History of Ramsey County

Founded October 27, 1849

For its first 100 years as a political entity, the history of Ramsey County was mostly the history of Saint Paul, the county seat and the capital of Minnesota.

Fort Snelling, positioned nearby at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, dates from 1820, a time when the area’s Euro-American inhabitants depended on the fur trade with local Native Americans such as the Mdewakanton Dakota for their livelihoods.

Then a few hardy people who were not welcome at the fort established a small community on the river about three miles to the south. Here a French-Canadian voyageur named Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant had set up shop. In 1840 the newly ordained Father Lucien Galtier arrived to minister to the community and in the following year he named this place “Saint Paul”.

After the Minnesota Territory was formally established in the spring of 1849, settlers began to arrive. Nine counties were created later that year with the original Ramsey County boundary including all of the present-day counties of Ramsey, Anoka, Isanti, Kanabec and part of Washington, Pine, Carlton, Aitkin, Mille Lacs and Hennepin. The county’s non-Indian population was 2,187.

Saint Paul’s prominence was aided by its location at the head of steamboat navigation on the Mississippi River. Flooding into Saint Paul by steamboat, many newcomers settled in the city, but others established farms on the rich soil in northern Ramsey County. Many of these newcomers were French Canadians, but soon Yankees, Germans, a small number of Jews and African Americans, and immigrants from Ireland settled here. Some lived alongside resident Native Americans.

The rise of the railroads after the Civil War made Saint Paul the transportation center of the Upper Midwest, with Union Depot serving as a lively hub after it opened in 1881. By the end of the century, an enormous network of rails linked the city with Chicago and the Pacific coast and the influence of railroad operations touched nearly every person and corner of the county.

Railroads also helped villages to spring up in support of the rural economy. White Bear Lake dates to the 1850s. Roseville was founded in the 1870s; North Saint Paul in the late 1880s; and New Brighton in 1887. Through the 1920s the county had a diverse industrial and agricultural economy, as well as many public-sector jobs available by virtue of its status as the seat of government for both the state and county. Today the State CapitolSaint Paul City Hall–Ramsey County Courthouse, and Landmark Center all serve as vital connectors between the distant past and the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Saint Paul once ranked fifth in the nation in beer production until the enacting of Prohibition in 1919 with the Volstead Act. Championed by Representative Andrew Volstead from Saint Paul, Prohibition crippled the local brewing economy.

A decade later the Great Depression began and like elsewhere around the nation the local economy struggled. Wartime spending during World War II combined with the prosperity of the 1950s helped the county regain its vitality. At the same time, the farms that had once dotted northern Ramsey County slowly disappeared and the communities in that area grew into suburbs, such as Maplewood, which was incorporated in 1957.

By the 1950s, Saint Paul had become a winter residence for seasonal Hispanic workers who had been recruited from Mexico, Texas, and elsewhere to harvest sugar beets on the vast farms in western Minnesota. Over time, these newcomers flourished and made the county their permanent home, often finding jobs on the railroads or in the meat-packing plants.

Interstate highway construction followed in the 1960s. These massive projects had their costs, however, which included the destruction of the prosperous Rondo community, home to many African-American residents and businesses.

In the 1970s, the makeup of Ramsey County’s population began to shift with the arrival of refugees fleeing the warfare in Southeast Asia. By 2000, Asians, including Hmong, Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians were Saint Paul’s largest minority with African Americans, Hispanics, and Latinos close behind. Then other newcomers arrived from Somalia, central Africa and Myanmar. In the 2010 U.S. census, Ramsey County had the most diverse population of any county in Minnesota, 30 percent of its population of 508,640 were non-white. Today the county’s population tops 540,000 and includes residents with heritages that can be traced to nearly every country in the world.

Now in its 168th year, diversity in all aspects of life in Ramsey County — including population, geography, economy, civics and culture — continues to make it a vital and exciting place to live, work and gather as a community.

This short history was written by John M. Lindley, editor, Ramsey County Historical Society. The Ramsey County Historical Society offers programs for children and adults at the Gibbs Farm: Pathways to Dakota & Pioneer Life; publishes award-winning books and magazines; and preserves and makes available to the public unique archival and artifact collections through its Mary Livingston Griggs & Mary Griggs Burke Research Center.