History of the Park

Creating a National Park

Voyageurs National Park was officially established on April 8, 1975. The area that makes up the Park was first proposed as a national park in April 1891 by the Minnesota legislature. However, it wasn’t until nearly eighty years later, after protracted public and legislative conflict, that federal legislation authorizing the creation of the Park was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on January 8, 1971.

Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society. In 1971, Governor Wendell Anderson and former governors Harold LeVander, Elmer L. Andersen, and Karl Rolvaag celebrate the passage of the Voyageurs National Park Bill.

Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society. In 1971, Governor Wendell Anderson and former governors Harold LeVander, Elmer L. Andersen, and Karl Rolvaag celebrate the passage of the Voyageurs National Park Bill.

There were several attempts between 1891 and 1971 to gain support for a national park in northern Minnesota, but the movement ultimately most responsible for establishing Voyageurs National Park as it is today began in 1962 and gained its momentum with the establishment of the Voyageurs National Park Association in May 1965. Three of the association’s founding members, U.W. Hella, Sigurd Olson, and Minnesota Governor Elmer L. Andersen, were pivotal to overcoming the protracted conflict that began between Park proponents and Park opponents; mainly a battle between those that wanted to conserve the lands and waters of the Voyageurs National Park area in as pristine a state as possible and those that wished to maintain less restricted access and use of the area.

Human History

While the history of creating Voyageurs National Park can be traced back to 1891, the history of human interaction with the area that is now the Park is even longer, stretching back approximately ten thousand years to when the first inhabitants of the area are believed to have arrived. At different times since then, several different native peoples have resided in the region; more recent inhabitants include the Dakota, who occupied the region during the 1500s and 1600s, and their successors the Ojibwe, who came into the area in the 1700s around the same time as the fur trade, in which they played a significant role.

The Voyageurs

Historically, the Voyageurs National Park region is probably most well known for its part in the fur trade, and the French-Canadian voyageurs for whom the park is named. The voyageurs traveled and portaged between inland lakes in birch-bark canoes along what is called the Voyageurs Highway from the Great Lakes to the interior of the western United States and Canada carrying goods to trade with native peoples for furs. This occurred until the mid-1800s when the fur trade died out.

The Ojibwe

Around the same time as the voyageur lifestyle came to an end, the U.S. government began forcing the Ojibwe living in Minnesota onto reservations to make room for white settlement. For the Ojibwe in the Voyageurs National Park region this meant Bois Forte Reservation about 20 miles to the south of Kabetogama Lake. Nevertheless, some members of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe are known to have resided within present day Park boundaries up until the 1930s.

Resource Exploitation

Settlers ushered in a new era of resource exploitation for the Voyageurs National Park region, but with a shift in focus to fishing, mining, and logging. Commercial fishing became common, but had peaked by the 1930s and has significantly smaller presence today. Except for some short-lived gold and silver mining in the late 1800s, iron was and continues to be the main mining target in the area. The most predominant industrial operation in the region was and continues to be logging.

Today, the draw of the northwoods and Voyageurs National Park make tourism a strong force in the region. Sportsfishing guides, outfitters, and resorts have all arisen to accommodate the approximately 240,000 people that visit Voyageurs National Park each year.