St. Paul is an interesting place for many reasons. It’s the capital city of Minnesota, it was founded in 1838 by European fur traders, and it has a long history of St. Paul that includes being visited by President Abraham Lincoln in 1860! This post will be about the history of St. Paul, MN, including some fun facts you might not know about this half of the infamous Twin Cities.
Let’s start at the very beginning—before cars and highways and buildings, and even people. The land of Minnesota was once covered by shallow, tropical seas around 500 million years ago. The sedimentary rock that was laid since then clearly shows the long-standing geological history of St. Paul’s land.
If you visit Lilydale Park in St. Paul, you can see firsthand the layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone via tall rock faces that have stood the test of time. Visitors can even hunt for marine fossils in the rocks, caves, and nearby creek that flows through the park. Then, around 20,000 years ago, glaciers moved and melted to form our many lakes and rivers. How cool is that?
After the land took form over millions of years, the first people arrived about 2,000 years ago. Native American tribes inhabited much of Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and most of North America. The St. Paul area, specifically, was home to Sioux, Dakota, and members of the Hopewell culture. The Hopewell culture buried their dead in large mounds, along with artifacts and belongings, much like ancient Egyptians with tombs or ancient Israelites with elaborate cave burials.
Evidence suggests that Dakota lived in the area near the mounds from around 1600 to 1837. What is now known as Carver’s Cave was built by the Dakota tribes and lies just south of the effigy mounds. They called it Wakân Teepee, which means sacred lodge, and was a gathering place and burial place for the Dakota, complete with hieroglyphics of animals such as snakes and bears. Much of the caves have worn away and expanded due to nature and human intervention wearing away the sandstone, but it is still a marvel to see. Carver’s Cave is named after American explorer Jonathan Carver who first wrote of it during his 1766 travels.
In 1837, the Treaty of St. Peters was signed, one of many treaties between the United States and Native Americans. The signing of this treaty led to a grand exodus of 200+ Sioux living in the bluffs of St. Paul. Right after the Sioux moved away, the French came in and staked a claim on the area that is now known as Dayton’s Bluff.
Despite being inhabited by Native Americans, England and France had claimed most of the land in the area. By 1787, the land east of the Mississippi River became part of the Northwest Territory. And in 1803, the land on the west side of the river joined that ownership as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1805, Pike’s Purchase took place. Zebulon Pike was an army officer and American explorer who acquired tons of land, signed treaties, established settlements, and went on to have dozens of counties, parks, landmarks, cities, and more named after him and his expeditions. One of those expeditions was negotiating the use of 100,000 acres of Dakota land, which would later be used to establish Fort Snelling, the most prominent military presence in the area to that point. The remaining Dakota land was seized later on in 1837 after multiple treaties.
Fort Snelling was built in 1819 at the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. This placement was key to asserting American dominance over the European fur traders coming to the area. As the fur trade industry boomed, so did the city. It became a hotbed for French fur traders who began to settle in the areas near the river. The first land claim was made by fur trader turned bootlegger Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant.
Pig’s Eye Parrant was an interesting fellow with a rough and tough exterior that included his bad eye with a unique white ring around the pupil, earning him the nickname, Pig’s Eye. He retired from fur trading and started making and selling whiskey out of his self-built “whiskey seller’s cabin” at the mouth of Fountain Cave. He sold whiskey to soldiers and other travelers until he was eventually kicked out in 1840 by soldiers at Fort Snelling. After his eviction, the cave and surrounding areas became somewhat of a tourist attraction. People flocked to Pig’s Eye Landing and could purchase refreshments at the mouth of the cave and even explore the large cave with lanterns. Eventually, the Pig’s Eye Landing area was renamed something a bit more attractive: Saint Paul.
In 1849, Minnesota Territory became official with St. Paul as its capital city. The first territorial governor was Alexander Ramsey, hence the name for Ramsey county today. Shortly after its capital designation, St. Paul grew from a measly 900 settlers to over 10,000 people in 10 years.
This decade brought more growth than just the city’s population. This period also saw St. Paul’s first newspaper, the Minnesota Pioneer, Irvine Park neighborhood, platted with St. Paul’s oldest standing houses today. In addition, the Wabasha Street Bridge was built over the Mississippi River for easy access to downtown Saint Paul.
In 1853 the Baldwin School was built, followed by The College of Saint Paul in 1854 (both went on to become Macalester College), St. Paul’s oldest church, the Church of the Assumption Catholic Church, which still stands today. By 1855 there was the first ideation of a capital building, a few churches, a courthouse, and the area’s first prison.
The three cities along the river, Saint Anthony, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, all became boomtowns. The trading along the river was bustling and brought all walks of life to settle in the state, which had grown to a population of 200,000 by this time. French Canadians and Swedes would arrive via riverboat and disembark at ports in St. Paul. Many wealthy businessmen came to town and started spending their stagecoach fortunes by building some of the first Summit Avenue mansions.
Swedish and Irish immigrants flooded the Swede Hollow neighborhood and set up shop via shanties and small shacks along the river and nearby creeks. Unfortunately, they didn’t have many English skills and couldn’t get work, so the downtown area became home to many brothels. This employed many women who had emigrated to the area, but it also became a dangerous profession, with many dying from violence or disease.
Renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland visited St. Paul sometime around 1872 and knew just what the town needed: a citywide park system. This idea led to Lake Como and Lake Phalen being purchased by the city, which became Como Park Zoo and Conservatory and the infamous Lake Phalen Regional Park that people enjoy today.
In 1886, St. Paul held its first Saint Paul Winter Carnival. The carnival was held in response to a clueless New York reporter claiming St. Paul (and Minnesota in general) to be another Siberia, unfit for any inhabitants. But, of course, we all know that we can handle the cold better than anyone, so St. Paul officials put on the carnival to prove them wrong. And lo-and-behold, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival has been held every year since. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Paul was committed to upholding Saint Paul’s history and held a safe drive-thru version of the carnival for everyone to enjoy.
In the middle of downtown lies the historic Landmark Center in St. Paul. What is now an arts and culture hub of the city was actually the main Federal Court House and Post Office for the entire upper midwest. Built in 1902, it housed trials of some of the nation’s most infamous criminals like John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly.
While Minneapolis was always known as the Mill City, St. Paul thrived in finance and commerce. Saint Paul saw a ton of success with its breweries (Hamm’s, for one), The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company which later became 3M, and many national banks that still stand downtown today.
The city’s history also showcases a massive influx of higher education. Some of the state’s most prominent, more renowned colleges lie in St. Paul: Hamline University, Macalester College, University of St. Thomas, Concordia University, William Mitchel College of Law, and St. Catherine University. All these colleges were built before 1905 and remain standing today with their gorgeous architecture and stunning landscapes.
Like we stated, St. Paul started as a heavily French, Swedish, and Irish hub for immigration. That later was replaced with incoming Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Italian immigrants. In many of the surrounding areas of St. Paul, you can see the heavily Polish and Italian-inspired architectural and cultural influence. Now, St. Paul is home to a large Mexican population, and 10% of its population is made up of Hmong immigrants, many of whom came here after the Vietnam war post-1976.
Today, St. Paul remains one of the best places to visit in Minnesota with its gorgeous river views, tourist spots like Fort Snelling and Como Zoo, plus its bustling food scene with some of the best restaurants in the state. Now, we don’t want to get in the middle of the never-ending battle of Minneapolis vs. St. Paul, so you can decide for yourself which is the better city.
Do you know what else is in St. Paul? Tons of Bigos apartments! If you want to live in an area that combines city life with the calmness of nature, St. Paul is the place for you. Check out our available listings here, and schedule a showing, then take a walk around downtown St. Paul and check out the gorgeous river views just blocks from your potential new home.