Sit not quietly in your homes and shed crocodile tears over the barbarism of slavery and the inhumanity of slaveholders when you have the opportunity to go and take this oppressed race not only to live in your midst, but to take them to your heart and to cherish them as philanthropic men should cherish the object of their pity.
Willard Saulsbury, 1864
For people who watched Wilkinson closely, his departure from the board of directors of the J. J. Thornton investment firm would not have been a surprise. If anything he did was surprising, it was his decision to occupy the board seat in the first place. The firm represented everything he had long despised: men and women of privilege exploiting their access to capital and contacts in order to get an advantage over the common man. But such was the former senator’s disorienting extent of disappointment, stress, and sorrow, and now perhaps he had one more to add—shame. Stepping down from the board to refocus his energies on politics and law offered him an avenue to redemption that would come only when the image of the state seal was fully realized. He had begun with his legislation to remove the Dakota and Winnebago from the state as the part of the work that was represented in the image of the Indian riding westward and forever away. What remained was to attract humble settlers to the state to homestead their claims on Minnesota’s fertile land. But in the spring of 1865, the question for the champion of black freedom was, with the war over and slavery abolished, would there be room on the seal for the African?
Two years earlier, on the same day Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Homestead Act of 1862 went into effect. Both were intended to free men, both legally and economically, and though both received the enthusiastic support of Senator Wilkinson, it was the Homestead Act that offered his state the more immediate, widespread benefit. He embraced the Jacksonian ideal of a society that empowered the common man against the privileged few and the Jeffersonian ideal of the superiority of agriculture as a necessary means to that end. Thus, as he had argued during the debate in April 1860, “it would be ‘scarcely’ necessary to remind the Senate that the monopoly of land by the few, as against the many, and the parceling out of public domain in immense tracts among venal courtiers, have been, all over the world, the most powerful auxiliaries of absolute and despotic power.” The result had been that “the monarchies and the aristocracies of all ages have been enabled to hold the masses subject to their will. . . . Millions of the human family,” he continued, “have been reduced to penury and degradation, because they were deprived of the right to earn the subsistence from the common earth, which was intended alike for the rich and for the poor.”
In the United States, “even now, with all of our vast expanse of territory, labor is outweighed by capital, and the rights of the settler are but slightly regarded when brought into comparison with the money of the speculator.” Wilkinson argued that the homestead measure would be directed to “the laboring masses of the country, to those who are most often crushed down by the cruel and unequal conflict between capital and labor; to the poor man who earns his bread from day to day by the sweat of his brow; to him who feeds upon the uncertain crumbs which fall from the rich man’s table.”
He shifted his argument to the conditions of poverty in the urban North and challenged his fellow senators “to pass through our great cities” where they would “see the boys of all ages who swarm around the streets, many of them willing and anxious to labor, but finding nothing for their hands to do.” They were “exposed to temptations of every kind, day after day looking upon the equipages of wealth with the hungry and cannibal eyes of poverty.” The Homestead Act was “the measure of the working, suffering class of our people; those who were struggling on from day to day, from week to week, and from year to year, vindicating the dignity of labor against the oppressions and aggressions of capital.”
A poor man intending to be a homesteader needed to be the head of a family, twenty-one years or older, a citizen of the United States or one who formally intended to be as required by the naturalization laws of the United States; one had never borne arms against the government or given aid and comfort to its enemies; and one who registered the appropriate paperwork and paid a nominal fee. The applicant, above all else, needed to pledge that “such application was made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation.” In other words, as Wilkinson argued in 1860, these public lands were reserved for farmers, not speculators, corporations, or investment firms, and the provision sought to guarantee that the common man stood a chance at acquiring the land. “The measure of granting free homes to the actual settlers upon the public lands,” he said, “is one which I have long felt a deep interest.”
Wilkinson felt the government had been a central culprit in making monopolies against the public interest, for time and again it sought to replenish its Treasury from the proceeds of a traffic in the public lands as a source of revenue. The spirit of the Homestead Act was simple. It was about equal opportunity. “Laws, in order to be just, must be equal in application.” The design of the act authorized the distribution of public lands up to 160 acres to citizens or intended citizens who paid a minimum filing and registration fee. After five years’ residency and the completion of prescribed improvements to the land, the homesteader would receive title.
Hundreds of thousands of settlers streamed onto the public land seeking to take advantage of this new opportunity. Yet, even though they secured their claims, many were confronted by a very basic matter. The desperate reality for the type of settlers for whom the act was intended—namely, the farmer whose only currency was his willingness to work hard—placed him in a position of being in debt, for he needed to borrow for seed, feed, and basic necessities until his harvest would allow him to pay the creditor back. Lenders, banks, and merchants, all of which were roles to be played by the investment firm of J. J. Thornton, soon prospered while homesteaders lived a Sisyphus-like existence.
Another obstacle confronted settlers when subsequent congressional enactments designed to promote railroad interests (like the Union Pacific bill that Wilkinson rejected) and facilitate the development of colleges and universities (which Wilkinson also rejected), exempted vast amounts of public land from homesteading. Passed the same year as the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant Act (also known as the Morrill Act for its supporter Justin Morrill, a congressman from Vermont) offered states parcels of public land to use as funding sources for new institutions for higher education. A number of western congressmen opposed the measure, either because of an apparent lack of interest in establishing schools or through a vociferous hostility to the act’s potential loopholes. In the latter category Kansas senator James H. Lane insisted that the passage of the act would “ruin” his state.
It was soon apparent that the intent of the Homestead Act to protect the interests of settlers, could not, as Wilkinson feared, filter out speculators, who grabbed great swaths of the best parcels of the public domain through inventive, if unscrupulous and illegal, tactics in the West and elsewhere. Corporations quickly found out that they could use proxy filings by individuals as a way to accumulate vast acreages of western land; tried-and-true methods of graft and corruption often proved just as successful. As a senator, Wilkinson railed against speculators as “a remorseless class of vampires,” who he was certain would benefit most from the new legislation. This was the key reason why Wilkinson wanted to oversee the arrangements for the sale of the Indian lands.
The Dakota Removal Act of March 3, 1863, provided that the Dakota reservation be surveyed, appraised, and then offered for sale at its assessed value, with proceeds to go to the displaced Indians. The third section of the act directed, as in the Homestead Act and the Winnebago Removal Act, that “before any person shall be entitled to enter any portion of the said land, . . . he shall become a bona fide settler.” Speculators were persona non grata, and entry was restricted to those persons who would settle and cultivate the land. In June 1865, with the completion of the survey and appraisal, the area was opened to entry at the St. Peter Land Office, which would also be assigned the task of selling Winnebago land. This was just one month after the small Mankato investment firm named J. J. Thornton and Company was established.
During the first thirty days after the St. Peter Land Office opened for business, only four persons, well situated by their contacts in government, filed claims on the Dakota reserve. Three of the four men were public officials and friends of the senator. John B. Downer and Henry Swift were officials of the St. Peter Land Agency. Downer served as receiver of public moneys, and Swift, a former territorial governor, was register of land sale. Another public official was Judge Charles Vandenburgh, who had presided in 1860 over the Eliza Winston case, the only slave emancipation trial to occur in Minnesota. The remaining months of 1865 saw no significant increase in sales. Thousands of acres of land remained unclaimed and open for auction. Land was available to anyone who understood how business was conducted. By November 1, 16,859 acres of Winnebago land had been sold for $49,076.26. As reported by the secretary of the interior, $4,249.88 in receipts was in the bank. Many more thousands of acres remained to be sold.
Absent from the bidding process were the black soldiers who served under the command of Captain Thomas Montgomery, Sixty-Seventh Regiment, U.S.C.I. Earlier, in late March of that year, three months before the St. Peter Land Office opened, Abner Tibbetts invited his friend from Le Sueur County to have his men bid, which Montgomery was excited to facilitate. His men jumped at the chance to establish homes away from the rebels. But the captain also knew that such a venture would be controversial, something with which he did not have the stomach to contend: he well knew the sentiment of his neighbors. “I am anxious to do all I can for [his black troops] but I will not involve myself in any trouble.”
In the end, there evidently was “trouble,” for Montgomery wrote nothing more about the venture, and the Land Office received no bids from the black veterans. Moreover, even though President Lincoln had assigned full authority to Wilkinson to oversee the sale of Indian land, there is no indication that the ex-senator intervened in any way. It is, however, implausible that he knew nothing of it or that any of his men were not involved. Bids—even prospective bids—from black men would have been quite noteworthy, especially since for the remainder of 1865, few others stepped forward to bid on the land. Nonetheless, plans to establish a black colony on tracts from the Dakota and Winnebago reservations dissipated into thin air.
It would seem that the senator would have favored black settlement in Minnesota. During the previous spring of 1864, Senator Wilkinson introduced a bill to withdraw all funds for Lincoln’s colonization plan that intended to send fifty thousand free blacks to an island near Haiti. Congress passed Wilkinson’s measure on July 2, and the president signed it. Wilkinson’s bill reflected the emergent view that African Americans were indeed Americans. But it would seem that in Wilkinson’s view they were Americans whose movement and settlement should remain limited. The savage backdrop of war set the context for his unexpected position.
It was impossible to imagine a war-torn South where freedmen and -women would be left alone to live and prosper. On June 28, 1864, during the debate to extend the Freedmen’s Bureau, Republican senator Waitman T. Willey of West Virginia proposed a solution for the safety of the freedmen and -women who still resided in a hostile South that had recently seen a series of Confederate victories: relocate them, he proposed, to places in the North and West. Specifically, his amendment would authorize the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau to initiate correspondence “with the Governors of States, the municipal authorities of the States, with the various manufacturing establishments, and farmers and mechanics,” precisely the sort of livelihood that white native- and foreign-born laborers coveted. Willey continued, “Homes might be provided for them, and they might not only find good homes but humane persons and employment at fair compensation, and it might supply to these districts that lack of labor which has been occasioned by the withdrawal of laboring men in the ranks of our armies. It seems to me,” he concluded, “that here is a proposition which will accomplish more good for the freedmen.”
The amendment divided the Republicans and produced an unusual alignment across party lines. The arch conservative Willard Saulsbury of Delaware joined with antislavery men such as B. Gratz Brown of Missouri in supporting the Negro relocation plan, although Saulsbury took a circuitous route to his conclusion: “I could not vote for the amendment of the Senator of West Virginia as an independent proposition; but as an amendment to an obnoxious bill, with a view of perfecting that bill, I shall vote for the amendment.” On the other hand, conservative Democrat Charles Buckalew of Pennsylvania, denounced it as “monstrous” and said that “our states to the North may well object to any such exertion of power . . . of this Government.” He was certain that Northern states would “prohibit the introduction of this element of the population within their borders.” Charles Sumner, the “best friend of freedmen” in the Senate, whom Willey no doubt was seeking to persuade, set the tone for opposition from the Radicals when he said that “with great reluctance” he felt the amendment “went too far”: “It seems to me the whole idea is entirely untenable: it is out of place on this bill.”
However “untenable” the amendment was, by summer, 1864, Union armies, even with superior numbers, had not shown that they could defeat Lee in the field, let alone protect the multitude of freedmen still living on Southern soil, whether occupied or not. At any rate, the amendment was being misconstrued as compulsory relocation. Willey insisted that “[i]t is not my design to organize a system of compulsory emigration . . . The whole design and spirit of the section is that it shall be a matter of mutual consideration between the three parties—the commissioner, the freedman himself, and the person who desires to employ him.”
This was Willey’s strongest argument and one that had to appeal to Republicans who worried about the growing number of voters back home who were tired of war, angered at mounting casualties, lacked confidence in Lincoln and the Republican Party, and now, with the prospect of black relocation, threatened by the influx of black laborers competing for work, not to mention the prospect of continued racial violence, the sort of which they witnessed in the last year in New York and Detroit. Mob violence erupted even in St. Paul in the spring of 1863 when steamers delivering contraband slaves from Missouri attempted to dock, and again when the same steamers, on return voyages, attempted to dock. This time the passengers were the Dakota and Winnebago who were being removed from the State. Weeks later, a provost guard was ordered when it was learned that more riots would ensue, this time against the draft. But the measure required that “reasonable white men at home,” with an investment in a stable community and vital local economy, would make the deal, not ham-handed bureaucrats in Washington. Indeed, under these best of circumstances, the proposition offered an additional benefit: it could transform the brutish former slave into a productive member of society. Willey expressed (perhaps disingenuously) his amazement at the controversy:
And I did think that such was an obvious advantage to the freedman himself in securing a home where he would obtain the protection of the law, the kindly sympathies of the people around him, and good labor at fair compensation, that there could hardly be an objection from any quarter to it.
But Wilkinson knew—as he realized Willey knew as well—that the notion of “kindly sympathies of the people around [the new black arrival],” could hardly be so in his section of the northern states. As early as 1861, the Chicago Tribune, as Edward Pluth notes, had observed that northerners feared that freed slaves would “overrun the North.” Likewise, as Leslie Schwalm has observed, “Many northern whites shared the fear that removing the bonds of slavery would bring unwelcome change to the ‘place’ of African Americans—and, by implication, the place of whites—in a postemancipation nation. . . . Revealing a deep-seated belief in the benefits and necessity of a racially stratified society, many [midwestern] whites assumed that any black gains in the region would diminish their own status and citizenship.”
And as the violence in St. Paul in 1863 attested, Wilkinson knew that many in his home state felt no differently, as such fears of a pending black deluge fell unhindered upon the fertile minds of people inclined to think the worst. “In the last census I see that at least of every 100 negroes born,” wrote C. A. S., “17 are mulattoes—nearly one-fifth. And now we have in the free states 155,994 blacks and 69,855 mulattoes. Thus, you see, over one-third are mixed now, in the free states, and the ratio is gaining every year if the political and social ties are given, as the census shows mixing goes on more rapidly in freedom than in slavery, not because of intermarriage, as that has so far been prohibited to a great extent, but because of the licentiousness of negro worshippers in the free states. Let those former restrictions be taken away all over our land, and it will not require a prophet to foresee the result. Mexico and South America present a limited view of our condition in the future.”
But it was more than a justification of the exclusion of people singularly on the basis of skin to many white people calling Minnesota home. It went to the very heart of what “civilization” was. Nineteenth-century European Americans used it to describe a culturally specific set of beliefs about proper land use and, more generally, what constituted civilization. Thus, settlement was not merely the presence of people but the introduction of various features that symbolized Euro-American society and provided the basis for an ordered way of life. Essential to the concept was agriculture, defined as planting crops on a large scale or raising domestic animals. The settlers of the 1850s were, in their own terms, engaged in imposing agriculture and the agricultural way of life, which they believed to be wasted on its original inhabitants, on a region that lacked order.
It was believed that race, and its demarcation, brought order to the “savage” land. As historian Bruce White notes, “More and more Americans in the midnineteenth century believed that human beings could be categorized according to racial groups, not all of which had the same intelligence and capabilities. Those considered superior were described as Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Caucasian—or, simply, white. Indian people and blacks, as well as, on occasion, Irish, Italians, and others, were thought to be inferior and without a part to play in the making of American society. In keeping with these new attitudes, settlement and civilization came to be described as the accomplishments of white people, even if other groups might live an orderly, cultured existence. From this point of view, the history of settlement in the Minnesota region, as described by post-territorial historians, was essentially the story of how Minnesota came to be white,” that is, passed from a time when most Minnesotans were Indian and mixed. Conversely, the white race as a whole, they believed, would “dissolve” into “any number of tan-colored grandchildren.” The future of the state, they felt, rested firmly in the hands of the idealized Minnesotan indelibly embossed as the man in the state seal, a white farmer at the plow, laboring on his land.
But it was the cranky Senator Saulsbury who summed up the matter. In the wake of Congress approving the resolution to send to the states the Thirteenth Amendment, Saulsbury argued that those who supported the abolition of slavery were hypocrites if they rejected the Willey amendment:
Sir, tell me not, tell not the honest people of this country that the professions of the abolitionists are sincere; and they are honest in their efforts to set free this race unless they are willing to take them home, and give a practical illustration to the world of their sincerity by admitting them to an equality of rights to themselves.
For Wilkinson, in particular, Saulsbury hit a nerve, for Minnesota had yet to approve suffrage rights for the black residents it already had. The friends of the freedman, it seemed, could support emancipation so long as the emancipated did not live among them. Racial equality was good as long as freedmen lived among white Southerners. The Delaware Democrat continued to scold the Radicals. “I am surprised that any man or any party professing to have at heart so much the interests of the negro race should refuse to avail of the privileges offered by the amendment of the Senator of West Virginia.” Ridiculing the Republicans, he said, “If this amendment be rejected by such votes as I have indicated, I apprehend that it will be impossible hereafter to make even the most stupid believe that modern abolitionism is anything else than absolute hypocrisy.”
Wilkinson knew that what made the provision untenable, beyond mere logistics, was the widespread antiblack sentiment in the North. Since the start of serious emancipation efforts in 1862, black migration to the northward had been a controversial issue, and though many freedmen had made their way north there was strong unpopular opposition to government actions to assist their relocation. In the fall of 1862, the War Department, facing great resistance from Illinois officials, abandoned efforts to arrange for the employment and support of black refugees in that state. Nor was eastern opinion any more favorable to blacks on this issue than in the west, as Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts showed in declining the offer of Union commanders to send two thousand blacks to the New England states.
Indeed, Northern prejudice made congressmen acutely sensitive to the issue of black migration from the start of Freedmen’s Bureau planning. In the first meeting of the House Select Committee on Emancipation in December 1863, Representative Godlove Orth of Indiana proposed that no action should be taken to encourage emigration by freedmen. Sharing this viewpoint, Democrat Anthony Knapp of Illinois moved an amendment to the bureau bill, stating that nothing in it should authorize the introduction of any persons of color into any state whose laws prohibited them. Massachusetts congressman Thomas D. Eliot’s committee rejected this motion by a vote of six Republicans (including Orth) to one Democrat, but the result signified a desire to steer clear of the issue rather than support the migration of blacks.
By June 1864, the issue of black relocation had become political theater. Republican opponents of the Willey amendment acknowledged political reasons for avoiding any reference to black migration in national legislation. To open public correspondence on the subject, Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas declared, would enable “a political party to make A FUSS about it, and it will become an unpopular thing.” Henry Wilson of Massachusetts held that the provision for official correspondence with state governors was liable to misrepresentation and would excite opposition. Wilson said he supported black relocation only if it were carried out by private voluntary means, for any governmental intervention could result in more contention in Northern communities. Considering that antiblack sentiment was particularly strong in the west, many felt that some of the western Republicans actually supported black migration to embarrass easterners who voted against a bill for black advancement. After all, the amendment was primarily not so much about homesteading as about labor, and urban labor at that, where white laborers had already demonstrated a penchant for mob violence. Nonetheless, other westerners knew that for many settlers, the town could be a springboard to homesteading, a lifestyle ordained to the white man, and that the freedman was a creature of the South. In any event, many senators anticipated that the House would not approve the provision. The Willey amendment vote would thus quietly recede into the shadows.
This needed not be a party-line vote; senators could vote any way they wanted on the matter. The Radicals had established their bona fides in the struggle for freedom when they approved the resolution to send the Thirteenth Amendment to the states for ratification in April with a 38–6 vote; and it was a defining vote, one that each senator knew would stand the test of time. The Willey amendment was of a different stripe, permitting each senator to march to his own drummer. On June 28, the Senate approved Willey’s amendment, 19–15. It was one of the few issues concerning the freedmen that confronted the wartime Senate when men within the same caucus opposed each other. Such was the case with the senators from Minnesota. Ramsey voted to approve the amendment while Wilkinson voted to reject it. Two men of similar minds on the advancement of the freedman stood on opposing sides of the political divide, a precursor of the politics to come in terms of racial opportunity during the fratricidal age of reconstruction. It would therefore seem that in Wilkinson’s mind, the farmer etched onto the state seal was to be literally construed as white, only. And Montgomery, who within a few years would himself become a successful businessman in real estate, would have concurred.