Minnesota's Northwest Angle
At a glance, nothing peculiar stands out about Minnesota on a map. It’s when you take a longer look that you’ll notice it. Along the northern border there is a small piece of land that looks like it should be part of Manitoba, Canada marked as territory of Minnesota, and the United States. However, this piece of land is not physically connected to the United States at all, it is surrounded by Canada on three sides, and Lake of the Woods on the other. Visitors either have to travel by boat across Lake of the Woods, or cross the Canadian border at Warroad, then cross back into the United States once they reach the Angle.
The mapping oddity that gave this 123-square-mile chunk of land to the United States happened when land negotiators were deciding where the USA/Canada border should be set. The Mitchell Map was used during negotiations — it mistakenly showed that the Mississippi River originated in Lake of the Woods. Understandably, the United States wanted to make sure the headwaters of the Mississippi River remained in the United States, so the border was set at the very northwestern tip of Lake of the Woods, ran due south to the 49th parallel, and then continued west. Because of this, the Northwest Angle became part of Minnesota.
The Angle is home to Minnesota’s last one-room schoolhouse. Angle Inlet School is the northernmost school in the Continental United States. Students from The Angle and nearby islands are taught here through the sixth grade by one teacher. Many children who attend the school live on islands or in areas without roads, so they must travel to Angle Inlet School each day by boat or snowmobile, depending on the season. These students go on to attend middle and high school in Warroad, which is an hour and a half bus ride, and two border crossings, each way.
Fort St. Charles was established in 1732 by Sieur de La Verendrye, a Canadian explorer and fur trader. He was the first native-born Canadian to traverse the unexplored lands west of the Great Lakes. The fort, located on Magnussen's Island at the mouth of Angle Inlet, was the longest occupied French post in the state. It was used as a base for westward exploration, trade, and missionary work. Because of rising pressure from the French and Indian War in the 1750s, the French left the area and the fort was forced to close. It was forgotten about for over a century and fell into a state of disrepair. Nature had almost completely reclaimed the little fort when it was rediscovered it in 1908. By this time, only a few archaeological remains were left to identify the site. A complete reconstruction of the fort began at the original site in the 1950s. The reconstructed Fort St. Charles was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Dawson’s Trail was the first complete route to link the Great Lakes with the Canadian prairie west of Manitoba. Originating in Fort William, Ontario (renamed Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior, the trail combined land and water routes to lead explorers and traders to St. Boniface, Manitoba (now Winnipeg). The Canadian government commissioned the trail to be designed as a more direct route than the one that had been used previously. That route took travelers across the United States border to a trail that began near Grand Portage, then across northern Minnesota to a point where travelers were then able to head north just west of Lake of the Woods. Most of Dawson’s Trail lies in Canada, but it cuts across a corner of the Northwest Angle at the mouth of Harrison Creek near Angle Inlet. This is where the water route ended and travelers could board stagecoaches bound for Winnipeg. Some say that wagon-wheel ruts from the old trail can still be found near the mouth of Harrison Creek.
The rich and unique history of this little part of Minnesota has drawn artists of all kinds to The Angle. Author Tim O’Brien used The Angle as the setting for his bestselling novel, In the Lake of the Woods, as well as his popular short story, On the Rainy River. Photographer Laura Migliorino’s current project, Minnesota Angled, is a photo series capturing the life and people who live on the Minnesota Angle. Laura was kind enough to allow me to use some of her photos from Minnesota Angled in this article. Visit Laura’s website to see more of her work.