The Minnesota

​Territorial Pioneers

Christopher Bankers

Question: "How did religion play a role in the settlement of the Minnesota Territory?"

The Role of Religion in the Settlement of Minnesota Territory

The fur trade brought Europeans into what would become the Minnesota Territory beginning roughly in the 1500’s (Fur Trade in Minnesota). This began the exchange of cultures between native Indians and Europeans that included the exchange of religious ideas that helped shape what would become the State of Minnesota.  Indian religious beliefs and Christianity add a rich and beautiful landscape not unlike the varied and beautiful landscape of Minnesota itself.  By the time Minnesota became a territory in 1849 there were 4,535 Euro-Americans, up to 1/3 of them of mixed Indian and European ancestry, in nine counties and an unrecorded-approximate 31,700 Indians (White 32).

The fur trade began with French adventurers who quickly found that their survival depended on the kindness of the Indians with which they traded (Wingerd 24). Traders brought different animals: horses, pigs, sheep and goats. They also brought coffee, black peppers, bananas, citrus and coffee. In addition to furs, Indians traded tobacco, corn, peppers, squash, potatoes and tomatoes (Atkins 16). The traders adapted to Indians way of life to a significant extent and Indian culture was altered as well.  “Indian thinking” resonated with nature itself and the seasonal cycles that occur that are relate to the universe.  Native Indian’s religion was part of the harvesting of the wild rice in Minnesota.  It was traditionally harvested by 2 people in a canoe: one guiding the canoe and the second person knocking the kernels.  Some of the kernels fall into the canoe and some of the kernels fall into the water to give thanks for the harvest while ensuring the next crop.  The Dakota prayed to Wakantanka, the Great Mystery, as they planted corn (A. and D Treuer 22). This blending of agriculture with religion was similar to the Catholic farmers of Stearns County who planted potatoes on March 11th, the Feast of the Holy Martyrs. (Atkins 42).  Where the Indian and European religious traditions could find familiarity there could be an element of acceptance.  But there were other areas of religious conflict.  There were Christian missionaries even before Minnesota became a territory.  The first Christian mission was in 1727 at Fort Beauharnois (A State Guide). Missionaries believed Indians to be promiscuous because Indians could divorce without stigmas. Intermarriages were important to trade.  Christian missionaries tried to force couples to get marriages “Blessed by the Church” to bring legitimacy to a practice that often times was motivated by business.  When France surrendered its North American territories to the British in 1763 there was a well established population of mix blood people group known as metis (Wingerd 225).  With colonization, the fur trade became less important and the Indian people became marginalized.

Minnesota was established as a territory from 1849-1858 by an act of Congress signed by President James Polk.  It included portions of North and South Dakota with the Western border being the Missouri river and the eastern border the St. Croix River.  The land had belonged to the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. The population was concentrated in St. Paul, Still water and St. Anthony.  Through a series of Indian treaties, many negotiated by, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey the land was transferred to the United States. (Gilman 11).  Christian missionaries began immigrating to the Minnesota Territory along with an influx of emigrants from the eastern states.  The first immigrants were largely Irish and German Catholics.  By 1851, St. Paul became the seat for a bishop. The Sisters of St. Joseph opened the first hospital in St. Paul in 1854.Missionaries to the Indians were often both evangelist and teacher.  Many of them founded churches and built English newspapers (Win 52). An example of this was Joseph Hancock who was the first white settler in Redwing.  He was the postmaster, a teacher of the mission school and the local pastor of a Presbyterian church.  He also established a good relationship with the Dakota Indians in the area (Minnesota Communities).  Most early schools in Minnesota were Christian Church sponsored.  This led to the development of the Catholic parochial school system in Minnesota. The Pond brothers were lay missionaries who tutored the Dakota Indians on the west bank of Lake Harriet in 1835. Many of Minnesota’s colleges were the result of religious pioneers.  They include the oldest college in Minnesota, Hamline University that was established in 1854 by Methodists (A State Guide).   

Swedish immigrants in the 19th century belonged to the Lutheran Church.  Others joined the Baptist, Methodist, Mormons or evangelical reformed movement.  One of the first activities these immigrants did was establish a congregation. By 1855, there were Lutheran churches in St. Paul, Center City Scandia, Vasa and Red Wing (Lewis 54).

Groups of Norwegians immigrated to Minnesota due to overpopulation, food shortages, and farm foreclosures in Norway. Between 1825-1928, 850,000 Norwegians immigrated. They moved to try to preserve their rural way of life which was tied to the pietistic religious movement in Norway inspired by Hans Nielsen Hauge.  Hauge preached about “living the faith”.  Similar to the Swedish immigrants, their social and religious center focused around the Lutheran church. The community would settle, call a minister and construct a church and parsonage (Gjerde and Qualey 1).

In conclusion, Minnesota has a rich history blending cultures and religions. Native Indian’s spirituality and a mix of various Christian traditions including Catholicism, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and other Protestant faiths assisted in building our state by advancing agriculture, building schools and communities and eventually the industries we see today.

Works Cited

  • Annette Atkins. Creating Minnesota. St.Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007. Print
  • “Fur Trade in Minnesota”. Gale Family Library. Web. 2/03/14
  • Gilman, Rhoda R. “How Minnesota Became the 32nd State”. Making Minnesota History 1849-1858. Ed. Anne R. Kaplan and Marilyn Ziebarth. St.Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1999. 2-25. Print.
  • Gjerde, Jon and Carlton Qualey. Norwegians in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002. Print.
  • Lewis, Anne Gillespie. Swedes in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2004. Print.
  • “Minnesota: A State Guide”. American Guide Series. 1938. Web. 2/04/14
  • “Minnesota Communities People”. Minnesota Historical Society. Web. 2/10/14
  • Treuer, Anton and Treuer, David. “Ojibwe”. Making Minnesota History 1849-1858. Ed. Anne R. Kaplan and Marilyn Ziebarth. St.Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1999. 20-22. Print.
  • White, Bruce M. “The Power of Whiteness”. Making Minnesota History 1849-1858. Ed. Anne R. Kaplan and Marilyn Ziebarth. St.Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1999. 26-49. Print.
  • Wilson, Angela Cavender. Making Minnesota History 1849-1858. Ed. Anne R. Kaplan and Marilyn Ziebarth. St.Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1999. 48-62. Print.
  • Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country the Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

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