Manitoba Historical Society
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The Negro in Minnesota, 1800 - 1865

by Dr. Earl Spangler

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1963-64 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The United States and Canada have many contrasts and comparisons, some of which are explored each year in the Canadian-American Conference. Some even reach the hallowed halls of your Parliament and our Congress where there is often more heat generated than light shed.

At the present time, in both countries, there are certain minority group struggles going on, some of which revolve around civil rights, others are seemingly concerned with self-government or other political rights. Both have resulted in violence. One is concerned with color, the other with national origins.

The point is that both countries have grown through the introduction of minorities into the social, economic and political life of each nation. Certainly, the history of the United States has been the history of various minority groups. Some of these groups have been accepted without much difficulty but all have undergone some form of pressure from the majority.

In the United States, the most complex, prolonged, severe and potentially dangerous minority problem has revolved around the Negro. It has been compounded with, and actually stems from, the institution of slavery, a status not to be found among other minorities in the United States except for the Indian and here it was for only a fleeting moment in our history. But there are differences. The American Indian was an indigenous minority, no great national movement sprang up to battle for his freedom, and the reservation system was eventually adopted by the government to deal, in part, with the problem.

On the other hand, the Negro was brought to our country involuntarily. He was bought, sold, manumitted, emancipated, manipulated by politicians and regarded by many as a necessary evil. Gradually he became woven into the political and social fabric of our life and became a legally and constitutionally protected group during and after the Civil War.

The story of the Negro in the United States is a large and all encompassing one and cannot be dealt with here. There are some generalizations, however, which we should make in order to further introduce the topic. Negro slavery existed in each of the original thirteen colonies. It existed legally, illegally, or quasi-legally in almost every state of the union at one time or another prior to the Civil War. Most colonies, and later the states, had restrictive laws on their books which affected the voting rights, militia opportunities, ownership privileges, marriage opportunities or contractual obligations of Negroes, mulattoes, or mixed race relationships.

All sections of the country were affected by the fact that Negroes were inhabitants of the several states, be they free or slave states or territories in which federal regulations were intended to apply. Political parties rose or fell over the Negro and slavery issue; the whole concept of states rights versus federal, the nature of man himself, the moral and religious pros and cons of slavery - all these and more became vital issues in the United States as the abolition movement developed and civil war became more of a possibility.

Negro slavery began to disappear in the northern states prior to the American Revolution. The pace was temporarily accelerated by the revolutionary principles of egalitarianism and liberty that were being espoused at the time. The philosophy of the Rationalists also contributed to the anti-slavery sentiment of the time. Furthermore, the geographic and industrial-commercial pattern of the North did not encourage the growth and spread of slavery. Small farms, diversified agriculture, commercial enterprise, a fairly large middle class and a labor force made up of white indentured servants were factors that also tended to discourage the development of Negro slavery in the North.

The revolutionary spirit also affected the South. In fact, most southern states witnessed great debates over Negro slavery during the latter quarter of the 18th century. Emancipation was a distinct possibility in some of them, notably Virginia, in the post-Revolutionary period. For some time, until almost 1830 in fact, the great bulk of abolitionist societies and membership could be found in the South.

The South, however, was not destined to throw off Negro slavery of its own accord chiefly because of economic reasons, I suspect, but also because of the social gulf that had already been created. Furthermore, there were the political imbalances that would have resulted in many areas where Negroes already outnumbered whites. The labor system already in vogue, the plantation pattern, the monetary investments, the climate, the lack of large numbers of white migrants - these are additional factors that contributed to the further fastening of the slavery system on the South.

As the 19th century got under way, and certainly after 1820 when the first major problem of the extension of slavery had been taken up in the Missouri Compromise, the pattern of Negro slavery had been set. From this point on, it became a competitive and moralistic question between two major sections as to which system would endure or be acceptable. Little by little the areas of compromise dwindled until by 1861 the nation was ready to go to war over the state of the union, a matter in which the Negro had played an unconscious yet directly important role.

The history and role of the Negro in the Northwest, and more specifically in Minnesota, is part of this overall problem. Negro settlement in the Upper Midwest, chiefly in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa, was never very numerous. But it was not in numbers that the issues were to be found. It was in principles such as the extension of slavery into non-slave districts, the ability of the Negro and white to accommodate to each other, the reflection of the national issue in the origin and growth of political parties, the extension of abolitionism into the Upper Midwest, the extent to which the admission of these states into the union would be governed by slave or free status, or popular sovereignty as conceived by Senator Douglas, and the very human and ever-present problem of feeling in respect to a race that was in bondage, was colored, and was without education or basic skills-these were what concerned people, Minnesotans included. This presentation is an attempt to show how these principles were debated and solutions reached in a northern area, physically far removed from the South.

Negro entry into the area that became Minnesota began at an early date but was one of minuteness in quantity. The exact date of entry is unknown but there are indications that Negroes engaged in fur trading activities there during the early 19th century. [1] Further research indicates that Negroes engaged in the trade not only as servants and slaves but as independent entrepreneurs, cooks, hunters, guides and interpreters while others became salaried traders and voyageurs. It has been stated that Negroes could often negotiate with the Indian without engendering much of the friction that often entered into Indian-white relations. This was due to the racial affinity felt between Indians and Negroes. It is true that many experienced traders "always got a Negro if possible to negotiate for them with the Indians because of their 'pacifying effect'." [2]

Many of these early Negro entrants came from St. Louis or other fur trading centers to the south. Free Negroes in Missouri were hired by the trading companies; others were slaves who were taken along as a natural consequence of their position and function; still others came from Ohio and Maryland and the new England states. A few came from Canada.

George Bonga, the first person with Negro blood for whom there is any major record in Minnesota, was descended from Negro migration to Canada. He was the grandson of Jean Bonga, reportedly the first Negro to settle in the Northwest as the servant of a British army officer. Jean was a servant at Michilimackinac from 1782-1794 when he was freed by his master. Jean married one of his master's slaves with whom he had been living for some time. Pierre Bonga, son of Jean, worked with Alexander Henry of the Northwest Fur Company which operated in the area of the Red River of the North. He, in turn, married into the Chippewa tribe and became the father of George Bonga. The latter was born about 1802 near the present site of Duluth, Minnesota, lived for awhile at Fort William on Lake Superior, and attended school in Montreal. George became a fur trader and also married into the Chippewa tribe. [3]

George Bonga was fluent in English, French and Chippewa. On at least one occasion he acted as interpreter for Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan Territory during some of the Indian negotiations. He became a licensed trader and probably served as one of the interpreters at the Chippewa treaty signed at Fort Snelling, then in Wisconsin Territory, in 1837. [4]

Bonga was a man of great size and strength as well as a charming person and gracious host. Judge Charles Flandrau, Minnesota legal figure and a hero of the Sioux Uprising in 1862, described him as a "thorough gentleman ... very popular with the whites" and a "man of wealth and consequence" who often startled his white friends by claiming to be the first white man" in Minnesota. [5]

The documentation of Negroes in Minnesota is very scarce during the first four decades of the 19th century. What few there were seem to have been brought into Fort Snelling by army officers. Most of these Negroes were slaves. Major Taliaferro, an Indian agent stationed near the fort, had several inherited slaves who were occasionally rented out to personnel at the fort. Taliaferro eventually freed all of them and estimated that his "gift" cost him between $25,000 - 30,000, not a small sum in those days. However, he insisted that this manumission was done with "no outside influence touching the decision ... it was a solemn act and not influenced by any earthly powers." [6]

At least two slaves were sold in Minnesota during the 1820s and 1830s. One, James Thompson, had left Virginia as a youngster with his owner, George Monroe, a nephew of President James Monroe. In Kentucky, Thompson was sold in payment for debts and was taken to Fort Snelling in 1827 by his new owner. There he was purchased by an army officer for $1200 and was in turn sold to a Methodist missionary named Alfred Brunson. [7]

Thompson's subsequent history is erratic. He was freed by Rever end Brunson, worked as an interpreter among the Sioux, became a Methodist and contributed money and materials for a Methodist church in St. Paul. He became the only Negro member of the Old Settlers organization and, like Bonga, often referred to himself as "one of the first white settlers" in Minnesota. In at least one account, Thompson is referred to as a "mulotto." [8]

But Thompson also had his bad moments. He was a principal participant in a street fight known as the "Tournament of Seven Corners," a quarrel over the ownership of a pig. We know that Thompson won the fight but we do not know who got the pig. He also became rather addicted to the use of alcohol and was soon corrupting instead of converting the Indians. For some time one of the chief activities of soldiers at Fort Snelling seemed to be the breaking up of Thompson's whiskey shop which he ran near the fort. Apparently, the missionaries gave up on him and true to biblical form, "cast him completely from them." [9]

From a historical standpoint, the best known Negro in Minnesota during this period was Dred Scott. He was later to figure in what has been called the most important Supreme Court case in the United States prior to the Civil War. It was the Dred Scott case of 1857 that said in so many words that slaves were property and could be taken legally to any part of the union since property could not be taken from the owner except by due process of law under the Fifth Amendment to the United States constitution. The outcome of this case was of tremendous importance to the Southerner who had contended this all along. It was of equal discouragement to those Northerners who stated that the extension of slavery, or even the institution itself, could be regulated by federal law, or even by vote of the people in any given state or territory.

All this was in the future in 1836 when Scott was brought to Fort Snelling by his owner, an army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson. Of more immediate importance to Scott was the fact that he took a bride at Fort Snelling, a slave named Harriet Robinson, who was owned by Major Taliaferro. According to the major, Scott "was united with my servant girl which I gave him". Since no minister was available, a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. [10]

Only a few other scant references to Negroes can be found in this early period. A Canadian visitor to the area in 1837 provides us with some evidence of Negro residency. Peter Garrioch was in Mendota, a settlement across the river from Fort Snelling. At that time it was felt that Mendota, then called St. Peters, would become the great metropolis of the area because of its location and fur trading activities. Today it is a sleepy village on a relatively quiet river across from a no longer active army fort.

Garrioch remarked that "an occasional Negro" could be seen. In another instance he mentioned that he had opened a school "on a heterogeneous system" which included students of "Negro extraction". In fact, this school, started by a Canadian, has been called the first publicly financed school in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. [11]

These examples indicate that there were very few Negroes in the area prior to the Civil War. One year after Minnesota achieved territorial status, the census of 1850 listed only 39 free Negroes for the entire territory. Four of the nine organized counties had no Negro residents while one county, Ramsey, the one closest to Fort Snelling and the river towns of Mendota and St. Paul, had 30. [12] The picture was to change somewhat in the next two decades.

The period from 1850 to 1865 may be designated as a time of transition and turmoil. The contest over the nature of the union was a decisive struggle and within economics and society there were detectable shifts from agrarianism to industrialism and urbanization with all the tremendous changes these would imply. No state in the union was immune from the bitterness and animosity that either created the war or flowed from it. No group of people, free, white, slave or colored would be the same or live in the same kind of nation after the cataclysm of war.

The Negro was a part of these events; some would say he was the central issue. Whatever the interpretation, it is a fact that in the decade preceding the war, the status of the Negro and the extension of slavery became inextricably intertwined. No political party could avoid the question, no aspirant to political office could afford to remain silent, no state was without its intra-party and inter-sectional struggles as groups, blocs and coalitions fought to reach a solution or achieve supremacy.

The Upper Midwest, or Northwest as it was called in those days, had its share of problems. There was never much doubt about the basic anti-slavery feeling in the area. But being anti-slavery did not necessarily correlate with being anti-Southern nor did it necessarily mean that a person or a region was pro-abolitionist Republican, Democratic, Free Soil or Whig. As one recent scholar has written: "Outrage over slavery and belief in white supremacy were two seemingly discordant strains of thought that were often harmonized in the anti-slavery intellect." [13] They could and did co-exist in the Northwest and it is quite evident that "humanitarian pity for the slaves did not always spring from a desire to confer equal rights on all men." [14]

Here again, we are reminded of the fact that numbers of Negroes did not really make much difference as to the desire to continue white supremacy. In 1860, Ohio had 36,373 Negroes, Indiana 11,428, Wisconsin 1,171 and Minnesota 259. [15] In each state there were restrictive laws, or attempts had been made to pass them. All practiced discrimination in one form or another. Yet, opinions about the Negro varied from one state to another and even within a state. In fact, it appears that the more Negroes there were in a given state, the more restrictive were the laws.

Minnesota with the smallest number of Negroes is as representative as Ohio with the largest. One statement from a St. Paul newspaper in 1852 described the Negroes as "attentive to their business and ... no idlers as they are represented to be in the slave states ... They are a useful class, and here on the confines of Barbarism do as much to put a civilized aspect upon the face of society as any other class." [16] Two years later there was a "Black Law" introduced into the territorial legislature that would have required all persons of Negro blood to give bond of $300-500 as a guarantee of good behavior. It was defeated 10-6 in the territorial House. [17]

It is possible that this bill was patterned after one passed in Ohio in 1803 which required a $500 bond from any Negro that came into the state. [18] During the same period, all seven Northwest states limited militia service to white males nor was there any legalized Negro voting to be found in the area. In Illinois and Indiana, Negroes were not considered competent witnesses in court trials where a white person was party to the case while interracial marriages were legally forbidden in at least four of the seven states. [19] On an even wider scale, the Methodist Church, in 1840, passed a "Black Gag" which prohibited colored members of the church from testifying in church courts against white members in any state where they were forbidden to do so in civil courts. [20]

The favorable comments of 1852 and the defeat of the "Black-Law" in 1854 do not indicate a pro-Negro sentiment throughout Minnesota.

In 1859, a southern Minnesota paper stated that there was not one Negro in its town and probably not in the whole county. The paper concluded: "It is often remarked by visitors that we are peculiarly blessed in this respect." [21] Two years later, when the war was on and Minnesota soldiers were in action, another Minnesota paper referred to an "ebony-skinned vagrant" in town and stated that this "black disgrace" should be in jail. One week later the same paper commented that "Hell is paved with the skulls of such fiends in human shape." [22]

Throughout the 1850s the slavery issue and the status of the Negro assumed progressively greater political interest in Minnesota and the Northwest. As the Democratic party split into northern and southern factions and the Whig party started on its way to political ineffectiveness and eventual oblivion, the political scene became confused and emotional.

Northern Democrats began to lean more toward some checking of slavery but were not all unanimous about how it was to be done or who was to do it. Most of them favored Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, proponent of popular sovereignty, for the presidential nomination in 1860. Southern Democrats, some of whom existed in all northern states, were inclined to sympathize with the South and by 1860 were leaning away from Douglas and toward John C. Breckinridge from the Border State of Kentucky or Jefferson Davis from the deep South state of Mississippi.

As the Whig party disintegrated, largely over the slavery issue, embryonic party movements got under way to fill the void. By 1854, the Republican party had been organized and in 1856 it made its first bid for national attainment by running General John C. Fremont as presidential candidate. The basic premise upon which the party had been founded was no further extension of slavery.

Such party alignments and realignments were certain to reflect in the politics of every state. In Minnesota, a correspondent from St. Paul wrote to the New York Tribune stating that "the immigration into the territory ... is almost a unit on the demand, 'No more slavery aggression.'" The Tribune, in an editorial on the Minnesota situation, decried the money and patronage enjoyed by Democrats and pro-slavery elements in the territory. [23]

Jane Grey Swisshelm, one of the most militant feminists of her time, and editor of her own newspaper in St. Cloud, Minnesota, engaged in an exceedingly active campaign against slavery and pro-slavery Democrats in Minnesota. While her campaign began on a moral and ethical plane, it soon became a partisan issue.

In December, 1857, Mrs. Swisshelm stated that "the Bible, and the Constitution of the United States are anti-slavery; and human chattledom is unconstitutional in any association professing to receive either as fundamental law." Following this, she castigated northern Minnesota Democratic leadership under Sylvanus B. Lowery, a wealthy settler, former adjutant general of the territory, Tennessean by birth, and pro-slavery in sentiment and politics. This attack resulted in the physical destruction of her press by Lowery adherents. The Reverend Thomas Calhoun, Presbyterian minister and brother-in-law to Lowery, was next in line for Mrs. Swisshelm. Calhoun, a resident of Tennessee, was visiting in Minnesota and had brought a slave girl with him. She gave birth to a child and it was Mrs. Swisshelm's understanding that Calhoun intended to free either the child or both mother and child. He did neither, sending both to Tennessee into continued slavery. [24]

By November, 1858, Mrs. Swisshelm was addressing the anti-slavery societies that had been organized in the Minneapolis area. Although she had considered herself a Democrat, she now found herself identified more and more with the newly emergent Republican party. In fact, she eventually became known as the "Mother of the Republican party" in Minnesota. She supported William Seward for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 and was not at all enthusiastic when Lincoln, whom she considered moderate if not ambiguous on the slavery issue, won over Seward in the Chicago convention. [25]

Certainly, the issue of slavery could not have become more politically divisive in Minnesota. Since the territory had become a state in 1858 and would have a voice in the 1860 election, the stakes became very high. The Republican party, which had shown real strength in the presidential election of 1856, and even more in the congressional elections of 1858, wanted the electoral votes of Minnesota. The Douglas Democrats also sought support in the Northwest and competition would thrive under such circumstances.

Political rivalry expresses itself in varied forms of which party organization is only one. There is an economic overtone to another situation that was to accentuate as the secession crisis approached. For some years many Southerners had vacationed in Minnesota and had brought their slaves with them. To the anti-slavery elements in the area this was plain heresy. The pro-slavery, or pro-Southern, elements could see no harm in such visitations. In time, however, there were rumors that slaveholders might find themselves relieved of their chattel property, legally or otherwise, as long as they were on Minnesota soil. The Stillwater Democrat, a name which indicates its political allegiance, invited the slaveholders to come to Minnesota. It was admitted that such visitors might not feel comfortable "on account of the intermeddling propensities of Abolition fanatics." But slaveholders were assured that Minnesotans were really law-abiding people "although there may be now and then an odious creature who would not scruple to invade the family circle." [26]

Later that same year, Minnesota furnished a concrete example of such action when the district court in Minneapolis did free a slave. This was Eliza Winston, property of a Colonel Christmas from Mississippi who was sojourning in Minnesota. It was a collusive case entered into by local abolitionists and Mrs. Winston. Nevertheless, the judge freed her, using the state constitution as his guide and precedent. Despite the fact that the Dred Scott case of 1857, decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, indicated otherwise, the court, in essence, held that the state constitution was the law in Minnesota. Article 1, Section 2 prohibited slavery and that was that. [27]

Eliza Winston was spirited out of Minnesota by white sympathizers and eventually arrived in Ontario, Canada, by way of the Underground Railway. However, she did not stay long there and voluntarily returned to the Christmas family before the war broke out. Presumably, she re-entered a state of bondage upon her return.

Although there were other slaves belonging to Southern visitors, and although they remained loyal to their masters despite similar efforts by abolitionists, the slaveholders, their hosts, and the hotel and resort operators were apprehensive over what this would do for business. There was a small depression that occurred in the Minneapolis area at this time and the pro-Southern elements claimed that such actions were the cause of it. But they were advised by antislavery people to put "gold on one scale and liberty on the other." The Republicans declared that the party's platform would not be altered even if thousands of slaveholders came north to spend their money. [28]

The resistance of northwestern Democrats to abolition, and later emancipation, was based on political and constitutional objections to be sure. But they also feared that this solution "would deluge the Northwest with Negroes and challenge white supremacy there." [30] This was not just a political and social fear; it was an economic reality to many.

This was particularly true after the war had been under way for two years and it appeared that freedom would be granted the slaves in one form or another. There was definite antagonism in Minnesota to such migration. When, in 1862, the St. Paul and Galena Packet Company sent an agent to St. Louis to engage Negro deck hands, there was an outcry that white men's jobs were being taken away. [31] In 1863 a steamboat out of St. Louis brought to St. Paul a cargo of 125 Negroes and 150 mules for use in government work. The boat was to take some 800-900 Indians back to St. Louis and it was suggested that the mules remain but that the Negroes and Indians be sent to Massachusetts. [32] Also in 1863, when 218 more Negroes arrived, the Irish laborers of St. Paul "swarmed" the boat and tried to frighten them off. The local press deplored this action and stated that the recently arrived Negroes "furnish another proof of their superiority over their Kilkenny persecutors by the favorable contrast of their quiet, civil and inoffensive manner." [33]

The resistance to Negro migration was not always a partisan matter in the Northwest although it seemed to be more so in Minnesota. At one time it was proposed to distribute the Negro population among the various states in proportion to their white population. Under this proposal Michigan, for instance, would have about 123,000 Negroes compared to its then 6800. Michigan's Republican Senator Jacob Howard found this unpalatable and replied, "Canada is very near us, and affords a fine market for 'wool.'" Senator Lyman Trumbull, Republican from Illinois, stated unequivocally, "Our people want nothing to do with the negro." [34]

One of the last facets of Negro influence in the pre-Civil War political arena pertained to the admission of Minnesota to the union. Minnesota's entry into statehood was related to the questions of free versus slave states and of Negro suffrage. Preparations for statehood were already in progress in 1856 although success would not come until 1858.

Again, some exploration of the political situation in the United States is in order to place the admission to statehood of any territory in its proper perspective. From at least 1812-1850, one compromise solution for the existence or extension of slavery had been to keep the free and slave states balanced in the Senate where each had equal voting power. It was assumed that this would prevent slavery from being tampered with, since any proposed law on the subject, pro or con, could be blocked in the Senate.

In 1850, California was admitted to the union as a free state with no slave state to match or without any potential slave area ready for statehood. The states then stood 16 free to 15 slave and the slavery interests became exceedingly concerned lest their power be decreased further. A cursory examination of available territory for future states showed far more area likely to be settled and organized in the north than in the south. Thus the extension of slavery would have to be accomplished through other means, hopefully by permitting it to exist anywhere without state or federal control. Obviously, while this might have been legally possible, it could never be accepted by the northern states.

In 1854, Stephen Douglas, Democratic Senator from Illinois, introduced the principle of popular sovereignty to apply in territories applying for statehood. This would have permitted the people in that territory to hold a referendum on the slavery issue which would presumably determine the status of slavery once the territory had entered the union. Popular sovereignty was not easily accepted by either section but it did pass and became law in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It really pleased no one but was the best the Southerners could obtain at the time.

The Dred Scott case of 1857 negated popular sovereignty by decision if not by law. If one took the judgment at face value, and the Southerners did, Negro slaves could be taken anywhere as property. Therefore, slavery could exist anywhere, state law or popular sovereignty notwithstanding. Most northern states could never accept this, as the Winston case had shown.

Hard upon the heels of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott case came the breakup and realignment of parties already referred to. The now factionalized Democratic party and the newly formed Republican party strove for domination in each old state and in each area destined for statehood. Whoever could muster the votes in Congress could well decide the issue of slavery, assuming that secession and civil war would not overtake compromise. Thus the hard fought battles for control in the territories, including Minnesota.

A bill to authorize the territory of Minnesota to write a state constitution and prepare for statehood was introduced into the national House of Representatives in late 1856. It was passed on Christmas Eve day and sent to the Senate. The debates in the Senate involved proposed amendments to limit suffrage in Minnesota to citizens of the United States. Since Negroes were not considered citizens of the United States, this proposal obviously introduced the Negro question into the statehood question. There are indications that some senators wanted this provision to apply to aliens since 1856-1857 was one of the peak periods of anti-foreign sentiment in this country. But the Negro issue became the all important one as the debates are filled with references to slaves flocking north, the destruction of the equilibrium of the Senate and the dangers of Negro voting. Most senators assumed that Minnesota would be a free state and thus the status of the Negro within the state took on added significance. [35]

Meanwhile, within the Territory of Minnesota, steps were taken to call a constitutional convention. The two parties contended for control and there ensued a long and complicated political battle. Actually, the convention that was called split into Democratic and Republican "conventions" each of which wrote its own version of the constitution. Both documents were submitted to the voters and legally and technically Minnesota operates today under two constitutions although only one is considered the proper document.

Briefly, the pre-convention battle saw the Democrats assert that the elections constituted a struggle between "white supremacy" and Negro equality and declared that the Republicans, in their desire to gain control of state and national offices, would allow Negroes to vote and serve in various offices in the state. This would, in turn, allow the Republicans to influence the all important presidential election of 1860. [36]

The only real issue that deadlocked both "conventions" was that of Negro suffrage. It was finally turned over to a conference committee made up of members of both "conventions." The crux of the matter seemed to be whether the Negro's right to vote should be determined by the voters, as the Republicans desired, resolved by other methods, or maintained as it was. The conference committee proposed the so-called McClure Resolution which, when written into the constitution, became the way by which all amendments to the state constitution could be accomplished. In essence, it provided that a proposed amendment would have to be submitted to the electorate and be approved by a "majority of votes cast on that subject" to become effective. Thus, a disagreement over Negro suffrage produced the procedure as to how to amend the constitution. [37]

Negro suffrage amendments were submitted to the people of Minnesota three times before success was attained. The first submission in 1865 lost by 2516 votes, the second in 1867 by 1315; the third submission in 1868 won by over 9,000 votes and Negroes became eligible to vote in Minnesota on January 1, 1869, prior to the adoption of a like amendment to the United States constitution. [38]

Minnesota was not alone among northwestern states in dealing with Negro suffrage. It took various submissions between 1857-1868 in Iowa before success came; Wisconsin had over three submissions; Ohio and Michigan turned down Negro suffrage in 1867 and 1868 respectively. However, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 settled the question, legally, in all states. [39]

The struggle for statehood ended successfully and Minnesota entered the union three years before the outbreak of a war that was to decide many of the questions involved in the fight for her admission. The issues of slavery and the rights of Negroes had stirred Minnesotans for decades. Throughout the unorganized era, the territorial period and the early years of statehood, debates, recriminations and political and legal intrigues had steadily mounted. As the anti-slavery and generally pro-slavery Negro sentiments grew in the area, it is not at all surprising to find that Minnesota was the first state to offer troops to President Lincoln just a few hours after the first shots were fired toward Fort Sumter by South Carolina troops.

The history of the Negro in Minnesota shows that he was accepted as a valuable person as early as the fur trading period. The mixed population that lived in Minnesota is one possible reason for this acceptance. When Peter Garrioch conducted his school, he gave credence to the assimilative process that had been at work for some time.

When Major Taliaferro freed his slaves, he contributed further to the idea that the Negro could and would live in comparative freedom and security in the Northwest.

In the decade preceding the Civil War, it became evident that the presence of Negroes in the territory determined, in part, the political choices of white residents. The newly formed Republican party was pictured as the friend and proponent of the Negro; the Democratic party, in general opposed giving the Negro any rights and privileges. The presence of Negroes in Minnesota became a matter of concern in the United States Congress.

The best evidence of the role of the Minnesota Negro occurred in the state constitutional convention. It is difficult to imagine that 259 Negroes could contribute much toward political control but numbers were not the issue. It was a period when passions were inflamed over the legal and social status of the Negro. Political parties stood ready to capitalize on any issue that would contribute toward effective control of the government and politics, state and national.

In a larger sense, the history of the Negro in Minnesota has been no different than that of his race in other northern states. His struggle has been as much that of other groups as his own and it will continue to be so in the future. The Northwest, Minnesota included, was not unanimous in its acceptance of the Negro. The period up to the Civil War indicates that the presence of a minority and enslaved group led to such an intertwining of morality and politics that a nation had to be re-conceived and re-dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


1. Kenneth W. Porter, "Relations Between Negroes and Indians Within the Present Limits of the United States," Journal of Negro History, XVII (July, 1932), pp. 287-367; Edward D. Neill, History of Minnesota (Minneapolis, 1882), p. 391.

2. Kenneth W. Porter, "Negroes and the Fur Trade," Minnesota History, XV (December, 1934), pp. 421-433.

3. June Drenning, "Black Pioneer of the Northwest," Negro Digest, VIII (March, 1950), pp. 65-67; William W. Warren, "History of the Ojibways," Minnesota Historical Society Collections, V (St. Paul, 1885), p. 488.

4. Porter, "Negroes and the Fur Trade," p. 424.

5. Charles E. Flandrau, "Reminiscences of Minnesota During the Territorial Period," Minnesota Historical Collections, IX (St. Paul, 1901), p. 109. Bonga is also mentioned in Neill, History of Minnesota, pp. 322, 416, and Grace Lee Nute, Rainy River Country (St. Paul, 1950), p. 16.

6. Major Lawrence Taliaferro, "Autobiography," Minnesota Historical Collections, VI (St. Paul, 1894), p. 235.

7. Slavery in Minnesota," Minnesota History Bulletin, V (February, 1923), pp. 40-43, unsigned article; another sale is mentioned in Taliaferro's "Autobiography," p. 235. For other items on slavery in Minnesota see Return I. Holcome, History of Minneapolis and Hennepin County (Chicago, 1914), p. 46, and Minnesota in Three Centuries (Minneapolis, 1908), p. 66, by the same author.

8. Henry A. Castle, Minnesota, Its Story and Biography, I (Chicago, 1915), p. 86; Ella C. Brunson, "Alfred Brunson, Pioneer of Wisconsin Methodism," Wisconsin Magazine of History, II (December, 1918), pp. 1-20; William Bradley Hennessy, Past and Present of St. Paul, Minnesota (Chicago, 1906), p. 21.

9. Merle Potter, 101 Best Stories of Minnesota (Minneapolis, 1931), pp. 41-43; Hiram F. Stevens, History of the Bench and Bar of Minnesota, I (Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1904), p. 31.

10. Taliaferro, "Autobiography," p. 235.

11. George Henry Dunn, "Peter Garrioch at St. Peters," Minnesota History, XX (June, 1939), pp. 119-128.

12. Beverly Tucker, Statistical View of the United States: Compendium of the Seventh Census (Washington, 1854), p. 332.

13. Jacque Voegeli, "The Northwest and the Race Issue," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, L (September, 1963), p. 235.

14. Voegeli, "The Northwest and the Race Issue," p. 236.

15. Monroe N. Work, Negro Yearbook, 1925-1926 (Tuskegee, 1926), p. 226.

16. Minnesota Pioneer, September 30, 1852.

17. Minnesota House Journal, 1854, p. 255; Robert Watson, Notes on the Early Settlement of Cottage Grove and Vicinity (Northfield, Minnesota, 1924), p. 18.

18. Booker T. Washington, The Story of the Negro, I (London, 1909), p. 199.

19. Voegeli, "The Northwest and the Race Issue", p. 236.

20. Arthur J. Larsen (ed), Crusader and Feminist: Letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm (St. Paul, 1934), p. 5.

21. Mankato Weekly Record, November 15, 1859.

22. Belle Plaine Enquirer, July 20 & 27, 1861.

23. New York Tribune, December 1856; September 12, 1857.

24. Larsen, Crusader and Feminist, pp. 10-20.

25. Ibid., pp. 21-23.

26. May 19, 1860.

27. Stevens, History of the Bench and Bar in Minnesota, I, p. 34; Daniel S. B. Johnston, "Minnesota Journalism from 1858-1865," Minnesota Historical Collections, XII (St. Paul, 1908), p. 199.

28. Return I. Holcombe, Compendium of History: A Biography of Carver and Hennepin Counties, Minnesota (Chicago, 1915), p. 131; Stevens, History of the Beach and Bar in Minnesota, I, pp. 32-36; Northwestern Bulletin, May 16, 1925.

29. Earl Spangler, The Negro in Minnesota (Minneapolis, 1961), pp. 31-32.

30. Voegeli, "The Northwest and the Race Issue," p. 237.

31. Mankato Semi-Weekly Record, June 14, 1862.

32. St. Paul Pioneer, May 7, 1863.

33. St. Paul Daily Press, May 15, 16, 1863.

34. Voegeli, "The Northwest and the Race Issue," p. 240.

35. Congressional Globe, 34 Congr., 3 sess, 1856-57, pp. 517-519, 734, 808-814, 849-865, 872-877; William W. Folwell, A History of Minneapolis, I (St. Paul, 1924), p. 391; Minnesota House Journal, 1857, pp. 70, 89, 163, 328.

36. Minnesota, Council Journal, 1857, pp. 57, 65, 84; Minnesota, House Journal, 1857, pp. 6-13, 43-47, 80, 228, 230; Minnesota Council Journal, 1857, extra session, pp. 5-11; Minnesota Constitutional Convention (Democratic), Debates and Proceedings (St. Paul, 1857), p. 54.

37. William Anderson, A History of the Constitution of Minnesota (Minneapolis, 1921), p.:37; Folwell, Minnesota, I (revised edition, St. Paul, 1956), p.375.

38. Anderson, Constitution of Minnesota, p. 178; Folwell, Minnesota, III, pp. 3, 7; IV, p. 133.

39. Herbert Aptheker, A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (New York, 1951), p. 532; Work, Negro Yearbook, 1918-1919, pp. 198-201; Alfred Holt Stone, Studies in the American Race Problem (New York, 1908), p. 31; Henry Lee Moon, Balance of Power: The Negro Vote (New York, 1948), p. 56.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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