Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What: Rhoda R. Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004)

Why: The Minnesota we know today came about because of the restlessness and entrepreneurial yearnings of men like Henry Sibley. 

I’ve written before about the essential role entrepreneurs played in the development of the Great Lakes region. If we’re in the mood to think about the impact of entrepreneurialism on the development of modern American society, we need not travel all the way Up North. Examples abound right here in the Twin Cities.

Over the weekend, I found myself traveling along Highway 110 through Mendota Heights, passing Henry Sibley Senior High School, from which I graduated lo these many, many years ago, and was reminded of the extraordinary—and extraordinarily complicated—life story of the man in whose honor the school was named. If someone were interested in learning how the Minnesota in which we now live came into being, he or she could do no better than to read Rhonda Gilman’s highly engaging biography of this man.

Sibley, the son of a frontier lawyer and judge, was born in 1811 in the small frontier settlement of Detroit, and was educated to be a lawyer like his father. From a young age, though, it was clear he was not destined for a legal career, as he makes clear in an autobiography he penned later in life:

         My father intended me to follow his profession, but after the time indicated 
         had elapsed, I frankly told him that the study was irksome to me, and I 
         longed for a more active and stirring life.

I have known a number of entrepreneurs who started their adult careers in law school, and this sentence could have been written by almost any of them.

In any event, an active and stirring life is what Sibley got. Staring as a clerk in a military sutler’s store in Sault Ste. Marie, he moved on to the American Fur Company in Mackinac. His business acumen and reputation ultimately landed him in what would become Minnesota Territory as a junior partner in an operation that managed Dakota trade north of Lake Pepin and up the Minnesota River Valley, for which he took up residence in Mendota.

From that point, he was integrally involved in the development of the economic infrastructure of territorial Minnesota, and went from strength to strength as “an accommodating trade partner of the Indian/European/Métis worlds and the conquering government official of the ever-expanding west.”

Along the way, Sibley fathered a child by a Dakota woman and maintained a close relationship with her and her maternal family. Nonetheless, as former governor of the state and a congressman, he headed the military response to the Dakota uprising in 1862. I told you it was complicated.

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