What if we told you…

Robert O. Sweeny in 1857

…that one little-known person is at the facility of Minnesota’s moniker together the Gopher State, the good Seal the Minnesota, the story about an enslaved Minnesotan-turned-Dakota warrior, and even the science Museum the Minnesota? and also what if girlfriend haven’t even heard the him? Wonder if that doesn’t also have a Wikipedia entry, even though Minnesota’s identity has actually literally been shaped by his hand? Literally. Let’s fulfill him, and some other larger-than-life characters with who his life and work entwined.

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The Gopher State

In 1857, ~ above the cusp that statehood, a fledgling Minnesota legislative branch wrestled with a bill authorizing a $5,000,000 loan come railroad service providers to construct tracks with the soon-to-be-state. The the type of invoice Minnesotans still love come hate: using taxpayer dollars come subsidize well-off industrialists. Protest to the measure up was one Robert Ormsby Sweeny, a Saint Paulite by way of Philadelphia v many and also varying interests, drawing among them. Sweeny concocted a complicated political cartoon in response, the social affect of which long outlived its politics moment.

Robert O. Sweeny’s “Gopher Train” cartoon the 1857 (click to enlarge)

Sweeny’s rather bizarre scene features a horned devil, allegations of corruption, and a train car pulled through a team of thirteen-lined ground 설 설 with human being heads and also top hats. The nine subterranean numbers supporting the railroad bridge represent the ripe lawmakers who were apparently bribed to vote for the bill; the weights about their necks pulling them down represent the bribe money ($10,000 in yellow each). The nine “gophers” pulling the car represent one of two people railroad moguls themselves, or assorted proponents of the controversial legislation. It’s a weird scene, specifically with Sweeny’s small handwriting and so small context right into all the feasible symbolism that the day.

Minnesota’s an initial Golden Gopher-person.
Go Gophers!

Despite vast circulation that Sweeny’s cartoon, the bill passed in a landslide. Yet the cartoon – in spite of its suddenly political irrelevance – would certainly somehow at some point lead come Minnesota’s unofficialize moniker together the Gopher State. And through it, your Minnesota golden Gophers. Ski-U-Mah!

Fun fact: It shows up that it was Sweeny, himself, that conflated gophers v thirteen-lined ground squirrels. Actual gophers are uglier, therefore we’ll take it it.

The good Seal of Minnesota

But that’s not the finish of Robert O. Sweeny’s affect on Minnesota’s identity, as soon as again top top the cusp of statehood. According to Minnesota’s newly-minted constitution, a an excellent Seal to be a legal requirement for conducting state business, and it to be a detail that virtually slipped with the crack in that frenetic liminal time.

Almost a te earlier, Seth Eastman – army captain, gifted artist and also abysmal family man – had actually painted a watercolor the a scene originally sketched by Col. J.J. Albert. Eastman’s painting, commissioned by ar governors Alexander Ramsey and also Henry Sibley, ended up being the communication of Minnesota Territory’s an excellent Seal in 1849.

Seth Eastman’s 1849 paint (image: Minnesota historic Society)

On the own, Eastman’s paint seems rather harmless. Yet once the plan symbolisms space applied, the an appalling scene in contemporary context: In the foreground, a white colonizing settler is break virgin Minnesota soil v his plow (symbolizing the white man’s best to the land because he would ultimately make that agriculturally productive), if in the background an aboriginal man is talk his horse into the literal meaning sunset, looking ago at the settler (symbolizing the finish of Native civilization in Minnesota and also the ascendancy of white people and manifest destiny). Behind the settler is a tree stump through the settler’s axe embedded in that (symbolizing the white man’s mastery over the wilderness and the centrality of the timber industry to Minnesota’s economy). Leaning against the stump, the white masculine rifle and power horn space at the all set (symbolizing the white male martial prominence over native people and also animals). The falls of St. Anthony circulation powerfully in the lift (perhaps foreshadowing the water-powered milling sector that would soon define the economy).


In instance Eastman’s white dominance message wasn’t clear enough through art, his white wife, Mary, (not his first Dakota wife, Wakan Inajin-win, who he abandoned when she was just 17 after the bear of their daughter, Winona) composed this alarmingly blunt city to companion the seal design:

Give way, provide way, young warrior, Thou and thy steed provide way; rest not, though lingers top top the hills The red sun’s parting ray. The rock bluff and also prairie land The white man claims them now, The icons of his course room here, The rifle, axe, and plough.—Mary Henderson Eastman

Back to 1857: with Minnesota’s statehood virtually a reality and a constitutional requirement for a an excellent Seal, a hurried initiative was placed forth to develop a brand-new expression worthy that Minnesota’s new status. Brand-new designs were commissioned (apparently v instructions come incorporate several of Eastman’s symbols). Noteworthy contributions were submitted by Saint Paul engraver luigi Buechner – and also the one-and-only Robert O. Sweeny.

The Buechner and Sweeny designs have a many in common: Native and also settler was standing opposite each other seemingly as equals, through the aboriginal man pointing vaguely (perhaps hinting at his withdrawal, yet certainly not in the dramatic placed retreat the Eastman’s design), trees and also other natural landscape features, and Minnehaha falls within a shield at the center of the seal. One of two people is vastly less problematic 보다 Eastman’s through modern-day eyes.

Louis Buechner’s entry (image: Minnesota historical Society)

In January 1858, a Senate committee placed forth Sweeny’s design for adoption as the new good Seal, i beg your pardon earned the approval of both the House and also Senate in June. However, because that reasons lost to history, the invoice never came to be law. Instead, a last-minute share resolution (Joint Resolution #2, if she curious) authorized branch Sibley to have actually the good Seal engraved with Sweeny’s design.

Robert O. Sweeny’s seal style (image: Minnesota historic Society)

Sibley, in total contravention of every one of this policymaking, unilaterally (and secretly) made decision to simply use Eastman’s racially-charged Territorial an excellent Seal design, with some tweaks. Sibley had, that course, i was delegated Eastman’s rendition a te earlier. Together the one mostly responsible because that making it the territorial an excellent Seal, supposedly Sibley wasn’t prepared to component with it. So the governor privately hired one engraver to produce the official great Seal v his changes, without notifying or including other lawmakers.

Eastman and Sibley’s territorial seal, tho the basis of ours state seal and flag (image: Minnesota historical Society)

In fact, news that Sibley’s secret seal engraver only damaged when the engraver, himself, used the high-profile the supervisory board in a newspaper advertisement later on that summer. Complaints exploded end the issue from every corners. The legality of Sibley’s plot was tested by lawmakers, come the point that Attorney general Gordon E. Cole stepped in come attest come Sibley’s authority in the matter. ~ protracted public argument about Sibley’s plot of circumvention, the matter was finally resolved through regulation in 1861 and also signed by governor Ramsey.

In 1989, approve Moos composed for Minnesota Monthly magazine:

“There is proof that the state seal, upon which the flag is based, is rather illegitimate. The bill written to establish the seal was never signed by the governor in 1858, although it was given official sanction 3 years later. The legislature had actually approved a completely different design, among Indians and whites life in harmony – a ide that then-Governor Henry Sibley felt to be untenable. Sibley has been accused by chroniclers of ‘mislaying’ the architecture that legislator approved and replacing it v the ar seal he aided design. To today Sibley’s seal continues to be the an easy design.”

The Albert/Eastman/Sibley style remains the great Seal of Minnesota – and our state flag – come this day. Sweeny’s design, loudly favored by Minnesota’s chosen leaders in both homes of Congress, faded right into history. Yet in recent years, there have been numerous calls, proposals and efforts come redesign the seal and flag to better represent Minnesota.

Fun fact: In 1881, a fire in the capitol saw essential records hauled out with haste. In the chaos, the official seal went missing. The was uncovered in England and returned in 1901.

Enter Joseph Godfrey
Joseph Godfrey, as sketched by Robert O. Sweeny (image: Minnesota historic Society)

But again, that’s not the end of Sweeny’s affect on how Minnesota understands itself. Sweeny’s artistic skills may have actually resulted in the only modern depiction of one of Minnesota’s most fascinating and also reviled…people. Words “citizen” can not be correctly used, together Joseph Godfrey to be born right into slavery about 1830 right below in Mendota, Minn., child of an enslaved African-American woman named Courtney and also a French-Canadian voyageur. Courtney was brought to fort Snelling by an army officer together a slave, and then marketed to one more voyageur, Alexis Bailly. As soon as Joseph was 5 years old, Bailly marketed his mom in the closest servant market, which to be St. Louis. While young Joseph continued to be a slave, his mother properly won her flexibility through a Missouri lawyer, that would eventually represent Dred Scott.

Slave-keeper, Indian trader, Indian fighter and also future governor Henry Hastings Sibley (image: Minnesota historic Society)

Godfrey’s continued enslavement in Minnesota take it a significant turn once he to be hired out as an aide come Henry Sibley prior to his job turned to politics.

That’s right: Future branch Henry Sibley employed a slave. Let the sink in.

Following year of mistreatment and also misery, Godfrey’s encounter with an abolitionist missionary motivated him to flee his bondage and also find flexibility in the late 1840s. The ran to the Dakota people, who invited him as among their very own with their common trauma from white colonization and brutality. ~ the signing that the treaty of Traverse des Sioux instigated by perennial malefactor Alexander Ramsey, Godfrey moved with his Dakota ar to the reduced Sioux Agency, married a Dakota mrs in 1857 and lived as a member of the neighborhood for years. However, over those next few years, the U.S. Government’s fail to salary treaty-required annuity payment on time brought about widespread starvation and also hardship among the Dakota people.

Life offered Joseph Godfrey a life deal. Background has to be no kinder.

The outbreak the the U.S.–Dakota War ideal in his backyard at reduced Sioux in august of 1862 presented Godfrey through a choice: Fight with the Dakota and also defend his household or look for refuge with the U.S. Army, whose officers had actually owned him and his mommy as property. With constant U.S. Army troops turn off battling the Confederacy (Minnesota was the first state to tender troops for the polite War), governor Alexander Ramsey thrust Godfrey’s former boss, Henry Hastings Sibley, into a military function for i beg your pardon he had actually no training: leading the volunteer infantry (i.e. Angry white settlers trying to find revenge) against the Dakota. Because that Godfrey, that was an easy choice.

Godfrey came to be a symbol for both sides. Sibley later accused Godfrey of active involvement in Dakota strikes on settlers. Indeed, the Dakota called him “Atokte” definition “Slayer that Many.” however Godfrey self denied having ever killed anyone. In truth, over there are only conflicting reports ~ above the nature the his involvement.

1,600 Dakota non-combatants invested a fatal winter imprisoned in ~ Pike Island if Dakota warriors were tried in a kangaroo court (image: Minnesota historic Society)

The war was bloody however brief. 6 weeks later, Godfrey and a thousand Dakota surrendered come U.S. Forces. Days later, he to be the first combatant to be tried through a kangaroo army court army commission produced by – girlfriend guessed that – Sibley. The trials were appallingly deficient, conducted by Sibley’s volunteer infantry of upset white settlers. Some trials it is long mere minute (there were 42 trials performed in a solitary day), none involved defense attorneys and nothing was described to the defendants. The whole process had no court or army oversight, only a direct channel to president Abraham Lincoln. Four hundred Dakota (plus Godfrey) were tried in small over a month. An ext than 300 were uncovered guilty and also sentenced to execution. Pleas to Lincoln for clemency ultimately lugged that number down to 39.

Mass executioner (and Godfrey pardoner) Abraham Lincoln

In an attempt to save himself indigenous the gallows, Godfrey testified against 11 that the 38 Dakota fighters. Return Godfrey was not convicted that murder, Sibley wanted him dead because that his treachery, and also he was sentenced to fatality by hanging anyway. But due to the fact that of his cooperation, a referral on his behalf was sent out to Lincoln, who personally commuted Godfrey’s sentence to 10 years in prison prior to the day of execution.

On December 26, 1862, The United claims of America publicly executed 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato. That really same day, Robert O. Sweeny sketched a picture of Joseph Godfrey, which may be our only extant contemporary depiction that him. White Minnesotans pertained to Godfrey as a rebellious slave, equipped enemy and traitor come the unified States. The Dakota – experiencing the biggest legal massive execution in U.S. Background and shortly to be totally exiled native the boundaries of Minnesota by commonwealth edict – witnessed Godfrey’s testimony as nothing short of betrayal.

Only three years right into the sentence, president Lincoln authorize a full pardon come Godfrey, who spent the rest of his life top top the Santee reservation in Nebraska, where numerous of the exiled Dakota from Minnesota had relocated come survive. The lived until 1909.

Sweeny sketched and also named many of the condemned men prior to they were executed (image: Minnesota historical Society)

Godfrey’s story is currently seen in a really different light. We room horrified through the once-commonplace presence of person enslavement in ~ our borders, consisting of by males who room namesakes the counties, streets, schools. We are enraged by exactly how the commonwealth government and also white Minnesotans brutalized the Indigenous human being of this soil – v violence and deprivation, but additionally through enacting and perpetuating a good Seal that proceeds to create them the end of their own homeland.

Sweeny must have been there in person for the fixed execution in Mankato. That sketched plenty of of the condemned men and recorded your names. His sketches are all dated “Dec 26 – 62.”

Not-so-fun fact: Both Sibley and also Eastman married Dakota women, gained them pregnant and abandoned them.

Robert O. Sweeny: Minnesota’s Unknown Renaissance Man

Sweeny sketched aboriginal life in Minnesota (image: Minnesota historical Society)

Sweeny purportedly spoke both Dakota and Ojibwe, and also created amazing sketches that Minnesota’s aboriginal life at the time. The course, that sketched settler life as well, scene of ox carts, town life and other usual frontier experiences. A lifelong Quaker, Sweeny abhorred violence, however he traveled generally to record the Civil battle in sketches and photographs, following troops with Missouri, Arkansas and also beyond. Numerous of his Civil war sketches room in the Missouri Historical culture collections.

Sweeny’s depiction of ox carts heading west (image: Minnesota historic Society)

Sweeny, who appears to have always had his pencil in one hand, was really busy v the other hand. He started the St. Paul Academy of organic Sciences, the forerunner that our modern Science Museum that Minnesota. He offered in senior roles with the Minnesota Historical culture for an ext than three decades. Sweeny to be an active outdoorsman and also conservationist, and also served together the an initial Commissioner the Fisheries, and also later as president as soon as it to be reorganized together the Game and also Fish board of directors of Minnesota. Oh, and also he had a real task on peak of every one of this: Sweeny to be a druggist (we’d most likely say pharmacist these days). That helped produce the Minnesota pharmaceutical Association, offered as that is secretary because that years and became known as “the father of the State Pharmacy Law” many thanks to his initiatives in drafting said legislation. He relocated his family members to Duluth and lived until 1902.

A street scene in prior of Sweeny’s own drugstore (image: Minnesota historical Society)

This author certainly cannot speak come the nature the Sweeny’s character beyond what’s been recorded. He seems to have been genuinely interested in the human experience, especially those oppressed by unjust forces. He clearly understood the power of images and symbols to make meaning and form perception in perpetuity. The valued the herbal and social landscapes that his time, and also the wellbeing that people and the natural civilization of his place. He championed the capability of scientific research to expose life’s mysteries. Those seem favor admirable features for a man of his tumultuous time and also place.

Compare those qualities to few of his contemporaries, say, slave-keeping Henry Sibley or murderous Alexander Ramsey?

Sweeny seems pretty alright.


This story is made feasible by the Arts and social Heritage Fund and the citizen of Minnesota.


It’s known as the Sandy Lake Tragedy, yet that makes it sound choose an accident. In more realistic terms, it’s around as horrible a story as one could find. Closely planned cruelty. Brazen inhumanity. Willful neglect. Corruption from the White house to our (pre-) statehouse. That an action of brutality so awful that the shocked the nation and prompted a everyone restructuring of aboriginal American lives throughout the country to this day. It taken place right below in Minnesota, and also you more than likely don’t understand anything about it. It likewise involved an additional notable Minnesota name: Alexander Ramsey, that committed a heinous crime no one knows about.

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