Back to top

Brown, Joseph Renshaw (1805–1870)

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Black and white photograph of Joseph Renshaw Brown, c.1863. Photograph by Hirsch Brothers.

Joseph Renshaw Brown, c.1863. Photograph by Hirsch Brothers.

During his five decades in Minnesota, Joseph R. Brown was a significant figure in territorial and state politics. Although he never held high office, he exercised great influence on how the region developed. His ability to produce legislative results earned him the nickname “Jo the Juggler.”

Joseph Renshaw Brown was born on January 5, 1805, in York, Pennsylvania. At age fifteen, while a printer’s apprentice, he ran away to join the army. He was sent to Cantonment New Hope, a predecessor of Fort Snelling, on the edge of the American occupation of the continent. In 1828, aged twenty three, he was discharged from the army. For the next ten years he worked in the fur trade, often as far west as Lake Traverse. His three marriages (with two divorces) to mixed-race women produced invaluable ties to Dakota and Ojibwe communities.

When the Dakota ceded their country east of the Mississippi River to the U.S., Brown was one of the first to stake a claim. In 1838, he moved his family and several business partners to Grey Cloud Island, then part of Wisconsin Territory, where he built a store and farm. He plunged into Wisconsin politics as if he had been practicing for years. His experiences as a lobbyist and legislator in Madison and as a county official, justice of the peace, and election fixer prepared him well for an influential role in Minnesota.

When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the territory west of the St. Croix River was left in a legal void. Brown organized and chaired the key Stillwater Convention, which sent Henry H. Sibley to Washington to persuade Congress to organize Minnesota Territory.

During Minnesota’s territorial days, Brown became a celebrity. He moved to St. Paul and was secretary and bill writer in the first Minnesota Territorial Council. He was then elected to both the Council and House and edited the influential Minnesota Pioneer. In 1851, he was instrumental in making the treaties with the Dakota that opened up southern Minnesota Territory to white immigration. At Traverse des Sioux, Brown had Dakota leaders sign a controversial document that acknowledged their debts and authorized direct payments to the traders.

Brown was a delegate to the 1857 constitutional convention and helped draft the Minnesota state constitution. As Sibley’s campaign manager, he worked to elect his old friend the state’s first governor. A life-long Democrat, he was rewarded for party service by being made Indian Agent to the Sioux (Dakota) in 1857. In this role, he engineered the 1858 treaty by which the Dakota ceded the northern part of their reservation. He also promoted a vigorous “civilization” program that pressured the Dakota to rely on farmed crops and livestock for food.

After Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858, Brown slipped quietly out of politics and into speculation. He ran a transportation business that centered on his Minnesota River town site of Henderson. He operated a steamboat and stage line connecting Henderson with St. Paul and contracted to haul freight to Fort Ridgely and the Dakota agencies. In 1860, he brought to town a “steam wagon” to pull freight wagon trains over the prairies in place of oxen. In 1862, he pioneered another steam-wagon route from Nebraska to the Colorado goldfields.

When the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862 began, Brown hurried to rescue his captive family. He joined Sibley, now the commander of an army against the combatant Dakota, as an aide. He commanded the scouting and burial detail that was attacked at Birch Coulee, and he was later superintendent of the Dakota prison at Mankato.

Brown participated in the 1863 and 1864 punitive expeditions against the Dakota as major in charge of the scouts. He was appointed a commissioner to conduct peace overtures with the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota who had not been involved in the war. His objective during the postwar period was to gain official recognition of those Dakotas’ non-combatant status, and to restore their prewar benefits.

Brown and Gabriel Renville worked together to bring about the Sisseton-Wahpeton Treaty of 1867. Afterward, Brown retired to a stock farm at Browns Valley and began work on another steam wagon venture. The third model was just being finished when he died in New York City in 1870 at age sixty-five.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Gillfillan, Charles D. “Early Political History of Minnesota.” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 9 (1901): 167–180.

Goodman, Robert and Nancy. Joseph R. Brown, Adventurer on the Minnesota Frontier 1820–1849. Rochester, MN: Lone Oak Press, 1996.

Joseph R. Brown: Minnesota River Center.

Kappler, Charles J. Indian Affairs, Law and Treaties. Vol. 2 Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904.

Joseph R. and Samuel J. Brown and family papers, undated and 1826–1956
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Personal papers of the prominent Minnesotan Joseph Renshaw Brown, his son Samuel Jerome Brown, and other members of the Brown family.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The Joseph R. Brown House.

Newsom, Thomas. Pen Pictures of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Biographical Sketches of Old Settlers. St. Paul: The author, 1886.

Treaties Matter. Relations: Dakota and Ojibwe Treaties, 1858 Land Cession with the Dakota.

Williams, John Fletcher. “Memoir of Joseph R. Brown.” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 3 (1880): 201–212.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Joseph Renshaw Brown, c.1863. Photograph by Hirsch Brothers.
Black and white photograph of Joseph Renshaw Brown, c.1863. Photograph by Hirsch Brothers.
Black and white photoprint of Joseph Renshaw Brown photographed c.1860.
Black and white photoprint of Joseph Renshaw Brown photographed c.1860.
Black and white photograph of Treaty Delegation, 1858.
Black and white photograph of Treaty Delegation, 1858.

Turning Point

After spending nearly twenty years in the Upper Mississippi Valley living by his wits as a soldier, trader, and entrepreneur, in 1839 Brown begins a career in politics—first as a lobbyist and then as a representative in the Wisconsin Territorial legislature.



Joseph Renshaw Brown is born on January 5 to Methodist Episcopal preacher Samuel Brown and Emily Renshaw Brown in York County, Pennsylvania.


At age fifteen, apprenticed to a printer in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, Brown runs away to Philadelphia to enlist in the army and is sent with the Fifth Regiment recruits to Fort Snelling. Being underage, he is mustered in on July 25 as a musician.


Brown leaves the army to become a fur trader with the Ho Chunk, Sac and Fox, Dakota, and Ojibwe at locations in present-day Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.


Brown settles on Grey Cloud Island in Washington County with his third wife, Susan Frenier; his father-in-law, Akipa Renville; and his ward, Gabriel Renville, Susan’s half-brother. He receives a commission as Justice of the Peace in Wisconsin Territory.


As the white immigrants’ lobbyist, Brown promotes a new local government in St. Croix County, Wisconsin Territory. His town site of Dacotah (now Stillwater) becomes the county seat.


When Minnesota is left out of the state of Wisconsin, Brown organizes the Stillwater Convention which sends Henry Sibley to Washington to lobby for the creation of Minnesota Territory. With Brown’s help, Sibley is elected a Wisconsin Territorial Delegate.


Brown is influential at the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, which open up southern Minnesota to white immigration. He has the Dakota sign the controversial Traders’ Paper, which authorizes making payments for Dakota debts directly to traders.


He founds Henderson, a town at the practical head of navigation on the Minnesota River and positioned on a proposed territorial road to the Missouri River, as the hub of a freighting business to Fort Ridgely, the Indian agencies, and beyond.


Brown edits and publishes the Minnesota Pioneer newspaper in St. Paul; later he edits the Pioneer and Democrat and establishes the Henderson Democrat in Henderson.


Brown begins two years of service as a member of the Minnesota Territorial Council.


Brown serves in the Minnesota Territorial House, is a member of the state constitutional convention, and is appointed Indian Agent to the Sioux (Dakota).


Brown takes part in the battles of Birch Coulee and Wood Lake, is reunited with his captured family at Camp Release, leads an expedition to the James River to locate combatant Dakota, and serves as superintendent of the Dakota prison at Mankato.


Acting as chief guide and scout, Brown participates in the first of a series of military expeditions to the Missouri River. He is commissioned to negotiate a peace with the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota.


Special Agent Brown takes a delegation of Sisseton and Wahpeton to Washington to make a treaty that recognizes their noncombatant status, restores their rights, and establishes reservations on the Coteau des Prairies and at Devils Lake.


On November 9, Brown dies unexpectedly in New York City. He is buried in Brown Cemetery in Henderson.