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The history of Minnesota’s only national park: Voyageurs

Forty percent of the area of Voyageurs is covered in lakes.

voyageurs park
Overhead view of Voyageurs National Park. National Park Service, undated.

Voyageurs National Park is located on the Minnesota–Ontario international border and is Minnesota’s only national park. Established in 1975, it is a 341-square-mile network of lakes and streams surrounding the Kabetogama Peninsula. Though the region has been home to various Indigenous nations for countless generations, the park is named for the predominantly French Canadian voyageurs (travelers) who transported furs and other trade goods between hubs like Montreal and points further west.

The overall topography of Voyageurs was formed most recently by the last glaciation period, which ended around 10,000 years ago. As glaciers scoured the earth, they melted, eroded the land, and filled the region with water.

Water is a major feature of the present-day park, 40 percent of which is made up of lakes; 70 percent of the remaining land mass is boreal forest. The four largest lakes are Rainy Lake (Gojiji-zaaga’igan), Kabetogama Lake (Gaa-biitoogamaag-zaaga’igan), Namakan Lake, and Sand Point Lake, all of which are part of the Arctic watershed of Hudson Bay. Wolves, moose, beavers, and other iconic Upper Midwestern animals live in the park.

When French fur trader Jacques de Noyon and his party canoed into the region in 1688, seeking to learn about the area’s resources, Cree, Monsoni, and Ojibwe people were already living there. It became a part of a major route over which voyageurs moved animal furs to Montreal and trade goods to the Canadian northwest territory.

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By the 1760s, the Bois Forte Ojibwe had become the primary Indigenous group in the Voyageurs National Park region. For another century, Ojibwe families lived in the area, trading furs for manufactured goods that they integrated into traditional lifeways. But after Minnesota became a state in 1858, American entrepreneurs wanted to exploit the area’s timber and mineral resources.

In 1866, the Bois Forte Ojibwe signed a treaty that transferred two million acres of their homeland (between present-day Lake Vermillion and the Canadian border) to the United States. They continued, however, to live on and harvest the natural resources of their original territory.

In the 1870s, homesteaders began to move into the region, with land surveys occurring between 1880 and 1901. In the 1890s, the immigrants were carrying out logging, commercial fishing, and agriculture and welcoming tourists. There was also a short-lived gold rush on Little American Island in Rainy Lake.

Lumber barons, most notably Edward Wellington Backus, had a profound impact on the forest composition and water levels of the region. Logging of valuable white and red pine essentially deforested some areas, except for the pines on the shoreline. Likewise, Backus constructed a dam at International Falls in 1910 and two more dams at Kettle Falls and Squirrel Falls in 1914. These dams powered sawmills and paper mills in the region, and as of 2020, they still control the water levels of the park.

The proposed park was a divisive subject. Local residents were opposed to its creation because they saw it as encroachment by the federal government that would limit logging and hunting in the area and decrease taxable property.

Ultimately, legislation authorizing the establishment of the park was passed by the US Congress in December of 1970 and signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971. State and local governments donated land holdings to the park, allowing its formal establishment in 1975. Private lands in the park were purchased as well, but this was and remains a contentious issue, since many landowners felt pressure to sell. As of 2020, over 900 acres of land within the boundaries remain privately owned.

After the establishment of the park, the NPS began planning and constructing trails, boating sites, and other amenities. The park has also been used for scientific research and conservation. In 1992, a wildlife protection zone was established for the gray wolf. Over 220 Indigenous pre-contact sites have been identified within the park, some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.