Archaeological evidence indicates that Minnesota was inhabited long before the time of the Mound Builders. A skeleton ("Minnesota Man"), found in 1931 near Pelican Falls, is believed to date from the late Pleistocene epoch, c.20,000 years ago. Many important archaeological finds relating to the early inhabitants of North America have been made in Minnesota.
There are some experts who argue on the basis of the Kensington Rune Stone and other evidence that the first Europeans to reach Minnesota were the Vikings, but French fur traders came in the mid-17th cent. is undeniably so. Other traders, explorers, and missionaries of New France also penetrated the country. Among these were Radisson and Groseilliers, Verendrye, the sieur Duluth, and Father Hennepin and Michel Aco, who discovered the Falls of St. Anthony (the site of Minneapolis).
At the time the French arrived, the dominant groups of Native Americans were the Ojibwa in the east and the Sioux in the west. Both were friendly to the French and contributed to the fur-trading empire of New France. Minnesota remained excellent country for fur trade throughout the British regime that followed the French and Indian Wars and continued so after the War of 1812, when the American Fur Company became dominant and the company's men helped to develop the area.
The eastern part of Minnesota had been included in the Northwest Territory and was governed under the Ordinance of 1787; the western part was joined to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase. Further exploration was pursued by Jonathan Carver (1766–67), Zebulon M. Pike (1805–6), Henry Schoolcraft (1820, 1829), and Stephen H. Long (1823).
Only after the War of 1812, however, did settlement begin in earnest. In 1820 Fort St. Anthony (later Fort Snelling) was founded as a guardian of the frontier. A gristmill established there in 1823 initiated the industrial development of Minneapolis. Treaties (1837, 1845, 1851, and 1855) with the Ojibwa and the Sioux, by which the U.S. government took over Native American lands, and the opening of a land office at St. Croix Falls in 1848 initiated a period of substantial expansion.
In 1849 Minnesota became a territory. The Missouri and White Earth rivers were the western boundary. A land boom grew as towns were platted, railroads chartered, and roads built. Attention turned to education, and the Univ. of Minnesota was established in 1851. The school, with its many associated campuses, has subsequently exerted and continues to exert a great influence on the cultural life of the state. The building (1851–53) of the Soo Ship Canal at Sault Ste. Marie opened a water route for lake shipping eastward.
The Panic of 1857 hit Minnesota particularly hard because of land speculation, but difficult times did not prevent the achievement of statehood in 1858, with St. Paul as the capital and Henry Hastings Sibley as the state's first governor. The population had swelled from 6,000 in 1850 to more than 150,000 in 1857; by 1870 there were nearly 440,000 people. Chiefly a land of small farmers (mainly of British, German, and Irish extraction), Minnesota supported the Union in the Civil War and supplied large quantities of wheat to the Northern armies.
During the Civil War and afterward the Sioux reacted to broken promises, fraudulent dealings, and the encroachment of settlers on their lands with violent resistance. A Sioux force under Little Crow was defeated by H. H. Sibley, virtually ending Native American resistance. Meanwhile, settlement boomed, aided by the Homestead Act of 1862. Later in the century came immigrants from Scandinavia—Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns. Lumbering, which had begun in 1839 at a sawmill on the St. Croix, became paramount, and logging camps were established. Fortunes were made quickly in the 1870s and 80s, as the railroads pushed west. A boom in wheat made the Minnesota flour mills famous across the world and brought wealth to flour producers such as John S. Pillsbury.
In the late 19th cent. farmers suffered from such natural disasters as the blizzard of 1873 and insect plagues from 1874 to 1876. To these were added the miseries that accompanied the downward trend of the national economy, and Minnesota became a center of farmers' discontent, expressed in the Granger movement. The opening of the iron mines gave new impetus to Minnesota's economy but conditions in these mines also created discontent among the laborers. They joined forces with the farmers in the 1890s in the Populist party, one of several third-party movements that challenged the Republican party's traditional leadership in Minnesota. Ignatius Donnelly was one of the Populists' most powerful figures.
Renewed agrarian discontent led to the founding of the Nonpartisan League in 1915. Farmers and laborers joined forces again in 1920 in the Farmer-Labor party, which was dominant in the 1930s. The Republicans returned to power in 1939 with the election of Harold Stassen as governor. In 1944 the Farmer-Labor party and the Democrats merged. Probably the most successful leader of the new party, the Democratic Farmer Labor party (DFL), was Hubert H. Humphrey, who was elected to the U.S. Senate four times and was vice president from 1965 to 1969. Orville Freeman, DFL governor from 1955 to 1961, was secretary of agriculture from 1961 to 1969.
Walter F. Mondale, a Humphrey protégé, was a U.S. senator from 1964 to 1977. He was elected vice president as Jimmy Carter's running mate in 1976 and ran for president in 1984, losing to incumbent Ronald Reagan. Since the 1950s the DFL and the Republicans have vied sharply in contests for state offices. In the 1970s the Republican party changed its name to the Independent Republican party. With the exception of 1952, 1956, and 1972, Minnesota has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1932.
The state has been notable for experimentation in novel features of local government and has also been a leader in the use of cooperatives. This phenomenon is perhaps explained by the cooperative heritage present among its many people of Scandinavian descent. In 1919 credit unions, cooperative creameries, grain elevators, and purchasing associations were supported by legislation that protected the institutions and instructed the state department of agriculture to encourage them. Today there are several thousand cooperative associations in Minnesota serving diversified needs.
Since the mid-19th cent. the state has become progressively more urban. In 1970 the urban population was two thirds of the total. Since 1970 dramatic suburban growth has taken place, especially in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area. Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport has become an important hub for the region. Nearby is the massive Mall of America (1992), the nation's largest shopping center.