William Watts Folwell: Show them in their best days

William Watts Folwell was an accomplished man: Union Army engineer, first president of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis park commissioner for 18 years, author of a four-volume history of Minnesota. The list goes on and on. Not least, he is one of my heroes.

Many photographs of Folwell exist, including some posted on this site, but today I will follow Folwell’s advice. In 1911, when Folwell was 78, he wrote to Minnesota Historical Society President Warren Upham:

“Let me make a suggestion in regard to portraits of men in all your publications. Don’t print “old man pictures,” but show the men as they were in their best days if possible. The likeness of General Sibley in General Baker’s book is atrocious. Sibley was a splendid figure in his prime, and ought so to be remembered.”

(Wiliam Watts Folwell: Autobiography and Letters of a Pioneer of Culture, Ed. Solon J. Buck. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1933)

So here is William Watts Folwell dressed for his wedding to Sarah Heywood when he was 30 in 1863. At the time he was an enlisted engineer in the Union Army. While it appears from his shoulder patch here that he was a captain at the time, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, the highest possible for an enlisted man, and commanded an engineering company of 450 men in several important Civil War battles. Folwell was hired as the first president of the University of Minnesota six years after he was married.



William Watts Folwell photographed in his Union Army uniform for his wedding in 1863 to Sarah Heywood. (Powelson, Minnesota Historical Society)


David C. Smith


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