Alexander Ramsey Biography

Alexander Ramsey was born in 1815 at Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. Admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1839, he served as a Whig politician in the early 1840s, followed by two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For helping Zachary Taylor carry Pennsylvania in the election of 1848, Ramsey was appointed governor of the recently organized Minnesota Territory. Once there, he invested shrewdly in Minnesota real estate. Giving up his law practice, Ramsey made real estate development his major business.

Ramsey also served concurrently as Minnesota’s superintendent of Indian affairs. In 1851 that duty included negotiations with the Dakota that opened large tracts of land for white settlement. Sectional politics and the interests of the Native Americans, fur traders, lobbyists and settlers were entangled in complex negotiations. Ramsey was accused of fraud and not exonerated until 1854—the year after a new territorial governor was appointed.

In 1855 Ramsey was elected mayor of St. Paul and by 1857 he had joined the new Republican Party. Democrat Henry H. Sibley defeated him in the state’s first gubernatorial election in 1858. Ramsey, however, won the next two contests, becoming Minnesota’s second governor. His administration was marked by sound economic management and by two crises: the Civil War and the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. In 1861, Ramsey was in Washington, D.C. on business when the Civil War began and offered to President Lincoln the very first volunteer regiment for the Union Army. This was the first one thousand men of the 24,000 Minnesotans who served in the Civil War.

Immediately after the outbreak of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 white settlers, Governor Ramsey led the call to exile all Dakota people from Minnesota. During Ramsey’s tenure, more than 300 Dakota were tried and convicted for participating in the war. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato which is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Approximately 1700 Dakota, mostly women and children, were detained and relocated to Fort Snelling. In the spring of 1863, they were forced out of the state.

In January 1863 the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. He lived in Washington, D.C., from 1863 to 1875 and again from 1879 to 1881, serving as Rutherford B. Hayes’s secretary of war. He retired from politics in 1886, returning to St. Paul where he died in 1903.