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The controversial career of Minnesota’s first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey

photo 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.

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

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/01/2018 - 11:51 am.

    I wonder what different path someone else might have taken, and who that person might have been?

    It’s folly to judge our 19th century forebears with 21st century politically correct lip service. They were people living in their time.

    • Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 10/03/2018 - 01:35 pm.

      I agree. Looking at figures like Ramsey or Patrick Henry should help us realize that from Day One our country has been a work in process, not a convention of angels. One opposed slavery, the other supported independence, both courageous positions for their times. How will people a century from now view us?

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/01/2018 - 01:40 pm.

    “Ignoring evidence uncovered in its own investigations, the US Senate exonerated him . . . . . ”

    Well, well, well . . . the more things change, the more they stay the same . . . . .

  3. Submitted by kelanders Meanders on 10/27/2018 - 02:24 pm.

    Alexander Ramsey and his track record should be viewed as a blemish on Minnesota’s history. He was a man devoid of the timeless values all men with a basic moral compass possess such as honor, integrity, compassion. He ripped off the vulnerable and weak to enriched himself as evidenced by his land dealings while holding public office, an unquestionable conflict of interest and he knew full well what he was doing was wrong. Over 500 immigrants and over 300 native Americans died on his watch, under his policies. He should be tried for his crimes… and Henry Sibley was just as bad!

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