The crazy, true story about the men who founded Minneapolis (wild history)

Ever wonder who founded Minneapolis?

Maybe not.

But now that you’re reading this article, I bet you are now!

In the true spirit of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis was technically founded by not one, but two people. Which of course means there’s double the fun trivia about Minneapolis!

So if you want to win your next local trivia night, strap in for a wild route through some Minneapolis history.

History of Minneapolis

In order to understand who founded Minneapolis, you first have to understand just how crazy property rights were back in the wild-west era of the 1800s.

First off, after “negotiating” the land from Native Americans, most of the area around Minneapolis existed in a weird no-man’s land. It was simply owned by the government and had literally never been sold to anyone, ever.

The law worked like this: If you were first to “settle” some land (aka… squatted on) then you would get first dibs to purchase whenever the government offered it up for sale.

Keep that in mind while we roll through this wild timeline.

1805: The Government Gets Fort Snelling’s Land

ort snelling before minneapolis
Artwork by John Casper Wild (1804-1846) via MN Historical Society / Public domain

Back in 1805, the U.S. Government started looking for land to use as a military fort. They sent a guy named Zebulon Pike to explore Minnesota, who “negotiated” a deal with the Dakota Indians for the land that is present-day Fort Snelling.

(The negotiation was a little lopsided. Pike offered the Dakota an unspecified amount at an unspecific date. 30 years later, they got a whopping $4,000.)

1819: Fort Snelling is founded

Fifteen years later, the government started building a military outpost on this land, which lead to an influx of soldiers to the area.

Legally, the army controlled the land around the Fort, but the exact boundaries of Fort Snelling had not been set. So, hundreds of people started setting up camp in the area around the fort, hoping to get first dibs whenever the government eventually sold the land.

1837: A tale of the Army Commander vs. Squatters

Those squatters weren’t the only people interested in grabbing some of land around the fort.

The Military Commander of Fort Snelling was a guy named Joseph Plympton. He too was eying the undeveloped land around Fort Snelling, and in a fantastic conflict of interest, he was also responsible for drawing the official boundaries of the fort. So he drew the boundaries to exclude the land on the east side of the river. (Near the present-day Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood.)

He then sent soldiers to evict the roughly 100 squatters who’d built homes along this land. It did not go smoothly. The soldiers used force to get rid of the squatters, and as you’d expect, the squatters did not take it well. Eventually, they moved down river until they parked themselves just outside the military’s official borders. (That community became known as Pig’s Eye and eventually… St. Paul)

1838: Surprise! Franklin Steele.

A year later, a steamboat shows up delivering news that the U.S. government had just finished another “negotiation” with the Dakota Indians for the rest of the state of Minnesota, including the land that covers present-day Minneapolis.

Since the crooked commander had already used the military to clear the land of squatters, all was ready for him to be the first to arrive at the eastern river bank and claim his right to purchase.

Enter Franklin Steele.

Franklin Steele was a shop keeper at Fort Snelling who got wind of the commander’s plan to grab the land. Before anyone knew what happened, Steele rushed to the vacant land, allegedly building a cabin via moonlight, and officially claimed the land as his own.

1848: Franklin Steele officially buys the first half of the Twin Cities

The federal government actually didn’t offer the land for sale until ten years later. When they did, Franklin Steele remained the official “squatter” and thus got the first rights to purchase.

He eventually developed the land he bought into the city of St. Anthony, which is actually the real reason why Minneapolis is called the Twin Cities.

Also 1848: John Stevens creates Minneapolis

So that covers land on the east side of the river. What about the western river bank, near today’s downtown Minneapolis?

Well, that land was still technically part of Fort Snelling. However, a friend of Franklin Steele, named John Stevens, offered to a run a ferry service that shuttled soldiers down the river. In running this service, Stevens also became the first person to build a house on this side of the river.

Steven’s house was soon joined by many more settlers. As the number of dwellings with questionable legal status continued growing, the soldiers frequently tried to evict the settlers from official military land.

(For his part, Stevens had previously served in the U.S. Army, which probably helped him secure his land on military property.)

1852: Minneapolis is born

By 1852, the squatters on the western side of the river were so tired of battling the soldiers over property rights that they formed their own government. They choose to call their place Minneapolis. (The meaning of the name Minneapolis is an interesting bit of trivia itself, but that’s a story for another day.)

At the same time, Congress passed a bill relinquishing this land from Fort Snelling to the public, and Minneapolis was officially a city.

minneapolis in 1868
Minneapolis in 1868

1872: “The Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Anthony become one

By 1872, John Stevens and Franklin Steele join the two cities on both sides of the river into one Minneapolis.

So, who founded Minneapolis?

All that to say that from 1838 to 1872, Minneapolis was founded by two clever settlers named Franklin Steele and John Stevens. Both men used some interesting techniques to take advantage of 1800s property rights and claim first settlement on present-day Minneapolis.

Both would also go on to leave an impressive legacy on the city of itself.

More about Minneapolis Founder #1: Franklin Steele

franklin steele - minneapolis founder


Franklin Steele was born in 1813 in Pennsylvania. He traveled to Minnesota in 1838, the same year he started working as a shop keeper at the Fort and foiled Joseph Plympton’s crooked plans to settle the east side of Minneapolis.

His half mile claim of the St. Anthony riverfront meant he also grabbed power rights to the water rushing through St. Anthony Falls, so he created a sawmill and a power plant at the location.

The sawmill became a booming success, selling lumber to much of the developing Minneapolis area. The power plant, on the other hand, struggled. At least until Steele eventually hired new officers at the company, including John S. Pillsbury. (Yes, that’d be the Pillsbury of future dough boy fame!)

Steele continued his impressive legacy in Minneapolis by forming the Mississippi Bridge Company in 1852. By 1855, the company completed Minneapolis’s first permanent bridge across the river.

Not bad for the 1800s:

Franklin Steele bridge

By 1858, Steele was so wealthy that he purchased Fort Snelling for $90,000 – about $3 million in today’s dollars. During the American Civil War of the 1860s, he leased the fort back to the government.

Steele is also famous for donating four acres of land to the newly created University of Minnesota.

Steele died in 1880 in Minneapolis.

More about Minneapolis Founder #2: John H. Stevens

john h stevens - minneapolis founder

What about the first official resident of Minneapolis?

Well, John Harrington Stevens was actually born in Brompton Falls in Quebec, Canada. He eventually joined the U.S. army and fought in the Mexican American War, achieving an unofficial ranking of Colonel. Soon after, he started his ferry service and built the first house in present-day Minneapolis.

(That first house is now known as the Stevens House. It’s been moved several times, but it now sits as a museum in Minnehaha Falls Regional Park.)

After founding Minneapolis, Stevens went on to serve in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1857 to 1858, then the Minnesota Senate from 1859 to 1860. (He did serve one last term in the Minnesota House, in 1876.)

He died in 1900, at age 80.

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