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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.

19th Century Settlement

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In the early 1800s, there were individuals who attempted to establish farms in the area that would become Minneapolis, but not until the 1838 treaty with the Dakota was signed did the lands east of the Mississippi River become open. One of the earlier attempts to claim the land was by Franklin Steele in 1838, in the area that would become the village of St. Anthony. It took until 1848 for the lands to be surveyed and offered for sale. Steele did get legal ownership of the land, and he and several partners built the first dam, started a sawmill, and laid out the town site of St. Anthony. Millwright, postmaster, and miller Ard Godfrey built a house in 1849. It still stands, and is the oldest remaining house in the City of Minneapolis (located at Richard Chute Square, at the intersection of Central and University Avenues).

Pierre Bottineau (1817-1895) an early trapper, trader, guide, and interpreter at Fort Snelling.
Minneapolis Collection, M0762

Snyder and McFarlane Realty Office (ca. 1855).
Minneapolis Collection, BR0008

Colonel John H. Stevens' house, the first frame house built in Minneapolis (1850).
Minneapolis Collection, BR0151

The land west of the Mississippi was purchased from the Dakotas in the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and opened for settlement the next year. Colonel John H. Stevens' house was built in 1850. It was the first permanent settler's home on the west bank of the Mississippi in what was to become Minneapolis. Some of the early residents in St. Anthony were individuals who had branched out from fur trading like Pierre Bottineau, a son of a French-Canadian fur trader and an Ojibway mother. Other early residents include Emily Grey and her husband Ralph, who were free black people living in Minnesota. They were friends of the anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass and they were deeply committed to seeking freedom for all slaves. They moved here in 1855 and assisted other Blacks in securing their freedom by working with the state law or helping get individuals to Canada.

A blue-collar worker driving a wagon in the flour milling district (circa 1860).
Minneapolis Collection, BR0092

Dentist D. Kirby Spencer's house on Washington Avenue, between 1856 and 1869.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0139

The first sizable wave of settlers reached Minneapolis in the 1850s and 1860s. They represented town site developers, timber speculators, small businessmen, and organizers of churches and schools, with many coming from the New England states and New York. Influential early settlers include John S. Pillsbury, John H. Stevens, William Cheever, Caleb Dorr, Anson Northrup, and Henrietta Bishop.

Scandinavians began arriving in the United States as early as the mid-1820s. Because of their roots in an agrarian economy, increasing numbers of Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes made their way to the plains and prairies of the Midwest. The first major influx of Scandinavians to Minneapolis occurred in the mid-1860s, influenced by the end of the Civil War and the worsening economic conditions in Norway and Sweden. Two Scandinavians who had visited the area in the 1850s and had promoted the area to their fellow countrymen back home were Frederika Bremer (of Sweden) and Ole Bull (of Norway), a concert violinist. Bull was largely responsible for the formation of a Scandinavian Society, organized in 1869. In 1895 a group of Norwegian immigrants formed the Sons of Norway, a fraternal insurance organization, which continues to this day. Minneapolis was to become one of the primary centers of the Scandinavian press in the United States. Published here were the Minneapolis Tidende, a Norwegian daily and weekly; the Vikingen-Minneapolis, a Danish-Norwegian publication; and the Svenska-Amerikanska Posten, a Swedish weekly (owned by Swan J. Turnblad, who donated his mansion on 26th Street and Park Avenue to the American Swedish Institute in 1929). The Scandinavian influence was also seen in the establishment of their churches, primarily Lutheran, and schools. A chair in Scandinavian languages was formed at the University of Minnesota in 1884. Augsburg College, founded as a Norwegian Lutheran seminary in 1869, was moved in 1871 from Wisconsin to Minneapolis, where it remains today.

Members of the Minneapolis Norrona Leikarring dancing the Norwegian Flag dance (1940).
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Nationalities: Scandinavian

The largest overall influx of Europeans to the city occurred just before the end of the 19th Century. Many were new to the United States; others were offspring of Scandinavian and German immigrant farmers moving to the city to seek their fortunes. In the 1880s nearly all the cooks and maids in Minneapolis were immigrants. Two-thirds were Scandinavian and the rest German and Irish. Until the 1890s most immigrants to Minnesota were from northern and western European countries. By 1900 many of the newcomers came from countries like Italy, Greece and Poland, and southern or eastern European countries. Minneapolis had about 60,000 foreign-born residents (36.8% of the total population) in 1890. In 1900, Minneapolis had more working women, most of whom were immigrants, living in rented rooms than most other cities in the country.

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