This area was originally called Baawitigong, meaning "Place of the Rapids," by the Ojibwa, who used the site as a regional meeting place during whitefish season in the St. Marys River Rapids. (The anglicized form of this name, Bawating, continues to be used in institutional and geographic names in and around the area.)
After the visit of Étienne Brûlé in 1623, the French called it "Sault de Gaston" in honour of Gaston (Duke of Orleans) the brother of King Louis XIII of France. In 1668, French Jesuit missionaries renamed it Saults de Sainte-Marie, and established a settlement on the river's south bank (present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan). Saults de Sainte-Marie is archaic French for "Saint Marys Falls," a reference to the rapids of Saint Marys River. Citations dating back to the 1600s use the sault spelling to mean a cataract, waterfall or rapids. In modern French however, the words chutes or rapides are more usual and sault survives almost exclusively in geographic names dating from the 17th century.
Both sides of the rapids emerged as fur trading posts, labeling the area as one of the oldest European settlements in Ontario. The location became the crossroad of the 3,000-mile Fur Trade Route, which stretched from Montreal to Sault Ste. Marie and to the North Country above Lake Superior. A mixed population of Europeans, Native Americans, First Nations peoples and Métis lived in the village spanning the river.
In 1751, Repentigny (a Frenchmen who married a native woman) established a small post near the rapids and named it after himself (Repentigny). His leading assistant was Métis, Jean Baptiste Cadot, a local trader who was married to the daughter of the resident chief (one of the first marriages on record). The settlement was supplied with animals from Fort Michilimackinac consisting of cows, bulls, oxen, horses and mares.
In 1793, John Johnston arrived in the Sault Ste. Marie with his native wife who was the daughter of Chippewa Chief Waub-o-jeeg. Johnson was a wealthy and successful British fur trader for the North West Company in Sault Ste. Marie before the War of 1812, and a leader in the Michigan Territory.In the year of 1797, the North West Company blockhouse was built on the north shore of the St. Mary’s River; Charles Oakes Ermatinger was established as an independent trader and merchant in Sault Ste. Marie at this time. Some years earlier he had been the Northwest Fur Company agent at a post on the American side. Ermatinger participated as a militia captain in the expedition led by Captain Charles Roberts from Fort St Joseph (St Joseph Island) which captured Mackinac from the Americans on July 17th during the War of 1812.
Toward the end of the War on July 14, 1814, the Americans raided the North West Company post at Sault Ste. Marie, burning houses, stores and sheds belonging to John Johnson on the American side. The Old Stone House was built for independent fur trader Charles Oakes Ermatinger in that same year. John Siveright, a North West Company clerk, took up private residence at the Ermatinger house, but was transferred from Sault Ste Marie shortly after in 1823 to take charge of the Fort Coulonge district. A log upper story was later added to the stone magazine of The Old Stone House in 1894 by Francis H. Clergue and used as his private residence.
Over the next several years, there were many attempts by local businessmen to tap into the potential power of the St. Marys River Rapids by establishing a hydro electric power plant. All attempts were unsuccessful, leaving this small town deemed for failure. Fortunately however, the situation in Sault Ste. Marie became acknowledged by an American Entrepreneur, Francis Hector Clergue. On October 1st, 1894, Clergue approached the town council of Sault Ste. Marie and proposed an offer to purchase the project in turn making the town an exceptional amount of revenue over the next few years.
Clergue did a great deal for Sault Ste. Marie by establishing many industries in and around the area. In addition to continuing his efforts to institute a hydroelectric facility, Clergue began a small pulpwood operation including the construction of a pulp and paper mill. To be cost and waste effective, he went on to establish a sulphite mill, purchased his own nickel mine, initiated a ferro-nickel plant as well as built his own steel plant after discovering iron ore at Michipicoten.
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was incorporated as a town in 1887 and a city in 1912. After many hardships along the way, it stands today as a well developed "Naturally Gifted" area carrying unique charms and activities; a location where there is always something for everyone.