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The Western Minnesota town that wasn’t: New Yeovil

Despite high hopes, the settlement of New Yeovil crumbled soon after it began.

Northern Pacific Railroad's colonist's reception house, Glyndon, Minnesota, 1876.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1873, George Rodgers led immigrants from southwest England to establish the Yeovil Colony in the Red River Valley on land purchased from the Northern Pacific Railroad. Despite high hopes, the settlement of New Yeovil crumbled soon after it began.

Chartered by Congress in 1864, the Northern Pacific Railroad was given large grants of land to build a railroad between Lake Superior and the Puget Sound. The company was eager to find buyers for land along the railway. Northern Pacific set up recruiting offices in the United States and abroad. Their efforts were particularly successful in England. Increasing poverty and unemployment in agricultural areas of England made immigration to America look particularly appealing.

George Rodgers was a minister from Dorset, England. He believed that laborers and tenant farmers in Southern England needed to earn higher wages and deserved a better quality of life. The Northern Pacific Railroad hired him to give speeches to groups of farmers to tell them about the benefits that life in America had to offer. Rodgers may not have meant to deceive immigrants about settlement in Minnesota. Yet his praise, along with Northern Pacific’s recruiting efforts, did mislead prospective buyers about the land available and the level of existing settlement in the Red River Valley.

While giving these lectures, Rodgers decided to lead a colony to settle on Northern Pacific land. In 1872, Northern Pacific brought Rodgers to Minnesota to view sites for the colony. He arrived in Duluth on August 5, 1872 and was taken to the colonist’s reception house at Glyndon near Moorhead. Rodgers selected a site on the Northern Pacific land grant nearby and returned to England after only a few weeks.

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Reverend Rodgers said that the colony site in Minnesota was ideal. For the cost of less than a year’s rent for an English farm, Rodgers said, a settler in the colony could buy an entire farm of his own. Rodgers predicted high crop yields, wealth, and happiness for those who settled with him on the Minnesota prairie.

Opponents of the Northern Pacific’s colonization efforts published accounts of Minnesota’s harsh winters and bleak landscape. Competing railroad lines urged colonists to settle further south. Edward B. Stone, an Englishman in America, warned that Rodgers had seen only summer weather, and that the winter was terrible. Rodgers dismissed Stone’s claims. He admitted that the winters would be quite cold. Nevertheless, he said, that the climate was so pleasant compared to England that the coldest winter might soon become a settler’s favorite season.

Rodgers and the first group of colonists arrived in Minnesota on April 17, 1873. They established New Yeovil on railroad land near Hawley. However, the colonists were dismayed to find that the lots available were much smaller than advertised at double the price. Dissatisfaction with the colony grew. Rodgers urged colonists who were not farmers to remain in England. Nevertheless, he insisted that dissatisfaction in Yeovil was a result of the colonists’ poor planning and unwillingness to work.

By the time a third group of colonists arrived in June, many of the original settlers were leaving. In October, 1873 the St. Paul Daily Pioneer ran a story concluding that half the original colonists had already left. By the next year most the colony of Yeovil was gone. The few remaining colonists joined neighboring towns. The Northern Pacific Railroad had failed to sell much of its land in the West. In the wake of the economic panic of 1873, they abandoned many of their settlement offices. Like other Northern Pacific colony efforts, the Yeovil colony failed. Colonists left England with high hopes, but their unrealistic expectations combined with poor leadership and the financial panic of 1873 led most to abandon the settlement.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.