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History of the City


Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan, and among the oldest cities in the United States.

Archaeologists maintain that ancestors of the present day Chippewa (or Ojibway) Indians have resided in the Great Lakes region since at least 800 A.D.  Oral traditions speak of a westward migration from the Atlantic Seaboard, which proceeded through the Great Lakes region until it came to Sault Ste. Marie, where the migration wave split into two groups – one went along the north shore of Lake Superior into Canada, and the other went south of Lake Superior into Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

Prior to European colonization, The Anishinaabeg (an Ojibwe/Chippewa word meaning ‘The People’) gathered here in the summer for the excellent fishing grounds along the turbulent waters that linked the Great Lakes of Superior and Huron.  The area’s first full-time residents lived in lodges framed of wood poles, sheathed with bark or animal hides – They called the area “Bahweting,” or “The Gathering Place.” The river below the rapids provided an abundance of fish for the Chippewa, Ottawa and other Indian tribes from throughout the region who migrated here during the peak fishing season. During the winter they isolated to small family groups and hunted in the forests. But Spring once again brought the families together in camps to collect maple sap, which was boiled down into sugar; and in autumn, families gathered to collect wild rice, which was abundant in many areas. The river was the main gathering place, and this site also served as the Wadjiwong (Great Hill) Ancient Burial Grounds, one of the earliest known Anishinaabeg graveyards. 

In the 1600’s, French explorers, Jesuit missionaries, voyageurs and British fur traders began to venture into the beautiful territory. After the visit of Étienne Brûlé in 1623, the French called it "Sault de Gaston" in honor of Gaston (Duke of Orleans) the brother of King Louis XIII of France. In 1668, Jesuit missionary and explorer Fr. Jacques Marquette built the first permanent wooden structure in the State of Michigan; it was a mission for the local Indian population. At that time, he renamed the settlement Sault Ste. Marie, in honor of the Virgin Mary—the first "city" in the Great Lakes region.

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 over 20 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, got its name.

In the late 1790's, John Johnston was considered to be first permanent white settler in the Sault.  He came with his native wife who was the daughter of Chippewa Chief Waub-o-jeeg.  His eldest daughter Jane, married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who was sent to the Sault as the Indian Agent with the first U. S. troops.  He became famous for his native American research and writing, much of it made possible with the assistance of Jane, at first as interpreter, and her family connections.  Two other daughters also married prominent white men, Anna married James Schoolcraft, the brother of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Charlotte married a missionary working in Canada named Mr. MacMurray.  A son George worked as a fur trader for a while and also worked for Henry Schoolcraft in various roles for the Indian Agency.  The youngest daughter, Eliza never married.  Johnston had another son, John McDougall who settled on Sugar Island (an island along the St. Mary’s river) across from Canada.  John McDougall Johnston was also the last official Indian Agent in the area. 


The homes of John Johnston and Henry Schoolcraft along with that of Bishop Frederic Baraga are open to visitors as part of the City's Historic Homes & Structures rehabilitation & preservation program. 


Timeline and History of Sault Ste. Marie: 

Compiled by Mary M. June, 3-17-2000, revised 1-28-2002 

Chippewa County Historical Society President, Mary June, graciously donated this Timeline and History of Sault Ste. Marie information.  The City has a long and interesting history. This timeline helps walk the reader through local history from the 1600's through 1977.  




The Soo Locks History


The St. Marys River is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. There is a section of the river known as the St. Marys Rapids where the water falls about 21 feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes. This natural barrier through navigation made necessary the construction of the locks project known as the St. Marys Falls Canal. 


The world-famous Soo Locks form a passage for deep-draft ships around the rapids in the St. Marys River. Before white men came to the area, the Ojibway Indians who lived nearby portaged their canoes around the "Bawating" (rapids) to reach Lake Superior from the St. Marys River. 


Early pioneers arriving in the territory were forced to carry their canoes around the rapids. When settlement of the Northwest Territory brought increased trade and large boats, it became necessary to unload the boats, haul the cargoes around the rapids in wagons, and reload in other boats.


In 1797, the Northwest Fur Company constructed a navigation lock 38 feet long on the Canadian side of the river for small boats. This lock remained in use until destroyed in the War of 1812. Freight and boats were again portaged around the rapids.


Congress passed an act in 1852 granting 750,000 acres of public land to the State of Michigan as compensation to the company that would build a lock permitting waterborne commerce between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. The Fairbanks Scale Company, which had extensive mining interests, in the upper peninsula, undertook this challenging construction project in 1853.

In spite of adverse conditions, Fairbanks' aggressive accountant, Charles T. Harvey, completed a

system of two locks, in tandem, each 350 feet long, within the 2 year deadline set by the State of

Michigan. On May 31, 1855, the locks were turned over to the state and designated as the State Lock.

Boats which passed through the State Lock were required to pay a toll of four cents per ton, until 1877,

when the toll was reduced to three cents.

Within a few years, commerce through the canal had grown to national importance, and the need for

new locks became clear. The funds required exceeded the state's capabilities, and thus, in 1881

the locks were transferred to the United States government, and were placed under the jurisdiction

of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has operated the locks, toll free, since that time.



Learn More about the Soo Locks from both a historical and modern perspective:


Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau: Information on past and present activities at the Soo Locks and Locks Park.


Soo Locks Visitor Center: The Visitors Center at the Soo Locks contains a theater featuring films on the historic and operation of the locks and the St. Marys River, a large relief map of the Great Lakes region as well as exhibits, maps and photographs of interest.  A crew of knowledgeable staff is in charge of the Visitors Center during the tourist season. The center is open to the public from Mother's Day to mid-October, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. A public address system in the observation platform lets visitors know which vessels are coming through the locks.

U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers: Includes web-cams of the locks and information on the locks and how they work.

Soo Locks Old Picture