Where’s Waldo? Minnesota, Lair of Giants!

I was researching other things last spring when I found two letters written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to his daughter Ellen from Minnesota in 1867 — 150 years ago this month.

emerson-signature-1867-01-31-2

Emerson’s signature on his letter to his daughter Ellen in Concord, Massachusetts, January 31, 1867.  (Emerson Family Correspondence, ca. 1725-1900 (MS Am 1280.226) Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Emerson was on one of his annual lecture tours to the West, but it was his first venture across the Mississippi River into Minnesota.

He seemed to like the place — even commenting in his letter that Minneapolis was “said to be of admirable climate.” Perhaps he was not willing to trust his own judgment on the matter as he was visiting in January and in an account of his visit published in Minnesota History, June 1930, Hubert H. Hoeltje wrote that Emerson travelled from LaCrosse to Winona in an open carriage on a day that the temperature tumbled to 20 below zero. Emerson was kind enough not to frighten his daughter with accounts in his letters of such extreme hardship.

Emerson likely knew something of Minnesota from his old friend Henry David Thoreau who had visited Minneapolis, residing for a time on the shore of Lake Calhoun, in 1861. We also learn from the letters that he had cousins here. And Hoeltje observes in his article that Emerson had purchased property in Wisconsin in 1856.

Despite these connections and a history of lecturing in other not-quite-so-exotic locales since 1852 when he first lectured in St. Louis, Emerson reassured his daughter in his January 31 letter from Faribault that he was “in good new country with plenty of robust people who take kind care of me.” Still he felt it “a little pathetic” that people “born to be delicate and petted” had “removed into this rough yeomanly lair of the giants.”emerson-excerpt-1867-01-31

Writing from St. Paul the next day he recounted for Ellen his meeting with his cousin Hannah Ladd Meyer and her children who lived in Northfield. Hannah, he wrote, “was as good & almost as handsome as in her youth.”

Emerson also recounted that his host in Faribault, grandson of the founder of the eponymous city, had taken him to visit eight “Sioux tepis (conical tents)” near town. He noted that the small village included only older men, women and children as the warriors had been “removed to Nebraska.” With Faribault, who “spoke Indian”, Emerson had visited the tents and in one had listened to two girls sing “quite prettily.” He also wrote that young Faribault, who was three-quarters Indian himself, had gone to school in Montreal and “was as handsome & as accurately dressed and did the honors as gracefully…as any youth from New York could be or do.” Emerson was disappointed that light in the tepis was provided not by burning pine-knots or birchbark, but by kerosene lamps. “I inquired,” he concluded, “whether I could see such another Indian picture between that spot and Boston and I was assured I could not.”

From Faribault, Emerson travelled to St. Paul, which he called a “proud, new, thriving town” of 12-15,000 people with handsome buildings and fine banks. Escorted by Governor William Marshall, he visited the State Capitol, but seemed most struck by the fact that Gov. Marshall was Swedenborgian by religion, a subject on which they conversed.

I do not wish to sow seeds of strife in these troubled times, but I am only here as a chronicler, and am compelled to cite Emerson’s comparison of my present home with my boyhood home.

“Thence to Minneapolis,” Emerson wrote two days later from there, “a town of greatest promise in all the northwest…If Edward [his son, recently graduated from Harvard] were to come west, let him come here. It is the house, St. Paul being only the front door.”

Emerson was not left alone much on his visit. His travelling companion from Faribault to St. Paul was Wisconsin Congressman and future governor, and famous miller, C.C. Washburn, and he ate Sunday dinner in Minneapolis with C.C.’s younger brother and future Minnesota Senator, William Drew Washburn. That day he also visited another cousin, Phebe Chamberlain, whom he had not seen in 30 years.

While in Minneapolis, Emerson lectured twice, once for the Athenaeum Library Association at Harrison Hall and again at the Universalist Church at 4th Ave. South and 5th St. Hubert Hoeltje noted that the only local newspaper coverage of the first Minneapolis lecture cited the time and place and a “large and attentive audience,” but concluded, “lack of space forbids comment.” A newspaper account of Emerson’s second lecture ended with the observation, “So great was the rush of people that scores were unable to obtain admission–among whom was the writer.” 

As popular as Emerson was, he was not the biggest draw for the lecture series that year. Hoeltje reports, for instance, that Frederick Douglass drew an audience to St. Paul twice as large as Emerson’s. Perhaps Emerson’s star had faded somewhat by then. He had been lecturing for many years and was 63 years old, nearing the end of his lecturing career.

Emerson had nothing to do with Minneapolis parks apart from any influence his philosophy may have had on H. W. S. Cleveland’s view of nature and preservation of natural features of the landscape, especially in cities. Cleveland and his partner at the time, Robert Morris Copeland, had designed Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Emerson’s hometown of Concord, Mass. in 1855. Emerson was on the committee that commissioned their work and gave the address at the dedication of the cemetery. He was also buried there — along with Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa Mae Alcott. Cleveland and Emerson certainly knew each other. Cleveland scholar Daniel Nadenicek considers Emerson an important influence on Cleveland’s aesthetic. While there are similarities between the two men’s views, the more I have learned of Cleveland’s life, the less weight I have come to place on Emerson’s influence on Cleveland. But that’s probably subject matter for a book one of these days.

For now suffice to say that the frontier city of the northwest that held significant appeal for Emerson in 1867, was also the city in which Cleveland chose to live years later — and beautify with his vision, however it was shaped.

David C. Smith

© 2017 David C. Smith

Thanks Barbara MacLeish for correcting the date Thoreau lived at Lake Calhoun: 1861, not 1860. Corrections are always appreciated.

 

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4 comments so far

  1. Juli Manser on

    Hi David, a friend of mine passed on your article about Ralph Waldo Emerson. You mentioned he purchased land in Wisconsin in 1856. I happen to currently own the property that you mentioned. Thanks for your article, I love the rich history of this area.

    • David C. Smith on

      Juli, that is so cool. Would you mind telling where, even if approximately, in Wisconsin your property is located? Can you give us any other information about Emerson’s ownership of the land?

      • Juli Manser on

        We are about 10 miles east of New Richmond Wisconsin. Emerson acquired 40 acres on May 28, 1856 and sold it to John Smith for $272 on June 17, 1858. John Smith’s adopted mother died in 1874 and is buried on the property, there is a headstone. I once read that Emerson was deeded the land from the government. The documentation that I have (a copy) for the property says: United States -to- Ralph Waldo Emerson. I also read that he never came to the property he owned.

      • David C. Smith on

        Thanks for the details! What a great story to be able to tell.


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