March of the Governors Podcasts
RCHS, with author and interviewer Paul Nelson, has developed a series of podcasts featuring interviews on subjects of historical interest.
All the podcasts are available here.
March of the Governors
The “March of the Governors” podcast series provides brief snapshots of Minnesota’s governors during their terms in office. As you might imagine, there’s far more to each of their stories, both positive and negative. Thank you for joining us on this journey, and we hope you will be inspired to learn more.
March of the Governors, Governor #1
Henry Hastings Sibley
This is the first in a new series of podcasts. We call it March of the Governors because we will examine the lives and careers of governors of the state of Minnesota, one by one. We start with our first state governor, Henry Sibley, governor 1858 to 1860.
March of the Governors, Governor #2
Alexander Ramsey did not have it easy. He was orphaned at age 10 and worked as a store clerk and a carpenter before finding his vocation in politics. He served two terms in Congress from Pennsylvania and for his service to the Whig Party was rewarded, if you call it that, with being sent to a cold place with hardly any people — Minnesota. But he took to it, first as territorial governor (1849), then succeeding his rival Henry Sibley to become our second state governor. But his three years in office were nothing but crisis — Depression, war, and war. The defining event of his administration was the Dakota War of 1862, something that has darkened Ramsey’s reputation forever. There’s no evidence that Ramsey ever had sympathy for Minnesota’s native people. He left the governorship in 1863 to become a U.S. senator.
March of the Governors, Governor #3
Henry Swift came to Minnesota from Ohio as a young man, eventually settling in St. Peter. He was elected to the state senate and saw combat in the US-Dakota War of 1862 at the Battles of New Ulm. The next year, because of Lieutenant Governor Ignatius Donnelly’s election to the US House of Representatives and Governor Alexander Ramsey’s election to the US Senate, Swift was quickly elevated to the governorship from his position as president pro tempore of the Minnesota Senate. He served the remainder of Ramsey’s original term but declined to run for election on his own.
To learn more about the US Dakota War and Swift’s involvement in it, Ramsey County Historical Society encourages our listeners to further research the circumstances and events leading up to and following this war to better understand the context and the outcomes.
March of the Governors, Governor #4
Stephen Miller moved to Minnesota in middle age from Pennsylvania, several years after his friend Alexander Ramsey had moved to the state. He immediately involved himself in politics in St. Cloud. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he was named lieutenant colonel of the First Minnesota Regiment. He distinguished himself in battle and upon returning to Minnesota, supervised the imprisonment of 303 Dakota men and the execution of thirty-eight who were condemned for their part in the US-Dakota War of 1862. With Ramsey’s support, he was elected governor in 1864.
To learn more about the US Dakota War and Miller’s involvement in it, Ramsey County Historical Society encourages our listeners to further research the circumstances and events leading up to and following this war to better understand the context and the outcomes.
March of the Governors, Governor #5
William Rainey Marshall
William Rainey Marshall could be said to occupy a prominent place in Minnesota’s list of founding fathers. He played a leading role in many of the seminal events that shaped the state’s early history. A strong opponent of slavery, he chaired the founding meeting of Minnesota’s Republican Party. He was an officer in the military expedition against the Dakota. He served with valor as commanding officer of the Minnesota’s 7th Regiment during the Civil War and was elected governor in November 1865 and reelected in 1867. According to contemporaries, he served with integrity and effectiveness and waged a contentious, but ultimately successful campaign for passage of a Black Suffrage amendment to Minnesota’s state constitution.
To learn more about the US Dakota War and Marshall’s involvement in it, Ramsey County Historical Society encourages our listeners to further research the circumstances and events leading up to and following this war to better understand the context and the outcomes.
The March of Governors, Governor #6
The second of four Minnesota governors from St. Peter, Horace Austin was the state’s first governor to directly confront the increased power of railroads, the state’s most powerful business force. Noted for being honest and straight forward, Austin succeeded in regulating their rates after being reelected in 1871 to a second term by promising to “Shake the railroads over hell”. Minnesota’s growth and prosperity during his administration was marred only near its’ end by the western Minnesota grasshopper plague and the Panic of 1873. A lawyer, Austin’s political career began as a judge after his service as a captain in the mounted rangers’ unit in the Dakota War.
To learn more about the US Dakota War and Austin’s involvement in it, Ramsey County Historical Society encourages our listeners to further research the circumstances and events leading up to and following this war to better understand the context and the outcomes.
The March of the Governors, Special Edition, Podcast #7
The U.S. Dakota War of 1862
The US Dakota War of 1862 was a unique event in Minnesota history. In his recent book, Massacre in Minnesota, the eminent historian Gary Clayton Anderson calls it “the most violent ethnic conflict in American history.” It was a calamity that we Minnesotans are still trying to deal with today. One of the remarkable things about it is that all six of Minnesota’s first governors participated in it: Alexander Ramsey as sitting governor and the five others as army officers or emergency volunteers. To discuss the actions of these governors, we assembled a panel: Sydney Beane, a professor and filmmaker with family connections to both sides of the war; Mary Lethert Wingerd, history professor emerita at St. Cloud State University and author of North County: The Making of Minnesota—a state history that ends with the 1862 war; and Rebekah Coffman, director of historical programming for the City of Plymouth and a descendant of German immigrant farmers caught up in the conflict.
We encourage our listeners to further research the circumstances and events leading up to and following this war to better understand the context of these actions and their outcomes.
The March of Governors, Governor #7
Minnesota’s seventh governor, Cushman Davis, served only one term from 1874 to 1876 during which most of the state recovered from the Panic of 1873. Highlights of his time in office include amending the state’s constitution to allow women to vote in school board elections and serve on the boards; establishing (and a year later abolishing) a railroad regulatory commission; and providing limited state assistance to farmers affected by the grasshopper plague. A prominent St. Paul attorney, Davis is most remembered today as a US Senator representing the state in Washington, DC, from 1887 until his death in 1900.
The March of Governors, Governor #8
Lucius F. Hubbard
Possessing little more than a drive to be a success, 21-year-old Lucius F. Hubbard reached Red Wing in spring 1857. Unimposing in size and stature, the clean-shaven, boyish New York-born newcomer appeared a long shot to make it on the rugged Minnesota frontier. But by age 30, Hubbard was a celebrated American Civil War hero, rising from the rank of private in the Fifth Minnesota infantry to brevet Brigadier General, a thrice-wounded combat leader, and recognized hero in battles at Corinth and Nashville.
Lucius Hubbard returned to Minnesota as the King Wheat Era blossomed, becoming a grain merchant and mill owner before shifting to the state’s booming railroad industry where he found more financial success. He was elected to the state senate in 1872 where he emerged as a Republican party leader. Voters elected Hubbard governor in 1881 by a wide margin and then gave him a second term in 1883.
To learn more about Lucius Hubbard, including photos, see the brief MNopedia article, https://www.mnopedia.org/person/hubbard-lucius-f-1836-1913
March of the Governors, Governor #9
John Pillsbury, a Republican, served three terms as governor of Minnesota from January 1876 to January 1882. An immigrant from New Hampshire, Pillsbury made a fortune in the grain milling business in the company that still carries his name. He also had a strong commitment to public life. Serving in the state senate from St. Anthony, Pillsbury was a major force in the establishment of the University of Minnesota. As governor, he championed accountable and efficient government and struggled to find a humane response to the grasshopper plague that devastated thousands of farms in Western and West Central Minnesota. That response included opening his own purse. Pillsbury remained a widely admired public figure until his death in 1901 at the age of seventy four.
March of the Governors, Governor #10:
Andrew McGill (1840-1905), our tenth governor, served one tumultuous term in office after 13 years as state insurance commissioner. Because of divisions in the Republican Party and the strength of his main opponent, Alonzo Ames, he won by only 2600 votes in the election of 1886. After a moderately successful two years as governor, the Republican Party, doubting his ability to win, dumped him in 1888. This was the first time a sitting governor had been denied renomination. McGill’s post-governor career was more successful: He served four terms in the state senate and as postmaster of St. Paul, and became a highly respected figure. His house on Langford Park still stands.
March of the Governors, Governor #11
William Merriam (1849-1931) was the first Minnesota governor born into wealth and the first to break an unwritten code of the Minnesota Republican Party when he wrested the party’s nomination from the incumbent governor, Andrew McGill, in 1888. He proved a much better vote-getter than McGill (that year, anyway), but still won his first election with only 51 percent of the vote. The next time around he did much worse—he was re-elected, yes, but with only 36 percent of the vote in a four-way contest. With his Republican Party fractured and the legislature divided, he was unable to get much done in office. He did not try for a third term. His second act, as director of the United States Census Bureau, was far more successful. When he took that job in 1897, he left Minnesota and never returned. He is known, to some, as the Father of the Modern US Census.
March of the Governors, Governor #12:
Knute Nelson (1843-1923) spent two years as Governor of Minnesota on his way to becoming a representative in the US Senate, where he served for twenty-eight years. Nelson was the first prominent Scandinavian-American politician in Minnesota and in the United States. He immigrated from Voss, Norway, to Chicago as a six-year-old child and spent most of his upbringing in Norwegian-immigrant communities in Wisconsin. He made his way to Minnesota after serving in the Union Army during the Civil War and apprenticing to become a lawyer. As a politician, Nelson leveraged his dual identity as a Norwegian and war veteran to gain support from both Scandinavian and American-born populations. During Nelson’s long and accomplished career, he made what is arguably his longest-lasting mark as a US representative with the passage of the Nelson Act in 1888.
March of the Governors, Governor #13:
David Marston Clough
David Marston Clough was a lumber baron and politician who served as Minnesota’s Republican governor from 1895 to 1899. Born in New Hampshire in 1846, he moved with his family to Spencer Brook Township, Minnesota, in 1857. He was successful in the lumber business and moved into politics, serving as a city council member in Minneapolis, state senator, and lieutenant governor before his elevation to the gubernatorial seat upon the election of Governor Knute Nelson to the US Senate. He was then elected in his own right and served one two-year term before declining to run for reelection (and controversially endorsing the Democratic candidate in the following election). Shortly thereafter, he moved to Everett, Washington, to continue in the lumber business until his death in 1924.
March of the Governors, Governor #14:
Three-term US congressman John Lind, a traditional Republican with a stream of populism coursing through his veins, made a major political course change in 1894. Unhappy with Republican policies, Lind, the first Swedish-American elected to Congress, opted not to run for a fourth term and quit the party. Two years later a fusion of Democrats, Populists and left-leaning Republicans convinced him to run for governor. David Clough narrowly defeated him. In 1898, Lind returned for another gubernatorial run, this time cruising to a convincing victory. A self-described political orphan during his second run for governor, John Lind proved a zealous, highly-principled advocate for progressive ideals. This former Republican broke that party’s hold on the governorship that began in 1859 with Alexander Ramsey.
March of the Governors, Governor #15
Samuel Van Sant
Samuel Van Sant was Minnesota’s fifteenth governor—the first to serve in the twentieth century and the first to occupy the current capitol. After three years of combat duty in the Union cavalry (1861-1864), Van Sant joined the family steamboat business in LeClaire, Iowa. In 1883, he moved to Winona and soon went into politics. A Republican, he was elected to the legislature in 1892 and rose to speaker of the house just two years later. A gifted public speaker, he was elected governor in 1900 and reelected in 1902. In keeping with the spirit of the age, he championed such progressive measures as reform of the state’s tax system, advocating for wilderness protection, and extending the use of the primaries to nominate candidates. In the decades following his retirement from political office, Van Sant became a national leader in Civil War veterans’ affairs and was a popular speaker at Republican gatherings throughout Minnesota. He died in 1936 at the age of ninety-two.
March of the Governors, Governor #16
John Albert Johnson
Minnesota’s sixteenth governor, John Albert Johnson, was our fourth from St. Peter. He had a “rags-to-riches Horatio Alger life.” The son of Swedish immigrants, he quit school at age twelve to support his mother and siblings. Self-educated, he eventually became a newspaper editor, state legislator, and was elected governor three times. If he hadn’t died during his third term at the age of forty-seven, Johnson would have likely been a serious candidate for the presidency in 1912. His priorities in office were those of the Progressive Era—improved conservation, making the tax system more fair, better regulation of business, and protection for workers. Johnson unsuccessfully urged women’s suffrage, ending capital punishment, and direct election of US senators. One of our most popular governors, today, his statue stands in front of the state capitol.
March of the Governors, Governor #17
Adolph Olson Eberhart
Adolph Eberhart (1870-1944) was a penniless, immigrant child from Varmland, Sweden, who embraced the opportunities the United States offered. Despite minimal schooling, he was named valedictorian of his class at Gustavus Adolphus College. He later became a lawyer, state senator, lieutenant governor, and then, governor. As a Republican governor, Eberhart engineered one of the most productive legislative sessions in Minnesota history and signed into law a remarkable host of progressive measures. Despite these successes, he became the first incumbent governor unseated in a primary. Eberhart seems also to have led an exemplary personal life. In 1915, he published a song (performed in the podcast), “‘Tis Only You,” which he dedicated to his wife.
March of the Governors, Governor #18
Winfield Scott Hammond
Winfield Scott Hammond (1863-1915) was Minnesota’s eighteenth governor and the last of only four from the Democratic Party (decades before, by merger, it became the DFL.) He was the first unmarried governor and the man who served the shortest time in office. Hammond was also our first Ivy League governor (Dartmouth, class of 1884) and one of several with deep New England roots: two of his forebears fought at Lexington and Concord. A Democrat in deep Republican country, the studious Hammond proved an excellent vote-getter, elected to Congress in 1906. He enjoyed that job but was lured back to Minnesota by a Democratic Party desperate for a plausible gubernatorial candidate. He defeated Republican William Lee in 1914 and died during a visit to Louisiana eleven months later.
March of the Governors, Governor #19
Joseph Alfred Arner Burnquist
Joseph Alfred Arner Burnquist (1879-1961), born in Dayton, Iowa, was destined for leadership from an early age. A star student and orator at Carleton, he was in the legislature at age twenty-eight, lieutenant governor at thirty-one, and governor at thirty-six. He led, or at least presided over, Minnesota’s infamous Public Safety Commission, the author of the worst World War I-era state-sponsored repression in the United States. The voters then turned against him, and he was out of office and seemingly out of politics at age forty-one. However, he returned eighteen years later to serve four terms as Minnesota’s attorney general.
March of the Governors, Governor #20
Jacob A. O. Preus
By age forty-one, Jacob A. O. Preus had been Minnesota’s insurance commissioner and state auditor and had served two successful terms as governor (1921-1925). On his watch, the Minnesota Republican Party enacted a considerable program of progressive legislation. But the long crisis in farm country and the rise of the Farmer-Labor Party brought him down. Now, decisively defeated by Magnus Johnson for the US Senate, Preus was finished with politics. However, he was far from done piling up accomplishments. He had a long and successful second career in insurance and is the only person in Minnesota history to serve as governor AND found a Fortune 500 company—in his case, Lutheran Brotherhood, now Thrivent, based in Minneapolis.
March of the Governors, Governor #21
Theodore Christianson (1883-1948) was a farm boy from Lac Qui Parle County and a progressive Republican who proved eminently successful as a vote-getter and as a government reformer. He was the first man elected governor three times, knocking off three successful Farmer-Labor politicians—Floyd B. Olson (1924), Magnus Johnson (1926), and Ernest Lundeen (1928). In times of crisis in farm country, he declined direct help to farmers, choosing instead to concentrate on small, efficient state government. Farmers rewarded him with their votes. Before becoming governor, he ran a newspaper in Dawson, Minnesota. After his terms, he worked for trade associations in Chicago and wrote a five-volume history of Minnesota.
March of the Governors, Governor #22
Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson
By age thirty, Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson (1891-1936) had been a shabbos goy, a college dropout, a stevedore, and a Wobbly. By age forty, he had served ten years as Hennepin County attorney. In the next five years, he would become one of Minnesota’s most successful politicians – its first Farmer-Labor governor (elected three times), a powerful speaker, the force behind legislation to support suffering farmers and workers during the Depression, and the only Minnesota governor ever to proclaim, “I am a radical.” He toyed with the idea of leading a national Farmer-Labor Party and took aim at a seat in the US Senate in 1936. But it was not to be: Pancreatic cancer took him in his prime at age forty-four.
March of the Governors, Governor #23
Hjalmar Petersen (1890-1968) holds many distinctions as a governor of Minnesota: our only Dane, our only Hjalmar, our last immigrant (so far), our only governor from Askov (so far), and the one who served the shortest term (four months.) He served two terms in the legislature, one term as lieutenant governor, and eighteen years as a warehouse and railroad commissioner. He ran for governor four more times—three with the Farmer-Labor Party, one as a Republican. His political career began in 1930 and ended in 1967. He became governor in August 1936 upon the death of Floyd B. Olson. Passed over as Farmer-Labor candidate for governor in 1936, Petersen nurtured a grudge against the party for years to come. In 1938, he nearly upset Governor Elmer Benson in a primary. He tried again in 1942 and 1946. In 1956, he managed Estes Kefauver’s Minnesota presidential primary win over Adlai Stevenson. He served once more on the railroad and warehouse commission from 1955 to 1967.
March of the Governors, Governor #24
Elmer Austin Benson
We are unlikely to see a politician like Elmer Benson ever again. The small-town, left-wing banker served briefly as a US Senator before becoming governor. He was a genuine political radical who advocated replacing capitalism in Minnesota with a “cooperative commonwealth.” The first time he ran for governor of Minnesota in 1936, he won by a landslide. The next time, in 1938, he lost by a landslide. In between, he battled with the legislature, filled state jobs with Farmer-Labor party workers, and once endorsed an occupation of the state senate chambers by Farmer-Laborites demanding action. Benson lived a long life (1895-1985) and never repented of anything.