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Military Land Warrants in Minnesota, 1854–1863

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Black and white photograph of the founders of New Ulm, ca. 1854.

The founders of New Ulm, ca. 1854.

State militia soldiers fought many wars against Britain, Mexico, and American Indian nations to take land for the United States. The federal government rewarded them with military land warrants—certificates that could be redeemed for up to 160 acres of U.S. public land. The warrants were quickly sold and then traded on Wall Street to land agents in the country’s western territories. The agents made huge profits from selling and loaning them to struggling farmers. In Minnesota, German immigrants used land warrants to buy Dakota land, start farms, and found the town of New Ulm.

In 1854, a group of German immigrants joined the Chicago Land Association. They decided to seek out rich farm land in Minnesota Territory beyond the reach of speculators. There, they hoped to start a communal farming colony away from the ills of modern urban life. Ceded to the United States by the Dakota in 1851, southern Minnesota Territory was open to squatters under the preemption laws of 1841 and 1854.

On October 8, the immigrants reached their destination: the Sisseton Dakota village of Maya Kicaksa (also known as Sleepy Eye’s village) at the mouth of the Cottonwood River. Unfortunately for the colonists, a U.S. government surveyor was already in the area preparing Brown County for public sale.

Underfunded and poorly supplied, the German colonists struggled northwest toward the protection of Fort Ridgely to spend their first winter in a wooded area on Dakota land. They barely survived in frigid conditions, living off corn meal and scraps from the fort and handouts from a local trader. In spring 1855, they returned to and occupied Maya Kicaksa under the wary eyes of their Dakota neighbors.

By that time, the U.S. Land Office in Winona had opened for business. Speculators and bankers in the town had begun to sell and loan military land warrants at steep interest rates. Financing their preemption claims would become a serious problem for the Germany colony.

When a surveyor from Chicago began laying out the town of New Ulm on the site of Maya Kicaksa, the furious Dakota pulled up the survey stakes. Soldiers from Fort Ridgely arrived to protect the colony from Dakota resistance. With the first wheat crop still three years off and scarce barrels of flour selling for twenty dollars, the small community rapidly depleted its resources. By the fall of 1855, the colonists knew they would have to pay for their claims within a year. Temporary help, however, was on the way.

On March 3, Congress had passed the Bounty Land Act of 1855. The act granted thirty-four million acres of Indian land to veterans who had fought in the War of 1812 and other wars. Almost all of the aged veterans and their widows lived in Eastern states and had no use for land west of the Mississippi River. Only one warrant in five hundred was located on new land by a soldier or his heirs. Instead, most warrants were sold to agents of large Wall Street banks and brokerage houses.

Land warrant prices were listed on Wall Street exchanges. The warrants were then sold to local land agents across the country. Over six million acres of Indian land in Minnesota Territory were eventually located by the use of military land warrants. Two-thirds of these were located on Dakota lands before the . The military land warrant rapidly became the primary financial instrument for alienating the Dakota from their homeland.

In the land office towns of Winona and Chatfield, local land agents and bankers bought hundreds of land warrants from Wall Street brokers. In southern Minnesota Territory, land warrants streamed in from the Illinois militia veterans of the Black Hawk War against the Sac and Fox Indians; from New Mexico volunteers who had fought the Apache and Navajo; and from Utah volunteers who had repressed the Ute.

Land warrants were often loaned to struggling farmers at 40 percent to 50 percent interest. This rate came on top of a 40 percent increase on the price of the warrant. Local bankers doubled their money in a year while farmers assumed large debts. With improved farm land as a valuable security for the loans, eastern capitalists hurried to invest. Land office towns became business centers for a growing financial industry.

In early June of 1856, the president and treasurer of the Chicago Land Association made a desperate trip to the Winona Land Office. They lacked the funds to patent all their preemptions but hoped to save the core of their colony.

Traverse des Sioux lawyer Charles Flandreau negotiated with Winona land agents for the purchase of fourteen land warrants. William Thiele, for example, paid for the southwest quarter of section 29 of New Ulm Township with fifty dollars cash and the 120-acre military land warrant awarded to a Seminole War veteran. With the extra purchasing power they also secured the saw-mill quarter section of Milford Township.

The fate of the rest of the colony remained precarious until it was bought out by a larger, better-funded group from Cincinnati. In July, the newly merged German Land Association of Minnesota returned to Winona with enough cash to buy eight more land warrants and secure the rest of the New Ulm town site. Under U.S. law, forty-eight hundred acres of Maya Kicaksa were now the official property of the German colony.

The future of New Ulm, however, depended on the success of the surrounding farms. Without the financial backing of the Land Association, individual farmers faced huge obstacles. Most of them did not have the $1,000 required to purchase land and livestock, build a house, and develop a farm. Borrowing a military land warrant to pay off their preemptions became a grim necessity.

Close to 90 percent of early Brown County farmers were forced by their limited resources to buy their patents with land warrants. By 1860, they had only improved five thousand acres and produced a small first wheat crop of slightly more than six thousand bushels. With the average local farm producing livestock and crops worth less than $140, there was little chance of paying off debts that ranged from $100 to $500.

By the start of the Civil War, half of the area’s farmers had sold out or had their farms foreclosed. While military land warrants had helped the relatively well-financed colonists of New Ulm, they had been a disaster for many of the farmers on which the colony depended.

On August 18, 1862, Dakota warriors seeking retribution for the loss of their homeland attacked towns and farms across the Minnesota River Valley. The attacks marked the start of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. Brown County farmers fled their land and sought safety in New Ulm. The next day the German colony itself was attacked. The surviving farmers and townspeople evacuated on August 25. Within a month the Dakota were defeated and driven out of the region.

After the war, most local farmers returned to their land. By 1870, wheat production in the area exceeded two hundred thousand bushels a year. When the use of military land warrants declined after the passage of the Homestead Act, southern Minnesota banks invested their land warrant profits in flour mills, railroads, and grain warehouses. The European occupation of Maya Kicaksa had exiled its former residents, impoverished thousands of immigrants, and created the capital to develop the business infrastructure of Minnesota.

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Baumler, Edward. Military land warrant 35977. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Charles Eugene Flandrau and family papers, 1850–1935
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: The papers of Charles E. Flandrau, a lawyer and associate justice (1857–1864) of the Minnesota territorial and supreme courts, consist largely of correspondence, invoices, receipts, deeds, and legal documents. Many date from the years 1856–1858, when Flandrau was Indian agent for the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Dakota.

Charles Roos and family papers, 1825–1925
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, financial papers, military and political records, news clippings, legal documents, and miscellaneous records of a prominent New Ulm pioneer family.

Dietrich, Ernst. Military land warrant 39444. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Dobereiner, Johnn [sic]. Military land warrant 19372. Issued on September 7, 1858.

Frick, Elias. Military land warrant 38871. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Fritsche, Louis Albert. History of Brown County: Its People, Industries and Institutions. Marceline, MO: Walsworth, 1976.

Fritsche, Johann Karl. Military land warrant 60644. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

“German Immigrants Founded New Ulm.” New Ulm Daily Journal, August 13, 1954.

Hanggi, Joseph. Military land warrant 36052. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Hibbard, Benjamin H. A History of the Public Land Policies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

History of Wabasha County. Chicago: H. H. Hill, 1884.

Jason C. Easton papers, 1849–1941
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: This massive collection of business records concentrates on the banking and real estate dealings of Easton in southern Minnesota. Easton’s early business success was based primarily on his extensive use of military land warrants. The letters and records detail the huge profits generated by loaning land warrants to desperate farmers.

Jost, Robert Russell. "An Entrepreneurial Study of a Frontier Financier, 1856–1863." PhD thesis, University of Minnesota, 1957.

Kramer, Edward. Military land warrant 21477. Issued on September 7, 1858.

Mack, Peter. “Founding the New Ulm Colony.” Brown County’s Heritage 1, no. 5 (Fall 1959): 5–7.

Meyer, Christian. Military land warrant 63132. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Meyer, Roy W. History of the Santee Sioux. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Minnesota Bureau of Statistics. Minnesota, Its Progress and Capabilities. St. Paul: W.R. Marshall, 1861.

Neill, Edward D., et al. History of the Minnesota Valley. Minneapolis: North Star Publishing, 1882.

Nolle, Franz. Military land warrant 62526. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Pfaff, Andreas. Military land warrant 52403. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Ring, Friedrich. Military land warrant 15162. Issued on September 7, 1858.

Robinson, Edward Van Dyke. Early Economic Conditions and the Development of Agriculture in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1915.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. London: Transaction Publishers, 1991.

Smith, G. Hubert. “A Frontier Fort in Peacetime.” Minnesota History 45, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 116–128.

Stamm, Johannes. Military land warrant 14763. Issued on September 7, 1858.

Stenzel, Bryce O. German Immigration to the Minnesota River Valley Frontier. Mankato, MN: Heritage Publishing, 2002.

Sterlein, Andrew. Military land warrant 329845. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Strasser, J. H. A Chronology of New Ulm, Minnesota, 1853–1899. New Ulm, MN: Elroy E. Ubl, 1978.

Thiele, William. Military land warrant 39292. Issued on July 16, 1858.

Tyler, Alice Felt. “William Pfaender and the Founding of New Ulm.” Minnesota History 30, no. 1 (March 1949): 24–35.

United States Census of Population, 1860, Brown County, Minnesota.

United States Survey Plat, 1855. Township no. 110 N, Range no. 30 W.

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of the founders of New Ulm, ca. 1854.
Black and white photograph of the founders of New Ulm, ca. 1854.
Color illustration of New Ulm, c.1860
Color illustration of New Ulm, c.1860
Black and white photograph of the first real estate office in Minneapolis, c.1855.
Black and white photograph of the first real estate office in Minneapolis, c.1855.
Black and white scan of a military land warrant used by William Thiele to buy part of New Ulm at the Winona Land Office, c.1856 (the patent was issued in 1858).
Black and white scan of a military land warrant used by William Thiele to buy part of New Ulm at the Winona Land Office, c.1856 (the patent was issued in 1858).
Color print of the Dakota leader Ishtakhaba (Sleepy Eye)
Color print of the Dakota leader Ishtakhaba (Sleepy Eye)

Turning Point

In 1855, Congress passes the Military Bounty Land Act. The act gives veterans of American wars land warrants for over 34 million acres of land—the same land they have helped the United States take from American Indians.



The Preemption Act is passed, allowing squatters to claim up to 160 acres of surveyed land. If they inhabit and improve the land, they can buy it for $1.25 per acre.


Dakota Indians cede most of their land in southern Minnesota Territory to the United States, opening the area to immigrant farmers.


Fort Ridgely is established to protect immigrants occupying recently ceded Dakota lands from Dakota living on a nearby reservation.


The U.S. government surveys Milford, New Ulm, and Cottonwood Townships in Brown County to establish boundaries for the transfer of Dakota lands to private citizens.


German immigrants arrive at Maya Kicaksa, a Dakota village, where the Cottonwood River flows into the Minnesota River.


The Winona Land Office opens.


Congress passes the Military Bounty Land Act on March 3, creating land warrants for the purchase of 34 million acres of Indian lands.


When Dakota Indians attempt to prevent the German Land Association of Minnesota surveyor from mapping the plat for New Ulm, soldiers from Fort Ridgely protect the colony.


The founders of New Ulm travel to Winona to purchase their preempted land. Their limited financial resources force them to obtain military land warrants from Winona land agents.


Brown County’s population surges to 2,339. Eighty percent of its lands have been purchased with military land warrants, creating a massive debt load for local farmers.


In May, the Homestead Act grants 160 acres to any citizen who farms the land for five years.


In August, Dakota warriors attack Fort Ridgely and New Ulm during the U.S.–Dakota War. The Dakota are eventually defeated and driven from Minnesota.


European immigrants return to their patented lands.