Alexander Ramsey, who served as both the first governor of the Minnesota Territory and the second governor of the state, was born in Pennsylvania in 1815. In 1845, Ramsey married Anna Earl Jenks. The couple had three children, two of whom died in childhood. Their daughter Marion was born in St. Paul in 1853. Although Mrs. Ramsey stated early on that she “would never want to winter again in St. Paul,” the Ramseys spent most of the rest of their lives in Minnesota.
Ramsey was appointed by President Zachary Taylor to the governorship of the newly formed territory in 1848. In that capacity, which he held concurrently with that of superintendent of Indian affairs, he negotiated treaties on behalf of the U.S. government with the Dakota for the cession of large areas of Minnesota land for white settlement, most notably the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851. Ramsey spent much of the 1850s overseeing the growth of the territory of Minnesota as white settlers poured into former Indian land which was rich in furs, lumber and river trade. He lost his bid for first governor of the newly created state to his friend and political rival, Henry Sibley. In 1860, however, Ramsey was elected the state's second governor.
In 1861, Ramsey was the first state governor to answer President Abraham Lincoln's call for troops at the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1862, after years of tension between the Dakota and the burgeoning white population of the state, war broke out when factions of Dakota attacked settlements, towns and government outposts in central and southwestern Minnesota. Many of the factors that led to war were directly related to the treaties Ramsey had helped negotiate and the lack of compliance with them by the government and traders. Ramsey appointed Henry Sibley commander of the forces raised to fight against the Dakota, notoriously stating that “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” The subsequent six-week war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and soldiers and unknown numbers of Dakota. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, while nearly 300 of those convicted by military tribunal were imprisoned at Camp McClellan, near Davenport, Iowa. More than 1,600 non-combatants were held in an internment camp at Fort Snelling over the winter of 1862-63, before being forcibly removed to reservations in Dakota Territory and Nebraska.
Ramsey went on to be elected as a U.S. Senator and served as Secretary of War under President Rutherford B. Hayes. A shrewd businessman, he spent subsequent years in business pursuits and made a sizeable fortune in real estate. In 1868, construction began on an opulent new home for the Ramsey family in St. Paul's fashionable Irvine Park neighborhood. The house was equipped with the latest technology, including hot and cold running water, gas lighting and hot water-heated radiators. Anna Ramsey went on an extravagant shopping spree in New York in 1872 to furnish the home, coming back with enough furnishings to fill two boxcars. In 1875 Marion Ramsey married Charles Furness in a lavish wedding in the parlor, and then returned with him to his home in Philadelphia. In 1878, President Hayes and his wife visited St. Paul, including a stop at the State Fair and dinner at the Ramsey House.
Marion Ramsey Furness and her children returned to live in St. Paul with her parents in 1882 after her husband was hospitalized indefinitely for mental illness. She lived there as its mistress after her mother's death in 1884 until her own death in 1935. Alexander Ramsey died at home in St. Paul on April 22, 1903. His granddaughters, Anita and Laura Furness, never married and lived in the house until their own deaths in 1959 and 1964, respectively. They left the house and all its contents to the Minnesota Historical Society, founded in part by their grandfather in 1849.
The Alexander Ramsey House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. Programming today focuses on the lives of the Ramseys and their servants in St. Paul during the late Victorian period, particularly the festive holiday activities that took place at the home. The Carriage House Gift Shop features reproduction Victorian holiday ornaments, books and other gift items. The Ramsey House is open for tours annually from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day and for group tours and field trips by special appointment.
For more information about Alexander Ramsey and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, visit www.usdakotawar.org.
Available at the Minnesota History Center Library