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Our Local History

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Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan, and among the oldest cities in the United States. Over the course of history, the flags of several sovereign nations have flown over the Sault.

Over 2,000 years ago, Native Americans began to gather here for the wealth of fish and fur found along the rushing waters of the wide, turbulent river that linked the Great Lakes of Superior and Huron. Spring and fall were important seasons for these original settlers, and they called the area “Bahweting,” or “The Gathering Place.”

The area’s first full-time residents lived in lodges framed of wood poles, sheathed with bark or animal hides. The river below the rapids provided an abundance of fish for native peoples, as well as several tribes from throughout the region, who migrated here during the peak fishing season. It continues to remain a world-class spot for sport fishing.

In the 1600’s, French missionaries and fur traders began to venture into the beautiful territory. The traders began calling the wild area Sault du Gastogne. In 1668, the legendary Jesuit missionary and explorer Fr. Jacques Marquette renamed this burgeoning European settlement Sault Ste. Marie, in honor of the Virgin Mary—the first "city" in the Great Lakes region.

 

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While there is some debate on the exact meaning of "Sault," scholars of early French note that the word translates into jump, referring to the place where one needs to "jump", or put into the St. Mary’s River. This translation relates to the treacherous rapids and cascades that fall 21 feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes. Hundreds of years ago, this prohibited boat traffic and necessitated an overland portage from one lake to the other. This is how Portage Avenue, the main street running along the river, acquired its name.

Due to the strategic location of the river and the abundant natural resources found here, the French and British often fought over the area and the right to trade with Native Americans in the 1700’s.

In 1820, the Treaty of the Sault was signed, which turned control over to the United States in 1823. Fort Brady was built on the grounds of the old French Fort Repentigny, as the new Americans were concerned about possible British invasions from nearby Canada. This fort was eventually abandoned in the 1890’s, and a new Fort Brady was constructed on the grounds of present-day Lake Superior State University. Throughout all this turbulent history, the St. Mary’s River continued to dominate the life and events of Sault Ste. Marie—as it continues to do so today.

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(Photo courtesy of Al Kamuda of the Sault Tribe)

Natives of the Sault Tribe are shown here gathered around the "Baweting Drum" at a modern-day pow-wow. These gatherings have been going on along the banks of the St. Marys River for hundreds...perhaps thousands of years.

To learn more about the history of "The Soo," we recommend "City of the Rapids" by Bernie Arbic.