Minnesota River (Everything You Need To Know)

From Big Stone Lake in Ortonville to its intersection with the Mississippi River State Water Trail close to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, the Minnesota River State Water Trail travels 318 miles. It is a calm, tranquil river, and part of its length is classified as a Wild and Scenic River. Between 11,700 and 9,400 years ago, the glacial river warren cut out the valley through which the river runs. Paddlers will encounter a variety of topography, from swampy lowlands to towering granite cliffs. This river had a significant role in the 1862 American-Dakota War. Continue to read and we will be sharing some more details about Minnesota River with you.

History of Minnesota River

The Dakota first referred to the Minnesota as the “river of cloud-tinted water” (Watapa Minnesota), but French fur merchants who discovered it in the late 1600s gave it the name Riviere St. Pierre. The bluish-green soil beside the river was utilized as a dye by the Dakota. Near the mouth of the Blue Earth River, at river mile 116, a merchant by the name of Pierre Charles LeSueur discovered what he thought to be a seam of copper ore. LeSueur obtained the royal commission to mine the ore in Paris after bringing a sample of the “copper” there. He came again in 1700, worked the mine hard, and then departed for France with two tons of high-quality ore. The copper ore from Le Sueur remained unheard of. He must have been quite disappointed to discover that the blue earth was, in fact, just…blue earth.

In Fort Snelling State Park, the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers converge near the northeastern point of Pike Island. Zebulon Pike, an adventurer, bought the island and the surrounding territory from the native people in 1805 in order to build a U.S. military outpost. Fort Snelling was built in 1819 on a tall cliff overlooking the confluence of the two rivers. Pike Island is now a nature sanctuary, and the fort that has been reconstructed is a well-liked tourist destination.

The name Mankato, which was given to the settlement in 1858 and is located close to the mouth of the Blue Earth River, comes from the Dakota word for the river, Makata Osa Watapa.

Charles Patterson, a pioneer merchant wearing a bearskin cap who founded a trading station near the rapids in 1783, is the name-bearer of Patterson’s Rapids. The Dakota people considered the bear to be holy, and they gave him the name Sacred Hat Man, which later evolved into Sacred Heart. Both Sacred Heart Creek and the neighboring community of Sacred Heart bear Patterson’s name. A brief gold rush occurred in the vicinity of Patterson’s Rapids in the 1890s. The gold vein, which was found in 1894, was quickly exhausted, and the boomtown of Springville turned into a ghost town.

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Exploring the Minnesota River valley

The Minnesota River Valley had almost been sealed off by the middle of the 19th century. Since the buffalo had been pushed to the plains of the upper Missouri and Red River Valley, both game and fur animals were in short supply. People in the east were demanding that the river valley be made livable. White settlement along the river was made possible by the glowing accounts of the bountiful valley that explorers and merchants brought back as well as by James Goodhue, the first newspaper editor of St. Paul, who worked enthusiastically in public relations. The Dakota gave up about 24 million acres of territory in the Traverse Des Sioux Treaty of 1851, and the migratory wave began. In the late 1800s, the river was transformed into a transportation route for settlers, carrying people and commodities to developing towns and cities as well as floating logs and powering sawmills.

Before the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the Dakota were still constrained by treaties to reservations along the river, and the Upper Sioux Agency (river mile 240) was one of the distribution stations where the U.S. government transferred food, supplies, and yearly payments to them. The Upper Sioux Agency served as a school where Native Americans learned farming, carpentry, and other trades that were valuable to white society.

The Minnesota River Valley is a unique and fascinating place.

The river valley was created at the conclusion of the last glacial epoch when glacial Lake Agassiz overflowed, causing a series of spectacular and significant floods. The river traverses through some of the most fertile plains on earth, as well as abundant marshes and woods, and transitions between two main natural biomes: the prairie and the Big Woods, as it weaves its way from the top of the continental divide to unite with the Mississippi. Its valley is a special environment as a result of the interactions between many creatures, plants, and humans.

The Little Minnesota River’s headwaters at Veblen, South Dakota, give rise to the Minnesota River’s headwaters, which join together at Browns Valley in a valley left over from the previous Ice Age. The river flows from its western side through abundant marshes, prairies, granite outcroppings, forested hills, farmland, villages, and small towns. People, plants, and animals have interacted with the river valley’s intricate and distinctive ecology for millennia. There is evidence of these species’ interactions all around the valley.

Convergence of Cultures and Rivers

One of the Twin Cities’ most significant historic locations is where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers converge. It has significant spiritual and historical significance for the Mdewakanton Dakota. The confluence of the two rivers was known as Bdote Minisota. It served as some people’s Garden of Eden and site of origin. Early Americans used it as a hub for commerce and military might.

The Louisiana Purchase was announced by President Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1803. The western half of the Mississippi River basin was purchased by the United States from France. William Clark and Meriwether Lewis were ordered west by Jefferson, while Lt. Zebulon Pike was sent along the Mississippi River. General James Wilkinson, Pike’s superior, gave him instructions to find the Mississippi’s source, form alliances with the Chippewa and Dakota, put an end to intertribal violence, evaluate the fur trade, keep an eye on the weather, and secure the finest locations for military outposts.

Lt. Zebulon Pike put his boats down on the huge island near the confluence on September 21, 1805. It is currently known as Pike Island. On September 23, Pike claims that at midday, “just my gentlemen (the merchants) and the chiefs entered” a “bower or shelter, built of my sails, on the beach.” He delivered a speech informing the Dakota that both sides of the Mississippi were now under American control.

Pike wanted the Dakota to ratify a treaty giving the United States land for military forts at the confluence, St. Anthony Falls, and the mouth of the St. Croix River. Pike bragged to Wilkinson that he had purchased the property “for a song” after the Dakota signed.

Before Colonel Henry Leavenworth’s arrival to establish a fort in 1819, the Americans made little attempts to wrest control of the region from the Dakota. Colonel Josiah Snelling took over from Leavenworth a year later, and on September 10 Snelling laid the fort’s cornerstone.

Fort Snelling, which was completed in 1824, was the area hub for discussions and intertribal conferences. The fort was frequently frequented by the Chippewa, Menominee, and Winnebago despite being in Dakota territory. Fur merchants quickly established themselves in Mendota, across the river, at Camp Coldwater, close by, and just up the Minnesota River.

The Dakota had long since put their dead on scaffolds atop Pilot Knob, which looked down on the confluence. This hill was known as Oheyawahi, which means “the hill often frequented.” However, the Dakota Mdewakanton and Wapekute bands signed the Treaty of Mendota here in 1851. They exchanged their lands west of the Mississippi for a reserve on the Minnesota River under the terms of this treaty.

What are the best places to stop near Minnesota River?

The Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway provides a travel through the Midwest’s heartland that spans from Big Stone Lake to Belle Plaine in southern Minnesota. You’ll get the chance to discover more about Dakota Indian history, visit state parks, and maybe even stop by a few breweries along the road, giving you a flavor of the distinctive, leisurely lifestyle in this region of the state.

We’ve compiled the greatest attractions along the path to help you plan the perfect road trip along the byway, from some of the planet’s oldest rock formations to the spot where the United States-Dakota War began in 1862. Just remember to get a quality playlist.

Ortonville’s Big Stone Lake State Park

Big Stone Lake Park is home to the oak savanna, or natural prairie, which is regarded as an endangered environment in Minnesota. It also has its namesake body of water. Visitors may enjoy stunning wildflowers in the spring and summer or keep an eye out for a variety of birds in the Scientific and Natural Area where the oak savanna flourishes. Of course, there is also the option of lakeside camping and lakeside fishing here. There are bathrooms and showers available for campers who don’t want to live completely off the grid. Pets are also permitted.

Granite Falls Gneiss Outcrops

After some time spent on the byway, a halt to the Gneiss Outcrops will be a welcome—and stunning—change of scenery. The designated Scientific and Natural Area, which is a sizable meander in the Minnesota River, has old rocks that have withstood Paleozoic oceans, the movement of continents, and the weight of glacial ice. The outcrops are among the oldest rocks on the surface of the globe, having formed some 3.6 billion years ago. They have gained even greater importance in recent years as other outcrops along the Minnesota River have been used for granite mining, construction, and recreational activities. Visit the region in early July to view the uncommon plains prickly pear cactus rooted in the cracks of lichen-covered rocks blooming in yellow.

A natural lake with panoramic views of the Minnesota River Valley may be found in between the two main rock outcrops. Although there are no established trails or other recreational amenities nearby, people enjoy hiking and birdwatching there in the summer and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing there in the winter. The Minnesota River Water Trail, a 318-mile path that connects St. Paul to Ortonville and is ideal for paddlers of all ability levels, is close to the outcrops.


A visit to Minnesota wouldn’t be complete without learning about the history of the Native Americans who formerly lived there. The Lower Sioux Agency, where the U.S.-Dakota War first broke out in 1862, is one of the greatest spots to accomplish this. Tensions increased as a result of the United States government’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Mendota and Traverse des Sioux treaties, which were signed in 1851, and to provide the Dakota people the food and supplies it had promised. Eventually, tensions between the Dakota and the newly established Minnesota government flared up, leading to a famous fight right here.

Visitors may now view a Dakota history display at the Lower Sioux Agency before taking a half-mile trek to a preserved 1861 US administration facility. On the property, there are two other short paths that follow the Minnesota River to locations like the historic location of a blacksmith’s shop and a museum shop selling Native American literature and souvenirs. You could catch one of the regular shows on Dakota life and environment if you drop over on the weekend.

Final words

Now you have a clear idea on what Minnesota River is all about. You will be able to plan your visit accordingly and visit here, so that you can get the best experience out of your stay. Minnesota River offers something for everyone as well.

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