When Wisconsin was admitted to the union in 1848, the land between the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, which had been part of the Wisconsin Territory, was not included in its borders, leaving thousands of people in political limbo. A group of influential civic leaders hastily schemed amongst themselves and, at an August summit in Stillwater, elected Henry Sibley, a director of the American Fur Company, to represent them in Washington.
Though technically Sibley had no right to a seat in Congress, a point that both he and his opponents were well aware of, the country was in all-out Manifest Destiny fever, which prompted legislators to accept him as a delegate. Despite partisan bickering and a white population well below the 5,000 legally required for territorial status, the Minnesota Territorial Act was passed in March of the next year. The new territory had the same borders as the current state on all sides except the west, where it stretched out to the Missouri and White Earth Rivers, making it twice the size of the present state.
The only part of the Stillwater Convention plan that went awry was the timing. Minnesota was a thoroughly Democratic state, but the law was signed too late for Democratic president James K. Polk to appoint Sibley as territorial governor. The choice instead fell to his successor Zachary Taylor, a Whig, who chose Pennsylvanian Alexander Ramsey. Sibley, who would later be elected the state’s first governor, was unanimously chosen as Minnesota’s first official delegate to Congress.
Before word of the new territorial status reached this far west (the first boat of the season arrived up the Mississippi with the good news in April of 1849), Minnesota had but a handful of towns, and no more than two dozen buildings stood in St. Paul, but by the time Ramsey stepped off the boat in May his new home had already doubled in size. When the legislature convened in September, 1,000 people had arrived and stores, hotels, bowling alleys, a school, and the state’s first newspaper (the Minnesota Pioneer, now the Pioneer Press) had all sprung up in the capital. Growth in the rest of the state remained modest, however, and the 1850 census tallied just 6,077 residents.
The first order of business for the new government was land. Ramsey and Sibley almost immediately set to work securing funds from Washington with which to negotiate treaties. In 1851 the Dakota relinquished most of southern Minnesota, some 20 million acres, in exchange for $1,665,000—about seven cents an acre.
Not only did the United States fail to honor all terms of the treaties in the coming years, but at the official ceremony the chiefs were tricked into signing another document agreeing to use $275,000 of the just-appropriated funds to repay debts owed to fur traders. While the issue of traders’ debts was legitimate, the total claimed for them was grossly exaggerated. This whole underhanded affair was partly to blame for the Dakota Conflict a decade later.
Ramsey and his agents continued to buy land from the Ojibwe, and by 1857, when all but a small stretch of land along the northern border had been ceded, the territory’s population had swelled to a previously unfathomable total of 150,092. Most of these eager pioneers were American-born farmers who took horse and plow to the southern prairies to raise wheat, while others swept through the great forests of the north with ax and saw.
Speculators penciled in hundreds of new villages with enough homesites for over eight times the population. The financial Panic of 1857 dampened many grand plans and created a fair share of ghost towns, but it didn’t suppress overall enthusiasm for Minnesota’s future, and a constitutional convention was held that year.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition