A Brief History of Immigration in Minnesota

A Brief History of Immigration in Minnesota


At last count, 5.61 million immigrants live here. That number, as you may have guessed, counts the entire population of Minnesota. The rule of immigration seems to work like this: As soon as you’re comfortable where you are, you begin to resent whoever shows up next. That goes for the Ojibwe who pushed into Dakota land, the Yankees who trespassed on Indian country, the Germans in Scandinavian territory and vice versa. Same story with the Irish and Polish and Italian Catholics, the Russian Jews, the Mexicans, Hmong, Somalis, Liberians, Tibetans, and Karen. It’s awkward, but we’re still all together!


The Ojibwe, established near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, encroach westward into Dakota territory. The French explorer Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut negotiates a trade agreement between the two tribes, which falls apart in 1736.


Territorial reps Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley negotiate with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands at Traverse des Sioux (near St. Peter). Treaties cede 24 million acres of Dakota land to the U.S. Over the next decade, some 100,000 white arrivals go home shopping in MN.


Eight German-Jewish families in St. Paul found Mount Zion Temple, the first Jewish congregation in Minnesota.


President Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, offering 160-acre parcels of federal land to any person willing to build a home and farm a plot for five years. Some 75,000 prospective Minnesotans accept the deal. Free stuff!


Three years after the Dakota War ends, the feds extradite Dakota leader Sakpe from Canada, to be hanged at Fort Snelling. A steam whistle blows as he laments, “As the white man comes in, the Indian goes out.”


The Minnesota legislature creates a board of immigration to promote the state as a destination. Presumably, the board lies about the weather, as the foreign-born population triples in a decade.


James J. Hill makes his friend Bishop John Ireland the exclusive land agent for his railroad in several western counties. The bishop and his new Catholic Colonization Bureau populate the prairie with poor Irish immigrants.


The first Russian Jews fleeing pogroms settle in the west-side flats of St. Paul. You know the “Paul” in St. Paul used to be “Saul”?


The North East Neighborhood House opens, offering seminars to Slavic arrivals on new skills and finding housing and employment. Sausage quality in Nordeast begins a dramatic upward trajectory.


On the eve of WWI, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, a nativist agency created by Governor Burnquist, begins persecuting German Americans. This leads to the tarring and feathering of “traitors,” the shuttering of German newspapers, and the restriction of German language in schools.


Moorhead’s American Crystal Sugar Company begins recruiting Mexican American betabeleros from the San Antonio area. By 1942, 75 percent of sugar beet laborers in the Red River Valley are Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants.


Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg visits Chisago County to research his wildly successful series of novels, The Emigrants. He bases Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson on immigrants to Minnesota, but leaves out his fave Ole and Lena jokes.


Two years after the Korean armistice, the Children’s Home Society facilitates the first Korean adoption in Minnesota.


The Health Department of St. Paul effectively condemns Swede Hollow, a shantytown that’s housed immigrants since Swedes began living there in the 1860s. The city relocates the gorge’s 14 remaining families and torches their houses.


Hmong general Vang Pao and his CIA-trained guerrilla forces leave Laos in an American airlift. The U.S. agrees to give refuge to Hmong rebels. Gov. Wendell Anderson establishes the Indochinese Resettlement Task Force, and a network of church-based social organizations goes into overdrive.


The Soviet Union dissolves as Russia’s new president, Boris Yeltsin, declares its independence. A wave of Russian immigration follows. Today, 43,000 Minnesotans claim Russian ancestry; 14,000 were born in Russia.


The civil war in Somalia accelerates when soldiers loyal to Mohamed Farrah Aidid shoot down a Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu. New refugees flock to Minnesota’s rural meatpacking plants. Today, more than 50,000 people of Somali descent now live in MN.


The Dalai Lama takes notice of the three-year-old son of two Tibetan immigrants in Columbia Heights and names him the eighth incarnation of Terchen Taksham Rinpoche. Tashi delek, bro!


After Ilhan Omar becomes the first Somali American elected to national office, President Trump tweets, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” At least he doesn’t end the sentence on a preposition.


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