The first Europeans to move into the area were the soldiers at the Cantonment of New Hope, who wintered here before Fort Snelling was built. They were followed by folks who were involved in the fur trade, primarily discontented French Canadians and Metis who had left Selkirk’s colony at Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Among those early settlers was Alexis Bailly, who ran a trading post for eight years beginning in 1826. The new settlement, called St. Peter until 1837 when the name was changed to Mendota, would eventually attract nearly 250 refugees from Fort Garry, although many didn’t stay long. While discontent with Selkirk motivated many folks to resettle, others were driven away by the Red River flood of 1826 or by the drought and grasshopper plagues that made farming too challenging.
The American Fur Company set up a fur trading center at Mendota in 1834; Henry Hastings Sibley, then just 23 years old, managed it. He had left his native Detroit five years earlier in search of a more exciting life on the frontier. In 1839, while living at the post, he married a Dakota woman known as Red Blanket Woman; they had a daughter, Helen (also called Wahkiyee, or Bird). Few details about his relationship with Red Blanket Woman were written down, but it apparently ended around 1842. Henry went on to marry Sarah Jane Steele in 1843, the daughter of Fort Snelling’s commander, General James Steele, and brother of Minneapolis’s Franklin Steele. Sibley would later serve as the state’s first state governor, as well as the boards of various civic organizations and corporations. He placed his first daughter, Helen, with a missionary family but remained a part of her life until she died in 1859.
The trading post was in a strategic location that benefited from the protection provided by Fort Snelling and from being the early terminus of the Red River Ox Cart Trail. That post moved a lot of pelts. In 1835 alone, they acquired 289,000 muskrat pelts, far and away the most of any animal. As the primary settlement outside of Fort Snelling, Mendota was also the social center for the region and was the only place to get supplies like meat, tea, and flour.
Mendota’s early prospects were cut short as St. Paul rose to prominence. The trading post was moved to St. Paul in 1849, shifting the terminus of the ox cart trail to that city. Mendota nearly got the state capitol (see St. Paul), but when they lost that battle, the village lost much of its population and social life.
A small community endured, however. Mendota served as county seat from 1854 to 1857 before it was moved downriver to Hastings. A ferry operated across the river from 1825 to 1926. During the Civil War, Mendota was a popular party town for soldiers and their friends, something that was annoying enough to residents of the town that some moved away.
Esdras Bernier ran a large onion farm for some 30 years beginning in the 1880s, earning him the nickname “Bernie the Onion King.” He used Sibley’s old fur trading complex to warehouse his crop. In 1910, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) purchased the Sibley property and began restoration work. For years, the DAR ran a popular restaurant and tea house in the building.
Exploring the Area
The Sibley House Historic Site (1357 Sibley Memorial Highway; 651.452.1596) pays homage to the fur trade era by preserving the old trading post and private residences from that era, including Sibley’s home.
High above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, Oheyawahi (“a hill much visited”) or more recently Wotakuye Paha (“the hill of all the relatives”), is a hilltop where native peoples—Dakota, Ojibwe, and Iowa—assembled for ceremonies that celebrated life and marked death. In 1851, the Dakota signed a treaty at this site that ceded much of their land west of the Mississippi River. Today, the spot is called Pilot Knob (2100 Pilot Knob Rd.) and is protected land, an action that was motivated by a plan announced in 2002 to build 157 townhouses on the site.
The Mississippi National River and Recreation (651.290.4160) runs for 72 miles through the Twin Cities. While the National Park Service owns very little land along the corridor, it has many programs to help connect people to the river. Visit their website for a complete listing of places to enjoy the river.
See the Twin Cities Overview for tips on festivals, getting around, and more.
Heading downriver? Check out Lilydale.
Heading upriver? Check out Fort Snelling.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2013