The first people living in the region now known as Minnesota were members of diverse American Indian tribes who settled in the area as early as 6000 BC. The area that is now Hennepin County was home to the Dakota, or Sioux, people for hundreds of years, while the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, Indians generally lived to the north. The Dakota and Ojibwe had well-established societies based on hunting and gathering when French explorers and fur traders first passed through the area in the 17th century.
Father Louis Hennepin explored the region in 1680 and named the waterfalls on the Mississippi River (in what is now Minneapolis) St. Anthony Falls.
Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Zebulon Pike — acting as a representative of the U.S. government — purchased land from the Dakota Indians along the Mississippi from St. Anthony Falls to the Minnesota River. This tract of land was bought for the purpose of building a fort and trading post, and Fort Snelling was constructed at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in 1820.
The east shore of Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) – located in what is now south Minneapolis — was the site of the first settler’s home, built in 1834. Most early settlers lived near St. Anthony Falls, which provided water power for sawmills, the first industry in the area.
The first 50 years
The Territorial Legislature of Minnesota established Hennepin County on March 6, 1852, and two years later Minneapolis was named the county seat. Hennepin began as a governmental unit serving a population of only a few hundred people. The original plan was to call it Snelling County, but the final choice was designed to honor Father Hennepin.
Many settlers from New England and immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Norway and Sweden were drawn to the county because of its inexpensive farmland and the jobs created by a growing industrial base. By 1860, the population of Hennepin County had surpassed 12,000.
Water power built the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County. The water of streams and rivers provided power to grist mills and saw mills throughout the county. By the late 1860s, more than a dozen mills were churning out lumber near St. Anthony Falls.
In many ways, the power of the falls served as the vital link between the central city and the farmsteads scattered throughout the county. Farms produced vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy products for city dwellers, while Minneapolis industries, in turn, produced lumber, furniture, farm implements and clothing.
By 1883, railroads united Minneapolis with both the East and West coasts, and technical developments, especially in flour milling, brought rapid progress to the area. The major Minneapolis millers were Washburn, Pillsbury, Bell, Dunwoody and Crosby — names that are familiar even today.
For a decade, the “Mill City” was the flour-milling capital of the world and one of the largest lumber producers. Minneapolis, with a population of 165,000 by 1890, had become a major American city.
Still, with much of its area rich farmland, Hennepin County was largely agricultural for many years. In fact, during much of its 150-year history, a large portion of Hennepin’s land surface was under cultivation.
The commitment of the people of Hennepin County to public education is demonstrated by the fact that, in nearly every township, residents approved funding for schools at the earliest meetings of elected officials. Public schools were operating in Minneapolis by 1851 and in Richfield by 1854. The University of Minnesota received its charter from the Territorial Legislature in 1851.
Minneapolis had firmly established itself as the Upper Midwest’s hub of industry and commerce by 1900.
Business, primarily wholesaling, boomed during the early 20th century. As wheat from farms to the west and north arrived by train, Minneapolis wholesalers sent the return trains back with food products, dry goods, clothing, hardware and agricultural implements. Much of the money earned was derived from the storage and re-sale of the agricultural output of the region.
Hennepin’s farm economy also was substantial. In 1910, farmland in Hennepin County totaled 284,000 acres, or about 72 percent of the county’s total area. The principle crops were wheat, corn, garden vegetables and apples. The number of acres in production remained at a high level for the next 30 years. However, by 1950, the amount of land devoted to agriculture had been reduced to 132,000 acres as development progressed in the suburbs.
Many Minneapolis banks grew during this period by becoming the creditors of country banks throughout the Upper Midwest. In 1914, the Ninth Federal Reserve headquarters was established in Minneapolis — an official acknowledgement of the city’s preeminence in the financial affairs of the region.
The first major wave of immigration to the county, primarily newcomers from Sweden, Norway and Germany, peaked in about 1910 although large numbers of immigrants continued to arrive from southern and eastern Europe.
The population of the Minneapolis grew until shortly after World War II. Meanwhile, the movement of people outward from the central city continued, with the addition of new neighborhoods into the agricultural lands to the west.
The driving force during the second half of the 20th century was the extraordinary growth of Hennepin’s suburbs, which continues to the present.
In 1950, the population of Minneapolis reached its peak at 521,718. With building lots no longer available in the city, developers were forced to the less expensive land to the south to accommodate the young families of the post-war baby boom.
The automobile also accelerated the growth of the suburbs. A case in point is the City of Bloomington, where construction of the interstate highway system led to a totally new kind of society built around the car. There is no “downtown” Bloomington as there are central business districts in older suburbs, such as Hopkins and Wayzata. Instead, Bloomington businesses located along Interstates 494 and 35W.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many suburbs grew rapidly as housing developments, shopping centers, large school systems and growing industrialization had replaced much of the open farm land. By 1970, the suburban population of Hennepin County outnumbered that of the city for the first time. The population of Minneapolis actually declined by 10 percent from 1960 to 1970, while the suburban population grew by nearly 50 percent.
In response, county government expanded and built the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. The building was dedicated in 1974 and occupied in stages starting in 1975.
Another wave of immigration — which began after the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s — marked a major change in the ethnic makeup of the county’s immigrant populations. This wave peaked in the 1980s when hundreds of refugees from Southeast Asia, often aided by local churches, resettled in Hennepin and other counties in Minnesota.
The population of Hennepin County surpassed the one-million mark in 1989.