A freshly minted Harvard degree in his pocket and a wealthy Maryland family behind him, Harwood Iglehart’s promising life veered west in the early 1850s thanks to a random meeting in Annapolis.
Willis Gorman, Minnesota Territory’s second governor and a pre-statehood booster, was visiting his son at the U.S. Naval Academy when he bumped into young Iglehart and his pal William Sprigg Hall. Gorman talked up Minnesota, where an impressive land boom was reaping hefty profits after Dakota land had been pried loose of the tribe in controversial treaties.
By fall 1854, Iglehart, Hall, and Iglehart’s cousin from Maryland — Charles Mackubin — had moved to St. Paul, dived into law and finance and gotten ready to cash in on the real estate action. The trio together bought 160 acres overlooking Lake Phalen in what would become St. Paul’s East Side, and all three would become Minnesota civic leaders, winning legislative elections and appointments to lead libraries and schools.
Today, Iglehart and Mackubin are remembered mostly for the streets bearing their names that run through the Summit-University, Merriam Park, Frogtown and Como neighborhoods of St. Paul. They also left their marks on East Side street names — including Maryland, Magnolia, Rose, Geranium, Ivy and Hyacinth — all evoking their Southern roots.
But they, along with Hall, shared something less sweet-smelling back in Maryland: All came from families that enslaved people, giving them the financial wherewithal to strike it big in Minnesota.
“Minnesotans and other northerners have forgotten their states’ complicity in the slaveholding economy,” writes Christopher Lehman, a St. Cloud State University professor, in his new book, “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State.”
Lehman zeros in on the years between 1849, when Minnesota became a territory, and 1865, when the 13th Amendment dismantled slavery — a time when Iglehart, Mackubin and other leaders and financial institutions “left behind a paper trail that connected their money to their human chattel in the South and to their purchases of real estate in the Northwest.”
It was a complex web for a state that prided itself as an anti-slavery bastion and outlawed the practice in its territorial and state constitutions. Early state historians trumpeted stories of homegrown abolitionists such as Jane Grey Swisshelm, and Mississippi slave Eliza Winston, who successfully sued her vacationing owners and won her freedom in Minnesota.
But Lehman points out that Southern slave owners used tainted money to profit in the North Star State. “Slaves walked woefully onto auction blocks in states all over the South so that their sellers would have money to buy land in Minnesota,” he writes, detailing the state’s early “dependence on capital from the unseen unfree.”
The tales of Maryland cousins Iglehart and Mackubin might seem only slightly connected to slavery. But Lehman insists they were part of a network that closely linked Minnesota’s growth in its first years “to the pain endured by these slaves.”
Iglehart owned one slave in Maryland, a woman in her 30s named Rosetta Johnson. She remained his property when he moved to Minnesota, but lived at his father’s home in Annapolis until Iglehart freed her in 1864.
Lehman explained in an e-mail how the Census Bureau’s so-called Slave Schedules, which listed slaveholders every 10 years, became a key research tool. He said he “stumbled” onto Iglehart’s entries, which showed him living in Minnesota in 1860 and owning an enslaved person in Maryland.
“As I further studied Iglehart, I saw his success in real estate, and I wondered: How many other slaveholders came to Minnesota for the real estate?” Lehman wrote. He scoured deeds in county recorders’ offices and looked up buyers’ names in slave schedules and probate records to see if they held enslaved people in the South while owning property up north.
Hall, who was elected to the Minnesota Senate, had more tangible ties to his inherited slaves. At 20, he petitioned a Maryland court before moving west for a hike in his family allowance because “the hire of his negroes” wasn’t sufficient to offset “his yearly support” and law school studies.
Mackubin’s father owned at least 11 slaves in Maryland, and his six siblings all owned slaves. Mackubin, a banker and like Hall a state senator, never owned slaves himself.
But when 600 residents in St. Paul, St. Anthony and Stillwater signed a petition in 1860 to legalize slavery just for Southern tourists visiting Minnesota, Mackubin pushed a bill backing their cause. It failed, 29-5, with even Hall voting against it.
Though Mackubin had chosen to live without slaves, Lehman writes, “that did not mean he opposed the institution. [Slavery] had given him a childhood of privilege.” In the end, Mackubin’s failed bill, according to Lehman, “symbolized the last stand” both for slavery in Minnesota and the political power of its supporters in the state.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.