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Minnesota’s eastern border: A river runs through it, except this one part

Borderline madness.

If you were very intrepid, or maybe crazy, and willing to portage over some obstacles, you could canoe pretty much all of Minnesota’s eastern border.

Except for one spot: a short, 40-mile overland stretch straight south, a bit southwest of Duluth.

Minnesota’s borders
Minnesota’s eastern border with Wisconsin is defined by rivers and lakes (the Mississippi, the St. Croix, the St. Louis and Lake Superior) except for one section, highlighted in orange below.

That’s a long portage.

This little stretch of border isn’t the only straight-line border in Minnesota, but it is the only straight line — and the only land section — on the state’s eastern frontier, a winding, watery line along Lake Superior, the St. Louis River, the St. Croix and the Mississippi.

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If rivers and lakes were good enough for the whole rest of the border with Wisconsin, why draw this one straight section?

Way back in the 1840s, the decade before Minnesota became a state, the U.S. Congress looked to do something with the land west of Wisconsin Territory, which was established in 1836.

One bill proposed to create the territory of Itaska, with an eastern border that went from the first set of rapids up from the mouth of the St. Louis River near Duluth, all the way down to Lake Pepin, near Lake City.

Why the first set of rapids and not just the mouth of the river?

Those rapids are still there — and an attraction to whitewater canoers and kayakers — but it’s not entirely clear why they were chosen as the point at which Minnesota’s border would jut south, said Pat Coleman, Minnesota Historical Society acquisitions librarian. It might have something to do with a Native American settlement on what’s now the Wisconsin side of the river near the rapids, visible in some old maps.

The rapids — marked with hashmarks — are visible near a Native American settlement on the St. Louis River.
Appletons' Travelers Guide map, MNHS
The rapids — marked with hashmarks — are visible near a Native American settlement on the St. Louis River.
As for the Itaska Territory map, which would give Minnesota some of the land east of the St. Croix that now belongs to Wisconsin.

State of Itaska
If Minnesota’s eastern border had been drawn according to the Itaska plan (and all other borders were left as they are today) the state would have looked something like this.

“The one thing I do know is that there was a lot of activity here trying to get as much of the land attached to Minnesota as possible,” Coleman said. “Because people in western Wisconsin at the time were really detached in several ways from the rest of Wisconsin. Most of Wisconsin was either farmers or miners, and the lumber interests didn’t feel much kinship with Wisconsin, so they were anxious to get attached to Minnesota.”

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For whatever reason, Congress decided to go with a different border for the Minnesota territory. The final plan still used the first rapids up from the mouth of the St. Louis River as a marker, but instead of going straight down to Lake Pepin, about 150 miles to the south, it just went to where the line first meets the St. Croix river, only 40 miles south of the rapids. You can read the text of this bill here.

Bill text creating the territory of Minnesota
Bill calling for the creation of Minnesota Territory.
At some point in the process, the name of the territory was changed from Itaska to Minnesota.

Richmond Enquirer, 1847

And there we have it. When Minnesota became a state, carved out of the territory in 1858, it retained its eastern border, little straight line and all.