Humble Beginnings by the Falls:
A hardscrabble start for the founders of the University

Father Hennepin’s falls The University of Minnesota’s history began at St. Anthony Falls, a natural formation stunning to both explorers and land speculators. When Franklin Steele first saw the falls in 1837, there were no roads or buildings near them—they were as
View of St. Anthony's Main Street from about the time of the university's charter (1851).
Father Hennepin saw them when he named them after his favorite saint nearly 200 years before. Steele could not help but imagine the falls as the centerpiece for his ambitions.

When Steele heard that a treaty had been negotiated with the Ojibwe and Dakota to open up lands on the east side of the Mississippi, he moved fast. He paced off his claim in the moonlight, while his hired crew cut trees to build a cabin. By frontier law, the land Steele claimed adjacent to the falls also included the right to develop waterpower—his main objective.

Steele’s goal was to cut timber along the Rum River, float the logs down to St. Anthony, cut them into boards in his sawmill, and use the lumber to build a town. It was an excellent plan, but it required capital—mostly other people’s money—and lots of good fortune. Both seemed in short supply. But through many a disaster, Steele persevered and by the fall of 1848, he had two mills up and running.

22 mice and a piano In the spring of 1849, the year Minnesota became a territory, John Wesley North ventured from New York to St. Anthony in search of a better place to live.

An abolitionist preacher at a time when 9 out of 10 clergy were proslavery, he quit the Methodist church and became a lecturer for the Connecticut Antislavery Society. Needing to make more money, he became a lawyer.

When North made an exploratory visit to Minnesota, Steele noticed him. Thinking that a lawyer would benefit his business activities, Steele promised North and his 17-year-old bride, Ann, the use of his cabin on Nicollet Island, with no urgency to pay rent.

Like most pioneers, the Norths had lots of hope and ambition, but very little money. Before leaving for Minnesota, the couple had to choose between Ann’s coveted grand piano and John’s law library. They chose the piano—it was the first piano in St. Anthony and a reminder of the civility they left behind.

To get to their new island home, the Norths had to pass through a sawmill, then walk along a dam or tiptoe on logs over the water. In the winter, of course, they could cross on the ice. But such crossings put a crimp in their social plans when people refused to risk the journey to their house.

In spring the roads turned to mud, and in winter there were often no roads at all. Few people had milk because it came from downstream and was priced at an exorbitant 10 cents a quart. The only fruit was the cranberry. And most people ate salt pork all winter. Pigs wandered about among piles of logs and lumber. Houses were built with green boards, and housewives had to constantly mop up the oozing moisture. Worst of all, there were no cats to catch the mice. In a letter back home, Ann North talked about catching 22 mice.

In spite of the inconveniences, order was gradually taking hold in St. Anthony. Many streets had boardwalks. Churches were cropping up. School teachers came. There was talk of a library. The population increased from a couple hundred people in 1847 to nearly a thousand a few years later. St. Anthony was beginning to look like a New England village.

“A wholly and altogether
impracticable passage.”

Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremmer writes of her 1849 visit with the Norths:
“…As to describe how we traveled about, how we walked over the river on broken trunks of trees, which were jammed together by the stream in chaotic masses, how we climbed and clambered up and down, over, among, and upon the sticks, and stones, and precipices, and sheer descents—all this I shall not attempt to describe, because it is indescribable.
I considered many a passage wholly and altogether impracticable, until my conductors, both gentlemen and ladies, convinced me that it was to them a simple and everyday path.”
Stillwater gets the penitentiary, St. Anthony gets the University
North played a strong role in attracting New Englanders to St. Anthony. He wrote countless letters to abolitionist newspapers describing life at the falls and faithfully answered every inquiry, recruiting hundreds to St. Anthony. This was perfect for Steele, the investor. But it satisfied North’s ideal, too. North pictured a town filled with people who thought and acted as he did. A year after his arrival, his recruitment efforts paid off when the town’s people elected him and his close friend William Rainey Marshall—a 22-year-old grocer, land surveyor, and future governor of the state—to the first territorial legislature.

One of the first issues confronting the legislature was the location for the state capitol. Marshall, North, and others pushed for St. Anthony as the site. They felt St. Paul, where “gamblers, con men, thieves, and bad women thronged the hotels and streets,” wasn’t seemly. However, St. Anthony’s initiative failed when St. Paul politicians banded together with Stillwater interests: if Stillwater would vote for St. Paul as the capitol, St. Paul, in turn, would vote for Stillwater as the site of the state penitentiary. St. Paul’s victory was close. It became the capitol by a margin of 5 to 4 votes in the council, and 10 to 8 in the legislature. Thus, was the stage set for the location of the next public institution—the University.

In 1785 and 1787, a land-grant policy was established in Washington giving territories huge pieces of land to endow their universities. By the end of 1850, 10 territories had taken advantage of this opportunity. In the territorial legislature, North was chair of the House committee on schools and he could see what should happen next for Minnesota.

Previewing the 1851 legislative session, the Minnesota Chronicle & Register said, “Among the interesting questions which will be brought before the present Legislature, will be the propriety of applying to Congress for a grant of Public Lands to constitute the endowment of a University for the Territory; and we hope it will meet with the most cordial approbation.”

Territorial governor Alexander Ramsey reiterated this message in his opening address to the legislature in January 1851. North convinced Ramsey and his supporters that it was now St. Anthony’s turn to receive a public building.

It was North who wrote the University charter bill, following Ramsey’s guidelines and borrowing language from the University of Wisconsin’s effort a year earlier. The bill officially creating the University of Minnesota was ratified by the territorial legislature on February 19, 1851, and signed into law by the governor on February 25.

1848 painting of St. Anthony Falls by Henry Lewis. The original site of the University is in the background between Nicollet and Hennepin Islands.
In May the school’s regents met for the first time at the St. Charles Hotel in St. Anthony. After an open request for land to build the school, three proposals came in and Franklin Steele’s four-acre donation near present-day Central and University Avenues was accepted. (Later it was discovered that the University never had actual title to the land Steele gave it. So the founders purchased land a mile to the east and built the first permanent building in 1858 where the present Shevlin Hall is located on the East Bank.) Regents solicited donations of money and books for the school, and that fall, on November 26, a two-story wooden building was ready for business.

Few students in the new territory were ready for college-level instruction, so Elijah Merrill, the first teacher, was hired to run the University as a preparatory school. Merrill stayed as a guest of the Norths, and his salary was paid from the $4–$6 per student tuition. In the first week he had about 20 pupils; before the year ended there were 20 more, ready to learn algebra, geometry, physiology, and languages. He began the following year with 85 students and three assistants, two of them women.

The cornerstone of the University was laid by an unpolished, political bunch of young men whose personal ambitions intertwined with the fortunes of this land. They had their eyes on a legacy and a faith that education would strengthen the then fledgling state of Minnesota.

by Carl Franzen

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Last modified Feb 28, 2001
© 2001 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
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