fishermen in the St. Marys Rapids, 1901
Sault Ste. Marie Museum in downtown Sault Ste. Marie
The historic Ojibwe, an Anishinaabe language people, originally called this area Baawitigong, meaning "place of the rapids." They used this as a regional meeting place during whitefish season in the St. Mary's Rapids. (The anglicized form of this name, Bawating, is used in institutional and geographic names in the area.)
After the visit of Étienne Brûlé in 1623, the French called it "Sault de Gaston" in honour of Gaston, Duke of Orléans, the brother of King Louis XIII of France. In 1668, French Jesuit missionaries renamed it as Sault Sainte Marie, and established a mission settlement (present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan) on the river's south bank.
Later, a fur trading post was established and the settlement expanded to include both sides of the river. Sault Ste. Marie is one of the oldest French settlements in North America. It was at the crossroads 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 cosmopolitan, mixed population of Europeans, First Nations peoples, and Métis lived at the village spanning the river.
The city name originates from Saults de Sainte-Marie, archaic French for "Saint Mary's Falls", a reference to the rapids of Saint Marys River. Etymologically, the word sault comes from an archaic spelling of saut (from sauter), which translates most accurately in this usage to the English word cataract. This in turn derives from the French word for "leap" or "jump" (similar to somersault). Citations dating back to 1600 use the sault spelling to mean a cataract, waterfall or rapids. In modern French, however, the words chutes or rapides are more usual. Sault survives almost exclusively in geographic names dating from the 17th century. (See also Long Sault, Ontario, Sault St. Louis, Quebec, and Grand Falls/Grand-Sault, New Brunswick, three other place names where "sault" also carries this meaning.)
Traders regularly interacted with tribes from around the Great Lakes, but the fluid environment changed during and after the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Trade dropped during the war and on July 20, 1814 an American force destroyed the North West Company depot on the north shore of the St. Marys River. Since the Americans were unable to capture Fort Mackinac, the British forces retained control of Sault Ste. Marie.
In 1870, the United States refused to give the steamer Chicona, carrying Colonel Garnet Wolseley, permission to pass through the locks at Sault Ste Marie. In order to control their own water passage, the Canadians constructed the Sault Ste. Marie Canal, which was completed in 1895.
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was incorporated as a town in 1887 and a city in 1912. The town gained brief international notoriety in 1911 in the trial of Angelina Napolitano, the first person in Canada to use the battered woman defence for murder.
During World War II, and particularly after the US was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, government concern turned to protection of the locks and shipping channel at Sault Ste. Marie. A substantial military presence was established to protect the locks from a possible attack by Nazi German aircraft from the north. The recent development of long-range bombers increased fears of a sudden air raid. Military strategists studied polar projection maps which indicated that the air distance from occupied Norway to the town was about the same as the distance from Norway to New York. That direct route of about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) is over terrain where there were few observers and long winter nights.
A joint Canadian and US committee called the "Permanent Joint Board on Defence" drove the installation of anti-aircraft defence and associated units of the United States Army Air Forces and Royal Canadian Air Force to defend the locks. An anti-aircraft training facility was established 100 kilometres (62 mi) north of Sault Ste. Marie on the shores of Lake Superior. Barrage balloons were installed, and early warning radar bases were established at five locations in northern Ontario (Kapuskasing, Cochrane, Hearst, Armstrong (Thunder Bay District), and Nakina) to watch for incoming aircraft. Military personnel were established to guard sensitive parts of the transportation infrastructure. A little over one year later, in January 1943, most of these facilities and defences were deemed excessive and removed, save a reduced military base at Sault Ste. Marie.
The first Algerine-class minesweeper in the Royal Canadian Navy was named HMCS Sault Ste. Marie (J334) after the city. It was laid down in 1942 and acted as a convoy in the Battle of the Atlantic.
On January 29, 1990, Sault Ste. Marie became a flashpoint in the Meech Lake Accord constitutional debate when council passed a resolution declaring English as the city's official language and the sole language for provision of municipal services. The city had a sizable French-speaking population and these residents objected strongly to the council's action. The Sault Ste. Marie language resolution was not the first of its kind in Ontario, but the municipality was the largest to have passed such a resolution and the first to do so despite its sizable Franco-Ontarian population.