As a young girl, she saw the first steamboat churn up the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling in 1823. More than 40 years later, she heard the shrill hoot of the first train chugging past the fort. One of her last trips to the fort was by car, shortly before she died in 1907 at the age of 87.
Along the way, Charlotte Clark Van Cleve became the first woman elected to the Minneapolis school board, rose to national prominence in the suffrage movement and started a home for so-called “fallen women,” mostly unwed mothers and prostitutes.
But of all the things she saw and did, nothing was a bigger surprise than simply surviving infancy.
Her father, Lt. Nathan Clark, brought his pregnant wife (also named Charlotte) and their firstborn son along when the government ordered his Fifth Infantry Regiment to trek from Detroit to build a fort at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
They stopped, exhausted, at Fort Crawford, a rough-and-tumble outpost near the settlement of Prairie du Chien, Wis.
Charlotte was born there on July 1, 1819. Officers took note of her birthplace by giving her the middle name Ouisconsin, an early spelling for Wisconsin. Meanwhile, they faced leaking pork barrels and flour so damp it was caked with mold.
“There was no choice between this wretched fare and starvation … It is difficult to realize how my mother endured her hardships,” Van Cleve wrote in her 1888 memoir. Throw in the fever that “seized” her mother and brother, she wrote, and a drunken army surgeon, and “it would seem almost beyond belief” that they survived.
Sucking on a rag dipped in flour and water for nourishment, the baby was taken on the expedition as it crawled up the Mississippi, poling flat-bottomed boats to traverse the final 300 miles to what would become Fort Snelling.
Like many military children, young Charlotte didn’t stay in one place too long, following her father from fort to fort for her first 16 years. She met Lt. Horatio Van Cleve in 1833 at Fort Winnebago in Wisconsin Territory and married him when she was 16. Their union produced a dozen children, three of whom died in infancy.
After stints in Ohio and Michigan, Charlotte persuaded her husband to return to Minnesota in 1856. They farmed in Long Prairie for five years and later moved to what would become Minneapolis. When the Civil War broke out, Horatio was tapped to command the Second Minnesota Regiment. He fared well enough at an 1862 battle near Mill Springs, Ky., to get promoted to brigadier general.
Charlotte waged her own battles. She turned heads by showing up with a hammer and nails to repair Minneapolis’ dilapidated sidewalks during her historic 1876 school board campaign. A few years later, she helped launch Bethany Home, a three-story safe haven for unwed pregnant girls and prostitutes. Residents were advised to use temporary names at Bethany so that they could make a fresh start when they left the home after a year.
“There are no bolts and bars and the front door stands unlatched so that it would be an easy matter for an inmate” to leave, according to the 1900 diary of one of Van Cleve’s fellow founders.
The diary continues: “Many sensational and interesting cases come to the home, which, told without any exaggeration … would find ready sale.” Thankfully, those case files were kept confidential.
Van Cleve was “a crusader for the rights of disadvantaged people in Minnesota and beyond,” said Nancy Bacon, a spokeswoman for the Keewaydin chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
Van Cleve was among the first women in the 1890s to join the Minneapolis chapter of the DAR, a group that aims to preserve history and perform community service. It boasts 177,000 members in 3,000 chapters, all descended from those who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Last month, the Keewaydin chapter spruced up Charlotte’s grave at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis with a new marker. Among those attending the ceremony were Charlotte and Horatio’s great-great-grandson, John Van Cleve, a German literary translator and Augsburg College instructor, his wife and two of their grown children.
Other legacies of the Van Cleves can be found around Minneapolis. Van Cleve Park, at Como and 15th avenues SE., features a historic plaque and bios of Charlotte and Horatio. The park was named for them in 1893. The Van Cleve House, where they lived starting in 1862, landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and remains in good shape in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood at 603 SE. 5th St.
There’s been a Charlotte Van Cleve re-enactor for years at Fort Snelling. And then there are her own words; the pioneer baby who saw the frontier outpost develop into a regional center wrote her memoir in 1888 when she was nearly 70. Titled “Three Score Years and Ten: Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and Other Parts of the West,” the book can be found online at tinyurl.com/CharlotteVanCleve/.
Toward the end of the book, she recounts a 50th anniversary party in 1886 when two of her youngest grandchildren “toddled up to ‘grandma’ and presented her with a cluster of fourteen golden rosebuds, one for each grandchild.” The poems, letters and gifts she and her husband received, Charlotte wrote, were “to be highly valued by our children when we shall have passed away.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.