With fewer than 4,000 residents, Traverse County ranks dead last in population among Minnesota’s 87 counties. But it’s No. 1 in my book when it comes to the drama that played out while placing the county seat in Wheaton in the late 1880s.
They actually called it the Traverse County Seat War, although only one shot was fired and no one was hurt.
First some background: Formed by the westward bump in the state line on the South Dakota border, Traverse County was established in 1862. People, of course, had been living far longer than that along Lake Traverse.
A skeleton unearthed in a gravel pit in 1933 — dubbed Browns Valley Man by archaeologists — was estimated to be 10,000 years old. Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota thrived in the area centuries after that.
Joseph R. Brown and his son, Samuel, both key players in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, became the area’s first white settlers. The village that formed around Joe’s fur post on the southern tip of the lake became known as Browns Valley.
Four years after Minnesota became the nation’s 32nd state, 568 square miles on its western edge became a county. It was first called Breckenridge County after Vice President John C. Breckinridge (James Buchanan’s running mate), despite the misspelling.
The vice president was a pro-slavery Kentuckian who was considered a traitor when he offered his services to the Confederacy — no one after whom to name a county. So Traverse, the name of the county’s defining lake, became its moniker.
Despite a population of only 40 people in the 1870s, Gov. C.K. Davis named Sam Brown county commissioner, and in 1881 the Legislature formally organized the county, with Browns Valley as its seat.
Enter the railroads, which reshaped much of Minnesota in the 1870s and 1880s. Population boomed and the town of Wheaton was born in 1884, named after Daniel Thomas Wheaton — a surveyor for the Fargo and Southern Railroad.
Charles Pickle, Wheaton’s first town marshal, plowed a firebreak around the settlement. A well was dug, a wooden hand pump was installed on Broadway and sidewalks went down.
A petition was circulated to move the county seat from Browns Valley to Wheaton, whose central location on the rail line buttressed the argument.
Two-thirds of landowners signed the petition to move the county seat to Wheaton in 1886. Browns Valley hired a detective who reported that Wheaton had cheated — allegedly importing denizens of Twin Cities’ slums to skew the vote totals. Wheaton town leaders denied the charges.
With three-fifths of the vote needed to move county seats, the tally came in 668 to 463 for the switch. Wheaton had fallen a dozen votes shy. So its town honchos went to Gov. Lucius Hubbard and secured an order declaring Wheaton the new county seat.
Furious Browns Valley leaders went to court and won an injunction barring the removal of any county records and prohibiting any county business from being transacted anywhere but their village.
The clash was set.
On Dec. 8, 1886, 25 horse-drawn wagons and 85 men mounted up in Wheaton before dawn and rode 25 miles southwest to Browns Valley. They arrived at 6 a.m., only to find the building with the county records locked up tight.
So the men of Wheaton busted in the door and began loading their wagons with desks, stoves, books and files. The commotion awakened W.R. Smith and his family, who lived on the second floor of the courthouse in Browns Valley. Smith ran to the church and clanged the bell, alerting Browns Valley’s finest.
A debate erupted. Some townsfolk wanted to grab the guns at the hardware store and defend their county seat with a hail of bullets. Slightly more moderate residents persuaded the growing crowd to grab clubs, gas pipes and knives instead.
Browns Valley’s A.F. Crossfields stood on the county courthouse steps and read the court’s injunction. A Wheaton man cut him off, hollering: “Court orders be damned.”
They continued loading books, records and furniture on their wagons. A shot rang out, although no injuries were reported. Browns Valley residents soon outnumbered the raiders from Wheaton. The loads were dumped in the street and the Wheaton folks were forced to flee.
Smashed desks, sliced harnesses and scattered records punctuated the chaos. In the end, only one load of records made it to Wheaton when John Wienke whipped his horses to get across the track just ahead of a locomotive, which was running back and forth along the track to prevent the intruders’ escape.
Within three years, the court dismissed its injunction and the county seat moved to Wheaton without more fireworks. Today, Traverse County ranks fourth nationally in its percentage of folks 85 years old and up. And Wheaton boasts the world’s largest mallard — a 20-foot-tall community project constructed of concrete and steel in 1960.
So while Traverse County might rank last in population, it fares far higher in colorful civic history.
Curt Brown’s tales on Minnesota history appear Sundays. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. He will be discussing his new book on the Marvy family of St. Paul, the nation’s last makers of barber poles, Feb. 17 at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7 p.m.