Minnesota’s St. Croix Valley, once a Territory of Wisconsin

“They have not been attracted thither by the glitter of inexhaustible gold mines, but with the same spirit which has actuated all our pioneers of civilization. They have gone there to labor with the axe, the anvil and the plough.”*

Henry Sibley
December 22, 1848

The Minnesota territory in part owes its birth to an odd election that took place in Stillwater, Minnesota in August of 1848. Minnesota’s pristine St. Croix Valley and the portions of the state east of the Mississippi were originally part of the Wisconsin territory. In 1848 Wisconsin became a state, but Congress made the St. Croix River essentially the western boundary of the new state. This left a portion of the old territory that is now part of Minnesota without any government in the summer of 1848.

Acting quickly, several fur trading leaders and some of the new lumberman of the St. Croix Valley called the “Stillwater Convention” to elect a new territorial delegate to the United States Congress. No such authority was ever given in the legislation that created the State of Wisconsin, but that did not deter the Stillwater delegates. American Fur Trading Company agent Henry Sibley won what was mostly a cordial race between fellow fur trader Henry M. Rice. Sibley and Rice would have far more contentious political battles in the future, but in 1848 they were united about getting somebody to Washington DC to represent their interests.

Sibley left with trepidation about being the new “delegate” of the likely non-existing “Territory of Wisconsin”, but his tact and dignity of bearing impressed many congressmen. His excellent speech on December 22 before the House Committee on Elections, that gave a delightful little slap at the controversial California territory, won the day. He was eventually seated as a territorial delegate and led the effort to pass legislation creating a new Minnesota territory the following year.

The St. Croix Valley will be witnessing another important election this year in the race for the new Senate District 39. The district meanders up the St. Croix from Afton Alps reaching almost to Taylors Falls. It includes the cities of Stillwater and Forest Lake. The political index leans slightly Republican, but the incumbent Republican in the district decided not to run for reelection on the last day filing closed, catching many Republican leaders off guard. Karen Housley hastily filed that afternoon and went on to handily win the Republican primary.

Housley’s name should be familiar for a couple of reasons. Last election, prior to the new redistricting plan that placed her home in the new District 39, she ran for Senate against Katie Sieben in then District 57 losing by only 2% in the district that leans DFL. District 39 is completely different with only one community in common and that is the small community of St. Mary’s Point on the St. Croix River. She has deeper connections in the new district as a popular real estate agent and active community booster in Stillwater. Nonetheless, you may recognize her name for the fact that she is married to former All-Star NHL hockey player Phil Housley.

The DFL candidate is no rookie to the political process in the area and is making this a race to watch on election night. Julie Bunn represented much of the area in the House Representatives for four years until she was defeated in a close race in 2010. She lost by only 3% with an independent candidate drawing 5.5% in that race. Bunn has worked on several environmental issues affecting the St. Croix River Valley. This included effort she led in the legislature to protect the area’s groundwater from a landfill that Xcel energy wanted to build for its mercury laden coal fly ash from a nearby plant.

The contest for control of the Senate will be close this next election with beautiful and historic St. Croix Valley District 39 playing a key role, making it a race to watch.

*Thomas C. Blegen, Minnesota – A History of the State, University of Minnesota Press 1963, 2nd edition 1975. p162

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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