Within the BWCAW are hundreds of prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs on rock ledges and cliffs. The BWCAW is part of the historic homeland of the Ojibwe people, who traveled the waterways in canoes made of birch bark. Prior to Ojibwe settlement, the area was sparsely populated by the Sioux who dispersed westward following the arrival of the Ojibwe.
French explorers were first known to travel through the Boundary Waters area in the late 1600s. Later, during the 1730s, the region was opened to trade, mainly in beaver pelts. By the end of the 18th century, the fur trade had been organized into groups of canoe-paddling Voyageurs working for the competing North West and Hudson's Bay Companies, with a North West Company fort located at Grand Portage on Lake Superior. The US-Canadian border, the northern border of most of the BWCAW follows one of the primary voyageur routes.
In 1926, the Superior Roadless Area was designated by the U.S. Forest Service, offering some protection from mining, logging, and hydroelectric projects, although logging would not cease completely until 1979. The Wilderness Act of 1964 made the BWCAW legal wilderness as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System, while the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act established the Boundary Waters regulations much as they are today with motors allowed only on a few large entry point lakes. Because this area was set aside to preserve its primitive character and made a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, it allows visitors to canoe, portage and camp in the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago.