The time was Ordovician—a geological period approximately 500 million years ago. Tropical seas covered what is now Saint Paul and the bedrock of the city began forming via deposits of sediment. We can still find remnants of these sedimentary rocks today—St. Peter Sandstone, Glenwood Shale, Platteville Limestone and Decorah Shale. At Lilydale Park’s brickyards, Ordovician marine fossils have been found embedded in limestone.
Photo: Minnesota Geological Survey
From the Laurentide Ice Sheet to Lake Agassiz
Fast forward 480 million quick rotations around the sun to 20,000 years ago when the area was covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet, a massive slab of frozen water spanning the northern United States and Canada. This force of the ice cut massive troughs in the limestone, leaving valleys and kettles that would later fill with water to form Lake Como and Lake Phalen. The Laurentide Ice Sheet ultimately melted during the final ice age, forming the massive Lake Agassiz.
Legacy of the River Warren Falls
Somewhere between 11,700 and 9,400 years ago, Lake Agassiz began to drain via the Glacial River Warren. The draining carved wide valleys that now hold the Minnesota River and Upper Mississippi. Also during this time, the River Warren Falls that existed on the current site of the city began retreating upstream past Fort Snelling. This went on for about 1,700 years before the falls split to create Saint Anthony Falls and Minnehaha Falls (both in present-day Minneapolis). The River Warren’s influence can be seen today in the high bluffs along each side of the Mississippi River.
Phase 2: Human Life
Zip ahead to about 2,000 years ago for the first hint of human life. Ancient burial mounds still visible today at Indian Mounds Park suggest the land was originally inhabited by Hopewell Native Americans, who built in a very distinctive fashion and buried ashes of the deceased alongside artifacts. Around the 1600s, the Mdewankton Dakota of the Sioux tribe fled their ancestral home near Mille Lacs Lake to escape advancing Ojibwe. The Dakota named the area “I-mni-za ska dan” (meaning little white rock) and buried their dead in the mounds built by the Hopewell—wrapping bodies in animal skins instead of burying ashes. A large cave at the base of the bluff called Wakan Tepee (meaning Dwelling of the Great Mystery) was a sacred lodge to the Dakota—hieroglyphics of rattlesnakes and bears were cut into its walls. This site is better known today as Carver's Cave, named for British explorer Jonathan Carver who first wrote of the cave following his 1766 exploration of North America.
Throughout the 18th century, the land was part of the larger midwest region hotly contested by Great Britain, France, and Spain. The land east of the river officially became part of the United States Northwest Territory in 1787 and, in 1803, land west of the river joined via the Louisiana Purchase. In an 1805 deal now known as Pike’s Purchase, Army officer Zebulon Pike negotiated 100,000 acres from the Dakota to be later used in the establishment of Fort Snelling. The U.S. government seized the remainder of the land from Native American tribes in a series of treaties in 1837.
In the years following, the area became a hotbed for French and French Canadian fur traders. Trader-turned-bootlegger and tavern owner Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant made the first land claim in 1838, establishing the settlement as “Pig’s Eye Landing.”
Phase 3: A City is Born
In 1841, Father Lucien Galtier of France (the first Roman Catholic priest to serve Minnesota) established Saint Paul’s Chapel on the bluffs above the landing. Not finding Pig’s Eye to be a suitable name for the settlement, Galtier renamed it for the church.
Saint Paul’s first school was a cabin at St. Peter Street and Kellogg Boulevard, started in 1847 by Harriet Bishop (Harriet Island would later be named for her).
The Capital City
The Minnesota Territory was formalized in 1849 and Saint Paul was named the capital. An 1857 vote pushed for the capital to be moved south to Saint Peter. An early hero for the city, territorial legislator Joe Rolette, stole the approved bill and went into hiding until bill passing season was over. Rolette’s act of rebellion prevented the change, and Minnesota was admitted to the union in 1858 with Saint Paul still as its capital.
And, well, the rest is history…
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