The First Minnesota Settlers

Song Link

Sparking and Bright: Songbook, p. 18

Fort Snelling was the first permanent American settlement in Minnesota, but it didn’t stay alone for long. The fur traders followed: Jean Baptiste Faribault set himself up at Mendota in 1826, and Henry Sibley, the future governor, arrived in 1834 (Blegen, pp. 132-136).

The frontier of American settlement, which had hardly reached Wisconsin at the time of Fort Snelling was founded, had reached through that state and into Minnesota by the 1840s. There aren’t many songs about the fur trade itself, but we have a few from the fur trade period. One of the noteworthy things about the trade was how it had to keep moving westward, into the interior of the United States, as the lands further east were hunted out. We can’t be sure, but it is thought that “The Maid of Prairie du Chien” is about a fur trader (or other resident of southern Wisconsin) who abandoned his home and headed west or northwest to the new territories; he may well have ended up in southeastern Minnesota.

The earliest songs sung in Minnesota were mostly old songs from other lands. Many originated in Britain, including the only one of the Great Ballads collected by Francis James Child to be collected in the state, “The House Carpenter.” (Three other Child Ballads, “Barbara Allen,” “Four Nights Drunk,” and “The Golden Vanity,” were almost certainly known here, based on collections outside Minnesota, but there are no Minnesota texts.) One of the few Minnesota songs about colonial days also originated in England under a title such as “The Three Rogues,” though the most common American title is “In Good Old Colony Times”; Minnesota John Healy’s version begins “In Good Old Colony Days.”

Song Link

In Good Old Colony Days: Songbook, p. 21

Most settlers to Minnesota arrived from the east and south, but some arrived from the north — though they weren’t Americans by birth. The regions of Canada west of Ontario at this time were organized not as colonies, nor as provinces, but as the holdings of joint stock companies: The Hudson’s Bay Company ruled the eastern regions, and the North West Company controlled the west. So independent were these companies that they actually went to war with each other on occasion. Needing people to do its work, the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1812 granted land to a Scottish magnate, Lord Selkirk, who for a dozen years had been trying to found a Scottish enclave in North America. Selkirk did manage to found a settlement in the vicinity of modern Winnipeg — but the population wasn’t exactly what he expected. The area was surrounded by Hudson’s Bay Company men, many of them Catholics from Quebec, and their native wives. Their children — who back then were called half-breeds — were the Métis, or mixed people, and they would end up being one of the most persecuted groups in both Canada and the United States. The North West Company used the Métis to attack the settlers, then, in 1820- 1821, merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Selkirk died about that same time (Blegen, pp. 92-93). Many of these Métis would end up in northwestern Minnesota, though their songs, such as “Falcon’s Song,” were in French and are rarely remembered.

Si vous aviez vu tous ces Anglais
Et tous ces Bois-Brûlés après
De butte en butte les Anglais culbutaient,
Les Bois-Brûlés jetaint de cris de joie!

You should have seen those Englishmen,
And our Bois-Brûlés after them,
Till one by one we did them all destroy
While our brave comrades shouted for joy.
(Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 122-123).

The later fate of the Métis was sad. Persecuted by a racist Canadian government, they tried rebellion under Louis Riel. The rebellion failed. They moved to Saskatchewan, only to find the settlers coming west on the railroad and again taking their lands. They called Riel back from exile to lead another rebellion, but it was crushed at the Battle of Batoche in 1885. Riel would later be executed.

Shortly before the failure of the Selkirk colony, the boundary between the United States and Canada west of the Mississippi was settled. In 1783, when the British and Americans had decided what lands would belong to the new country, they had not realized that the Mississippi headwaters were south of the Great Lakes. Since the boundary was supposed to be the Mississippi on the west, and the Great Lakes and Lake of the Woods on the north, this left the boundary indefinite. It was indefinite in the regions further west, too. In 1818, they decided on a boundary of the forty- ninth parallel — except for the oddity of the Northwest Angle of Minnesota, the jut into Lake of the Woods that made Minnesota the northernmost state in the Union until Alaska became a state; the Northwest Angle is a relic of the bad surveying and uncertain boundaries of the pre-1818 period. Still, the decisions of the boundary commission finally placed all of what is now Minnesota in the Union.

But the boundary remained unguarded. In the aftermath of Selkirk’s death, many of the persecuted people of his colony migrated down the Red River to take up lands in what is now western Minnesota and the Dakotas.

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