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History of Hennepin County and The City of Minneapolis, 1881. North Star Publishing

Page 635

STEELE, Franklin The following memoir, by Rev. E. D. Neill, was read at the meeting 6f the department of American History of the State Historical Society, in October, 1880. " In memoriam: Franklin Steele. This evening we assemble under the shadow of a sudden and painful loss. Among the twenty-five or thirty present at the September meeting of this department of the State Historical Society, he who attracted the most attention by his fine presence and in any form was its chairman, Franklin Steele. Those who saw him on that evening, in perfect health, presiding so courteously, yet unobtrusively, can with difficulty realize that on the third night after, he was silenced by death, and that in less than a week his lifeless body was carried to its last resting place in the beautiful cemetery which overlooks the capital of the republic. Not only as a life member of the Minnesota Historical Society , and chairman of the department of American History, but as one of the founders of the commonwealth of Minnesota; is he deserving of some brief memorial.

While the French were still occupying the valley of the Allegheny, the region between the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers, in Pennsylvania, was fast filling up with industrious farmers from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. Among the hardy men who found homes in what is now Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, was the paternal ancestor of Franklin Steele, and the wife of this pioneer was of Scotch descent. Frugal and persevering. they raised a large family, and four sons, at least, attained manhood.

Archibald served under the lamented Montgomery in 1775, in the expedition against Quebec, and during the revolution became deputy quarter-master general for the troops of the western. division of the army in Pennsylvania.

John, who was born in the town of Lancaster, was about seventeen years of age and going to school when the thrilling news arrived that the farmers near Lexington had peppered the British soldiery from Boston, with the contents of their fowling pieces. It stirred the blood of this boy, and soon he was found enlisted in the war for independence. At the battle of Brandywine, in September, 1777, he received in his shoulder what was supposed for a time to be a fatal wound. On one occasion he swam across the Delaware, while ice was floating, with orders tied in a silk handkerchief around his head. Although benumbed, he reached the Jersey shore, and gave an alarm, which baffled the enemy. In March, 1778, Lieutenant John Steele was recommended to the executive council of Pennsylvania as "an officer well qualified to recruit in Lancaster county."

William was a third son, and a letter is preserved which was written by John to his brother, dated Morristown, New Jersey, June 4th, 1780, and from which is this extract: "I at present enjoy myself incomparably well in the family of Mrs. Washington, whose guard I have had the lion or to command, since the absence of the general, and the rest of the family, which is now six or seven, days. I am happy in the importance of my charge, as well as in the presence of the most amiable woman on earth, and whose character, should I attempt to describe, I could not do justice to, but will only say that I think it is unextionable."

James, a fourth son, was the father of the subject of this memoir. During the war of 1812 he was inspector general of Pennsylvania, and had represented his follow citizens in the legislature. Subsequently he was an enterprising citizen in the valley of the Octorara, the stream which separates Chester and Lancaster counties. Engaged in farming, owning a store, a flour and cotton mill, he was the center of a neighborhood.

Franklin Steele, in 1813 was born at his fathers residence near the western boundary line in Chester county, and as he approached manhood, was actuated by the laudable ambition to depend upon his own exertions, and obtained a position in the Lancaster post-office. In this place he was brought in contact with James Buchanan, after-wards president, and others who had known his father, and also liked him for his own cheerful spirit. From the desire to act well his part in life, he looked toward the distant west as a broader and more rapid field for development. In view of the treaties about to be made with the Chippewa and Sioux Indians for the lands between the St. Croix and Mississippi. Franklin Steele, and two or three others, in the summer of 1837; in a birch-bark canoe propelled by eight men, left the mouth of the Minnesota river and descending the Mississippi, entered the St. Croix and ascending to its falls, laid claim to the valuable water-power by erecting a claim cabin of logs.

After General Dodge made a treaty with the Chippewas at Fort Snelling, a delegation of Sioux were taken by the Indian agent at Fort Snelling to Washington, and there they also, on the 27th of September, 1837, signed a treaty by which the pine forests of Minnesota were effectually opened to the axe of the lumberman.

Mr. Steele passed the winter of 1838 at Washington and elsewhere, but on the evening of the 18th of June, on the steamboat Burlington, arrived at Fort Snelling. Among his fellow passengers were Capt. Maryatt, of the British navy, the well-known novelist, and a number of others, ladies as well as gentlemen. With them, he rode out for pleasure to the Falls of St. Anthony, then the ultima thule a point at which he was destined to erect the first permanent structure, and in which, after it became a city of forty-eight thousand inhabitants, he was suddenly to die.

On the 20th of June, the steamboat Ariel arrived at Fort Snelling, and one of the passengers said that the senate had ratified the treaty, but it was not until the 15th of July, that the Palmyra brought the official notice.

Mr. Steele now made another trip to the falls of St. Croix and on the 16th of August he came back to the fort. Disposing of his interests at the falls of St. Croix, he turned his attention to the development of the claim at the falls of St. Anthony, and in 1838 engaged a man to cultivate six or eight acres there, the land having not yet been surveyed. It was not until 1848 that there was a sale of lands by the government, and this year he completed the first saw-mill on the east side of the falls.

In 1851 he secured a site for the preparatory department of the University of Minnesota, and was the largest contributor toward the erection of the first academic building. The academy was opened in October, 1851, and until destroyed by fire stood in the east division park, opposite the stone edifice now owned by Macalester College.

After the treaties of 1851, settlers began to dwell on the prairie on the west side of the falls of St. Anthony, and in a few years were more numerous than those on the east side. With an abiding faith that in time, the roar of a great city would drown the "voice of many waters," Mr. Steele, before patents were issued from the general land office at Washington for the land on the west side, contracted for the swinging of a wire suspension bridge over the Mississippi, just above the cataract, the first bridge of any description , which spanned the great river from Lake Itasca to the gulf of Mexico.

After its completion, the Minnesota legislature in the winter of 1855, adjourned for one day to be present at the formal opening of the artistic structure, which for years was not only a great thoroughfare for immigrants, but admired by travelers and tourists as a thing of beauty. About this time his name was appropriately given by the state to one of the counties made out of the lands which had been ceded by the Sioux.

The month of August, 1862, can never be forgotten by the settlers of Minnesota. The Sioux, taking advantage of the civil war that was then raging, rose like demons incarnate, and without warning began to attack the settlements of the Minnesota river, and murder and scalp defense- less women and children. Volunteers from St. Paul and Minneapolis hurried to the scene of slaughter, and Mr. Steele followed as soon as possible with the necessary supplies. The drivers of the supply trains at length faltered and said they dared not go on, when Mr. Steele, with characteristic quietness and efficiency, headed the column, riding in an open buggy, night and day, and restored confidence.

In April, 1843, he was married, in Baltimore, by the Rev. Dr. Wyatt, to Anna, daughter of William C. Barney, and grand-child of Commodore Barney of the United States navy, and also of Samuel Chase, the Maryland states-man, one of the signers of the declaration of independence, afterwards judge of the supreme court of the United States.

With his bride he came to Fort Snelling when it was surrounded by Indians, and in his wilder-ness home he always exhibited a generous hospitality. As his daughters began to grow up, he felt it desirable to have a family residence where they could obtain a proper education, and during the latter years of his life he passed the winters in Washington, but always spoke of Minnesota as home.

Unobtrusiveness was a marked characteristic of our late associate. His voice was not beard in the streets. Persons would associate with him for months in the midst of this city, and would never think that he had a right to say "Quorum magna pars fui." But while retiring he was affable. A gentleman by instinct, be avoided topics and allusions which would be painful to those with whom he conversed.

Among those in whom he had confidence he loved to indulge in pleasantry. By prosperity he was not puffed. Weak human nature is often made very stiff and consequential by an increase of this world's goods, but he showed none of that disagreeable consciousness which money gives to some people. No poor man was ever humiliated in his presence. Of an inquiring mind, with good perceptive powers, interested in public questions, and holding social intercourse every winter with some of the best men of the republic, he was able to impart valuable information and engage in agreeable conversation. Thrown much of his life-time with frontiersmen, he admired their energy, but did not adopt their standards. He did not soil his mouth with coarse, profane or indecent utterances. The slang of the roaring fellows in a loggers' camp, or at a military post had no charms.

While the soul is immortal and more valuable than the mortal body which encases it, yet the Hebrews acknowledged that it was a privilege to have a fine physical presence. The sacred writers turned aside from mightier matters to mention that there was not among the Children of Israel a "goodlier person" than Saul, who from his shoulders upward was higher than any of the people, and that David "was ruddy and withal of a beautiful countenance." The Subject of our memoir was excelled by few in the symmetry of his physical development. As a young man his presence was noticeable. An old army officer saw him conversing with a young lady at a party given by a member of congress in Washington He asked his name and when told that he was from what was then called distant Iowa Territory, he replied: "No matter where he resides; God never made a finer form."

An old English writer, speaking of a statesman of the days of James I., wrote: "As Ammianus describes a well-shaped man: 'Ab ipso capite, usque, ad ungitim summitates recta erat lineal mentorum compagel'; 'from the naits of the fingers, nay, from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, there was no blemish in him.' And yet his carriage, and every stoop of his deportment, more than his excellent form, were the beauty of his beauty.' Does not this description recall the late chairman of this department of the Minnesota Historical Society? At our meeting in September no one could have looked upon his clear-cut features, his fine expression, his manly, erect and matured form, without feeling that he was endowed with a frame superior to most men. "Death found strange beauty on that polished brow, and dashed it out."

After breakfast on the 9th of September, he was riding with an acquaintance, when he was seized with dizziness. Soon after he lost consciousness; and at an early hour next morning, while it was yet dark, in the presence of a brother and a son and a few friends, his spirit departed to his God. A beloved wife and a portion of his family hastened to his side, but not until the heart ceased to beat did they arrive. Lovingly ,and tenderly the widow carried his lifeless form in a special car, surrounded by her two sons and three of her daughters, to the family residence at Georgetown, and on Thursday afternoon, the 16th ult., his body was borne to St. John's Church, Washington, D. C., where the family had attended, and services were conducted by the Rev. Mr. Carke, assisted by the Rev. Mr. Lindsay, of Georgetown.

The same hymns that had been sung at the services in Minneapolis were sung there, and the same flowers which loving friends laid on his coffin in his son's parlor in this city, were also used. The church was filled with citizens of Washington, who had learned to respect the quiet, gentle man. From the church he was borne to Oak Hills cemetery and placed in his last resting place, next to the grave of his daughter's husband, the, historic commander of the Cumberland in the memorable conflict of Hampton Roads.

It will be long before his friends and his family will forget Franklin Steele: To live in hearts we leave behind Is not to die. After the reading of the memorial, on motion of W. W. McNair, resolutions of respect were adopted."