Going back in Minnesota history

Page two in the Independent’s Saturday, May 11, newspaper had the column “ON THIS DATE…” in which I noted that on May 11, 1858, Minnesota became the 32nd state of the U.S.

I was reminded of that again when I signed on to my computer where I receive a daily message in my email from This Day in History. This Day in History has small sketches of events from the past – some from recent years and some going back centuries.

The Ojibwe and Dakota residing in the area received an influx of migrants from England, Germany, and Ireland, then followed by the Scandinavian immigrants. Fort Snelling was established in 1820 and the population grew from a few thousand to more than 150,000 by 1857, mostly in the Mississippi area, but a few throughout the rest of the state.

From my grade school days I vaguely remember a few tidbits about Ohio’s development. I remember thinking back then how strange it was to think that Ohio was part of the Northwest Territory (NT) even though Ohio was clearly not in the Northwest part of the U.S. So that led me to a minor investigation of the development of Minnesota.

As I am sure most Minnesotans know, a large part of the state came from the $15 million puchase under the presidency of Jefferson of what we call the Louisiana Purchase (LP). LP was under French control from 1699 until ceding to Spain in 1762. Under Napoleon, LP was returned to France in 1800. The rest of Minnesota (east of the Mississippi River) had been ceded by Britain in Revolutionary War Times (1783-87). The part east of the Mississippi River became part of the NT that covered the area north of the Ohio River from the State of Pennsylvania to the Mississipi River.

There were some small portions along the Canadian border that were resolved later.

Ohio became a state in 1803 and the NT became the Indiana Territory. As other states were accepted into the U.S. and with the LP, the territorial area that now stretched west to the Missouri River took on different names. The one of interest to me was the Wisconsin Territory that included all of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas. When Iowa in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848, became states, the area became the Minnesota Territory.

The part of MN to the east of the Mississippi River became four counties, three of the counties were slivers just north of the River, with the Arrowhead region being the fourth county. The rest of the territory was sliced horizontally from the Mississippi R. all the way to the Missouri R. to form five long strips for those counties.

What was to become Lyon County was thus in about the middle of the horizontal length of Wabasha County. The northern boundary of Wabasha County was just shy of the current northern boundary of Lyon County.


Within a short period, with the increase in population of Minnesota and with the state gaining statehood on May 11, 1858, the five counties mentioned were truncated at the western border of Minnesota and were split in other ways.

Two Minnesota legislative acts (1868 and 1869) established Lyon County named in honor of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon. A western portion of Lyon County was split off from Lyon County in 1873 and named Lincoln County after President Abraham Lincoln. Thus “our” two counties were both named after Civil War heroes.

At this point, some of you are probably saying, “Lincoln, OK, but who was Gen. Lyon?”

It is here that I found two coincidences to my own life. The coincidences are because prior to my move to Minnesota, I had my first full-time college teaching job in Connecticut and my second full-time college job teaching in Missouri – the two states that have significance in the life of Nathaniel Lyon.

He was born (July 14, 1818) and is buried in Connecticut just a short distance east of New Britain where I taught. His military career reached its peak and sadly his death (Aug. 10, 1861) not far from Fulton, Missouri, where I taught.


After graduation (11th of 52 – 1841) from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Lyon served as an officer in both the Seminole War (1842) in Florida and in the Mexican American War (1846-1848) in Mexico. The Mexican American War resulted in the establishment of the border of Texas with Mexico. Between 1853 and 1861 he was on frontier duty in Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska.

As the Civil War approached he served in the divided state of Kansas. He then was reassigned to the divided state of Missouri as the General of the United States Arsenal in St. Louis and commander of Union Troops in Missouri. He secured the arsenal from those in the state who were confederacy sympathizers. He was a strong unionist and played a major role in keeping Missouri neutral.

At the time, Missouri Gov. Jackson and the Missouri Guard, supporting the Confederacy, fled eastern Missouri to Jefferson City and then further to the southwest, pursued by Gen. Lyon and union troops. The two groups met and engaged at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Outnumbered 12,000 to 6,000 and with a head wound and bullet wounds in his ankle and thigh and having had his horse shot from under him, he borrowed his orderly’s horse and shouted, “Come on my brave boys, I will lead you! Forward!”

He was shot in the heart and fell to the ground. He was the first Union general to die in the Civil War. His body was taken back to Connecticut and records say between 10,000 and 15,000 people were at his funeral.

Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!


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