Ethnic Groups of Minnesota

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This entry was originally written by Carol L. Maki and Michael John Neill for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Minnesota Family History Research series.
History of Minnesota
Minnesota Vital Records
Census Records for Minnesota
Background Sources for Minnesota
Minnesota Maps
Minnesota Land Records
Minnesota Probate Records
Minnesota Court Records
Minnesota Tax Records
Minnesota Cemetery Records
Minnesota Church Records
Minnesota Military Records
Minnesota Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Minnesota Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Minnesota Immigration
Minnesota Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Minnesota
Minnesota County Resources
Map of Minnesota

African American

Minnesota counted very few African Americans in the population prior to the Civil War. Those who were in the state were basically in two groups, either servants of officers at Fort Snelling or engaged in the fur trading industry. The latter, hired mainly by the fur companies in St. Louis, were some of the earliest African Americans in Minnesota. The Minnesota territorial census of 1849 listed forty free persons of African descent, thirty of those living in St. Paul in seven family groups. After 1860 the African-American population increased twofold, including over 500 men, women, and children arriving by steamboats from St. Louis to St. Paul in May of 1863. The Minnesota Historical Society has numerous manuscript collections pertaining to African Americans in Minnesota. Some of these have been documented in various articles in Minnesota History. See also:

  • Spangler, Earl. Bibliography of Negro History: Selected and Annotated Entries, General and Minnesota. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1963. Excellent bibliography.
  • Taylor, David Vassar. 'The Blacks.' In They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups. Edited by June Drenning Holmquist. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981, 73-91. Excellent history of the African Americans in Minnesota, including detailed endnotes.
  • . Blacks in Minnesota: A Preliminary Guide to Historical Sources. St. Paul: Publications of the Minnesota Historical Society, 1976.

Native American

Minnesota's two major native nations were the Dakota (or Sioux), originally from the southern prairie, and the Ojibway (or Chippewa) of the northern pine forests, both semi-nomadic societies based on hunting and gathering. In 1805 the United States purchased a small parcel of land in Minnesota for a military post, Fort Snelling. All other land belonged to the Native Americans. Intertribal fighting for northern Minnesota existed until 1825 when the Dakota and Ojibway agreed to a tribal diagonal demarcation almost across the center of the state.

Massive cessions of Native American land to European settlement began in Minnesota country in 1837 when an area between the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers was relinquished by the Dakota and Ojibway. After the chiefs signed the treaty, they headed north to the lands for which they thought they had given only timber rights. It was not until 1849 that they realized they had indeed sold their native land.

In 1847 land west of the Mississippi in central Minnesota was provided by treaty for the Winnebago and Menominee, although neither tribe ever occupied the area. Four years later, at Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, the Dakota signed treaties that gave the United States most of southern Minnesota. In treaties of 1854, 1855, 1863, and 1866, the Ojibway gave up much of their northern Minnesota land.

During the 1850s and 1860s, the Dakota treaties brought about a tragic and sorrowful chapter of Minnesota history. The reservations were not established as promised, and the various bands refused to move to the provisional reserves in the mid-1850s. Land annuity payments, the restriction of reservation life, and the nonexistence of promised agricultural aid led many Dakota families to return to their original lands, now the homes of European settlers. In 1857 settlers were killed in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and in Jackson County, Minnesota. A treaty in 1858 providing for Dakota self-government and land allotments failed, resulting in the Sioux Conflict of 1862, after which many either fled to the Dakota Territory or Canada or were moved to Crow Creek (now South Dakota). The unsatisfactory conditions at Crow Creek resulted in many deaths before the tribe was moved to Nebraska in 1866.

Minnesota's Ojibway were not involved in armed conflict with the white settlers, but the United States acquired most of their land and tried to confine them to reservations within the state. Small inter-tribal treaty parcels were consolidated, and some Ojibway refused to move to these larger reservations.

By 1980 there were nearly twice as many Native Americans in Minnesota as when the Europeans first visited this area. The metropolis of St. Paul and Minneapolis has the third largest urban concentration of Native Americans in the United States. The Ojibway in the northern part of the state occupy one of the few unallotted and unceded reservations in the country.

For an excellent explanation of the Native Americans in Minnesota in the twentieth century, see Mitchell E. Rubenstein and Alan R. Woolworth, 'The Dakota and Ojibway,' in They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups, edited by June Drenning Holmquist (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981), 17-35. An article specifically directed at the family researcher of Native American records is Virginia Rogers, 'The Indians and the Metis: Genealogical Sources on Minnesota's Earliest Settlers,' in Minnesota History (Fall 1979): 286-96. Rogers has directed her research on Ojibway born prior to 1850, including the use of Canadian genealogical volumes and extensive study of missionary manuscript sources. These include early parish records, with baptisms at St. Ignace de Michilimackinac as early as 1712.

Helpful aids at the Minnesota Historical Society include the society's Chippewa and Dakota Indians: A Subject Catalogue of Books, Pamphlets, Periodical Articles, and Manuscripts in the Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1969) and their original source material: U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, Chippewa Annuity Rolls (1849'1935); U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, Sioux Annuity Rolls (1849'1935); White Earth Indian Reservation, Saint Columba Parish Register (1853'1933); and Philip C. Bantin, Guide to Catholic Indian Mission and School Records in Midwest Repositories (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Libraries, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, 1984).

Other Ethnic Groups

Nineteenth-century French Canadians as fur traders, as lumbermen, and as priests in the Catholic Church were the first immigrants to Minnesota. Later other French Canadians followed, locating their new homes in the river valleys. The first French-Canadian communities at Fort Snelling and Mendota were both at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Minnesota has a larger French-Canadian population in the late twentieth century than any state outside of New England.

Of the approximately thirty-two million total immigrants to the United States from 1820 through 1950, it is estimated that at least one million made their way to or through Minnesota. They came to the state for the available land; they came with tickets purchased for them by earlier U.S. immigrants; and they came to the support and security of ethnic communities already established in the counties and small towns. Most came via Canada and the Red River trails, up the Mississippi on steamboats, and overland. Eventually they arrived by train.

Excellent and thorough discussions of all the immigrant groups to Minnesota can be found in June Drenning Holmquist, They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981).

There are several research repositories for ethnic groups in Minnesota. The Immigration History Research Center was founded in 1965 at the University of Minnesota (311 Andersen Library, 222-21st Ave. S., St. Paul, MN 55114). Its dual purpose is to encourage the study of the role of immigration and to collect the records of twenty-four American ethnic groups originating from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe and the Near East. The collection includes newspapers, books, and periodicals. The center also has records of churches, cultural societies, political, and fraternal organizations, in addition to the personal papers of some immigrants. The American Letters (1880'1964), a microfilmed collection of some 15,000 letters sent by immigrants to friends and relatives in Finland is an example of the type of items in the collection.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN 55057 <> has a collection on immigration including letters, diaries, business records, family histories, photographs, oral histories, and obituary and newspaper indexes, including the Rowberg file, which contains more than 175,000 newspaper clippings. Their website has online versions of some society periodicals and publications.

The Minnesota Historical Society has a large collection of Norwegian immigration materials including guidebooks written for prospective emigrants, about 10,000 manuscripts, an excellent printed and periodical collection for Swedish-Americans, and several ethnic collections that include artifacts and manuscripts listed in the society's Historic Resources in Minnesota: A Report on their Extent, Location, and Need for Preservation (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1979).

The American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55407 focuses on the settlement of Swedes in America. Its collection includes family and personal papers, oral history, correspondence and record books of Swedish immigrant organizations, Bibles, genealogies, photographs, and microfilm copies of Swedish church records in Minnesota.

The emphasis of the Celtic Collection, O'Shaughnessy Library, College of Saint Thomas, 2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105 is on Welsh, Scottish, and Irish history, folklore, language, and literature.