Minneapolis Confidential

Some families celebrate their black sheep, others never speak of them. In some families, the story of the time Aunt Sally was arrested for dancing on a table with sailors is told every Thanksgiving; in others it's as if it had never happened. The same, of course, is true for cities, for states, for regions. Which stories are told, and which are conveniently forgotten? We all know about growing up in a little house on the prairie and James J. Hill's railroad empire--but what about the little houses on the wrong side of the tracks?

This is one version of that story: the dark legends, the scandalous eras, the shady characters. It's a dip in the murkier waters swirling around the sparkling self-image of the City of Lakes: a story of shadows in a town that prides itself on its clean, well-lit places.

Minneapolis's earliest days were painted in haunted tones. Our city is built around the ghost of the Mississippi's only falls, located somewhere between the Third Avenue and Hennepin Avenue bridges. When Father Louis Hennepin got here in 1680 he claimed the falls were 60 feet high, dwarfed only on this continent by Niagara, and that they could be heard for 15 miles on a still day. (120 years later Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the man who coaxed the Sioux to sell the Fort Snelling area for $2,000 worth of goods, said that the falls fell merely 17 feet.) Hennepin then named the falls for his patron saint, St. Anthony, forever obscuring the Sioux names they had been known by: Minirara, "curling water," and Owahmeneh, "falling water."

The Sioux believed that this core of Minneapolis was a creepy place on two counts. The spirit of evil and waters, Oanktehi, lived behind the falls, and was given to making frequent and terrible mischief. To make things worse, the falls were also haunted by the ghost of Ampato Sapa, a young mother who, according to legend, was so heartbroken by her husband's decision to take a second wife that she dressed in her wedding robe, bundled her young son into her canoe, and, as her family watched aghast from shore, sang her death song and paddled over the falls. It was said that you would forever hear her dirge in the wind coming off the water. On these cheery shores Minneapolis's first settlers illegally camped.

Before 1852 all the land extending west from the Mississippi and south from Canada to McGregor, Iowa, was officially Indian land, except for Fort Snelling. Settling in this territory was illegal. That didn't stop the scores of squatters who took up residence in regulation homestead shacks all over Minneapolis--from the Mississippi west to Lake Harriet, between Minnehaha Creek on the south and Shingle Creek to the north. These squatters had every intention of getting rich when the land inevitably became a state.

A nation of budding capitalists could only dream of how much money there was to be made in real estate speculation during westward expansion. Accordingly, land "pirates" (agents acting for interests from the east) gathered in St. Paul to buy the land Minneapolis now stands on as soon as the government declared it for sale. They were right, of course: A corner plot on Hennepin and Fourth Street sold for $1,600 in 1863; in 1891 it went for $132,000, an increase of 8,149 percent, or 291 percent annually. But the squatters already camped there responded to the threat of the land pirates by forming a "secret" organization that swore publicly "to stand by each other to the death and to resist by every means known or unknown to law" efforts to displace the squatters' claims to their illegally occupied land.

These threats so intimidated the land pirates--who would have had to live on the lands they purchased until they were legally cleared for resale, a prospect that made the situation ripe for ambush and murder--that when the government auctioned off the land, the squatters found themselves bidding unopposed.

These settlers had bought up a godforsaken place, which they proceeded to christen All Saints. "All Saints" then meant literally a place where the spirits of the dead mingled with the living: a terrifying, un-Christian place. Perhaps, since it was believed that witches and ghosts couldn't cross a moving stream, they thought that the land west of the Mississippi was especially haunted, rife with the spirits of the untamed territory sprawling out to the west. It wasn't until December 1852 that the town fathers renamed the budding town Minneapolis, the first portion taken from the Dakota word for water, the second from the Greek word for city.

"Water City" was a name heartily endorsed by All Saints' temperance advocates, who hoped to inspire the city's many drunkards to let up a little; All Saints derived much of its income from moonshine, saloons, and the prostitutes who had set up shop to serve the trappers, river-rats, and Fort Snelling soldiers who drifted through for R & R.

In 1856 Minneapolis hired its first police officer, Benjamin Brown. At that time there were about 4,200 people living in Minneapolis. There had been at least four murders. (At about one murder per thousand inhabitants, that would make Minneapolis's current murder rate look fairly tame.) The pioneers built their first jail. But their underpaid sheriff and jailor didn't care to look in on his prisoners at night. "On several occasions," according to Frank Mead's 1899 History of the Police and Fire Departments, "... the enterprising fellows therein caged proceeded to dig themselves out of the prison and leave for parts unknown."

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