the first humans who saw and lived near the falls. By the time of European contact, the Dakota controlled the falls. St. Anthony Falls was a sacred spot for the Dakota. In 1680, Antonine Augalle and his traveling companion, Father Louis Hennepin, became the first Europeans to visit the falls, and Hennepin’s sensational account of their travels made St. Anthony Falls a landmark in the wilderness. Countless explorers travelled to the falls recorded their impressions of it. In 1805, the federal government signed a treaty with the Dakota and purchased a tract of land that included the falls to construct Fort Snelling.
|1. First Humans at the Falls|
|2. Dakota and Ojibwe|
|3. First Europeans|
Historians and archeologists know little about the first humans who saw and lived near the falls. After the last ice age, 12,000 years ago, humans moved northward, likely following the spread of plants and animals. They were probably nomadic, not staying in one place for more than a period of time and hunted now extinct mammals such as mammoths and camels. As the mammoth became extinct, early humans possibly turned to hunting bison, which lived throughout Minnesota in 8,000 B.C. Over time, a few small villages grew up along the corridor, specializing in fishing. By the time of European contact, the Dakota controlled the falls from a base camp near Lake Mille Lacs.
By the time of European contact, the Ojibwe and the Dakota lived in Minnesota. As with the Dakota’s ancestors, Historians have relatively little information about how these two groups viewed and interacted with the falls.
Both groups had many names for the falls. The Dakota referred to the falls as Minirara (curling water), Owahmenah (falling water), or O-Wa-Mni (whirlpool). In contrast, the Ojibwe took a more geological perspective, referring to the falls as Kababikah (severed rock) and Kichi-Kababikah (great severed rock). Although the Ojibwe travelled through the area and traded at Fort Snelling, the Dakota controlled the falls.
Father Hennepin, the first European to see the falls and write about it, claimed the falls was a spiritual and historic place for the Dakota. Although many parts of Hennepin’s account are suspect (see below), other accounts also suggest the falls held special spiritual significance.
Spirit Island, a small tree-covered rocky island, once stood downstream of the falls. The island held special significance for the Dakota, but not for later Minneapolis residents who quarried the island away to use its rock as building stone. The Army Corps of Engineers removed the last remnants of Spirit Island when they installed the lock next to the falls.
Spirit Island as a limestone quarry. In the picture above (from the Minnesota State Historical Society), workers quarry away the rock. ca. 1895
According to oral traditions, the Dakota used Nicollet Island, just north of the falls, as a birthing place. The roar of the falls would drown out birthing cries and the large island also helped them defend themselves from Ojibwe who were their enemies at the time.
Finally, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who traced the source of the Mississippi to Lake Itasca, also observed the Dakota collecting brownish red clay from underneath the falls, which they used to paint their bodies and baskets.
Tepees set up near Bridge Square, where the streets of Nicollet, Hennepin, and Washington nearly meet today. In the background sits the John H. Stevens House, the first house built in what would become the city of Minneapolis. Image from the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photographer: Tallmadge Elwell, ca. 1852)
In July of 1680, a Catholic missionary named Father Louis Hennepin and his traveling companion, Antonine Augalle, became the first Europeans to visit the falls. In February of that same year, the two had set out under the command of Michael Accault to explore the Mississippi for La Salle. In April, a Dakota war party captured the three and took them back to a village at Mille Lacs. In July, Accault accompanied a buffalo hunting party west while Hennepin and Augalle went with another Dakota party whose route took them past the falls. While there, Father Hennepin renamed the falls after his order's patron saint, Saint Anthony of Padua.
Accault and Augalle may have traveled the same wilderness and faced the same perils as Hennepin, but Hennepin received most of the credit when he returned to Europe. He wrote a sensational account of his travels that went through numerous editions and translations. Although he based his account loosely on the real expedition, Hennepin did not mind embellishing events. For instance, he claimed the falls was 50 to 60 feet high, a slight exaggeration considering the actual height was about 16 to 20 feet.
While Hennepin may have exaggerated the facts, his account made St. Anthony Falls a landmark in the wilderness. Countless explorers who saw the falls recorded their impressions of it. Jean Piccoult wrote a description of the falls when he visited in 1700, agreeing with Hennepin’s height approximation. Jonathon Carver drew the first picture of the falls in 1766 and halved the height of the falls to thirty feet. He declared the falls as providing a “pretty and picturesque view” which he believed could not “be found throughout the universe.” In 1805, Pike cut the height to sixteen and a half feet.
Regardless of how they viewed the “discovery” of their falls by the Europeans, the Dakota might have been upset had they known the political implications of these visits. In 1805, the explorer Zebulon Pike signed a treaty with the Dakota, purchasing a tract of land that included the falls to construct a fort. The fort, known as Fort Snelling, was not built until the 1820s, and the Dakota did not receive payment for their purchase until the late 1830s. 
After constructing the fort, St. Anthony Falls became a tourist attraction. From 1820 to 1870, writers and artists toured the falls, often writing books about their experiences. Amongst them were Italian noblemen and political figure Giacomo Beltrami, artist George Catlin, writer Elizabeth Ellet, Swedish author Fredrika Bremer, historian and geographer Johann Georg Kohl, and theatre director Robert Watt of Denmark. All the authors commented on the beauty of the falls and lamented the encroachment by civilization on the primeval frontier. After 1880 and the taming of the falls by the Army Corps of Engineers (see “The Eastman Tunnel Collapse”), it would be nearly a century before people began to value the falls again for its beauty.
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1. Drew M. Forsberg “Early Native American Life in the MNRRA Corridor” in John O. Anfinson, River of History: A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (St. Paul: Army Corps of Engineers, 2003), p. 39-40, 51
2. Anfinson, River, p. 118
3. Anfinson, River, p. 118
4. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 2-3, 177
5. Christopher and Rushika F. Hage Nicollet Island (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), p. 14
6. Anfinson, River, p. 118
7. Anfinson, River, p. 55
8. Anfinson, River, p. 119-120
9. Anfinson, River, p. 119, Carver’s account in Shannon M. Pennefeather Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 6
10. Kane, The Falls, p. 5-6
11. See Giacomo Beltrami, George Catlin, Elizabeth Ellet, Fredrika Bremer, Johann Georg Kohl, and Robert Watt Carver Pennefeather Mill City, p. 14-21