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When the first edition of the Minneapolis Tribune rolled off the press 150 years ago, the newly minted state of Minnesota was having the largest population boom in its history, and many of the institutions and industries that became vital to the state's future were in their formative years.

Historical accounts make it clear that the 1860s was a pivotal decade for Minnesota, so we tapped into census data from 1860 and 1870 to take a deeper look. Thanks to the Minnesota Population Center's National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS), we have easy access to data and map files, all the way back to the first U.S. census in 1790.

Minnesota doesn't show up in that data until 1850, when it was still a territory. Census takers at that time counted just over 6,000 people.

Fast forward a decade — two years after Minnesota gained statehood — and the population had reached more than 172,000. By 1870, it surpassed 400,000.

The rapid growth came not long after treaties with American Indian tribes that resulted in the government taking tribal lands, and after the end of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The big factor in population growth was the Homestead Act of 1862, which made public lands cheaply available to any "citizen or intending citizen," provided they lived on the land for at least five years.

It also helped when railroad construction projects that had been delayed due to the Civil War finally brought lines into Minnesota and as far as Mankato by 1868. Because of the lack of roads and railroads, the primary source of transportation until then had been on the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.

As of 1870, more than half the population lived in 15 counties that sit along those rivers.

"The economic wealth of the state was building," said Brian Pease of the Minnesota Historical Society, talking about the 1860s. "A whole new generation of people were coming in here to start forming what Minneapolis and the state would eventually become."

Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and other Europeans — including many who had settled previously in northeastern states — flooded into Minnesota to stake their claims.

The majority of Minnesotans documented in the 1870 census were born somewhere else, particularly other countries. It's a stark contrast to today's population.

As you might expect, about 80 percent of the children were born in the United States. About 54 percent of the adults were born in another country.

The vast majority of those born in other countries (regardless of age) came from Germany, Norway or Sweden.

The census data clearly show Minnesota was far more homogeneous than it is now. Census takers in 1870 documented race as "white," "colored," "Chinese" or "Indian." Nearly everybody in the state was identified as white. About 750 people were identified as colored.

They also counted just shy of 700 American Indians — about 70 percent fewer than they had in the previous census. Most of that decline is likely due to one of the darkest periods in state history — the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 that led to a mass hanging of 38 Dakota men, and internment and mass exodus of thousands of other Dakota.

It's also likely that the counts were low in both decades. Pease, of the Minnesota Historical Society, noted that in 1870, census-takers probably only counted "friendly" Indians. In other words, those who were adapting to white culture.

Other 1870 data sheds light on what Minnesotans were doing.

About 75,000 people reported being employed in agriculture, by far the largest share of jobs. And there were about 46,000 farms, mostly between 20 and 100 acres each.

In 1870, Minnesota produced the third-largest volume of spring wheat — 18 million bushels — among the U.S. states and territories. Minnesota's wheat production (both spring and winter wheat) was nine times larger than what had been reported a decade earlier.

Large-scale farming on tracts of 1,000 acres or more began as early as the 1870s. Here, harvesting on the James J. Hill farm at Northcote in about 1890.
Large-scale farming on tracts of 1,000 acres or more began as early as the 1870s. Here, harvesting on the James J. Hill farm at Northcote in about 1890.

Picture Magazine; Minneapolis Sunday Tribune archives

This was about the time that flour mills started to replace sawmills along the banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis. Technological advances in plowing and flour milling, particularly in milling spring wheat, helped Minneapolis become the flour capital of the United States — the Mill City — about a decade later.

Minnesota was also doing well in the number of schools. In 1870, the census counted just over 2,400 schools across all grade levels including college. On a per-capita basis, that put Minnesota among the top 10 states.

There were 866 churches crossing 15 denominations — 225 Methodist congregations, followed by Roman Catholic and Lutheran as the most common.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that the 1870 census also gathered data on newspapers and other periodicals, finding six daily newspapers and 89 other periodicals, mostly weeklies, in Minnesota.

We assume that the Minneapolis Tribune, one of the papers that eventually became the Star Tribune, was one of those six dailies. It published its first issue on May 25, 1867.

The number of periodicals in Minnesota was nothing compared to New York state, which had more than 800 periodicals, including 87 daily newspapers. But on a per-capita basis, the two states were pretty much on par, each having two periodicals for every 10,000 people.