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State Submerged Resources > Minnesota


One of the Great Lakes states, Minnesota contains over 15,000 lakes and 6,500 rivers and streams. Major rivers include the Minnesota River, Mississippi River, Rainy River, Red River of the North, and the St. Croix River. The largest border lakes are Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods, and other major lakes include Leech Lake, Mille Lacs Lake, Lake Pepin, Rainy Lake, Lower and Upper Red Lake, Vermillion Lake and Winnibigoshish Lake.

More than 7,300 square miles (about 8%) of the state are covered by water. When wetlands are included, that number jumps to over 20,500 square miles covered by water. Even the name of the state is water-related: Minnesota originating from a Dakota Sioux Indian word meaning cloudy water or sky water, referring to local rivers.

What is Minnesota's maritime history?

The earliest watercraft to ply Minnesota’s lakes and rivers were birch bark canoes and dugout canoes, first used by Native Americans and later adopted by European explorers and fur traders. Flat-bottomed wooden bateaux also were commonly used by Europeans. As the area became settled by Euro-Americans, commercial fishing, mining, lumbering, and agriculture took hold and larger vessels came into use including sloops, schooners, and steamboats.

What sites are underwater?

With its long maritime history, Minnesota’s lakes and rivers are rich in shipwrecks and submerged cultural resources. While no remains of early watercraft have been found yet, more than 50 shipwrecks are thought to lie within Minnesota waters of Lake Superior. This includes many ore and grain carriers like the Samuel P. Ely (wrecked in a storm in 1896), the Thomas Wilson (sank following a collision in 1902), the Madeira (wrecked in a storm in 1905), and the Onoko (sank due to a leak in 1915). Submerged sites associated with lumbering include loading docks, rafting sites, log flumes, and shipwrecks like the Niagara that wrecked in 1904.

Who takes care of Minnesota's underwater archeological sites?

The State Archaeologist in the Minnesota Department of Administration is charged with fostering public appreciation of the state’s archeological resources through programs of research, stewardship, and education. In this capacity, the State Archaeologist administers provisions of Minnesota’s archeological laws including reviewing and approving the licensing of qualified individuals to conduct archeological fieldwork at state sites. Licenses approved by the State Archaeologist are then issued by the Director of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The State Historic Preservation Office, a part of the Minnesota Historical Society, is responsible for identifying, evaluating, registering, and protecting the state’s historic and archeological properties. Using special funding, the office has surveyed and evaluated the significance of some of the state’s underwater archeological sites, listed eligible sites on the National Register of Historic Places, and developed a Shipwreck Preservation Plan to manage and interpret underwater archeological sites.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources manages the state’s lakes and rivers, trails and waterways, and state parks. In carrying out these responsibilities, the department takes steps and awards grants for the protection, preservation, and enhancement of cultural and historical coastal and underwater resources.

What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?

The state reserves to itself the title to all objects found and data gathered in field archeology. Licenses to study shipwrecks are only issued to qualified individuals who follow an approved data recovery plan and provide for proper curation of recovered artifacts and materials. If another state agency has jurisdiction over a site, additional licenses may be required.

What laws concern underwater archeology in Minnesota?

The Minnesota Field Archaeology Act is codified at Minnesota Statutes 138.31, et seq. Laws about lost property on state lands are codified at Minnesota Statutes 16B.25, et seq. Under these laws, the Minnesota Historical Society and the State Archaeologist protect and manage shipwrecks and other submerged cultural resources in state waters as unique and finite physical aspects of the state's cultural heritage that belong to the people of Minnesota.

Related Websites:

Minnesota's Historic Shipwrecks
Association for Great Lakes Maritime History
Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society