The Original Border Battle – Minnesota vs. Wisconsin

The Original Border Battle – Minnesota vs. Wisconsin

The Minnesota/Wisconsin Border, 1855. Map from the Hennepin County Library Digital Collections – https://digitalcollections.hclib.org/digital/collection/p17208coll17/id/56/

Separated by the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin have a well-established, recognizable boundary. But the borders of each state, and the boundary that separates them, was not always certain. When Wisconsin applied for statehood in 1846, Minnesota as a territory did not exist and the argument over Wisconsin’s western boundary became the first border battle in what would become a perpetual rivalry. 

In 1846, as the settler-colonial population boomed to more than 155,000 people, Wisconsin applied for statehood. The resulting bill, called “The Enabling Act,” was approved by Congress August 6, 1846. In the act, Congress established the western boundary of the state with the following description: 

“…thence through the centre of Lake Superior to the mouth of the St. Louis River; thence up the main channel of said river to the first rapids in the same, above the Indian village, according to Nicollet’s map; thence due south to the main branch of the River St. Croix; thence down the main channel of said river to the Mississippi . . .”

But before Wisconsin could become a state it had to write a state constitution that was approved by its citizens. This resulted in the establishment of a constitutional convention where debate ensued over the proposed western boundary. According to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, only five states were to be formed out of the Northwest Territory. Because four had already been formed, this meant that the western boundary for the state of Wisconsin would have to stretch all the way to the Mississippi River and then north toward the international boundary. Members of the first constitutional convention who supported this far western boundary became known as “fifth-staters.” The fifth-staters were supported by southern Democrats who wanted to maintain the balance of power in the Senate by adding as few northern states to the Union as possible. 

Holcombe’s Proposed Boundary

However, there were several factions that opposed the fifth-staters. One was headed by Stephen A. Douglas who insisted that Congress was not bound by the Northwest Ordinance, and who proposed a boundary drawn from the westernmost point of Lake Superior due south to the Mississippi River. Another faction that disagreed with the far western boundary sprang up from the members representing the areas of St. Paul, Stillwater, and the St. Croix who did not want to be included in the new state of Wisconsin. These were the fur traders, lumberjacks, squatters, and speculators who lived far from the seat of government in Madison. Also, they did not want to see the St. Croix River Valley, rich and abundant in natural resources, to be split by a state boundary. Members of this faction were led by William Holcombe who argued that Wisconsin should be small enough to allow a sixth state of roughly equal size to be created out of the Northwest Territory. Holcombe proposed a far eastern boundary that would run north from Trempealeau Island in the Mississippi River and then northeast to the mouth of the Montreal River. 

Boundary Proposed by the first Constitutional Convention

Holcombe could not find much support for his eastern boundary proposal, and it was rejected by a vote of 51 to 29. However, he then proposed a boundary further west starting from the St. Louis river rapids to a point east of the most easterly point of Lake St. Croix, and from that point south to the head of Lake Pepin. This line was approved by the convention by a vote of 49 to 38. Although this line was further west than Holcombe’s original boundary proposal, it did not completely divide the St. Croix River Valley.

The constitution, which included Holcombe’s boundary change, was approved by Congress on March 3, 1847. But before Wisconsin could become a state the constitution had to be approved by Wisconsin voters. After what was described by historian William E. Lass as a “long, emotional campaign,” Wisconsin voters rejected the constitution by a vote of 20,231 to 14,116. Though some voters may not have approved the boundary change, most rejected the constitution because of, what was considered at the time, some of its more progressive provisions. This included a provision to give married women property rights, and a provision that would have forbidden the chartering of banks. 

After Wisconsin voters rejected the state constitution, a second constitutional convention was established in October 1847. This reignited the debate over Wisconsin’s western boundary. At the convention a new faction emerged that recognized the immense value of the timber and mineral resources throughout the St. Croix and Mississippi River valleys, as well as the water-power at St. Anthony Falls, and fought to establish the boundary as far west and north as possible. This faction was supported by Daniel G. Fenton, a lawyer from Prairie du Chien who proposed a boundary that ran southwest from the St. Louis River to the mouth of the Rum River. This became known as the Rum River Line. 

Rum River Line proposed by the second Constitutional Convention

One of the objectors of the Rum River Line was George W. Brownell who stood for St. Croix separatism. In an attempt to garner support for a more eastern boundary, Brownell walked in snowshoes from the St. Croix Valley to Madison in order to demonstrate the remoteness of the area. His dramatic gesture won little support and when his proposed boundary was brought to a vote, it was rejected 52 to 5. Ultimately, supporters of the Rum River Line won out when their resolution was approved 53 to 3. When the second constitution was sent to Congress, it declared the Rum River Line as the “the preference of the State of Wisconsin.”  

The second constitution, and the Rum River Line proposed within it, was not well received by everyone. Those who identified themselves as residents within the limits of Minnesota Territory, wrote and sent a petition to Congress against the Rum River Line and suggested a new boundary running south from Chequamegon Bay to the Chippewa River and then south along the Chippewa to the Mississippi River. The petition created some excitement in St. Croix County, but it did not stop Wisconsin voters from approving the second constitution. On March 13, 1848, they voted to approve the constitution, along with its Rum River Line provision, by a vote of 16,759 to 6,384. The constitution did not include controversial measures such as property rights for married women. In St. Croix County residents voted against acceptance 277 to 17.

When the issue was put before Congress for final approval, the Minnesota petition provoked much debate. Also, George W. Brownell traveled to Washington to make a direct appeal to Congress. While there he published a seven page article titled, “Boundaries of Wisconsin: Reasons Why the Boundaries of Wisconsin, as Reported by the Committee for the Admission of that Territory into the Union as a State, Should not be Adopted.”  However, rather than reject the constitution and send it back to Wisconsin for renewed debate, Congress decided to ignore the preference for the Rum River Line and accept the boundary that was laid out in the Enabling Act of 1846, arguing that Wisconsin had accepted it despite preferences for another boundary. 

Therefore, on May 29, 1848, Wisconsin was admitted as the 30th state in the Union with the western boundary as specified in the enabling act. This upset many St. Croixans who did not want to see the St. Croix Valley divided. In protest, James Madison Goodhue, editor of the Minnesota Pioneer wrote, “Here now, is the whole valley of the Saint Croix, without an interest or an affinity for Wisconsin . . . yoked to Wisconsin by the potent will of the Convention. All this was done, against the consent and eloquent remonstrances of the delegates from St. Croix. As for us, in Minnesota, who have been carried up into Father Abraham’s bosom, we can only look down with compassion upon our neighbors across the great gulf of the Saint Croix and pray for their safe deliverance.” 

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William E. Lass, “Minnesota’s Separation from Wisconsin: Boundary Making on the Upper Mississippi Frontier,” in Minnesota History, (Winter 1987): P. 309–320.  http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/50/v50i08p309-320.pdf 

Minnesota Pioneer, March 6, 1850.

Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and overlooked past.

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