Minnesota fought for the Union in the Civil War. So how did the state benefit from slavery?

Lehman slavery book.jpg 2019 photo
Christopher Lehman, a St. Cloud State University professor, stands with his book "Slavery's Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State" in his office Oct. 23. Clairissa Baker / St. Cloud Times

MOORHEAD — Minnesota is proud of its heritage as the first state to offer men to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Its historical collections include a Confederate flag captured by Minnesota infantry volunteers during bloody Pickett's Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Minnesota, admitted to the Union as a free state in 1858, was the temporary home of a slave named Dred Scott whose unsuccessful legal quest for freedom was one of the smoldering sparks that later ignited the Civil War.

And Minnesota, with a population of 180,000 during the outbreak of the war in 1861, would send 24,000 men to fight for the union, shouldering a disproportionate share that it proudly counts as part of its early history.

Much less known, however — and much less comforting to remember — is how the wealth of slaveholders was critical in developing Minnesota during its territorial and early statehood eras.

Slave money, in fact, was crucial in founding at least two Minnesota towns, Shakopee and Belle Plaine, and helped prop up the University of Minnesota as it struggled during its fledgling days.


Those startling facts were unearthed by the historical sleuthing of Christopher Lehman, a professor at St. Cloud State University who recently wrote a book, “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State.”

Lehman will give a lecture, with free admission , about his book at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

Towns along the Mississippi in Minnesota were popular riverboat travel destinations. “One way to attract southerners was to allow slaveholders to bring their slaves,” Lehman said, adding that it was common for visiting slave owners to disembark with one or two personal slaves.

Lehman embarked upon his research four years ago, which he began by combing through property records in towns along the Mississippi River and near fur-trading posts where much of Minnesota’s early settlement took place.

When he found property owners who were from southern states, he checked to see if their names matched those on lists of known slaveholders.

Some of the matches he found were especially interesting. They included men who sold their slaves and used proceeds to buy land in Minnesota Territory to help found Belle Plaine, located halfway between St. Paul and Mankato, and Shakopee, today a Twin Cities suburb.

“That’s pretty much how the towns of Belle Plaine and Shakopee were founded in the 1850s,” Lehman said.

Similarly, the cash-strapped University of Minnesota “pretty much” survived thanks to a $15,000 loan — that’s the equivalent of about $250,000 today — from a South Carolina slaveholder named William Aiken.


The university repaid part of the loan, then suspended payment when the Civil War broke out. A year after the war started, Minnesota passed the Rebellion Act, which prohibited southerners in Confederate states from collecting debts owed by Minnesota borrowers — so Aiken was stuck.

“The university still owes the money today,” Lehman said. Lehman believes he was the first to discover the slave money connection to the university’s early history. He’s spoken about the slaveholder financing during three campus appearances in recent years.

“That’s probably the most infamous part of the book,” he said. “It’s public knowledge now at the university.”

Also largely forgotten are the slaveholder ties by several prominent Minnesota figures, including Henry Sibley and Henry Rice, both involved in the fur trade. Dred Scott, in fact, was brought to Minnesota by a fur trader.

Sibley, who was Minnesota’s first governor, had been a fur trader with the American Fur Company, whose St. Louis owners were slaveholders. Sibley also was a commander in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and soon after led a punitive campaign against the Sioux in Dakota Territory.

Rice lobbied for a bill to create Minnesota Territory and was involved in several treaty negotiations with American Indians in Minnesota.

One of the arguments Lehman makes in his book is that slavery didn’t have to be present within Minnesota’s borders in order for Minnesota to benefit from the slave trade. Its early merchants and boosters were eager for the money that came from those who profited by enslaving people.

“Minnesotans generally were just fine doing business with slaveholders,” he said. The reaction to the book, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press , so far has largely been one of surprised readers.


“People feel they know more about where they live,” he said. “It gives them a fuller picture of where they live.”

Did Moorhead or Clay County have any connections to money from the slave trade?

“I haven’t found any,” Lehman said. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t any.”

If you go

What: Lecture by Christopher Lehman, author of "Slavery's Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State." Admission is free.

When: 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22

Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 1st Ave. N., Moorhead

Related Topics: HISTORY
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