Monday, July 5, 2021

City of Opportunity: The First 45 Pages

The first 45 pages of the 1956 Minneapolis centennial commemorative book, Minneapolis: City of Opportunity, are an attempt to "sketch in words and pictures something of the color and romance" of the great men who colonized the area that became Minneapolis. The people who were colonized and often killed or pushed elsewhere are mentioned in cursory, inaccurate ways.

It's particularly interesting to look at this book now, as we see the current false argument playing out nationally that's supposedly about Critical Race Theory, but is really about how our educational systems should define history itself. The Right wants to define history as a comforting set of myths that support the U.S. as they construe it — unassailably good, a city on a hill — even as they also work to destroy the best parts of it through their voter suppression efforts.

In Minnesota, we have a specific version of this fight that's happening between Republicans and a think tank called the Center of the American Experiment, which together want to pretend that white people get to describe how our state took control of this land from its original inhabitants, and historians and Indigenous people who have different versions of what happened... based on something called facts.

This has been playing out recently on the Star Tribune's op-ed page, where Katherine Kersten of CAE published a screed calling for control of the state's historical sites to be taken from the Minnesota Historical Society because MHS has become "politicized." Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature attempted such a change in their most recent session. This all started because MHS wanted to change the sign on Historic Fort Snelling to say "Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote," to acknowledge that the fort is at a site that had a name before it was called Fort Snelling by white people. A number of letter-writers have responded to Kersten refuting her points.

All of that is to say — the Minneapolis 1956 book's version of the city's earliest history is the same one Katherine Kersten and CAE would approve.

  • The Indigenous people who lived here are referred to as the Sioux, of course. It's mentioned almost in passing at one point that they are also called the Dakota.
  • The general framing is your basic Manifest Destiny, with European domination of this continent as the natural, foregone conclusion. North America is called "the prize."
  • Much attention is given to the waterfalls at the heart of Minneapolis, which were named for St. Anthony by a Catholic priest who came there in 1680. (See what I did there? I didn't name the man who is usually called the "discover" of the falls.*)
  • Zebulon Pike gets the next major write-up of note. An Army lieutenant in 1805, Pike was charged to "obtain permission" to erect military installations at the falls, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and at any other critical points he saw. Then — seemingly magically according to the text — Pike bought all the land covering 9 miles on either side of the river from the confluence to the falls for 1 1/4 cents an acre. No problem! Somehow, this included two of the most sacred sites to the Dakota, but it was no problem at all. The "Sioux chief Little Crow" is mentioned as the one who sold him the land. I really can't get over this point: the Dakota believe Bdote is where life began. Would they have sold it this easily? Why did this one man have the right to sell it for all of them, even if he did sign something? It's obviously a story that serves the U.S. Army as a legal excuse. Here's a site offering information that contradicts the 1956 book's version. (Note: Little Crow's grandson of the same name later led the so-called Uprising of 1862.)
  • The War of 1812 showed the U.S. Army the need for fortification on the land they had "bought" at the Mississippi, since the Dakota were British allies and having your rear to the west unprotected had turned out to be a bad idea. So a fort was built, starting in 1820, which became Fort Snelling.
  • Within a few years of the fort's construction, wheat was planted to feed the soldiers and the falls at St. Anthony were the site of a mill. The east bank of the falls became the settlement of St. Anthony, while the west side was a prohibited area under the treaty.
  • Major Lawrence Taliaferro was a key figure in turning the Dakota to farming, which the book approves of highly, of course. It describes the Dakota as "his Indians" and that he had a plan for "raising the red man out of barbarism" (p. 24).
  • The Dakota chief Cloud Man gets two pages of the book, though I'd say it's because he's seen as a collaborator and an exception who had "fine blood" that made his descendants highly assimilated (yes, the book literally says those words). He was one of the signers of the treaties of 1837, of the Traverse des Sioux in 1851, and the Washington treaty of 1858. Overall, he had a key part in signing it all away, yet still died in the internment camp at Fort Snelling during the winter of 1862.
  • Henry Sibley, a leading fur trader who was later the state's first governor, is said to have "had a genius for hospitality" but also that "He was waited on by Indians." I wonder what their "employment" arrangement was.
  • The west side of the Mississippi, or what became downtown Minneapolis, turned into an obvious land-grab, though the book does not call it that. A Colonel John Stevens was officially allowed to set up in a little house at a ferry crossing near what's now called Nicollet Island, but soon afterward squatters followed. "[T]he growing certainty that settlement could not be stopped in its steady westward march...brought a rush of squatters over the river." Then there's an unintentionally hilarious couple of paragraphs about the white people being outraged over other white people claim-jumping, i.e. stealing stolen land out from under the other stealers (p. 40). The writers do not see the irony in this. By May 1855, through an act of Congress, "the settlers obtained clear title to 19,773 acres — most of what is now south Minneapolis — for $24,668.37." [That's $1.25 per acre... which my handy inflation calculator tells me is about $35.00 per acre in 2020 dollars. And of course, I don't believe that money was paid to the Dakota, but to other white land speculators.]

A story on pages 22–23 provides a glimpse of 1956's attitude as it filters the 19th century world view. The headline is "A Frontier Love Story," and it goes like this. A young white man named Philander Prescott came from the east at some point and was "the government farmer for the Indians at Lake Calhoun [which has now now been more appropriately named Bde Mka Ska]":

Like many a trader, young Prescott had an eye for Indian girls and for one in particular, Mary... [Her] father had run up a bill at Prescott's trading post and the young trader took the bright-eyed, straight-haired girl in settlement of account — not an unusual practice at this time on the frontier. They were married according to Indian custom.

Indian marriages were held lightly by men of the old West. Prescott was no exception. When the wanderlust struck again, he thought nothing of leaving Mary and his Indian children. Traders did it all the time.

So essentially, Mary — I wonder what her real name was — was sold into enslavement by her father to resolve a debt. And then she was abandoned by Prescott with multiple children (no number need be given since they don't really matter). The "good" news in this charming story, which would not be included in the book if it weren't for the rest of it, is that her erstwhile husband later was struck by an attack of Christian conscience and came back to Fort Snelling to reunite with her. Finding his family gone with a buffalo-hunting party, he followed and found them in Missouri:

Through unbelievable hardship and privation, he tramped the unmarked prairies. And then one day he came over a rise to look down on the fugitive smoke of a Sioux teepee town.

Mary was surprised and delighted to see him. In the simple Indian way, she welcomed him back with no explanations demanded.... Prescott...insisted they travel hundreds of miles to a missionary outpost to be married by an ordained minister of a Christian church.

So he left his family, had a change of heart and returned to find them gone, but the smoke of their town was what was fugitive? And he's then played up as a hero for insisting on getting married the "real" way?

The story continues for a few more paragraphs, telling us that Mary and the children all were baptized, and the family lived near Fort Snelling until 1855, when

After the Sioux removal to the upper Minnesota River ["removal": a euphemism for an important event that goes completely unexplained in the text], Prescott and his wife and children moved out west to be with her people. In the Uprising of 1862, Prescott was warned of impending danger by Little Crow but failed to escape. A Sioux war party shot him down not far from Fort Ridgely. Mary lived on until 1867.

That brief description makes me wonder if Prescott was killed inadvertently or not. Maybe there was something else going on there. Hmm.

After all of that in the book's 45 opening pages, the city of Minneapolis is incorporated and the Indigenous people disappear almost completely from the narrative, giving way to progress, technology, lots of ads, and a succession of white men, as I described yesterday. There are two exceptions.

The first is this somewhat random page about halfway through the book:

That text and illustration are juxtaposed on a two-page spread with an aerial shot of the city from just over Loring Park, looking at downtown, which at the time was dominated by the 32-story Foshay Tower and a few other buildings. The 1956 boosters of Minneapolis are happy to use the Sioux for contrast so they can talk about transforming a wilderness, a shining symbol created by devoted men.  

The second example is from the only ad in the book that had obvious racist content. This full-page for Radisson Hotels is... whew.

Here's what most of that copy says:

Indians are smart people. They picked out the location around St. Anthony Falls as very attractive long before the white man paid much attention to it. And there's very little doubt that a couple of chiefs sat at a campfire in front of their teepees near St. Anthony Falls many, many moons ago and had powwow.

"Heap fine place," said Chief No. 1, "be big camping ground some day with many teepees." "You said it," replied Chief No. 2. "With wampum," said Chief No. 1, "we build big hotel right here on Seventh Street." He patted the ground. "You said it," replied Chief No. 2. "Call it Radisson," said Chief No. 1, "in honor of Indians' friend Pierre Esprit Sieur de Radisson." "You said it," replied Chief No. 2.

Many, many moons passed. The Village of St. Anthony added teepee after teepee. The name was changed to Minneapolis. On December 15, 1909, the new Hotel Radisson on Seventh Street was opened with a celebration that was one of the most brilliant social events in the history of the city...

Somewhere in the Happy Hunting Grounds are two Indian chiefs with a keen interest in what goes on around here. "This Radisson," says Chief No. 1, "heap wonderful place. And new Radisson, heap big teepee." "You said it," replied Chief No. 2.

I guess this was what passed for clever writing at the time. But even without the offensive pidgin dialog, the twisted idea that Dakota people would name something after a French fur trader like Radisson is such a white-centered way of thinking. Obviously, on one level it's just bad copywriting, but it's also offensive.

All of this is the kind of perspective Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, Katherine Kersten, and the Center of the American Experiment want to enshrine as history in Minnesota, from the incessant great men-ism to the assumption that farming and Christianity were necessary parts of a Manifest Destiny that meant the Dakota needed to get out of the way or die if they didn't. 

CAE and its advocates may have toned down some of the 1956 terminology about barbarism, but their thinking is the same.


* The description of how the priest found the falls is full of assumptions and European-biased thinking. I wonder how the Dakota thought of their time with him?

Father Hennepin and two lay companions left LaSalle's fort in the Illinois country on the last day of February 1680. LaSalle wanted a report on the upper Mississippi River country. Early in April, Father Hennepin and his party ran into Sioux raiders descending the river. The Sioux took them upstream, through Lake Pepin, and probably as far north as St. Paul, where the party struck overland to the big Sioux encampments around Mille Lacs.

The missionary and his companions remained with the Indians, virtual prisoners, until mid-summer, when the Sioux left for their yearly buffalo hunt. Father Hennepin was allowed to depart. He paddled down river in the hope of finding Frenchmen and supplies on the Wisconsin. It was on this journey that he found and named St. Anthony Falls — for St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of his own native Franciscan province in France (p. 11).

Do you think the priest and his companions were "virtual prisoners" if they were let go so easily later? Does that make any sense? 

And the haphazard naming of the falls for a saint who has nothing to do with anything is one of those things that constantly irks me. St. Anthony has about 47 things named after him in the Twin Cities and no one even knows why. 

It turns out, there isn't really a reason except one arbitrary decision by a French guy who was lost. Ugh.

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