St. Paul and Its Rich History

By John M. Lindley, Editor
Ramsey County Historical Society

The Mighty Mississippi

The Mighty Mississippi

St. Paul, the host city of the AASLH meeting, contains a rich history within its borders. AASLH attendees will find many avenues to explore the city. Situated at the head of practical steamboat navigation on the Mississippi River, the early pioneers found the channel was strewn with too many boulders for industry. Consequently St. Paul concentrated its energies on transporting people and goods between the populous cities of the East and the vast prairie and mountain lands to the west.

Fort Snelling, built in 1819 on the bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers during a time when the area’s Native American, Euro-American, and mixed-blood inhabitants depended on the fur trade for their livelihoods, sits on land a U.S. Army exploration party purchased from a council of 150 Mdewakanton Dakota in 1805. St. Paul emerged from these roots.

Laundresses at Fort Snelling

Laundresses at Fort Snelling

In 1839 a few hardy people not welcomed at the fort established a small community on the river about three miles to the south of the military installation. Soon Father Lucien Galtier arrived to minister to the community. In 1841 he named this place “St. Paul.” The U.S. Congress established Minnesota Territory in 1849 and St. Paul became its capital with 910 residents. New treaties with the Dakota opened more land and brought a rush of settlers. Statehood followed in 1858.

The railroad, a prime mover of people to and from St. Paul, made the city a gateway to the west. St. Paul’s many banks, wholesale houses, and insurance companies supported a diverse economy that expanded as capitalists built new businesses, such as 3M (relocated 1910) and Ford’s assembly plant (opened 1924). They, along with agriculture and state government, sustained the local economy until the late 1920s.

Northwest Company Fur Post

Northwest Company Fur Post

St. Paul residents also know how to have fun. The city once ranked fifth in the nation in beer production, but all of that changed with prohibition and, subsequently, gangsters like John Dillinger and Ma Barker invaded the town. After the Great Depression, the need to supply weapons and material for fighting World War II combined with the prosperity that came from a growing national economy gradually helped St. Paul regain its vitality with a program of urban renewal and redevelopment. Interstate highway construction followed in the 1960s, but these massive projects had their costs, however. The prosperous Rondo community, which was home to many of St. Paul’s African-American residents and businesses, was destroyed by the construction of I-94.

At the same time, the makeup of St. Paul’s population was shifting. Changes to federal immigration laws spurred the arrival of refugees from Communist Europe and people fleeing the warfare in Southeast Asia. By 2000, Asians were St. Paul’s largest minority with African Americans, blacks, Hispanics, and Latinos close behind. More Hmong lived in St. Paul than in any other city in the U.S. Other new residents arrived from Somalia and central Africa.

State Capitol

State Capitol

In 2012 the city’s estimated population was 290,770 and its economy was changing. Many of its long-time industrial employers declined or moved away, but others, such as Ecolab, Xcel Energy, 3M, CHS Cooperatives, Land O’Lakes, Lawson Software, and St. Jude Medical chose to stay. Today they provide the long-term growth that has helped St. Paul to flourish into the jewel that you will visit in September.