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When Minnesota Was New England in the West

For 50 years, it was a Yankee kingdom in the Upper Midwest

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When a New Hampshire native started Minnesota’s first newspaper in 1849, he was far from the only New Englander in the new territory. His name was James Madison Goodhue, born in Hebron, N.H., and educated at Amherst College. Minnesota then had so many Yankees like him that he called it, ”New England in the West.”

New Englanders had already exercised an outsized influence on Minnesota, and they would continue to do so until the 20th century.

Goodhue wrote that New England “would supply the “moral wants” of the region as New England had “supplied the old States with their education, their laws, and their religion.”

Theodore Christian Blegen ·described the New England influence in his 1975 book on Minnesota history:

They built farms, started towns, opened business places, invested money, speculated, pioneered professions, launched newspapers, schools and churches, engaged in politics and government and left the imprints of the leadership on numerous institutions.

New England in the West

Before the United States declared Minnesota a territory in 1848, New Englanders had explored, mapped and promoted the region. In 1856, two years before statehood, the New England Society of the Northwest formed. The next year it held a gala festival in December to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims.

They celebrated their first Thanksgiving in 1850, when only New Englanders observed the holiday. Some towns held annual town meetings, New England-style.

When Henry David Thoreau visited Minnesota in 1861, he wrote that every other person he met came from Massachusetts.

Here then are seven more fun facts about New England in the West.

A Vermont kettle pond. Looks a lot like Minnesota, right?

1. Kettle holes attracted New Englanders to Minnesota.

The Land of 10,000 Lakes, part of a “blue galaxy” of kettles, looked a lot like New England, noted Robert Thorsen in his book, Beyond Walden.  That galaxy stretches from Maine to Montana, dimpling the landscape south of the Great Lakes, Adirondacks and New England mountains and ending at the 37th parallel.

“By the early 19th century, New Englanders had developed a clear preference for salubrious northern climates and pine forests….As they moved west along the northern tier of the glaciated fringe, state after state was imprinted by Yankee ways, especially Minnesota.” New Englanders had developed expertise in financing, milling, dairying, logging and small industry, he wrote.

New Englanders’ attraction for kettle holes made sense since they’d long used them for drinking water, trapping beavers, growing marsh hay for livestock, fishing and hunting, making bog iron, growing cranberries and wild rice and cutting refrigeration ice.

Walden Pond in Massachusetts or Pose Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?

Kettle holes resulted from the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet, which covered much of Canada and the northern United States. The icebergs it left behind got covered with sediment until they melted.

The two most famous kettle holes in the U.S. are in Minnesota and Walden, though one is mythical: Walden Pond and Lake Woebegone.

2. New England in the West had a puritanical streak.

Novelist Sinclair Lewis called Minnesotans “double Puritans—prairie Puritan on top of New England Puritan, bluff frontiersmen on the surface, but it its heart it still has the ideal of Plymouth Rock in a sleet storm.”

Missionaries from New England showed up with their bibles trying to Christianize the Natives. The territorial Legislature passed blue laws that banned work on Sunday. They also forbade hunting, shooting and sport on Sunday, along with dancing and public shows. Desecration of the Sabbath by such profane conduct got you a fine of $10.  And, like the early Puritans, they tried to ban gambling (with about as much luck).

First Congregational Church of Zambrota, Minn.

3. New Englanders had a huge early influence on Minnesota’s shape.

A Massachusetts militia captain named Jonathan Carver convinced his friend Robert Rogers to sponsor an expedition to explore western lands. From 1766 to 1767, Carver traveled through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, recording what he saw—the Falls of Saint Anthony, tribal villages, the Grand Portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.

Saint Anthony Falls, from Carver’s book

He didn’t get paid for the expedition, but in 1778 he published a book about it that sold well. “There is no doubt that at some future period, mighty kingdoms will emerge from these wildernesses,” he wrote. Such lavish praise provoked a good deal of interest in the Northwestern Territory.

In 1783, the French ceded territory east of the Mississippi to Britain, some of which became Minnesota.

Fort Snellilng, 1844

Two years later, a Milford, Conn., fur trader named Peter Pond submitted to Congress a copy of a map he’d drawn of the northwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The map, which included Minnesota, also helped stir interest in the region.

Stephen Harriman Long, born in Hopkinton, N.H., was a Dartmouth-trained civil engineer and an officer in the U.S. Army. In 1816 he led an excursion up the Mississippi River to the Falls of Saint Anthony. He recommended the Army establish Fort Snelling there to guard against Natives. The first U.S. military installation in the state, it evolved into Minneapolis.

Loring Park

A New Englander, Horace Cleveland, designed Minneapolis’ park system and laid out St. Paul. Cleveland was born in Lancaster, Mass., to a family close to the Transcendentalists. He designed Saint Anthony Park in Saint Paul, Loring Park in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota campus.

4. Mainers started Minnesota’s lumber industry.

When Thoreau made that visit to Minnesota in 1861, he noted that all the lumbermen came from Maine.

Specifically, they came from the Penobscot Region, where Bangor reigned as the most important lumber port on the continent. As the lumbermen moved westward for taller trees and bigger log drives, “they founded no less than 10 towns named Bangor after the mother city on the Penobscot,” wrote Robert Pike in Tall Trees, Tough Men.

So many lumbermen left Maine that a Maine congressman in 1852 declared the “stalwart sons” of his state were “marching away by the scores and hundreds to the piney woods of the northwest.”

One lumberjack in Minnesota was asked where he came from. He drew up his pants and said, “I’m from the Penobscot, B’God!”

Daniel Stanchfield, a Penobscot lumberman explored the pine resources north of the Rum River to the Mille Lacs region in 1847.

Bangor, Maine’s homage to the lumberjack, Paul Bunyan.

Both Maine and Minnesota claim to have originated Paul Bunyan. Bangor has a giant Paul Bunyan statue on its riverfront, while Minnesota has three: in Bemidji, in Akeley and in Brainerd.

5. New England in the West has a lot of New England-sounding cities and towns.

Dozens and dozens of them, especially from Massachusetts.

There’s a Plymouth, a Lexington, an Andover, a Cambridge, a Cohasset, a Brewster, a Bellingham, a Medford, a Melrose, a Taunton, a Princeton, a Springfield, a Taunton, a Canton, a Carver, a Clinton, a Dalton, a Farmington, a Freeport, a Wells, a Lewiston, a Freeport, an Orono and, of course, a Bangor. There’s also a Hampton, a Hanover, a Dover, a New London and a Newport.

Minnesota towns also  bear the names of New England statesmen and heroes: Adams, Franklin, Hancock and Winthrop. It even has a Warren, the most common New England town name. Two New England towns honor Peter Warren, hero of the Siege of Louisbourg, while four honor Revolutionary Joseph Warren. Minnesota’s Warren honors Charles Warren, a railroad official.

Hutchinson Family Singers

Hutchinson probably has the most interesting provenance. The Hutchinson Family Singers from Lynn,  Mass., founded the town. The most popular singing group in the 1840s, they toured New England singing native folk tunes and patriotic anthems in four-part harmony. The singers didn’t shy away from controversy and sang political songs promoting workers’ rights, women’s rights, abolition and temperance. They brought those ideals to Minnesota, forming a colony that supported equal rights for women. They planned a religious center that they named “Humanity’s Church,” and they banned liquor and gambling.

Blegen noted a strong New England presence in the Twin Cities.“Though St. Paul, St. Anthony and Minneapolis were not settled as “colonies,” they were under pronounced New England influences and they were deeply conscious of the fact,” he wrote.

6. New Englanders pretty much started education in New England in the West.

A New Englander established the first public school in Minnesota as well as the first Sunday school. The New England National Popular Education Society sent Harriet Bishop of Panton, Vt., to Minnesota in 1847. The Society had a mission of supplying women teachers to the frontier.

Harriet Bishop

She traveled by steamboat to find her new school was a filthy, abandoned blacksmith’s shop. Mud plaster held the log walls together. Rats and snakes scurried and slithered in the corners. Bishop spent a few days cleaning the shop and then opened the school with nine students that spoke five different languages.

She turned a log-cabin blacksmith shop in St. Paul into a schoolhouse. in 1857 published a book, Floral Home.

Minnesotans named Harriet Island along the Mississippi after her.

John W. Roth, a Yankee and a territorial legislator, headed a committee that recommended an act  to incorporate the University of Minnesota.” The committee “recalled the advance of Harvard and Yale, small in infancy, great in growth and achievement.” It argued that the “New England of the West” needed its own institution of learning.” The governor signed the school’s charter into law in 1851.

7. New Englanders dominated Minnesota politics in the first 50 years of statehood.

Henry Hastings Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, was the great-grandson of Abraham Whipple. Whipple had famously set fire to the British revenue cutter Gaspe off the coast of Providence in 1772. Whipple also served in the Continental Navy, but lost his money in the revolution. He then got a land grant and moved west to Marietta, Ohio, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Sibley continued the family’s western migration, finding success as a fur trader in Minnesota.

Henry Hastings Sibley

Minnesota’s first U.S. Senator, Henry Mower Rice, came from a family that had lived in New England since the early 1600s. Born in Waitsfield, Vt., he had lobbied hard for Minnesota statehood.

Charles Daniel Sherwood, born in New Milford, Conn., won election as lieutenant governor in 1864. He came to Minnesota at the age of 22 in 1855.

Thomas H. Armstrong, the fifth lieutenant governor, had parents born in Rhode Island.

Horace Austin, Minnesota’s sixth governor, was born in Canterbury, Conn. His lieutenant governor, William Yale  ,was born in New Haven to a family that had settled New Haven Colony.

Franco-American Alphonso Barto, the seventh lieutenant governor, was born in Hinesburg, Vt. The eighth governor, John Pillsbury, was born in Sutton, N.H., and his lieutenant governor, James Wakefield, came from Winsted, Conn. Charles Gilman, the ninth lieutenant governor, was born in Gilmanton N.H.

“It would not be until 1895 that the sons and daughters of European homesteaders became the Dominant political force,” wrote Thorsen.

Though not a New Englander, Minnesota’s second governor, Alexander Ramsey, set aside Dec. 26, 1850, as the first Thanksgiving Day in Minnesota.







With thanks to Minnesota: A History of the State by Theodore Christian Blegen.

Images: Loring Park by Doug Kerr via Flickr, CC By-SA 2.0. Congregational Church of Zambrota By Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53581202. Paul Bunyan By Dennis Jarvis – https://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/4447762402/sizes/o/in/photostream/, CC By-SA 2.0. , https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22033451. Pose Lake By R27182818 at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3069673.

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