The French-Canadians for whom Voyageurs National Park  is named first paddled these waters in the late 17th century, following routes shown them by the area’s Dakota inhabitants. The first European arrival is presumed to be Jacques de Noyon, an independent fur trader who may have paddled up from Lake Superior in 1688 and built a winter outpost on Rainy Lake—though some doubt he really came.
Others followed, though the fur trade didn’t truly flourish in these remote parts until the Canadian-born Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye, and his party arrived on the scene in 1731. La Verendrye opened Fort St. Pierre and, over the next three decades, established a string of forts and trading posts from Rainy Lake to Winnipeg.
Shortly after his arrival the Ojibwe, close allies of the French, drove the Dakota out in order to monopolize the most productive trapping lands.
While Native Americans procured the beaver and other pelts, the voyageurs transported them back to Montreal in birch-bark canoes—strong and maneuverable, but light enough to be portaged around the many waterfalls and rapids. Whole fleets would paddle in from Montreal each spring bringing trade goods like guns, pots, fabric, and beads and return with their 35-foot vessels stacked high with up to two tons of bundled furs.
The roughly 1,000 miles from Montreal to Grand Portage , on the western shore of Lake Superior, was as far as they could travel in a season and still make it back before winter, so other groups of men (known as hivernauts) overwintered in the northwest and journeyed in from the western outposts, meeting up at Grand Portage to exchange cargoes. This far more demanding western route, passing through what is now Voyageurs National Park , eventually expanded so deep into Canada that it also needed to be broken up, so the North West Company built Fort Lac la Pluie across the river from International Falls .
All the other major fur-trading companies, including Hudson’s Bay, XYZ, and American Fur Company, also based operations here at one time or another. In fact, the voyageurs’ influence was so strong in these parts that the 1783 treaty ending the American Revolution specified that the American–Canadian border would follow their “customary waterway” between Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior.
The fur trade died out by 1850, due mostly to a combination of changing European fashions and the near extirpation of beaver from this part of North America. Gold fever hit Rainy Lake in 1893, and though the finds were real, the costs of extracting the ore made it a short-lived enterprise. The mine on Little American Island, the only profitable one of the seven in the area, lasted until 1897. A few years later lumberjacks moved in to fell the valuable white pine.
Commercial fishing, most notably for sturgeon eggs to be sold as caviar, and commercial blueberry picking also started around the turn of the 20th century, and both were very profitable.
None of these industries, however, were practiced in a sustainable manner, and they all died out around the time of the Great Depression. Another short-lived but very profitable enterprise at this time was smuggling alcohol in from Canada during Prohibition. Resorts catering to anglers sprung up early in the century, and as the land healed, more tourists arrived. Congress made Voyageurs Minnesota ’s first and the nation’s 36th national park in 1971.