While there is some debate on the exact meaning of "Sault" in Sault Ste. Marie, scholars of early French note that the word translates into jump, referring to the place where one needs to "jump", or put into the St. Mary’s River. This translation relates to the treacherous rapids and cascades that fall over 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes. Hundreds of years ago, this prohibited boat traffic and necessitated an overland portage from one lake to the other. Thus the entire name translates to "Saint Mary's Rapids" or "Saint Mary's Falls". Although the word sault is pronounced "so" in French, it is pronounced like "soo" in the English pronunciation of the city name. Residents of the city are called Saultites.
Sault Ste. Marie is bordered to the east by the Rankin and Garden River First Nation reserves, and to the west by Prince Township. To the north, the city is bordered by an unincorporated portion of Algoma District, which includes the local services boards of Aweres, Batchawana Bay, Goulais and District, Peace Tree and Searchmont.
The city's census agglomeration, including the townships of Laird, Prince and Macdonald, Meredith and Aberdeen Additional and the First Nations reserves of Garden River and Rankin, had a total population of 157,797 in 2011.
Sault Ste. Marie is the seat of the Algoma District.
To the south, across the river, is the Union of American People's Republics and the town of Sault Ste. Marie, Great Lakes. Shipping traffic in the Great Lakes system bypasses the Saint Mary's Rapids via one of two pairs of locks - the Soo Locks on the American side or the Sault Ste. Marie Canals, the world's busiest canal in terms of tonnage, on the Canadian side.
Established as one settlement by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, the two Saults remained so until after the War of 1812.