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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 08 2012

Eriksmoen: Minnesota governor took on railroad greed in 1870s

On the morning of Feb. 17, 1872, approximately 600 residents in what is now north Fargo were roused from their sleep by U.S. marshals and soldiers from Fort Abercrombie.

The people were ordered to “leave immediately or have their gear confiscated and their shacks burned.” Some of the residents were arrested and held on a $1,000 bond. To try to get this crisis resolved, a couple of the men immediately sent letters to the most powerful person they knew who would be sympathetic to their cause – Horace Austin, the governor of Minnesota. Seven years after this incident, Austin moved to Fargo.

By Jan. 1, 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad had completed running tracks to Moorhead, and land speculators who put up claims in Centralia (which was renamed Fargo on Feb. 12, 1872) were confident that they knew exactly where the tracks would be laid on the west side of the Red River. Many believed they could sell their property at a huge profit, and others wanted to remain in what would soon become a boom town.

The Puget Sound Land Company was formed by the railroad to lay out town sites along its tracks. In 1870, this division of the railroad “sought to establish claims to the places where the railroad anticipated crossing the Red River.” Since land speculators were eager to try and discover where the railroad would cross, Northern Pacific used deceptive tactics to mislead these squatters.

Once the tracks were laid to Moorhead, the guessing game was over, and hundreds of speculators flocked to Centralia. This land was believed to be open to settlement because the U.S. government had negotiated a treaty in 1864 with the Red Lake and Pembina Indians, who previously owned the land.

The PSLC believed that north of the tracks it had a one-mile north-south legal claim of land for a 20 mile stretch west of the Red. When the squatters poured into Centralia/Fargo, the PSLC needed to find a legitimate reason to force them out, and the lawyers for the land company discovered a way that might be accomplished.

It was true that the Red Lake and Pembina Indians no longer owned the land on which Fargo was located, but the Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux did. A little-known treaty signed in 1867 ceded the land across the river from Moorhead to the Indians. Because liquor was bought and sold in Fargo, a violation of the law on Indian reservations, orders were given to clear out all possible law breakers.

To reverse the militant action taken by authorities, Henry S. Back and Jacob Lowell (two of the squatters) sent letters to Horace Austin seeking his support. They knew that when he ran for the office of governor, he had campaigned “to regulate and restrict railways.” They also knew that the home office of the Northern Pacific Railroad was located in Minnesota, where Austin could exert the pressure on the company. This situation was resolved when the treaty with the Sisseton and Wahpeton Indians was re-negotiated on May 2, 1873, allowing the settlers to return and conduct business.

Horace W. Austin was born Oct. 15, 1831, to David and Elize (Getchell) Austin, in Canterbury, Conn., where David was “a substantial farmer.” Horace attended elementary school in Canterbury and then enrolled at the newly established Litchfield Academy in Maine, where he received his teaching certification. Austin was hired as a teacher at the prestigious Titcomb Academy in Belgrade, Maine, and later became the school’s principal.

In 1850, Austin moved to the state’s capital in Augusta to study law at the office of Bradbury and Morrill. Austin’s mentor was Lot Morrill, a highly respected attorney who later became a U.S. senator and secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Austin passed the law exam in 1854 and headed west, looking for a place to establish his legal practice. In March 1857, he arrived in the city of St. Peter, in south-central Minnesota. After a couple of years as a successful lawyer, Austin felt financially secure and, in March 1859, returned to Augusta to marry his sweetheart, Mary Lena Morrill. The couple then journeyed to St. Paul to make their new home.

The tranquil life in St. Peter did not last long. On the morning of Aug. 19, 1862, a messenger arrived, telling the townsfolk that settlers around the nearby town of New Ulm had been killed by Indian warriors, who were now planning on attacking St. Peter.

Austin and other residents of St. Peter gathered up arms and munitions and began their march to New Ulm, arriving later that evening after the Indians had launched their first attack. After several days of skirmishes, the warriors again charged New Ulm on Aug. 23, killing a number of defenders and setting fire to outlying buildings. However, the assault on the town was repulsed. Austin enlisted in the Army and soon was promoted to the rank of captain. When it appeared that the Indian threat was over, Austin was mustered out of the service on Oct. 29.

Austin returned to his law practice in St. Peter, where he quickly gained a reputation as having one of the best legal minds in the area. In 1864, he was encouraged to run for the seat of judge of the sixth judicial district in Minnesota. He was elected in November, and when he assumed his judicial duties, Austin hired Andrew McGill, a St. Peter school teacher, as his clerk. With McGill, the same relationship existed that, 15 years earlier, Austin had shared with Lot Morrill. However, this time Austin was the mentor and McGill was the aspiring lawyer. Like his mentor, McGill would also be elected governor of Minnesota.

One of the things that bothered Austin was the absolute power wielded by the railroads in Minnesota. Many of the politicians curried the favor of the railroad bosses by passing legislation that helped the railroads make unreasonable profits at the expense of the average Minnesotan. In 1864, he decided to toss his hat in the ring and run for the office of governor to try to correct this financial imbalance.

The political kingpin of the Republican Party was Alexander Ramsey, who had served as governor from 1860 to 1863 and was currently a U.S. senator. Ramsey’s hand-picked candidate for governor in 1869 was Ignatius Donnelly, who was Ramsey’s lieutenant governor and had just completed his third term in the U.S. Congress.

Expecting a tough contest at the Republican State Convention on Sept. 9 in St. Paul, Austin worked hard to make certain he had adequate support. To his pleasant surprise, Austin was nominated on the first ballot, receiving 147 votes to Donnelly’s 64.

Believing that his toughest fight was over, Austin waged a lackluster campaign against his Democratic opponent, George L. Otis, an attorney from St. Paul. When the election was held on Nov. 2, Austin won by less than 2,000 votes. He was sworn in as the sixth governor of Minnesota in early January 1870.

Next week we will continue our look at the interesting life and career of Horace Austin.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.