A Brief History of Land Settlement in Minnesota

The following is from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Minnesota Pre-1908 Homestead & Cash Entry Patents CD-ROM:


The Minnesota land patent records of the U.S. General Land Office (GLO) document the first transfer of title of public lands within the boundaries of Minnesota from the federal government to private individuals, corporations, tribes, and the State of Minnesota. The patent records for the State of Minnesota cover the period of 1848 to 1930. In 1848, the first land in what would become the State of Minnesota was opened for entry; in 1930, the public domain was declared closed within the state. The GLO records are the basis of all land titles in the State and are valuable for a wide range of geographical, historical, genealogical, and land law research.

The first Continental Congress framed the federal government's land disposal policies within the Articles of Confederation and, with the Land Ordinance of 1785, called for a method of survey to systematically define disposition of the lands beyond the boundaries of the first 13 colonies. Because there were differing views of the proper role and purposes for disposal of the public domain -- either as a source of revenue for the insolvent national government or as a means of getting the western lands into the hands of individual families for actual settlement and development -- some have referred to the federal land policy as an "incongruous system." However, the basic Cadastral Survey System, established for purposes of disposal of the public domain, provided for an orderly system of measuring and defining the boundaries of these lands.

After the first surveys were completed in Ohio, the first public domain lands were sold from a one-room office of the Board of Treasury in the Federal Building located in lower New York City. That office was moved to Philadelphia in 1790. The deficiencies of Land Ordinance policies included the requirements that all public lands be paid for in cash, brought wide spread demands for a reform of public lands laws. Congress responded. On May 10, 1800, President John Adams signed a new public land law meeting most of the demands of the settlers, including that land sales were held near were the tracts being offered.

The land offices became the primary administrative units for sales; in fact, the GLO established a policy that land sales could be entered on (or filed on for acquisition) only in the land office of the district in which the tract was located. {N.B. "To enter," "to locate," or "to file on" were terms used to describe the process of acquiring government land by "private entry" as opposed to public auction. Thus, the person locating land was an "entryman."} In order to keep the sales orderly, Congress authorized the establishment of new land districts to the West and, in some cases, specified the location of the first land office in each district.

Many things combined to increase the work load. In 1803, President Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, adding more than 500 million acres of public lands west of the Mississippi River. From 1800 to 1812, Congress created 14 new districts besides those established in 1800. For each new district a land office had to be set up and two new officials appointed to run the district. By law, the land offices were to be closed and districts consolidated when less than 100,000 acres of land in a district remained open for entry.

The GLO was established within the U.S. Department of the Treasury by an act of Congress of April 25, 1812. It was responsible for managing the disposal of the public domain. Prior to this time, three government departments were responsible for disposal of government lands. The Treasury Department oversaw the sale of land, the War Department managed military bounty land warrants, and the State Department countersigned all patents. The GLO became the central authority for disposal of the public domain. The primary means by which land was conveyed out of the Federal domain were public auctions, private cash purchases, warrant and scrip entries, homestead and timber culture entries, and grants to the states and railroads.

The Office of the Surveyor General was established by the Act of May 18, 1796 within the GLO. The Surveyor General was charged with overseeing the systematic survey of the public domain lands. However, the survey and land disposal activities were directed independently of one another. In 1849, the GLO became part of the newly established Department of the Interior, established to expand settlement into the west while generating revenue for the Federal government. In 1946, the GLO became part of the newly created Bureau of Land Management (BLM) within the Department of the Interior. The BLM retains the Secretary of the Interior's copies of the GLO records (patents, warrants, grants, survey plats and field notes).

Despite the enduring differences in perspectives on the purposes of the public domain, by the time the first land in what would become the State of Minnesota was opened for entry, the GLO had developed standardized administrative structures and procedures for disposal of the public domain. As westward settlement expanded, Congress authorized the creation of new land districts. There were eleven land districts in Minnesota: Alexandria, Cass Lake, Crookston, Duluth, Minneapolis, Ojibway (no records exist for this district), Red Wing, Root River, St. Cloud, Stillwater, and Winona. The boundaries of some of the districts changed considerably over the years as new districts were carved out of old, land was transferred from one district to another, and districts were closed and consolidated.

When the land office of a district was transferred to a new location, the records were simply carried forward. As land districts were closed, their records were transferred to the land office of the successor district. By 1908, only Cass Lake, Crookston, and Duluth land districts remained in existence. The records of all other districts had been transferred to Duluth. The Crookston and Duluth districts were closed in 1925 and the first copy of the records were transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society. The society also acquired the records of Cass Lake when that district was closed in 1933. The Secretary of the Interior's copy of the records are in the Bureau of Land Management's ES in Springfield Va.

By law, all land that had been surveyed and was to be opened for entry had to be offered for sale at public auction; this was "offered land." "Unoffered land" was public domain, both surveyed and unsurveyed that had not been put up for sale at public auction. The date of each auction was set by a presidential order listing the tracts to be sold. Each 40 acre parcel was sold to the highest bidder with a minimum price of $1.25 per acre. The sale continued until all of the listed tracts were offered for bid; any land that did not receive a minimum bid was then subject to private sale.

Prior to 1841, it was illegal to settle on unoffered land. A series of laws prohibited illegal settling on public land and an act of 1807 permitted forcible removal of "squatters" or "pre- empters." In reality, these laws proved ineffective as settlers moved onto and improved unoffered and unsurveyed land. Once the pre-empted land was surveyed and about to be offered for bid and auction, the settlers were often faced with the prospect of losing their claim to the highest bidder. In order to forestall removal from their claim, the pre-emptors frequently organized "claim clubs" that worked to delay the scheduling of sales or attempted to prevent bidding on pre-empted claims. These settlers also lobbied Congress for legislation recognizing their claims and permitting them to enter the land at the minimum price. While several pre-emption acts were passed during the early 19th century, they were limited in scope. Finally, in 1841, a general and prospective pre-emption law was passed; it recognized the claims of settlers on surveyed but unoffered land. An act of 1854 extended pre-emption rights to settlers on unsurveyed land in Minnesota. By filing an intention to purchase with the local land officer, the pre-emptor could protect his claim and later purchase it at the minimum price of $1.25 per acre. Settlers claims were shown on original survey plats.

Disposal of public land in Minnesota

In Minnesota, very few acres of land, except for sales of prime timber land, were sold at auction. Those acres that were auctioned brought only the minimum bids. This was partially because of the successes of the claim clubs and cooperation among potential bidders to control the cost of land. Additionally, most buyers in Minnesota were quite hesitant to risk bidding up the price of a tract that could have been bought at $1.25 per acre in a private transaction. Private cash purchases, scrip and warrant entries, and homestead and timber culture entries were all singular transactions by individuals; auctions were openly public purchases.

The methods for applying to acquire public land were similar for all the different types of entries. If the entryman did not pre- select a tract or parcel, he could look at the available survey plats and tract books to determine what land was available for entry. The survey plat gave prospective entryman a good indication of the topography of the land. After selecting a parcel for entry, he filed an application with the register of the land office. The register cross-checked the plats and tract books to determine if the selected parcel was open. The entryman then paid the purchase price and other fees and commissions due. The receiver in the land office issued a receipt and recorded the transaction in the register of receipts. The receipt was then recorded by the register in the tract book, on the plat, and in the appropriate register of entries. Finally, the entryman was given a "certificate" that established his claim to the parcel pending the issuance of a patent.

Warrants and scrip were government "IOU's" entitling the owner to enter a specified acreage of land within specified localities. The warrants were issued as bonuses or salaries for military service; scrip of various types were issued as substitutes for actual land grants or as repayment for certain dispossessed claimants. The warrants and scrip were issued in denominations generally ranging from 40 to 160 acres. Warrants could be used only to enter offered land while some scrip could also be used to enter unoffered and unsurveyed land. Most warrants and scrip could be assigned or transferred. In fact, there was an open and recognized market in land paper, particularly in the land office towns. The warrants and scrip had a face value of $1.25 per acre but many were discounted by brokers at considerably reduced rates. Many large scale land speculators and dealers made broad use of warrants and scrip in acquiring their holdings.

Homestead and timber culture entries were means of distributing free public land. Homesteaders could obtain up to 160 acres of land by living on and improving their claim for five years. The Timber Culture Act allowed individuals to acquire an additional 160 acres by planting a specified proportion in trees. Homestead and timber culture entries could be made on offered land and surveyed unoffered land. Notations showing Homestead entrys in the Tract Books can be identified with the notation HD in the Part of Section field.

Federal land grants to the states were conveyed either by direct legislation or by a sequence of selections and approved lists. The Minnesota statehood act transferred title to sections 16 and 36 of each township to the state for school purposes. For other categories of trust fund land, the state chose the tracts it wanted by filing selection lists with the local land offices. The selection lists were examined by the registrars and receivers and the commissioner of the GLO for conflicting claims. If none existed, the Secretary of the Interior approved the selected land for patenting to the state.

The Federal Government granted lands to several railroads to aid in the construction of their lines in Minnesota. The State of Minnesota served as a go-between in the administration of these grants. The granted lands were patented to Minnesota and the state then deeded the land to the railroad as prescribed by the terms of the grant.

Early Dakota and Ojibway Settlement

While archaeologists have recorded settlements of Native Americans in Minnesota dating back to at least 10,000 years ago, the Dakota (also known as Sioux) and the Ojibway (also known as Chippewa) are the Native American people who were confronted by European fur traders and explorers and white American settlers as they moved into traditional lands. Actually, the Assiniboin and several other historic tribes moved to the west during the early 1600s, soon after the French explorers and traders entered the lands that would become Minnesota.

In the late 1830s, Governor Henry Dodge of the Wisconsin Territory (containing Minnesota East) obtained cession of all of the Ojibway lands on the St. Croix River and the Dakota ceded their land east of the Mississippi to the United States government. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, by the time early white settlement took place, the Dakota lived on the prairie and bottomland hardwood forests of the southern portion of the state and the Ojibway lived in the pine forests of central and northern Minnesota. Both societies had a mixed woodland subsistence economy that required scheduled and seasonal movement to hunt, fish and gather and harvest their foods.

During the 1850s and 60s, both tribes were forced to give up most of what is now Minnesota in treaties. Treaties signed at Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851 left the Dakota with only narrow reservations along the upper Minnesota River. In 1854, the Mississippi, Lake Superior, and Bois Fort bands of the Ojibway ceded their lands surrounding the western tip of Lake Superior and north to the Canadian border. In 1855, the Mississippi, Pillager, and Winnibigoshish bands relinquished their claims to the lands from Mille Lacs Lake north to the Canadian border and west to the Red River. In 1863, the Red Lake and Pembina bands gave up their land on both sides of the Red River north to the Canadian border. In 1866, the Bois Fort ceded additional territory south of the Rainy river.

Thus by the mid-1860s, much of the Ojibway and Dakota lands had been transferred to the United States government for sale to white settlers. They were paid much less than the government received from later buyers and were allotted reservations and promised various other benefits. Additionally, both tribes suffered tremendous population and economic losses during subsequent decades due, in part, to United States government policy of consolidating tribes on large reservation tracts during the 1860s and 1870s. Then, in the mid-1880s, in the face of pressure to release reservation land for white settlement, the Federal government reversed its policy.

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Allotment Act which authorized the Indian Office to allot from 80 to 160 acres of land to enrolled members of any reservation for the stated purpose of engaging in farming and ranching. The unallotted lands were then sold to the general public. In order to implement the main features of the Dawes Act, Congressman Knute Nelson sponsored what passed as the 1888 Nelson Act that provided for the concentration of all Ojibway (except the Red Lake) on the White Earth Reservation and for allotment of the reservation land, including timber land, to them. An amendment to the bill altered the consolidation policy, however, and permitted the Red Lake Reservation to remain closed or unallotted to individual tribal members; it also allowed other Ojibway to take up allotments on their old reservation lands rather than at White Earth. By 1900 White Earth had become the home of 3,800 of the state's 10,000 Ojibway. Gus H. and Theodore H. Beaulieu, publishers of The Progress, an English language newspaper published on the reservation were among some of the earliest allottees at White Earth.

Much of the land initially allotted on the Ojibway reservations under the Dawes and Nelson Acts passed into white ownership. Some of the allottees sold to the settlers as soon as possible to obtain cash; others tried farming, found it an unsuitable way to live, and sold. Unallotted land remained in tribal ownership for a time but often ended up in white ownership. Only small tracts of land were arable on the Ojibway reservations; much was swampland, lakes, forests, or timber. The United States provided little of the promised farm tools and training and a series of dams built by the Federal government on the upper Mississippi River flooded some Ojibway rice beds, farm plots and homes.

As the poor results of the allotment policy became evident in Minnesota, the Ojibway of the Red Lake and Mille Lacs reservations resisted the scheduled allotments. The reservation lands for these bands, and others (including Cass Lake, White Oak Point, and Fond du Lac) has remained in common tribal ownership, closed to settlement by outsiders, and exempt from county and state jurisdiction.

Early Exploration and Settlement by Europeans and Other Non-Native Americans

The first recorded contacts by Europeans in Minnesota were by French explorers, traders, soldiers and missionaries, starting in the northwest portions of the state. The explorers, in search of the Northwest Passage, came south from what is now Canada; soon the traders came for fur and the missionaries to convert the native Dakotas. In 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur Du Luth, claimed land including Minnesota for King Louis XIV of France. Soon after, the French soldiers came to build and protect the fortified villages built at the best trading posts, and by 1727, the Jesuits had established the first mission. Alliances and warfare developed, first with the Dakota, and then, after the early 1700s, the Ojibway who moved in from the north.

In 1762, Spain gained control of all of Minnesota that was west of the Mississippi River while one year later Great Britain gained control of eastern Minnesota. Neither country encouraged settlement but descriptive accounts from explorers (such as New Englander Jonathan Carver) and translations of the Jesuit Father Hennepin's accounts attracted English settlers. By 1800, the Spanish possessions west of the Mississippi reverted to the French. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States a vast region west of the Mississippi River, including western Minnesota. Soon after, in 1805, President Taylor sent Zebulon Pike to survey the new lands and to find the source of the Mississippi River. While in this quest, Pike acquired land cessions from the Dakota at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers and at the mouth of the St. Croix River.

During the next 15 years, settlements were established along the length of the Mississippi. John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company moved into the area and assumed control of the trading market. In 1819, the cantonment of Fort Anthony, later Fort Snelling (now at St. Paul), was built near the mouth of the Minnesota River (across the river from the Mendota cantonment) to protect the white settlers from the warring Dakota and Ojibway. In 1821, a group of Swiss families from the Red River Valley of Manitoba moved into Fort Snelling; several years later, more Swiss families moved into the fort. These families are significant because they were the first truly agricultural settlers in Minnesota. They were later moved south to land that is now within the city of St. Paul.

In 1823, the steamboat the Virginia reached the fort, carrying Major Lawrence Taliaferro of St. Louis and a group of African American slaves. Even in these early years, there was little tolerance for slavery and Taliaferro soon freed them and a small free Black settlement developed near the fort. Later in the century, after iron ore was found in the northern portions of the state near Vermilion, a substantial African American community also developed in Duluth. In St. Paul and Minneapolis, during the 1880s, there was a need for trained Black doctors, lawyers, dentists, and teachers. As efforts to attract these African American specialists increased, some moved north. For example, in 1899, Fredrick L. McGhee, the state's first African American criminal lawyer, purchased 40 acres of land at the St. Cloud Land Office. In 1891, African American journalist and civil rights leader, John Quincy Adams, purchased 153 acres at the Taylors Falls land. Adams, the former editor of the Louisville Bulletin, moved to St. Paul in 1886 and soon became the editor of the Western Appeal. Under his leadership, the Appeal became a nationally recognized newspaper that protested racial injustices and proscriptive legislation. Additionally, the Appeal became an important advertising outlet for Black businesses and a strong unifying force for the growing Black communities in the Twin Cities area. Adams home in St. Paul became a frequent meeting place for such national leaders as Booker T. Washington, William E.B. Dubois, and William Monroe Trotter.

Throughout the second quarter of the 19th century, exploration, fur trade, timbering, and construction of saw mills continued along Minnesota's river valleys and in 1834, Henry H. Sibley settled near Fort Snelling as the agent for the American Fur Company. During the next decade, additional large land claims were made, counties are established by the ruling Wisconsin Territory, more sawmills were built, and townsites, including St. Paul, were platted. Within the city of St. Paul, the first school in the state for children of all ethnic and racial backgrounds was established in 1847.

In 1848, Wisconsin became a state and, immediately, the movement to establish a Minnesota Territory was started. Henry H. Sibley of Mendota was the first delegate to Congress and on March 3, 1849, Congress created the Minnesota Territory. On April 2, President Taylor appointed Alexander Ramsey of Pennsylvania the Governor of the new territory. He purchased approximately 60 acres at the Stillwater Land Office in 1853. After statehood, settlement increased and the supporting institutions, including a state university, other major universities, historical society, and a prison, and incorporation of major towns and the City of St. Paul, and the opening of the Rock Line Railroad heralded the population boom. In 1858, Minnesota was admitted to the Union as a State. In 1859, Ramsey was elected Governor of the State of Minnesota.

During this early statehood boom, several prominent farmers and businessmen, of northern European heritage (Irish, Welsh, English, Scottish, German) purchased homesteads; among them was Oliver Kelly, founder of the National Grange, who purchased 127 acres at the Minneapolis Land Office in 1861. In 1871, James Root, Northern Pacific Railroad engineer, acquired a homestead patent of 80 acres. He is renowned for his heroic efforts during a forest fire of 1894, where in order to save the lives of 350 residents of Hinckley, Minnesota, he stopped his train to allow the fleeing townspeople to board the train and then backed his train through a wall of flames and over the burning Grindstone Creek bridge to safety. Although he saved these lives, he also burned his hands fast to the throttle.

In 1871, Charles H. Mayo, who together with his father and brother, founded the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, homestead 148 acres of public land at the St. Cloud Land Office. In 1871, James Hill, the Irish railroad founder, purchased 160 acres of land at the Jackson Land Office. Leonidas Merritt, timber cruiser, and his six brothers, moved into the iron country of the Vemilion area determined to find iron. They spent almost 20 years staking claims and testing the soil. In 1882, Merritt acquired a 160 acre homestead patent in at the Duluth Land Office. In 1890, a wagon driven by one of their workers became stuck in the reddish mud of what became the Mountain Iron Mine.

Diverse Cultural Heritage

Since the beginning of European exploration, what became the Minnesota Territory has been under the flags of France, England, Spain, the Virginia Colony, the Northwest Territory, and the Territories of Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Minnesota is considered a Scandinavian state based upon the large Norwegian and Swedish populations. However, the national origin of Native American and non-American settlers in the state through exhibits extensive diversity. Starting in the first quarter of the 19th century, Irish, Welsh, English, Scottish, and German settlers from the eastern New England and Mid-Atlantic states joined the French and French Canadians and resident Ojibway.

The Norwegian settlers moved first into southeastern Minnesota from the Wisconsin Territory, starting in 1852. By 1880, Norwegian farming settlements dotted the state. Swedish pioneer settlement came to Minnesota through Chicago and other eastern cities and, at first, concentrated in the Red River and St. Croix Valleys. In addition to agricultural land, they sought good hunting and fishing lands. Later settlements were founded near the ever-expanding rail lines.

The early Danish settlers often joined the Norwegian settlements; others moved into rural Minnesota farmlands and established strong church communities run by successful dairy farmers. The Finnish and Swede-Finns are hard to trace because they were not distinguished in the census records before 1900. Local history and land records document that first Danish settlement began in the south-central part counties during the mid-1860s. They arrived at Red Wing and established the first permanent settlement in Franklin. A second settlement, at Cokato, was made up of Finns from Norway who walked from Minneapolis to stake out their 80 acres claims in Wright County.

Early Polish settlers came from New York to the community of Winona, immediately prior to the Civil War. Starting in the 1890s, Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians moved into Minnesota from eastern urban centers. Most moved to the metropolitan center of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Czechs moved into Minnesota in the 1850s, and either settled in the Twin Cities area or the rural farming areas of Le Sueur, Scott, and Rice counties. Starting in the 1870s, other Slavs, from Hungary, moved from eastern cities to Minneapolis and then to the northern Mesabi Iron Range. Starting in the 1880s, southern Slavs (Bulgarians, Croatians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes) moved into south St. Paul's meat-packing communities and the northern iron-mining regions. Eastern Slavs (Rusins, Ukrainians, Russians, and Belorussians) settled in the Twin Cities and later in small northern and central mining and farming communities in Minnesota. Southern and Southeastern Europeans (including Hungarians, Romainians, Italians, Greeks,) and non-Europeans also made their homes in Minnesota during the late 19th and the 20th century. Each of these communities retained much of their cultural and religious heritage. Thus, Minnesota is less a "melting pot" of assimilation than a center of diversity and tolerance.


Holmquist, June Drenning, ed., They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups. Chicago: Minnesota, Historical Society Press, 1981.

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Last updated: January 28, 2002