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As with history itself .... this page is a work in progress.


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 Brűlé 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. 


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

(FROM: US Corps. of Engineers)

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.



In 1910, construction was completed on this building to house the U.S. Post Office and various federal offices.  The U.S. Post Office operated from this building until 1858.  Various federal offices continued to operate here through the early 1870’s, including a federal court room, the Selective Service, Immigration and Naturalization. U.S Forest Service, and Social Security Offices.

In 1981, the Federal Building was purchased by Delbert W. (Wayne) Zimmerman from the U.S. Government Services Administration.  Then in 1989, Tendercare (Michigan), Inc. purchased this facility to house their corporate headquarters for ownership and management of over 30 nursing homes in Michigan.  In 19922, Tendercare signed an agreement to house The River of History Museum on the main floor of this building.

Prior to the sale of the Tendercare Corporation on October 31, 2007, Dr. Louis Lukenda and the Tendercare Board of Directors offered (The Federal Building) as a gift to the City of Sault Ste. Marie to serve as a new home for City offices.  On October 28, 2007, the City Commission unanimously accepted this very generous gift on behalf of the community.

On June 7, 2011, the Federal Building was reopened to serve the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie, one century after its initial opening in 1910.

 Learn more about the site and the renovation project.  

  • Baaweting (Place of the Rapids)

The Anishinaabeg populated the St. Marys River shore where City Hall now stands for thousands of years prior to European colonization.  The river was the main gathering place of the Anishinaabeg, and this site also served as the Wadjiwong (Great Hill) ancient burial grounds, one of the earliest known Anishinaabeg graveyards.

Anishinaabeg gathered in Sault Ste. Marie, then called Baaweting, to harvest the river's amazing bounty of native fish to sustain them through the challenging winters.  Anishinaabeg from throughout the Great Lakes Basin also gathered here for spiritual and social reasons.

In 1820, the Anishinaabeg (Chippewa Tribe of Indians) ceded a substantial portion of Sault Ste Marie to the United States. The Anishinaabeg signed another important treaty here in 1836, ceding most of what is now the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Michigan to the United States, making Michigan statehood possible while reserving the right to hunt, fish and gather in the treaty ceded territory.  Today, the descendants of the Anishinaabeg people play a significant social and economic role in the City as the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

  • European Settlement of Sault Ste. Marie

The European history around the rapids of the St. Marys River began some time between 1618 and 1621 when French explorer Etienne Brule crossed the northern shore of Lakes Huron, then went up the St. Marys River into Lake Superior.  Subsequent European explorers to this site included Jean Nicolet, Father Isaac Jogues, Father Charles Raymbault, Medard Chouary, and Pierre Esprit Radisson.

In 1668 Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette established the first European settlement in present day Michigan when he built a mission in Sault Ste. Marie.  The location of the mission is thought to be near the northwest corner of the City Hall grounds.

According to available historic records, European presence in Sault Ste. Marie was somewhat sporadic through the 1700’s.  By the late 1700’s, however, a permanent European presence co-existed with the Chippewas in Sault Ste. Marie.

  • Military History of the City Hall Grounds

In 1750, Chevalier de Repentigny was sent by the Governor-General of New France to the Sault to build a fort to provide a safe retreat for French Voyageurs traveling the western sea (Lake Superior).  Based on historical maps and excavations, For De Repentigny straddled Water Street just east of the City Hall grounds.

In 1763, the treaty of Paris transferred control of New France (Canada) to the British.  After the Revolutionary War, the treaty of Paris of 1783 established the St. Marys River as part of the boundary between U.S. and British Territory.

In order to secure control over this area, Colonel Hugh Brady was sent by the U.S. Government to establish a fort in 1822.  This fort was originally built on land that the City Hall now occupies.  Fort Brady remained on this site for 70 years until it was relocated on the hill overlooking the locks.  The site of the second Fort Brady is now the home to Lake Superior State University.



  • Sault Historic Sites:

    The Sault Historic Sites was founded in 1967 as a nonprofit corporation with the mission of preserving,
    restoring, and presenting Sault Ste. Marie history to visitors and local residents alike. Starting with the acquisition of the Museum Ship Valley Camp, the Sault Historic Sites now owns and operates several locations in Sault Ste. Marie.

    Museum Ship Valley Camp
    Tower Of History
    River Of History Museum
    Water Street Historic Block
    George Kemp Marina


  • Water Street Historic Homes and Historic Locks Park Walkway

    The Historic Locks Park Walkway is an ongoing community effort, started in 1982, to link the numerous historic features of the Sault Ste. Marie waterfront. The reconstruction and interpretation underway at various points along the Walkway help tell the story behind over 350 years of the Sault’s heritage.  The Water Street Historic Homes is a rehabilitation project of four structures that represent over 150 years of the city's historical development. These four structures include the John Johnston House, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft House, Bishop Frederic Baraga House, and Kemp Coal Dock Office Building. These buildings represent important people and events in which the city is best known for. The three residences are especially significant and the local community over the past 50 years has made efforts to preserve these structures.
  • The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

    The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society offices are located in the historic U.S. Weather Bureau Building, just 200 feet from the MacArthur Lock. This building was erected in 1899 to allow forecasters to hand-carry weather forecasts to upbound and downbound vessels. Study of the U.S. Weather Service reveals that it was originally created in response to an appalling loss of life in shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Beside housing administrative offices of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the Weather Bureau also offers public exhibits, a Shipwreck Coast Museum Store sales area, and paper archives of the Shipwreck Society.
  • River of History Museum:

    Venture back  - hundreds of years of history from the the river's glacial origin, to the Native American settlement, French fur trade, British expansion, & the present day. River of History Museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of Sault Ste. Marie, the St. Mary's River System and surrounding area.  Located at 531 Ashum Street, this newly constructed museum offers all fully renovated exhibits, catering for group activities, classroom tours and a gift shop.
  • Soo Locks Visitors 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.



  • Bayliss Public Library: 541 Library Drive, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (History & Genealogy Dept)
    The Eastern Upper Peninsula is an historically significant area in Michigan and Canadian history. Bayliss Public Library has a collection of materials of historical and genealogical interest. Both historians and genealogists may find valuable resources within this collection.  These materials relate to the history of the Eastern Upper Peninsula and the people who have resided here. The focus of this collection is Chippewa, Luce, and Mackinac Counties. The collection includes Michigan-related books, documents, and other materials, plus a variety of indexes, databases, microfilm, and on-line full text transcriptions and photographic records.
  • Chippewa County Historical Society (CCHS):
    A nonprofit organization committed to the preservation and presentation of the history and culture of Chippewa County and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. CCHS promotes public awareness of local history by sponsoring artistic and cultural activities. CCHS operates a History Center that will be a vibrant place where people may encounter, explore, and learn about the past. It houses a Gift Shop, a display area, meeting area, office/library space, and the Society’s collections.

  • National Register of Historic Places : National Park Services
    State Register of Historic Places: MSHDA - Historic Sites Online
    Some (but certainly not all) of the historic sites in Sault Ste. Marie are listed on the National and State Historic Registers; visit the websites listed below to begin exploring these landmarks.
  • Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians: History and Culture:
    Based in Sault Ste. Marie on the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians are descended from the Anishinaabeg people who have lived in the Great Lakes Basin for millennia, traveled from coast to coast in migrations and trading. Today's tribe is a sovereign "nation within a nation" that has preserved its history and culture and rekindled its native language to pass down to the seventh generation.  Learn more about the Sault Tribe from early days right up to today.
  • Chippewa County Genealogical Society



City of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
225 E Portage Avenue - Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan 49783