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Named for its position south and southeast of Saint Paul, the city of South Saint Paul, Minnesota is situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River, across from Newport..

Surrounding cities include Inver Grove Heights, West Saint Paul, and Saint Paul. Sunfish Lake is just a few miles to the southwest.

The first residents of the area that was to become South Saint Paul were the Dakota, or perhaps the ancestors of the Dakota, or some earlier indigenous people who created massive burial mounds along the bluffs above the river.

Prior to the 19th century, the only white visitors to the region were fur traders and explorers. However, the establishment of Fort Snelling in 1819 expanded trade opportunities in the region, offering a permanent location from which furs could be exchanged for guns, cooking utensils, blankets, and clothing.

By the end of the 1820s, a group of Mdewakanton Dakota, known as the Kaposia, settled in what became the Village of Kaposia, which would later become South Saint Paul.

In the late 1830s, Methodist missionaries came into the village to evangelize the Kaposia. Led by the Reverend Alfred Brunson, the group included the Reverend David King, John Holton and his family, and James Thompson, a slave who was married to a Dakota woman.

In 1837, a treaty was signed that opened the land on the other side of the river to white settlement, but it wasn't long before the white settlers crossed the river. After Brunson left the mission, disagreements arose between the Kaposia and the Methodist missionaries, leading the Native Americans to withdraw their support for the mission, which moved across the river to what is now Newport.

In the late 1840s, a new Kaposia chief invited the missionaries to return. Thomas Williamson, the former teacher of the new chief, Little Crow, was sent. The Williamsons were Presbyterians, and fluent in the Dakota language. Thomas had already translated several books of the Bible into the Dakota language. Soon, the village became a popular place for white dignitaries, government officials, and tourists. Steamboats often docked at the riverfront, and visitors stayed with the Williamsons, who had built a large home there. Saint Paul was growing into what would become the state capital.

In 1851, the Dakota were coerced to sell their land west of the Mississippi to the government, which opened the area to white settlement. By 1853, Kaposia was named the county seat for the newly established Dakota County, where it remained until it was moved to Hastings in 1857.

In 1858, the name of the village was changed to West Saint Paul.

After the railroad came through in 1884, manufacturing firms were attracted, including the Warner and Hough Machine Company, the Holland and Thompson Manufacturing Company, Dwane Iron Works, and Waterous Engine Works Company.

In 1887, a group of industrialists and livestock officials organized and wrote a charter to incorporate the village as a city, but to change its name to South Saint Paul, largely to avoid confusion with West Saint Paul Township and an older city named West Saint Paul, in Ramsey County.

In 1888, South Saint Paul became the first city outside of New York to have its own monorail. The new venture was known as the Enos Railway Company, although it built only one passenger car, and a partial track that went up the Bryant Avenue Hill to 16th Avenue North, then south for a half mile.

The current city of West Saint Paul separated from South Saint Paul in 1889, cutting the size of South Saint Paul in half, with West Saint Paul taking five of the city's nine newer school buildings, as well as its city hall building. With South Saint Paul suddenly facing a financial crisis, the much larger city of Saint Paul attempted to annex South Saint Paul. This attempt failed in 1891.

For much of its history, from 1887 to 2015, South Saint Paul was beholden to the meat packing industry for its economic welfare, hosting a 260-acre stockyard that processed cattle, sheep, and pigs. Although many found the odor offensive, the stockyards contributed greatly to the economy of the city. Beyond the meatpacking plants themselves, there were the dependent industries, including the commission firms, insurance companies, banks, investment brokers, livestock growers, and the many stores and services that met the needs of stockyard employees and their families.

Jobs attracted people, and many of them were immigrants from several European countries. By the end of World War I, South Saint Paul had become a city of immigrants, many of whom did not speak English.

Although the immigrants of the early 1900s were white, today South Saint Paul is home to a growing population of African Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic groups.

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