William Aiken Jr., holder of 700 slaves whose labor benefited the University of Minnesota
Nevertheless, Aiken’s loan was a rare act of cross-sectional cooperation between the South and the North during a time of increasing national discord over the extension of slavery into fledgling states in infancy like Minnesota. Also, Aiken’s gift shows that a university in the Northwest was reliant on wealth from a southern plantation’s unfree labor, not unlike the Ivy League schools of the colonial era and the southern antebellum schools.1 From the early 1850s, southerners had come to Minnesota for business, recreation, or both. Advancements in steamboat travel enabled vessels to travel between Minnesota and Louisiana during the spring and summer months, when the Mississippi River was free flowing. Wealthy southerners with political connections invested in large portions of land in Minnesota. Buying land while on vacation and returning to the South in the fall with real estate deeds in hand, these men became absentee land- owners. Kentucky’s Sen. John Breckinridge and Tennessee state senator William Stokes were among them. Some investors, such as Harwood Iglehart of Maryland, chose instead to live permanently in Minnesota while retaining ownership of their slaves in their home states, though these were few and far between.2
Dred Scott (1795-1858). The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in his case freed plantation owners to travel north without giving up their slaves.
After March 1857 southerners had even more incentive to travel to Minnesota. That month the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict in Dred Scott v. Sandford legalized slavery in all territories, and Minnesota was still about 14 months short of statehood at the time. Newspaper reporters took note of an immediate rise that summer in the number of slaveholding sojourners to the Northwest, and they called attention to people who elected to stay permanently in Minnesota with their slaves. One slaveholding migrant in Stillwater specifically claimed that Dred Scott legitimized his actions.3
In the early summer of 1857, William Aiken Jr. of Charleston, South Carolina, was part of that post-Dred Scott southern influx to Minnesota. He had just completed nearly 20 years of public service—in offices ranging from South Carolina’s legislature and governorship to the U.S. House of Representatives— and suddenly had the time to travel at length. Like other tourists of means, he lodged at the Fuller House, an opulent hotel in St. Paul. From there he took a short trip to visit the Falls of St. Anthony. The falls were a popular, cooling tourist attraction for southerners suffering from summer heat. As a result, the location proved ideal for entrepreneurs to capitalize on its popularity.4 The University of Minnesota was one enterprise benefiting from the location of the falls, though the educational institution was not much to look at in 1857. It had open for some time. Construction of the sole building on campus cost more money than the university’s facilitators possessed, and the extended period of construction exacerbated the institution’s debt. The building was not even completed before the university opened in 1851, and it remained unfinished in 1857.’’