Burnsville's Distant Past: How Can We Know?

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It's one thing to sift through old photos and newspaper articles to put together a picture of Burnsville since Minnesota Statehood came in 1858. We even have a census of the residents (white only, of course) for Black Dog in 1849, and our community still boasts descendants of settlers who came as early as 1852.

A particularly interesting period, however, is when the earliest europeans ventured into this area. In this article we attempt to mention some of them. Of particular interest are those who wrote serious histories, and those who kept journals of their visits.

Edward Duffield Neill
For example, one has to admire Edward Duffield Neill (1823-1893). Neill, a Presbyterian minister, moved to St Paul in 1848 where he became pastor of the First Presbyterian church. He also worked as Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Territory in 1851–53, and as chancellor of the State university in 1858–61. After the Civil War he returned to Minnesota and served as President of Macalester College and taught history and literature. His History of Minnesota (1858; fifth edition, 1883) and Minnesota Explorers and Pioneers (1881).

Neill’s work has been published in various editions, including The Minnesota River Valley, in an edition published in 1882. It seems tailor-made for our Burnsville Historical Society. After all, it is the river that holds the key to understanding Burnsville’s history., and here’s a book that not only includes tales from the earliest explorers, but also a county by county report of the Minnesota River Valley in 1882.

In distilling the journals and reports of others, Neill has introduced me to a collection of early explorers and “individuals of distinctive character.” In other words, you would not wish to buy a used car from some of these colorful folks.

George William Featherstonhaugh
As an example, take G. W. Featherstonhaugh (pronounced “Fanshaw,” thank goodness.) One of the eccentric explorers of the age, he has been called the “first U. S. Government Geologist.” One of the things that makes “GWF” so fun to read is that he did not filter his observations, from the food he was offered to the laziness (or erudition) of his hosts. It’s those little details that make you feel like you are right in the canoe with him.

With chapter summaries like this, how could it not be fun reading?

In 1835, Featherstonhaugh traveled from Green Bay, Wisconsin up the Fox river to the Wisconsin River, then downstream to Prairie du Chien, and into the Mississippi. He paddled up the Mississippi passing the St, Croix, and reached the Minnesota River, then also called the “St. Peter’s River.” Years later, back in England, he transformed his journals and his memories, into a classic account. It’s all fascinating reading, but imagine my delight in reading about his stay at Fort Snelling, his visit by canoe to the Falls of St Anthony, and his final push to see what lay further west.


Because he kept a faithful journal, we know that at 9 A.M. on September 17th, 1835, G. W. Featherstonhaugh departed “the dingy receptacle” which he had been offered as quarters at Fort Snelling. He said farewell to Major Tagliaferro, and his party crossed to Sibley’s at Mendota to pick up Milor, their guide and translator. Then they headed up river, to a “region unvisited by civilization and in advance of all the frontier posts of the United States.” “The morning was bright and our spirits were buoyant. The very thought that you are in a region where you depend entirely upon your own exertions and prudence, where the laws and regulations of society have no control over you, where everything is new, and where every hour may be pregnant with adventure, makes you at once bold and cautious, thoughtful and gay.”

Take a moment to imagine the view from what we today call Burnsville, as his small party glided past where we now live. It may have look very much like it does today, from Caspersen Landing.