First Settlement of Minnesota

Dakota Indians Minnesota

Dakota Indians Minnesota

By William Watts Folwell in 1924

Up to the time of the ratification of the treaties of 1837, there were no lands in the area of Minnesota open to settlement. All was “Indian country.” Zebulon Pike’s purchase was for military purposes only. Nevertheless, with the doubtful permission of the Indian agent and of the military commanders, a certain nucleus of white settlers had established themselves at Fort Snelling. The newcomers did not come from below in the wake of the military and the traders. They came down before the north wind from the Canadian border and beyond.

In 1811 the Scotch Earl of Selkirk, of philanthropic turn, having secured a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company, acquired from that organization, a tract of about 116,000 square miles of land west and south of Lake Winnipeg and the Winnipeg River, to be known as Assiniboia, and comprising roughly the province of Manitoba and the northern part of the states of North Dakota and Minnesota.

It was Selkirk’s purpose to establish, within the limits of his grant colonies, evicted Scotch peasants. On August 30, 1812, an advance body of Scotch with a few Irish emigrants arrived at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. In 1813 and 1814 additional bands of colonists, for the most part, Scotch Highlanders, numbering about 200, reached the new settlement. The Northwest Company regarded these colonists, ostensibly introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company, as intruders into territory which had been explored by Canadian adventurers and in which its trading posts had long been established. Various impediments were thrown in the way of the newcomers, and in the summer of 1815 nearly half of them were induced by promises of land, provisions, money, and free transportation to desert the colony and remove to Upper Canada. Those remaining withdrew down the Red River and made their way to Lake Winnipeg. A few months later they returned and were re-enforced by a considerable body of new emigrants. In the summer of 1816, the Northwest Company let loose upon the colony, a band of Bois-Brules (Metis Indians), mounted and armed, who murdered Governor Semple and 20 men with him. Again the colonists withdrew down the Red River, and the settlement at Fort Douglas was utterly destroyed. In the summer of 1817, Lord Selkirk appeared in person with a re-enforcement of about 100  men who had been discharged from two regiments composed of Swiss, Italians, and other mercenaries for the British Army sent over to aid in the War of 1812 and disbanded at Montreal and Kingston. With this force, which he had armed, he was able to rally and reestablish his scattered colonists. The unhappy contest between the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies went on until their union on March 26, 1821, a year after the death of Lord Selkirk.

Before his death in France in 1820, Lord Selkirk had sent one or more agents to the continent to enlist recruits for his colony. One of them succeeded in gathering a company of Swiss mechanics and tradesmen to try their fortunes in a promised El Dorado. After a toilsome journey, they reached Fort Douglas late in the fall of 1821. All the marriageable young women of the party were at once bespoken for by the disbanded soldiers, and many unions were the result. The Swiss found a condition of things far different from that pictured by the immigration agent in his glowing recitals and in an ingenious prospectus which told the truth and much more than the truth. Five families immediately decided not to remain in the settlement but to proceed at once to the States. The road they took was not an unbroken one. The Hudson’s Bay Company had long had its traders as far south as Lake Traverse, where its establishments met a chain of the American Fur Company’s posts extending to the mouth of the Minnesota River. In the year 1820, Laidlaw, Lord Selkirk’s superintendent of farming, in order to relieve an alarming scarcity of seed grain, had gone down to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin where he had bought some 300 bushels of wheat, oats, and peas. These he loaded into keelboats, which he navigated up to the mouth of the Minnesota River and onward by way of that river into Big Stone Lake; from there he made a portage of 1 1/2 miles to Lake Traverse, reloaded his cargoes, and proceeded down the Bois des Sioux and the Red Rivers to the settlement, where he arrived on June 3, in time for seeding in that latitude.

Early in August, 1821, Alexis Bailly, Henry Sibley’s predecessor as agent of the American Fur Company at Mendota, in fulfillment of a contract with the governor of the Selkirk colony, drove a herd of cattle down the Red River trail and sold them to the colonists for $100 a head and more. The five Swiss families probably accompanied his party on its return. They were permitted to squat near Fort Snelling. Two years later, in 1823, 13 other Swiss families, discouraged by grasshoppers and rats — cats had not been imported — left by the same route. Some of these immediately, others after tarrying for a year or more at Fort Snelling, went on downriver to the French communities below. There was probably no year during a double decade in which some disheartened Selkirk people did not dribble over the border and take the Red River trail for warmer climes. In the summer of 1823 Beltrami relieved some of them at Fort Snelling and met others at the “Lake of the Rock” (Big Stone). It must have been a considerable migration which the Italian geographer encountered, and some of them must have been possessed of means. The trader Baker complained to Indian Agent Taliaferro that “these people that come from Red River have lodged about a 100 head of Cattle in the Bottom where we had enclosed for our stock and they are destroying the pasture. I wish you would direct them to move them over on the opposite side of the Mississippi.”

Fort Snelling MN Detroit Pub 1898

Fort Snelling MN Detroit Pub 1898

A long succession of hardships, due to excessive cold, drought, grasshoppers, and mice, culminated in the spring of 1826 in a rise of the Red River which spread wide desolation. This roused many who had intended deserting to immediate action. On June 24th, 243 people, mostly Swiss, left Pembina in a body. The number of refugees in following years is not chronicled. All these came to Fort Snelling, some under a delusion that the authorities were ready to give them land and farming outfits. Many, after resting, took their way down the Mississippi River to settle at and about Galena and other points. A goodly number, however, remained and became the earliest settlers in the oldest towns of the state within a radius of 20 miles from Fort Snelling. A number of farms were opened on the military tract in 1827 and were quietly cultivated until after the ratification of the treaty of 1837.

In the summer preceding the negotiation of that treaty, fearful of an enforced removal if the government were to set aside a definite tract for a military reservation, the squatters sent a memorial to the president praying to be remunerated for their improvements. No attention appears, however, to have been given to the claims of the obscure petitioners. Major Joseph Plympton, who, on August 20, 1837, arrived to assume command at Fort Snelling, immediately interested himself in determining the territorial limits of the post under his jurisdiction and in ascertaining the status of the settlers in its vicinity. Under his direction, Lieutenant E. K. Smith made a survey and a map of “Fort Snelling and Vicinity,” and took a census of the white inhabitants, exclusive of the garrison, but he did not attempt to set definite boundary lines for the military reserve. In a letter transmitting the map, the commandant called the attention of the war department to the “sparseness of timber within the space supposed to be embraced in Pike’s treaty,” which resulted in “much labor and inconvenience to the garrison to obtain the necessary fuel, and should this point be required for the next 20 years for military purposes the difficulty will be great, and very much increased, by these settlements in obtaining the article of fuel. ” Acting on these suggestions, the war department, on November 17, 1837, issued instructions to Major Plympton “to mark over” what in his judgment should be reserved for military purposes. Accordingly, Lieutenant Smith prepared a second map outlining such a tract, “embracing a considerable quantity of land on the east side of the Mississippi River.” This map was transmitted to the proper officials in Washington, and on July 26, 1838, the settlers were notified by the commandant that they were residing on land under military jurisdiction and that further cutting of timber or erection of buildings or other improvements was forbidden. This really amounted to a warning to leave, and a few of the settlers withdrew to the east side of the river, to a point below its confluence with the Minnesota River, where they squatted on land which they believed to be outside the reservation.



At every Indian trading post, there was a collection of white and half-breed employees, besides some mere hangers-on. At Mendota, the headquarters of the American Fur Company, there had long been such a gathering, more numerous than those at minor stations. Their number varied from season to season, and few were genuine residents. Still, this hamlet of traders and voyageurs may be properly regarded as a settlement nearly contemporaneous with the arrival of the Red River people. In July 1839, Bishop Loras of Dubuque visited the station and found 185 Catholics, who welcomed him and with great joy received the sacraments of the church.

Mention has already been made of a class of men disguised as independent traders, but, in fact, mere whiskey-sellers, who planted themselves along the east bank of the Mississippi River upon the opening to settlement of the triangle in 1837. It was the fortune of one of these to be the first to stake a claim on the site of what became the capital city of the state. Pierre Parrant, a Canadian voyageur, who had been some years in the region and who had given Indian Agent Talia Ferro no little vexation by his illegitimate practices, to make sure of a first choice of location, began, about the first of June, 1838, to build a lonely hovel in a secluded gorge at the mouth of the creek which flowed out of Fountain Cave in upper St. Paul. The historian of the capital city at the time humorously conjectured Parrant’s motive to have been to make sure of plenty of water for the navigation of canoes and for the dilution of fluids intended for Indian consumption. Some of the Red River refugees, so recently warned off the military tract west of the Mississippi River, took up claims below him. The Indians complained of this premature occupation of their land, ceded but not yet accepted nor paid for, but, the news of the ratification being received, they did not insist on evacuation.

Fort Snelling, MN - Infantry Drill

Fort Snelling, MN – Infantry Drill. Photo by Dave Alexander.

In the spring of 1839 Major Plympton again agitated the question of having the reservation cleared of settlers on the ground that several persons had established whiskey shops on the east side of the river, which were injurious to both the Indians and the soldiers; at the same time, to afford further protection to the garrison, he recommended an extension of the limits previously laid down. A definite and final delimitation of the reserve was also necessary at this time in order that the general land office might withdraw from sale the tract required. Plympton’s representations to the war department were corroborated by the surgeon of the post in a letter to the surgeon-general of the army, in which he says: “Since the middle of winter we have been completely inundated with ardent spirits, and consequently the most beastly scenes of intoxication among the soldiers of this garrison and the Indians in its vicinity. . . . The whiskey is brought here by citizens who are pouring in upon us and settling themselves on the opposite shore of the Mississippi River, in defiance of our worthy commanding officer, Major J. Plympton, whose authority they set at naught. At this moment there is a citizen named Brown, once a soldier in the 5th infantry . . . actually building on the land marked out by the commanding officer as the reserve … a very extensive whiskey shop. … In my humble opinion, the immediate action of the government is called for, to give us relief in pointing out the military reserve, which ought not to be less than 20 miles square, or to the mouth of the St. Croix River. ” General John E. Wool in an inspection report fully approved of these contentions, and declared that the government “should immediately adopt measures to drive off the public lands all white intruders within 20 miles of Fort Snelling.”

The war department accordingly issued directions for another survey, which was made by Lieutenant J. L. Thompson in October and November of 1839. According to Major Plympton, the boundaries as fixed by Thompson conformed to those indicated on the Smith Map “with this slight difference, that in his [Smith’s] survey the principal lines from river to river were necessarily (from the season and weather) left imaginary, which upon an actual survey will be found (to embrace the necessary woodland and to preserve the cardinal points) to cross the Mississippi a little further down than that imaginarily indicated on the map of Lieutenant Smith’s survey.” “Slight” as was the difference in the two surveys, it was enough to bring within the forbidden limits the small settlement near Fountain Cave. From the settlers, there was prompt and lively protest against the action of the military authorities. On November 16th public meeting of those interested was held; arrangements were made for the drafting of a petition to the legislature of Wisconsin Territory asking that body “to pass a resolution requesting our Delegate in Congress” to oppose the extension of the military reserve at Fort Snelling to the east side of the Mississippi River; and Joseph R. Brown, one of the settlers, was appointed to take the petition to Madison and also “to use his endeavors to procure the passage of such laws as may be best adapted to the wants of this portion of the Territory.” On December 16, 1839, the resolution petitioned for was passed by the legislature, and later it was forwarded to the territorial delegate, James D. Doty. In a letter to the secretary of war Doty suggested as a legal obstacle to the proposed extension that the United States had not the right to extend its military jurisdiction by a simple declaration. Neither personal nor official protests were of any avail. The reserve as “marked out” by Lieutenant Thompson was established.

St Paul MN, BF Upton 1867

St Paul MN, BF Upton 1867

On October 21, 1839, the secretary of war directed the United States marshal of the Territory of Wisconsin to eject all intruders from the reserve and authorized him to call upon the officer commanding at Fort Snelling for such forces as might be deemed necessary. Through a misdirection of the order to Iowa Territory, it was not received by the marshal until February 18, 1840. It was May before a deputy was able to reach the scene of action. The considerable population, a large proportion of which was made up of the Swiss who during the two preceding years had been obliged to remove from their homes adjacent to the fort on the west side, paid slight attention to his notice to move. On May 6th a detachment from the garrison proceeded to remove the people and their goods and to destroy their log cabins. Complaint was made in later years to Congress, and memorials praying indemnity for furniture damaged, cattle killed, and women insulted were submitted, only to find their way into the pigeonholes of committees. The unlucky squatters at once moved in a body and planted themselves beyond the now ascertained line of the reserve on ground that forms the heart of the present city of St. Paul.

Mendota, MN - Sibley Site Faribault House

Mendota, MN – Sibley Site Faribault House

Among their names are the well-known ones of Abraham Perry, Benjamin Gervais, the purchaser of Parrant’s claim, his brother, Pierre Gervais, Joseph Rondo, and Pierre Bottineau. Their scattered shanties formed the nucleus of a nameless settlement on a site selected almost by accident. Father Lucian Galtier, who had been ministering to the little flock at Mendota for a year, now extended his care over the colony which so suddenly gathered on the broken hillside nearly opposite. On land given by two of the farmers, he built in the month of October 1841, a rude log chapel, which on the first day of November he blessed and “dedicated to Saint Paul, the apostle of nations.” As he was residing at St. Peter’s (Mendota), it was natural that the name “Paul” should be thought of, especially as gentiles in the persons of Indians still abounded in the neighborhood. There being no geographic feature or historic incident to suggest another name, the settlement was soon known as St. Paul’s Landing or St. Paul’s and later on as St. Paul.M Father Galtier expected this and used the name in his official notices. Still, the enterprising priest did not think proper to take up his residence in the new town but remained in the more considerable Mendota until he was called to other duty in 1844. St. Paul did not become an independent parish until the arrival in 1851 of the Right Reverend Joseph Cretin, the first bishop of St. Paul.24 There were only thirty families or thereabouts in the settlement at the beginning of the year 1845, and the French language was spoken in all but three or four. American names largely predominated, however, in the list of settlers of the next two years, as recorded by the city’s historian; St. Paul thus suddenly became American. The accession of newcomers from below was of course not very great, but their enterprise and enthusiasm were phenomenal. A post office was established April 7, 1846. Stillwater had already obtained its post office in the preceding January, and since 1840 there had been one at  Point Douglas, the first to be established in the territory.

At the opening of the river in 1847 a regular line of steamboats was put in service between St. Paul and down river points. Hitherto, boats had come and gone as they could obtain cargoes. In this year also the general land office extended its surveys west of the St. Croix and about the Falls of St. Anthony from the fourth principal meridian in Wisconsin. The squatters of St. Paul, taking the hint, proceeded in an informal, cooperative way to have some 90 acres, embracing the principal business places and dwellings, surveyed and platted. It was not until the summer of 1848, however, that the government was ready to offer the land for sale at the St. Croix Falls land office. The St. Paul proprietors-to-be attended in a body, having previously arranged to have Sibley bid for all, as the sections or fractions were offered. In after years, Sibley was pleased to relate how he performed this duty and how he observed at the time of the bidding that he was closely surrounded by men from the future capital city, each provided with a big stick. It was his surmise that something unpleasant might have happened to any bystander who had inadvertently injected a counter bid. None was offered, however, and Sibley conveyed to each person in interest his proper area.

In the cases of some of his old Canadian clients, it was only after long delay and much persuasion that he could induce them to take their deeds. Ignorant of American ways, they felt that their homes would be more secure in the hands of Monsieur Sibley, their ancient patron, than in their own. It does not need to be added that the colony, being American, immediately provided itself with schools, churches, hotels, banks, and all the apparatus of civilization. The growing trade of St. Paul was not all down-river business. The people of the Red River settlements found that the road to the States taken by so many of their discouraged fellow colonists was a shorter one to market than that by way of Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay or the Dawson route. From small beginnings, the Red River trade increased after 1847 to a surprising magnitude. The means of transportation was the Red River cart, two-wheeled, built wholly of wood, with the exception of a little shaganappy or rawhide. It was drawn by a single ox and carried a load of near half a ton. As no axle grease was used, the creaking of the wheels could be heard for miles. The Red River caravan, often composed of hundreds of these loaded carts, would leave the settlements as soon as the grass was high enough to furnish good feed and, by marching 15 miles a day, would reach St. Paul in July. The downward loads consisted almost wholly of furs; on the return trip the loads were made up of merchandise as miscellaneous as the stock of a country store. The arrival, sojourn, and departure of a Red River train were for many years the most interesting events of the summer, and the camp of the bois brules in their semi-barbaric costumes was the delight of multiplying tourists. In later years the old Red River trail by way of the Traverse des Sioux was abandoned for the Sauk River route, which early became the principal stage road to the Northwest. On its line, the Great Northern Railroad was afterward located.

The St. Croix River forms part of an old canoe route from the Mississippi River to the head of Lake Superior. Du Luth came down it in 1680; Schoolcraft went up it in 1832. Without doubt, many white men had, between these dates, navigated this beautiful stream. None could have failed to note the magnificence of the pine forests which bordered its upper reaches. To bring these forests, along with those of the wide-branching tributaries of the Chippewa River, into market was the main object of the treaties of 1837. There is a tradition, without doubt authentic, that on the day of the negotiation of the treaty with the Chippewa at Fort Snelling on July 29, 1837, a party of gentlemen set out in a birch-bark canoe manned by eight men and, without losing time, reached the falls of the St. Croix at noon of the next day. The claim then and there made, on the Wisconsin side, while controlling a large water power, was not otherwise well suited to lumber manufacture. Two years later the first sawmill on the St. Croix was put in operation at Marine some twenty miles below these falls. Five years later, in 1844, lumber manufacture was begun at Stillwater. Through this industry, the town gained such a lead that its enthusiastic founders believed it would become and remain the chief city of the region. Many enterprising persons established themselves there, and afterward migrated to other points of promise. For nearness to pine forests, convenience in the handling of logs, and access to down-river markets it had a decided advantage for many years.

Down the Mississippi from Indian Mound Park, St. Paul - Det Pub 1898

Down the Mississippi from Indian Mound Park, St. Paul – Det Pub 1898

With the forests of pine, believed to be inexhaustible at the prevailing rate of consumption, only forty miles away, and with a water power of great magnitude easily improvable, the Falls of St. Anthony were soon to offer a splendid example of those “natural opportunities” which it has been the traditional policy of the United States to give away to the first lucky finders or occupants. We have already noted the pains taken to run the line of the military reservation in such a way as to exclude the left bank of the Mississippi to a point well below the Falls of St. Anthony.

Efforts were made by various persons to establish claims to the land abutting on the falls before the ratification of the treaty. The reconciliation of the conflicting traditions may be left to the local annalist. One of these persons, Franklin Steele, by dint of characteristic activity succeeded, on the day after the receipt of official notice of the ratification of the treaties of 1837, in locating a claim on the east side immediately abreast of the cataract with a frontage sufficient to command the water power to mid-channel — a claim not thereafter successfully disputed. Other claims were made above and below, all of which by the year 1845 had fallen into the hands of this original claimant and one other.

There was some jumping of claims, which resulted in expected cash redemptions, but the legal demands of continued occupancy were kept up by resident tenants and otherwise, so that when, after the government survey, the first public land sale took place in 1848 at St. Croix Falls, the claimants became legitimate proprietors by the payment of one dollar and a quarter per acre. Soon after the sale, it appeared that Steele had become the sole owner of all lands abutting on and adjacent to the falls, lands sufficient for effective control of all the water power east of the middle of the main channel of the Mississippi. In 1847 he built a dam across the east channel and erected a sawmill which went into operation the next year. The erection of this mill occasioned the first permanent settlement at the falls and a very rapid increase of inhabitants thereafter. The first town plat was made in 1849 by William R. Marshall, afterward a governor of the state. There was a considerable migration of lumbermen from Stillwater, and some exchange of residents between St. Paul and the newer St. Anthony.

As we reach 1849, the close of the period under present observation, we find the major part of the white population on Minnesota soil in the villages of St. Paul, Still water, and St. Anthony — the first, a commercial river port, the other two, lumbering towns. Other aggregations, mostly of transient persons, there were at minor points on the St. Croix, at Fort Snelling and Fort Gaines, at Mendota and other trading posts.

William Watts Folwell, 1924. Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2020.


Folwell, William Watts, A History of Minnesota, Volume 1, Minnesota Historical Society, 1924

Also See:

Minnesota (main page)

Fort Snelling – Protecting the Frontier

Fur Trading on the Frontier