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So Who Was Joseph R. Brown?

And what must a person do to merit a museum with his name on it! Well! Joe Brown spent fifty years in Minnesota as a vigorous entrepreneur, unabashed booster and major public figure. His name is forever linked with the towns he founded, Henderson and Browns Valley, and with Brown County, which is named for him.

Brief Biography

Joseph Renshaw Brown was born January 5, 1805, in Pennsylvania. Apprenticed as a lad to a printer, he ran away to join the army and came to Fort Snelling as a 15-year-old musician in 1820. When he died November 9, 1870, Brown had been a resident of Minnesota for most of those fifty years and was widely known as Minnesota’s oldest white settler.

During his half century in Minnesota, Joseph R. Brown was a significant figure in territorial and state politics and exercised great influence on how the region developed. Even amidst such noted contemporaries as Alexander Ramsey, Henry Rice, Henry Sibley and Franklin Steele (all of whom had counties named after them), Brown was hailed as “the brainiest of them all,” and “the chief counselor of the agents and the government.” Over the span of his long and varied career Minnesota evolved from a wilderness to a rapidly growing state with a population of nearly half a million. And Joseph R. Brown was always at the center of the action.

One Man in His Time Plays Many Parts

            Enlisted in the army as a private, Brown quickly rose to the rank of first sergeant and Acting Sergeant Major. On his discharge from the army in 1828, he became a fur trader for the American Fur Company at posts in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, returning in 1830 to Minnesota as an independent trader on the St. Croix River. In 1832 he set up a trading post and farm at Oliver’s Grove, now Hastings.

            He married three times, each time to a part-Indian woman, and his children were raised in both Indian and white worlds. Brown himself spoke Dakota and was at home in both worlds, an advantage that served him well during his tenure as Indian Agent (1858-1861) and in the years following the Dakota War (1862-1866).

“[Brown] was, all in all, one of the most remarkable men which our northwestern frontier has developed, and it would require literally a volume to give the leading incidents of his long and eventful career. In the various and contradictory characters of soldier, pioneer, legislator, lumberman, public officer, editor, politician, trader, inventor and town-site speculator, he showed the versatility of his genius and energy of his character.”

 –  John Fletcher Williams, “Memoir of Joseph R. Brown,  Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society Vol. III.

            When the Dakota and Ojibwe treaties of 1837 opened the country east of the Mississippi to settlement, he was one of the first on the spot, opening a large farm, store and steamboat landing on Grey Cloud Island. He also had a townsite claim across from Fort Snelling (as well as claims in Prescott and Bayport held in the name of relatives). From an early date he had crews cutting timber in the St. Croix pineries, and was the area’s first Justice of the Peace, as well as a major in the Wisconsin militia.

In Wisconsin and Minnesota Politics

            As leader of the settlers displaced from the Fort Snelling Reserve in 1838, he lobbied the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature for county government and became the first territorial representative from the new St. Croix County. His new townsite of Dacotah (now the Dutchtown area of Stillwater) on Lake St. Croix was chosen as the county seat. Brown held several county offices and had a contract to build the courthouse and jail on his claim. He was the organizer of the Stillwater Convention in 1848 which sent Henry Sibley to Washington to get the new Minnesota Territory formed.

            During territorial days, Brown became a celebrity. He moved to St. Paul, was clerk to the first House of Representatives, elected to both the Council and House, made territorial printer, and edited the Democratic Minnesota Pioneer. He platted the townsite of Henderson on the Minnesota River and promoted his old claim on Grey Cloud Island as Grey Cloud City. Although he never held high office, his ability to get things done earned him the nickname “Joe the Juggler.” In 1851 Brown was instrumental in persuading the Dakota to make the treaty that opened up southern Minnesota to settlement. He was a delegate to the 1857 constitutional convention, helped draft the Minnesota constitution, and, as Henry Sibley’s campaign manager, helped get his old friend elected the state’s first governor. A life-long Democrat, Brown was rewarded for party service by being made Sioux Indian Agent in 1858.

Brown’s Marvelous Steam Machine

            Brown's fertile mind led to many experiments, most of which failed, but none of which discouraged him. He was involved in building a road to the South Pass of the Rockies, and a canal to connect the waters of the Red and Minnesota Rivers. He had many great schemes for building a transportation empire on the western plains with his Minnesota River town of Henderson as the freighting hub. Reasoning that railroads were still many years in the future, he brought to town a “steam wagon” that was capable of pulling a train of freight wagons over the trackless prairies. His first attempt failed, but he tried again with another steamer in Nebraska, planning a route to the Colorado gold fields.

Protecting Minnesota

            After the Dakota War, Brown was made a special military agent in charge of the “friendly Sioux” who patrolled the Minnesota frontier. In the late 1860s he spent most of his time in Washington lobbying for a treaty with the Lake Traverse Sisseton and Wahpeton bands and restoration of their annuities. He died in New York in 1870 while perfecting a third steam wagon.

            He was not soon forgotten. At his funeral in Henderson, Henry Sibley said, “No man stands forth more prominently as the untiring friend of Minnesota in all the phases of her existence than does Major Brown.”  In 1910 a granite obelisk to his memory was erected by his grave.

For more information about Brown, see the Goodmans’ biography, Joseph R. Brown, Adventurer on the Minnesota Frontier. Go to Store.>>>>