Hennepin County Museum exhibit tells colorful story of Minneapolis pioneer family

Debra George unearthed a leather-bound pocket Bible while sifting through family heirlooms in 2015. Inside, she discovered that her great-great-grandmother, Charlotte McMullen, had hidden a 1914 obituary of her husband, a Minneapolis pioneer and former ship’s captain. James McMullen.

“It kicked things off,” said George, a St. Paul artist who mixed together a dozen collages and artifacts in an exhibit called “Family in Pieces” that opened last month at the Hennepin History Museum.

“I help people explore my family history from a variety of perspectives, however they choose,” said George, 68, a retired financial worker. “The artwork serves to illuminate the stories.”

You couldn’t ask for a more colorful story about one of Minneapolis’ largely forgotten first families.

The son of a Scottish sailor, James McMullen was born in 1824 in Reading, Pennsylvania and spent his youth sailing the seven seas. He was a 10-year-old cabin boy on his first voyage when a gale blew his father off the deck of their ship, never to be seen again. McMullen spent the next 15 years on merchant ships from the Bering Strait to Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and worked for a time as a whaler in the Pacific Ocean.

Young McMullen narrowly escaped cannibals while picking nuts in Chile and was arrested in Rio de Janeiro for refusing to work on what he learned was a slave ship. He was just 17 when he was the sole survivor of a crew of 27 after a storm destroyed their ship carrying sugar from Cuba to Florida.

Enter Charlotte McNitt, who became his wife of 65 years and the center of one of George’s collages.

“The influence of a young wife…seems to have been the influence that led the young sailor to abandon the sea and stand on the farthest frontier, as far away as possible from the seductive influence of the blue sea “, according to an 1893 history of Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

Minnesota Territory was that remote, landlocked outpost. A few months after their 1849 wedding in Maine, the newlyweds followed Charlotte’s sister to St. Anthony. They raised two sons, Albert and Wilbert, the latter being George’s great-grandfather.

“How they met is a mystery,” said George, who will speak about the exhibit Aug. 20 at the Hennepin History Museum in south Minneapolis (tinyurl.com/GeorgeTalk).

In a newspaper clipping decorating one of the collages, James McMullen recalls the days when spitting on the sidewalk could result in a fine, “like cigars for the crowd”. Charlotte remembers the “brutal lumberjacks” at polling stations, throwing opposition voters out the window until they got too drunk to care.

In St. Anthony, McMullen built winter sleds for loggers and used his seamanship to carry two steamboats around St. Anthony Falls so they could travel down the Mississippi River to help the cause of The union. After his plan to develop Pine Bend failed on the river near Hastings, McMullen operated a sawmill at Lakeland on the St. Croix River.

In 1872 he built a shingle factory on Hennepin Island off Minneapolis, becoming one of the leading loggers despite three fires from 1877 to 1892 which destroyed his factories. He helped build several local firsts – the first steamship, church and school in Minneapolis and the first brick building in St. Paul. He served on the St. Anthony City Council and was a vocal opponent of alcohol.

McMullen helped organize the local Republican Party in 1856 and took up arms to aid “beleaguered settlers” at the start of the 1862 War between the United States and the Dakotas. According to the 1893 biography, McMullen had “tall stature, broad shoulders, strong limbs, with a firm walk. … His temperament is genial, though reticent in general conversation.”

McMullen’s death, a month before his 90th birthday in 1914, made the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune. Albert, believed to be the second white child born in St. Anthony, had died 10 years earlier, and the Tribune reported that the elder McMullen had spent his last decade on crutches and in a wheelchair after injuring his hip. He and Charlotte – who survived him by three years and whose photo George could not find – are buried in unmarked graves in Lakewood Cemetery.

“They are buried near the Pillsburys and the Washburns,” George said. “But their stories were almost lost.”

According to Hennepin History Museum spokeswoman Rosella DePietro, the exhibit “takes the viewer on George’s journey of discovery as he learns that his family was instrumental in the early history of St. Anthony. and Minneapolis.

George told the museum: “Making art has become my way of honoring the stories uncovered about my family’s history. I hope this exhibit and my work will inspire others to explore and capture their own stories in their own way.”

Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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