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Ramsey, Alexander (1815–1903)

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Photograph of Alexander Ramsey

Alexander Ramsey, ca. 1848.

Alexander Ramsey was Minnesota’s first territorial governor (1849–1853), second state governor (1860–1863), and a US senator (1864–1875). Deeply respected for many years as a founder of the state, he has become controversial for his role in removing the area's Indigenous residents from their homelands.

Ramsey was born on September 8, 1815, in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. He participated in local politics as a young man and followed closely the events at the statehouse in Harrisburg. His interest in government prompted him to study law, and in 1839 he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.

Ramsey joined the Whig party and became a rising star in Pennsylvania politics. He was a delegate to the Whig national convention in 1840 and in 1843 began the first of two terms in the US House of Representatives. In 1845, he married Anna Jenks, whose father was a Congressman from Pennsylvania. The couple had three children. Their two sons, Alexander and William, died in childhood, but their daughter, Marion, survived into adulthood.

In 1848, Ramsey campaigned in Pennsylvania for Zachary Taylor, the Whig nominee for president. He played a crucial role in Taylor’s win. The new president rewarded Ramsey by appointing him governor of the recently organized Minnesota Territory. Ramsey was reluctant to leave Pennsylvania but realized the move would benefit his career.

In May 1849, Ramsey arrived in Minnesota to begin his position as governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs. The government’s most urgent task was to remove Dakota and Ojibwe people from the land and open it for settler-colonists who were flooding into the territory. When the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota were signed with the Dakota in 1851, Ramsey played a key role in obtaining the signatures of Dakota leaders. Several Dakota alleged intimidation and fraud in the treaty signings, and Ramsey was one of the principal figures accused. Ignoring evidence uncovered in its own investigations, the US Senate exonerated him in 1854.

Ramsey served as mayor of St. Paul in 1855. He ran as a Republican for state governor in 1857 but lost to Democrat Henry Sibley by 240 votes. His second bid was successful, and he served as state governor from 1860 to 1863.

On taking office, Ramsey inherited a state recovering from the financial panic of 1857. He therefore focused on economic development and balancing the budget. Two events, however—the Civil War and US–Dakota War of 1862—defined his administration and shifted his attention to military matters. When the Civil War began in 1861, Ramsey became the first state governor to volunteer troops to the Union.

In August 1862, war erupted in Minnesota after years of broken treaties, starvation on the reservations, and tension between the Dakota and settler-colonists. After bands of Dakota attacked farms and towns in southwestern parts of the state, Ramsey appointed Sibley commander of the US forces sent to fight the Dakota. The war lasted six weeks; about 70 soldiers, about 530 white civilians, and uncounted Dakota were killed.

On September 9, Ramsey delivered a speech to the Minnesota legislature. He stated, “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” At the war’s end, more than 300 Dakota were tried and convicted of war crimes. On December 26, thirty-eight of them were hanged in Mankato. In 1863, Congress passed laws removing the Dakota and Ho-Chunk (none of whom had fought in the war) from Minnesota.

In 1863, Ramsey was elected to the US Senate. He represented Minnesota for twelve years. In the era of Reconstruction, he voted for Radical Republican legislation, including the Reconstruction amendments and the impeachment of President Johnson.

Ramsey became secretary of war for President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879. In 1880, after the unjust court-martial of an African American West Point cadet assaulted by white classmates, he worked with other members of the Hayes administration to investigate and improve the school’s policies.

Ramsey retired from politics in 1886. He served as a board member of the St. Paul Public Library and twice served as president of the Minnesota Historical Society. He died in St. Paul on April 22, 1903.

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Alexander Ramsey and Family Personal Papers and Governor’s Records, 1829–1965
Manuscripts Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society
Description: Correspondence, diaries, real estate records, scrapbooks, school records and other materials documenting the career and family of Ramsey, a member of the US House (1844–1847) and Senate (1863-1875); Minnesota territorial (1849–1853) and state (1860–1863) governor; mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota (1855–1857); secretary of war (1879–1881); and chairman of the Utah Registration and Election Board (1882–1886).

Records of Governor Alexander Ramsey, 1860–1863
State Archives Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society
Description: Includes accounting records; records concerning both civil and military appointments; letters received; records relating to pardons and other criminal matters; and petitions. There is substantial documentation of military affairs, especially concerning Minnesota regiments in the Civil War and the US-Dakota War.

White, Helen McCann. Guide to a Microfilm Edition of the Alexander Ramsey Papers and Records. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1974.

Related Images

Photograph of Alexander Ramsey
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey
Portrait of Alexander Ramsey
Portrait of Alexander Ramsey
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Photograph of Alexander Ramsey and his son
Collage in shape of wreath showing Minnesota's Senate and Governors Alexander Ramsey and Henry H. Sibley
Collage in shape of wreath showing Minnesota's Senate and Governors Alexander Ramsey and Henry H. Sibley
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey
Photograph of Anna Ramsey
Photograph of Anna Ramsey
Official Governor's portrait of Alexander Ramsey
Official Governor's portrait of Alexander Ramsey
Alexander Ramsey
Alexander Ramsey
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey
Reunion of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Reunion of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Photograph of Marion Ramsey Furness and her children
Photograph of Marion Ramsey Furness and her children
Photograph of Ramsey's funeral procession
Photograph of Ramsey's funeral procession
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey House
Photograph of Alexander Ramsey House

Turning Point

In 1849, Alexander Ramsey is appointed the first territorial governor of Minnesota. His influence in the territory, and later the state, leads to urban growth, immigration, and (sometimes controversial) treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwe.

Chronology

1815

Alexander Ramsey is born in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania.

1839

Ramsey is admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. As a lawyer, he widens his political network.

1843

Ramsey begins his first term in the United States House of Representatives.

1845

Ramsey marries Anna Earl Jenks. They will go on to have three children. (Only Marion survived to adulthood.)

1849

Ramsey supports Zachary Taylor for president in 1848. Taylor wins the presidency and appoints Ramsey governor of Minnesota Territory.

1851

Ramsey, in his position as territorial governor and commissioner of Indian Affairs, leads treaty negotiations with Dakota leaders. The Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota are signed, opening up twenty-four million acres to settler-colonists.

1855

Ramsey is elected mayor of St. Paul.

1857

Ramsey fails in his bid for state governor of Minnesota. He loses the election to Henry Sibley by 240 votes.

1859

Ramsey is successful in his second bid for state governor. He defeats George Becker by 3,753 votes to become Minnesota’s second state governor.

1861

The Civil War begins. Ramsey is the first state governor to volunteer troops to the Union Army.

1862

The US-Dakota War begins in August. Ramsey appoints Henry Sibley to lead forces against the Dakota. In September, he addresses the state legislature and calls for the removal of the Dakota from the state. On December 26, thirty-eight Dakota men are hanged

1863

Ramsey is elected to the United States Senate. This same year, Congress passes a law for the removal of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk from Minnesota. Ramsey serves as senator until 1875.

1879

Ramsey is appointed secretary of war. He oversees the War Department for the Hayes administration until 1881.

1903

Alexander Ramsey dies at the age of eighty-eight.