A History of the Falls

An Overview

The Retreat of the Falls

The Dakota, Ojibwe, and First European

The Founding of the Twin Cities


The Eastman Tunnel Collapse

Flour Milling


Other Industries and Workers

Rebirth, Renewal, and Return

The Falls and the University

Islands in the River



A History of Saint Anthony Falls

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The Founding of the Twin Cities

Since the federal government controlled the falls, settling by the falls was illegal. As a result, soldiers physically evicted the squatters, who moved down river to a swamp outside the fort’s control and became the first residents of St. Paul. After foiling an ingenious scheme by a Fort Snelling commandant to gain control of the falls, Franklin Steele became the first owner of land around the falls and later founded the community of St. Anthony on the east bank of the river. Another community started on the west bank, which gained legal title in 1856 under the name Minneapolis. Minneapolis eventually absorbed the small community of St. Anthony.

1. To Own a Waterfall
2. The Founding of St. Anthony and St. Paul
3. The Founding of Minneapolis

To Own a Waterfall

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While the Dakota and Ojibwe had lived by the falls for centuries, the first significant establishments by United States citizens did not occur until the 1820s. In 1805, the federal government sent Zebulon Pike to explore the Minnesota territory and to find land suitable for a fort. Pike negotiated a treaty with the Dakota for ownership of a military reserve stretching from the falls to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. In exchange, the Dakota would receive an unspecified payment. More than thirty years later, in 1837, The Dakota finally received four thousand dollars, well after the United States government had already built the fort and claimed the land as its own.[1]

Construction on the reserve began with Fort Snelling. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth had orders to begin construction on the fort in 1819 and Colonel Josiah Snelling finished it five years later. [2] Recognizing that the people could harness the falls for water power, Leavenworth suggested building mills at the falls. The water rushing away from the waterfall could turn water wheels which, in turn, could provide power to run saws and flour mills. Between 1820 and 1823, Snelling followed Leavenworth’s suggestions and built two barracks, a saw mill, and a grist mill, which would grind grain into flour, along the West Bank of the falls. He boasted that the saw mill could produce 3,500 board feet a day.[3]

A photo of the government sawmill from the Minnesota Historical Society's Archives

The Founding of St. Paul and St. Anthony

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Since the army controlled St. Anthony Falls and the area around it, settling and using the falls for commercial gain was illegal. People still tried. By 1837, over one hundred people had built homes and illegally settled along the valley. Due to the doctrine of preemptive rights, if a settler lived on the land, he would receive the option of buying it when the government offered it up for sale. Many of these squatters had already realized the potential for making a profit from waterpower along the river. However, they were not alone.[4]

Fort Snelling’s commandant, Joseph Plympton also had his eyes on land around the falls. In 1837, the territorial governor had negotiated another treaty with the Dakota to purchase more land which included any land around the falls not controlled by the fort. However, the fort’s boundaries had not been set. So, Plympton devised a cunning plan. The fort had built on the west side of the falls, but it had not built on the east side. Plympton decided to draw the boundaries of the fort to exclude the east side of the falls so he could settle the land.[5]

Before he could do that, he had to evict the squatters, and he sent a detachment of soldiers to forcefully evict them from the land. The squatters, angry over the eviction, set up camp down river near a swamp outside the fort’s control. The community became known as Pig’s Eye, after their most famous resident, Pierre “Pig’s Eyes” Parrant, a whisky seller with a bad eye. Later, the community expanded to a bluff above the swamp and in 1839, Father Lucian Galtier built a chapel dedicated to St. Paul. The name soon replaced Pig’s Eye as the settlement’s official title.[6]


With the eviction of the squatters from the Falls, the east side of the Falls was now ready for Pylmpton to make his claim. On July 15, 1838, news arrived via steamboat that the federal government had ratified the treaty with the Dakota and had purchased most of the current state of Minnesota. Pylmptom could now make his claim.[7]

Plympton might had made the claim had it not been for the fort’s store keeper, Franklin Steele, who knew of Plympton’s plan and wanted the land for himself. After hearing of the treaty, Steele rushed to the falls, arriving ahead of the commandant. One account claims that Steele built a cabin by moonlight. When men sent by the commandant to claim the land appeared the next morning, Steele was kind enough to offer the commandant’s men breakfast.[8]

Before he could begin to build on the land, Steele needed money and the official title to the land. Unfortunately for Steele, he could not get the money without the title. While the recently passed treaty had given land to the government, the government had not put it up for sale. When the federal government finally offered the land for sale nine years later in 1848, Steele bought the it and began construction on a dam and sawmill on the east side of the falls. One year later, he subdivided his land and formed the small community of St. Anthony.[9]



A drawing of Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant from the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Founding of Minneapolis

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While all this was happening on the east side of the falls, the west side remained undeveloped since the fort controlled it. The soldiers of the fort operated a gristmill and sawmill on the west side, and forcefully evicted any squatters.

In 1848, Robert Smith, an Illinois businessmen and congressman visited the falls. A year later, he asked the War Department to grant him a lease on the government mills so he could build a house at the falls.  The department granted this to him, despite objections from a Fort Snelling commandant who claimed Smith’s goal was to get a foot hold on settlement.[10]

In that same year, a friend of Franklin Steele, John Stevens also got a foothold on the west side of the Falls by offering to run a ferry service across the river for soldiers who were travelling from Fort Snelling to the newly established Fort Ridgely in southern Minnesota. He built the first house in what would become Minneapolis.[11]

With these claims already on the falls, other people tried to get permits to build houses on the land. They often badgered Fort Snelling and the War Department, who both granted permits haphazardly on the basis of friendship and influence. Soon, people simply stopped asking for permits and settled illegally on the land. Without any formal law and order, settlers roamed about in gangs and slept with guns under their pillows, under constant threat of sweeps by the fort who frequently evicted squatters. In 1852, the squatters formed their own government, the Minnesota Protection Agency, later called the Hennepin County Claim Association, to administer the territory.[12]

After considering the names of Lowell, West St. Anthony, and All Saints, the citizens of the new community decided on the name Minneapolis. In 1852, Charles Hoag, the future first school master of the city, suggested the name “Minnehapolis” a combination of the Dakota word minne ha-ha, meaning laughing water, and the Greek word, polis, meaning city (the h, Hoag explained, was silent). [13] Citizens decided to leave out the “h” and accepted Minneapolis as the name of the city, a full three years before its legal recognition.[14]

Recognizing the need to open the west side to development, Congress authorized the selling of the land from the reserve in 1852. However, the bill did not have a pre-emption clause, which would protect the rights of squatters on the land. Squatters protested and tried to force the territorial government to include a clause. They succeeded. In 1855, the federal government sold the land and a city government replaced The Hennepin County Claim Association.[15]

In 1854, the citizens of St. Anthony and Minneapolis built a suspension bridge above the falls. The first bridge to span the Mississippi, it connected the two cities.Overtime, Minneapolis absorbed the small community of St. Anthony, officially joining the city of Minneapolis in 1872.[16]

The John H. Stevens House, first house in Minneapolis. From Minnesota Historical Society.

Click the footnote number to return to the paragraph or click here to return to the top of the page.

1. Lucile M. Kane, The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), p. 5-6.

2. 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. 66

3. Kane, The Falls, p. 9

4. Anfinson, River, p. 123

5. Anfinson, River, p. 123

6. Kane, The Falls, p. 13

7. Kane, The Falls, p. 14

8. Kane, The Falls, p. 14; Kane quotes an account from the June 21, 1874 St. Paul  Daily Pioneer. Most of the accounts of the event agree on the general idea that Steele tricked Plympton, although the details change. See William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota: Volume 1 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press,1956) p. 452-454

9. Anfinson, River, p. 124

10. Kane, The Falls, p. 31, 32

11. Kane, The Falls, p. 32

12. Kane, The Falls, p. 33-37

13. Charles Hoag in Shannon M. Pennefeather Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 37-38

14. Kane, The Falls, p. 38

15. Kane, The Falls, p. 33-37

16. Kane, The Falls, p. 40, 60

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