Lesson 25 – Minnesota Territorial Seal

Lesson 25 – Minnesota Territorial Seal

When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, it was determined that it needed an official seal.  Choosing such a seal was a chore given to Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey and statesman Henry Sibley.  The two considered the matter through a number of correspondences before finally deciding on what they considered an image and motto sufficient and appropriate for the new territory.

The first design for a territorial seal was drafted in a Minnesota Territorial Congressional Committee.  The design depicted an Indian family, with a lodge, a canoe, and accessories, receiving a white visitor who was accepting the pipe of peace.  The idea was to symbolize the eternal friendship of the two cultures.  But, this depiction was rejected by the House.

New images were drafted and sent to Henry Sibley.  Sibley found only two that suited him.  He sent the images to Alexander Ramsey for review.  Between the two drawings, Ramsey selected the one which best represented the equilibrium of the Indian state to that of “civilization” and noted that this equilibrium, “for the present is our more distinctive characteristic.”  The drawing shows an Indian on horseback, lance in hand, a man plowing, the stump of a tree with an ax sticking in it, and the Falls of St. Anthony in the background along with the setting sun.

As for the motto on the seal, Governor Ramsey preferred “something characteristic in an eminent degree of American goaheadativeness – something suggestive of enterprise – courage – tireless industry.”  The two finally decided on a Latin motto which translated to, “I wish to see what is beyond.”  It was meant to depict the thoughts of the farmer in the image.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

How do I explain this?  There were no epic battles.  There was no damsel in distress.  No “once upon a time” or “happily ever after.”  Yet, it was the most significant event in the history of Minnesota, the place you live.  It was the beginning of everything you now know.  It was the beginning of the world you live in, but you’ve never even heard of this event.  You’ve never been told.  For it happened long ago, too long ago for its effects to be seen as anything but ancillary.  Commonplace.  Routine.

Allow me to give you an example.  Have you ever glanced upon the Territorial Seal of Minnesota?  I suspect not.  Upon that seal is an image.  It is an image of a white man with a plow at the Falls of St. Anthony.  In the distance is an Indian atop a horse who is riding toward the setting sun.  Never mind that the sun is setting in the east.  The motto, which is written in Latin, states, “I fain would see what lies beyond.”  In this rather brief rendition somehow lies the quintessential depiction of your history and how life came to be the way it is today.  But you wouldn’t know it if not for me and for others like me.  Those who had the foresight to record your history as it happened.  And those who had the curiosity to seek out, perpetuate, and preserve your history.

Read more about the Territorial Seal (page 460).

See this blog post on YouTube. 


William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).

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