He played pivotal roles in founding the University of Minnesota and the state’s Republican Party.
He befriended Abraham Lincoln after joining the 1860 delegation that traveled by train from Chicago to Springfield, Ill., to inform “the tall, grave, kindly man” that he’d been tapped as the Republicans’ presidential nominee.
He ardently opposed slavery and liquor, arguing that Minnesota would look “simply ridiculous” by limiting voting to “free white males” in its first constitution. Later in his life, he clashed with a newspaper editor in Nevada named Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain.
But John Wesley North, born 200 years ago this Jan. 4, is best known for the town on the Cannon River named after him: Northfield. In a letter written on his 40th birthday in 1855 — to a father-in-law who constantly bailed him out of financial trouble — North wrote: “The whole valley of this river is beautiful and very fertile … The crabapple and wild plum grow there in great abundance, and furnish fruit to the settlers.”
Born in New York, North studied law at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and moved to Minnesota in 1849 with hopes of curing his lousy health wrenched by intestinal distress and fatigue. He settled first in the pre-Minneapolis riverbank settlement of St. Anthony Falls.
He was elected to the Territorial Legislature and took on the power elite — accusing Minnesota Pioneer publisher James Goodhue, Gov. Alexander Ramsey and congressional delegate Henry Sibley of colluding in “nefarious combination” to get the State Capitol built in St. Paul and the prison erected in Stillwater.
North resigned from the Legislature in protest and switched allegiances to the Democratic Party while brokering the bill that saw the university built in Minneapolis almost as a consolation prize. Writing in 1851, North said: “This would be a grand thing for us in the future though it can not amount to much at present.”
He said he used a transcript from the University of Wisconsin’s founding documents when he drafted Minnesota’s university charter. Deep in debt, North headed south to the Cannon River in 1855 to open a mill in the town that would soon carry his name.
Some historians say there is no direct proof that Northfield was named after John North — a guy who had no intentions of creating the town in the first place. In an 1880 letter, written when he was 65, North admitted: “I did not at first contemplate starting a town, much less a city: I only thought of a mill. There was no road running through the place.”
He soon got the road built with a bridge, not to mention a railroad, post office, schoolhouse that could hold religious services plus shops for wheelwrights, a cabinet maker and a blacksmith.
By the first week of 1856, he was writing to his New York sugar daddy-in-law, Dr. George Loomis: “We are comfortably settled in our new home which you may have learned before this bears the euphonious cognomen of Northfield.”
He went on to detail how it took 36 hours for their covered lumber sleigh, pulled by four horses, to schlep his family the 45 miles from St. Anthony Falls through thick snow and a winter that saw temperatures drop to 44 degrees below zero.
“But we do not freeze and we enjoy ourselves finely,” wrote North, whose optimism not only warmed a winter’s chill, but also propelled him to dive into countless financially shaky real estate speculations.
When his milling income boomed, North was able to right his fiscal ship and borrow more money. Instead of getting conservative with this dough, he invested in new construction — including the American House, an inn that would become Carleton College’s first structure.
Within five years, North would leave Northfield — accepting a less-than-hoped-for Lincoln appointment as surveyor general in the Nevada Territory. He would eventually found the town of Riverside, Calif., where he was buried in 1890 at 75.
A set of North’s books remain in the collection at Northfield’s Public Library, which is only fitting. With mills and lumberyards, there was plenty of physical energy in the new town of Northfield in 1856.
But North and his wife, Ann, would need more to brag about in letters sent back East, with hopes of wooing more settlers to the Cannon River.
So North became the first president in 1857 of the Northfield Lyceum — a think tank whose name traces to the grove where Aristotle taught in Greece. The Lyceum’s bylaws, shaped by North, started thusly: “Believing in the utility of societies for intellectual improvement, we, citizens of Northfield, agree to unite ourselves into an association for the purpose of establishing a reading room, circulating library and debating society.”
Each Wednesday, two members would take opposing sides and, while townsfolk gathered, they would debate women’s suffrage, slavery, capital punishment and whether dancing “is a proper amusement of young people.”
“After its discussion socially and politically from Adam to our progenitors,” dancing prevailed 20-3.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com