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Minnesota's "Melting Pot:" Goodhue County in 1880

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Black and white photograph of G.O. Miller store in Vasa.

G.O. Miller's first store in Vasa, the Swedish colony founded in 1853, is the building to the left. Immigrants from Sweden made Vasa the center of their Goodhue County settlement. The community retains its Swedish heritage to the present day.

By 1880, Goodhue County held within its borders four significant Euro–American immigrant enclaves: Minnesota's largest group of Swedish settlers and the second largest assembly of Norwegians, as well as one of the most densely populated German tracts. There was also an Irish colony at the county's center. The settling of Goodhue County serves as a case study of the state's early immigration patterns.

In 1852 the Red Wing band of Mdewakanton Dakota moved to a Minnesota River reservation near present-day Morton. Their leader, Wacouta I, had been among the reluctant signers of the 1851 land treaties. That pact shifted ownership of the Dakota lands in southern Minnesota to the federal government. Emigrants from America and Europe immediately moved onto the former Indian lands.

The Mississippi River port of Red Wing, named after the Dakota leader, welcomed waves of immigrants. While some stayed in the port, most began the trek to the county's interior to claim rich farmland.

In September 1853, Hans Mattson and six other Swedish immigrants staked out land about ten miles southwest of Red Wing. More than a dozen Swedish families moved to the area then known as "Swede Prairie."

Breaking land was hard work, but the soil was rich. Life was good but challenging for those starting new lives in Minnesota. Successful Swedish Americans often sent money back home, enabling family and friends to join them. These first Swedes in Goodhue County named their community "Vasa" in honor of the great Swedish king, Gustaf Vasa.

In time, Swedish newcomers spread out over parts of nine adjoining Goodhue County townships. Welch, Burnside, Cannon Falls, and Leon were among them. Settlement stopped when Swedes ran into the claims of other European immigrants. By 1880 the county held 6,867 Swedish-Americans. That number far outpaced other counties with large Swedish districts. Chisago came next with 4,976 Swedes. Hennepin was home to 4,956.

Norwegians came to Goodhue County, too. The farms of the county's Norwegian immigrant community lay south of the Swedish enclaves. Those settlers dominated the townships of Holden, Wanamingo, Kenyon, Cherry Grove, Roscoe and western Minneola. Ole Swenson Sumbren and his brother Erik, among the first to arrive, caught "America Fever" in 1852. The two Norwegians came to Minnesota. After working to save money, they settled in Minneola Township near Christian Lunde, a fellow Norwegian and early arrival.

Other arriving Norwegians moved past the earliest land claimants to stake their own plots. The Talla brothers, Henrik and Toge, led a small group of settlers across the north fork of the Zumbro River in 1854. They staked claims in what became Wanamingo Township. Land-claiming Norwegians continued establishing their farms in Kenyon and Holden. Others crossed into Rice County. An 1874 visitor to this region wrote it held a compact mass of Norwegians.

By 1880, southwest Goodhue County had become the most densely populated Norwegian-immigrant enclave in Minnesota. It had 8,600 new arrivals. In overall numbers, however, Goodhue County ranked second to Hennepin County with 11,137 Norwegian Americans.

More than 41,000 German-speaking immigrants had arrived in Minnesota by 1870. At that time, present-day Germany did not exist. The region was made up of a collection of small German states. Those first to arrive in Minnesota from that area often reported their state, not Germany, as their home. That situation caused problems for American officials tracking immigration. In this case, those speaking mutually understandable Germanic dialects, and reading, if literate, High German were generally identified as German.

Hay Creek, a township on Red Wing's southern border, attracted German settlers. In 1854 three brothers from Prussia settled claims there. Other German immigrants came mainly from northern rural districts, among them Pomerania, Hannover, and Saxony. Early settlers John and Maria Tubbesing left Westphalia for America in 1852. Maria was seven months pregnant as the challenging trip began. Lower deck "steerage" spaces, they said, were like dark cellars with no windows.

By 1870, eighty percent of Hay Creek Township residents were of German stock, with neighboring townships of Florence, Goodhue, Zumbrota, Pine Island and parts of Belvidere adding even more to the area. Only the state's Minnesota River Valley to the west held a higher percentage of Germans.

Belle Creek, at the county's geographic center, became home to a community of Irish immigrants. Railroad workers and friends Walter Doyle and James O'Neill decided to take their families to Minnesota in 1854. Landing at Red Wing, they walked south and west, looking for land to claim. They found it in Belle Creek Township. In 1860, as the community grew, Irish newcomers built the first St. Columbkill church. The greatest influx of their countrymen into the U.S. occurred after America's Civil War.

The Goodhue County villages of Zumbrota, Cannon Falls, and Pine Island in 1880 were mainly trading centers dominated by New Englanders. Red Wing was more cosmopolitan. It had immigrants from all the ethnic groups mentioned, plus those from other nations. Fifty-five African Americans were scattered throughout the county as well.

Goodhue County's 1880 ethnic portrait was now almost complete. Swedes held down the north and west, Norwegians the southwest, and Germans, the east and south. Surrounded on all sides in Belle Creek were Irish Catholics. A few Catholics from Luxembourg settled in southern Belvidere Township while a colony of Scots-Irish claimed land in Stanton, west of Cannon Falls.

The ethnically diverse Goodhue County of 1880 contained a place for the area's first settlers, the Mdewakanton, albeit on a remote Mississippi River isle. A small group had returned from exile to make new homes on Prairie Island. Congress recognized their right to stay in 1884.

Northern Europeans continued to dominate immigration to Minnesota into the twentieth century. Pockets of national groups that settled Goodhue County were soon found throughout the state. As the century progressed, immigrants from diverse places around the world joined the earlier arrivals in making Minnesota their home, making their mark on the culture of the state as the Northern Europeans had before them.

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Appel, Livia and Theodore C. Blegen. "Official Encouragement of Immigration to Minnesota during the Territorial Period." Minnesota History 5, no. 3 (August 1923): 167–203.
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Barton, Arnold H., ed. Letters From the Promised Land: Swedes in America, 1840–1914. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press for the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, 1975.

Blegen, Theodore C. Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition. Northfield, MN: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1940.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Goodhue County, Minnesota. Chicago: H.C. CooperJr. & Co., 1909.

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Heaney, Richard. "Belle Creek Irish Settlement." Unpublished, undated paper, Goodhue County Historical biography files.

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Nydahl, Theodore L. "The Early Norwegian Settlement of Goodhue County, Minnesota." Master's thesis, University of Minnesota, 1929.

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Regan, Ann. "The Irish," in June Drenning Holmquist, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981.

Rice, John G. "The Swedes," in June Drenning Holmquist, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981.

Roos, Carl. "Vasa, Goodhue County, Minnesota: The First Settlers." [Translated on February 1, 1977 by Ernest B. Gustafson].
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Schrier, Arnold. Ireland and the American Emigration, 1850–1900. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1958].

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United States Census of Population, 1870. Goodhue County, Minnesota.

United States Census of Population, 1880. Goodhue County, Minnesota.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of G.O. Miller store in Vasa.
Black and white photograph of G.O. Miller store in Vasa.
Black and white photograph of Finnegaard pioneer home, Holden.
Black and white photograph of Finnegaard pioneer home, Holden.
Black and white photograph of Hawkeye Mills, Hay Creek.
Black and white photograph of Hawkeye Mills, Hay Creek.

Turning Point

In 1852, European ethnic groups such as the Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, and Irish begin to settle land in Goodhue County in the wake of land treaties with the Dakota.

Chronology

1852
First immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Ireland arrive in Goodhue County. They come in small groups and claim land. The Red Wing band of Mdewakanton depart the county for land reserves in western Minnesota.
1857
Swedes are dominant to the north and west of Red Wing, the Goodhue County seat. Norwegians live in the southwest townships, while Germans are found to the east and south.
1865
The Civil War ends and immigration increases.
1880
All Goodhue County land is settled leaving ethnic enclaves in many rural districts.