By David Schleper
In the May 9, 1854 diary of Daniel M. Storer, a pioneer builder and merchant in Shakopee, Minnesota, made the following note:
“A black man by the name of Griffin commenced working for me on the 9th.”
Mr. Griffin worked with Daniel Storer in Shakopee as a carpenter, and built some of the buildings in the town of Shakopee.
Daniel Milton Storer was born on July 11, 1828 in Carthage, Maine, and lived in a backwoods hamlet with his siblings until, at age 19, he moved west. He was in Illinois for two years, and in 1849 he moved to Minnesota, locating first at Stillwater, and then in the spring of 1853 Daniel came to Shakopee. The town of Shakopee was in its infancy (though the Dakota were there for years before this). Daniel found an ample field for his trade, that of a carpenter, and over the next ten years he assisted in building many structures, a few still standing, monuments to the good old days of hardwood timbers and careful construction. A year after Daniel started building houses, he met and hired Mr. Griffin to work with him starting on May 9, 1854.
So, who was this African American man in Shakopee in 1854? Was he a slave, hired out by a master from St. Paul or the Minnesota Valley? Or was he a free man? Or was Mr. Griffin a runaway, heading to Canada and freedom?
When you think of slavery, you probably think of a feature of the South part of the United States. But there were many slaves in the north. Slaves were auctioned openly in the Market House of Philadelphia; in the shadow of Congregational churches in Rhode Island; in Boston taverns and warehouses; and weekly, sometimes daily, in Merchant’s Coffee House of New York. Such Northern heroes of the American Revolution as John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin bought, sold, and owned black people.
Practices such as the breeding of slaves like animals for market, or the crime of slave mothers killing their infants, testify that slavery’s brutalizing force was at work in the north. Philadelphia brick maker John Coats was just one of the Northern masters who kept his slave workers in iron collars with shackles. Newspaper advertisements in the North offer abundant evidence of slave families broken up by sales or inheritance. One Boston ad of 1732, for example, lists a 19-year-old woman and her 6-month-old infant, to be sold either “together or apart.”
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in theory, outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory, including the Minnesota area. Though slavery was outlawed, it still happened, especially in the Fort Snelling area.
By the time Fort Snelling was built in the 1820s, slavery was a reality in the Northwest Territory. Fur traders often utilized slave labor and some officers at the post, including Colonel Josiah Snelling, owned slaves. Major Lawrence Taliaferro had many slaves, and he often rented slaves.
Historians estimate that throughout the 1820s and 1830s anywhere from 15 to 30 enslaved African Americans lived and worked at Fort Snelling at any one time. These people likely cooked, cleaned and did laundry and other household chores for their owners.
In the book A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota, William D. Green looked at the decades leading up to the Civil War, when some black people lived in freedom on the frontier of Minnesota, working in the fur trades and mingling with Native Americans, French traders and immigrants drawn to the area.
Meanwhile, slave hunters roamed the streets of St. Paul, and military life at Fort Snelling included numerous slaves serving the military in residence as well as visiting officers. “Even though slavery was very present and tolerated in Minnesota at Fort Snelling, the concept was an abstraction. Minnesota was still the frontier at this point, and the issue of slavery was a low priority, even with people who felt they were friends of black people,” said Green.
Green says slavery came to Minnesota in part to discourage race mixing with another group of people, the Native Americans, who still made up a large part of the population. “Virtually every French trader had a Native American wife and children, and a large number of the troops at Fort Snelling were involved with Native American women as well. This didn’t sit well with (John Caldwell) Calhoun, so he initiated a policy that encouraged wives to live at the fort to civilize the corps, and to purchase slaves in order to release wives from the drudgery of housekeeping in frontier conditions.”
Calhoun is best remembered for his strong defense of slavery. He was a patriarch of slavery and succession in the South and he also engineered to bring slavery to the north. Fredrika Bremer, a Scandinavian writer and reformer, quoted Elijah Green, one of the slaves who dug Calhoun’s grave in 1850, stating, “I never did like Calhoun ’cause he hated the Negro; no man was ever hated as much as him by a group of people.”
Besides Fort Snelling, slaves were allowed in other towns, including St. Cloud. Wealthy slave owners from the deep south or neighboring territories like Missouri would vacation in St. Cloud, and often these vacationers brought along their slaves. Slaves were documented in St. Cloud as early as 1854, the same year that Mr. Griffin was in Shakopee.
In the 1850s, free blacks and escaped slaves arrived, following the Mississippi River north, and made Minnesota their home. Records from 1850 show 39 free blacks out of a population of 6,077 citizens (not including Native Americans).
African Americans traveling on the western waters were quite common. Some free black people, as well as slaves, worked on the steamboats, many as firemen, stewards, and chambermaids. African American travelers occupied a different status from that of the white people on board. Sometimes slaves traveled with their masters and mistresses, sleeping on trundles in their owner’s private cabins, and where they could take care of errands. Free black people were not allowed in the private cabins, but had to travel on the lower deck.
According to Lea VanderVelde, “Some of the black boatmen were free, while others were slaves, hired out by their masters to work steamboats. The captains obligated themselves to return as slaves. Some owners bought insurance in case their slaves attempted to escape while on the river. Black cooks, stewards, chambermaids, and barbers attended to travelers’ comforts. Stevedores, deckhands, and engine stokers performed the heaviest tasks of actually moving the cargo and firing the lumbering boats up the great rivers.”
Traveling by steamboat carried considerable risk. They could fall overboard since the decks had no guide rails and few people knew how to swim. Steamboats hit snags, ran aground on sandbars, and the engine boilers, which were on the lower deck close to the African American workers and passengers, exploded regularity. The explosions occurred on the upstream voyage, with the captains pushing their boilers to dangerous levels going against the river’s current.
Was Mr. Griffin a worker on the river, and then stopped and stayed and worked as a carpenter in Shakopee for a short time?
One of the most famous of the early African Americans in the Minnesota territory was George Bonga. He was born in Minnesota in 1802, his father Pierre Bonga the son of a freed slave and his mother a member of the Ojibwe tribe. Bonga was schooled in Montreal and eventually became a fur trader in the Northwest territories. He went on to serve as an interpreter in negotiations with the Ojibwe, particularly as a representative of Michigan Governor Lewis Cass. His brother Stephen served as the Ojibwe interpreter at Fort Snelling for the 1837 treaty.
In A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota, William D. Green writes about a meal served at Fort Snelling where Stephan Bonga, who was black, translated information to the Ojibwe, and was served alongside important white political and military leaders, and by a slave named Dred Scott. What must it have felt like for a slave to serve an important, free black man, and what must Bonga have felt to see a person who looked like himself living life as the property of another person? To make it even more interesting, Jim Thompson, who was brought to the area as a slave of a military officer, purchased and freed in 1837 saw Dred Scott, his wife Harriet Robertson Scott, and their first child, who was just born, in 1838. In Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, author Lea VanderVelde remembers that in 1838, Jim Thompson met a steamboat at the dock. He was sent by Agent Lawrence Taliaferro during Reverend Brunson’s absence. Jim was probably the first person Dred, Harriet, and their little baby Eliza saw as they walked down the gangplank. Jim’s Dakota wife, Marpiyawecasta, had just recently had a child. The blessed meeting on the dockside between the freed man, with the new parents carrying their baby Eliza must have been nice, especially onto the snow-blanketed, solid ground of their new home in free territory. It was the village of Shakopee, in the territory of Minnesota, that Jim and Marpiyawecasta and their two children lived starting in 1853!
In the 1850s, Fort Snelling played a key role in the infamous Dred Scott court case. Slaves Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott were taken to the fort by their master, John Emerson. They lived at the fort and elsewhere in territories where slavery was prohibited. After Emerson’s death, the Scotts argued that since they had lived in free territory, they were no longer slaves. Ultimately in 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court sided against the Scotts. This decision caused rancor over slavery, and eventually the American Civil War.
For Mr. Griffin, if he was not a free man or openly a free man, he might be escaping to Canada. Abolitionists in Minnesota still assisted slaves in running away to Canada. Some free people of color also settled in nearby Canada.
Race is written between the lines in early Shakopee history. Rather than spoken directly, it is only found through diaries, memoirs, letters, government documents. As William D. Green noted, “When you are looking at slavery, you see instead the word ‘servant’ — a nicety that actually means slave. And when you understand that, it changes things. It’s like going into a room and finding a door to another room you’ve never looked into before.”
So who was Mr. Griffin? Was he a slave, working for a master in the Minnesota River area, or St. Paul? Was he a free person of color, living in Shakopee for a year or two, before moving on? Or was he a runaway, stopping to work for a short time before escaping to Canada?
At this time, we do not know. But because of Daniel Storer’s diary, at least we know that an African American lived in Shakopee in 1854.
(Some information from The Diary of Daniel M. Storer from 1849 to 1905: A Pioneer Builder and Merchant, His Personal History of Shakopee, Minnesota from August 1853 to January 1905 by Shakopee Heritage Society, 2003; Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier by Lea VanderVelde, Oxford University Press, 2009; Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey by Walt Bachman, 2013, Pond Dakota Press; A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota by William D. Green, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007; Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865–1912 by William D. Green, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.)