Minnesotans had business dealings with slave holders, Otter Tail museum speaker says

Christopher Lehman, St. Cloud State University

Many followers of state history know that Minnesota was the first state to volunteer soldiers for the Civil War, starting in 1861.

Few people know about a different side of state history, when southern slaveholders came to Minnesota to invest in real estate and businesses. This took place starting in the 1840s and continued through the Civil War which ended in 1865.

Speaking on this subject, via Zoom as part of the Nov. 12 county museum annual meeting, was Christopher Lehman, professor of ethnic studies at St. Clous State University.

Lehman is the author of a book, “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State.”

Minnesota did not become a state until 1858, and before that was a territory. In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court, through the Dred Scott decision, said that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from the territories.


“Therefore, from March 1857 to May 1858, slavery was legal in Minnesota Territory,” Lehman said. “As a result, there was an influx of southerners visiting Minnesota in the summer of 1857.”

The 13th amendment that abolished slavery, through the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, passed the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. The amendment was ratified by the necessary number of states in 1865.

“Many Minnesotans, in the 1840s and 1850s, cultivated their business relationships with slaveholders from southern states,” Lehman said.

Fur traders in Minnesota willingly made sales with Chouteau and Company, which was a major southern slaveholder.

Real estate deeds provided proof for author Lehman.

“When you look at the real estate deeds prior to 1865, and see the names of southerners buying land in Minnesota, this gives you a new perspective,” Lehman said.

Southern slaveholders did not confine their business dealings to the Twin Cities.

Their investments also extended into rural Minnesota, including areas that later became part of Otter Tail and Wilkin counties.


Towns with southern slaveholder ties included Clitherall and Breckenridge.

“Minnesota, historically, has its good points but also its flaws,” said Lehman to those who heard his comments and saw him via Zoom on Nov. 12. “Discussions about Minnesota and slavery can and should take place.”

Prior to Lehman’s address, county historical society director Chris Schuelke gave a review of county museum operations during COVID-19. The museum in Fergus Falls is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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