This two-part series was made possible thanks to financial support from the Minnesota Historical Society and St. Croix 360’s readers.
In the summer of 1836, William Henry Carman (W.H.C.) Folsom was sitting in Stillwater, wondering what to do with his life. He was in Stillwater, Maine, not Stillwater, Minnesota — which was only founded a few years later. The 19-year-old Folsom was free after several years working in New England’s lumber camps and farms and was figuring out his next move. He soon set out for far off lands.
Seeking fortune and adventure, Folsom headed for what was then called “The Northwest.” Today, it’s the upper Midwest, but in the early 19th century, Minnesota and Wisconsin represented the wild frontier to white settlers.
He embarked on a long journey west, which really only ended 19 years later, when he built a home in Taylors Falls, Minn. He lived the remaining 45 years of his life there. The house still stands as a museum that offers a glimpse into Folsom’s historic life, still furnished with items Folsom and his family used. This year saw a major restoration and preservation project completed.
Folsom spent most of his years and more than half the 19th century in the St. Croix River region, an observer and participant in its assimilation into the United States. He carefully chronicled its settlement and development.
“Folsom is fascinating because he was both a maker of history and a recorder of history,” says Chad Thurman, site manager with the Taylors Fall Historical Society.
This historian left many of his own stories. A jack-of-many-trades, he farmed, owned stores and a hotel, invested in lumbering, real estate, copper mining, and the first bridge to span either the St. Croix or Mississippi Rivers. He helped organize one of the first courts and served in Minnesota’s constitutional convention and legislature. He operated freight lines over river and road, helped found at least one cemetery, and supported the first Methodist church built in the state.
And he documented much of it. A student of history who understood his role in it, Folsom saved newspaper clippings and many other historical documents, and wrote books, articles, and lectures. His magnum opus was the 900-page regional history and memoir, “Fifty Years in the Northwest,” published by the Pioneer Press Company in 1888.
The book documented his life during perhaps the fastest changes in the history of the St. Croix Valley, before or after. And his story persists in Taylors Falls, where his home still stands as a historic site.
From Maine to the Mississippi
Folsom was born in New Brunswick, Canada, but spent most of his formative years in Maine. He went to school until age 10, and then went to work for loggers and farmers. Most of his income went to his father, and it was only when he was able to save up $250 to pay off the patriarch that he could go forth freely.
Without waiting long, he embarked on a journey across half the continent, unexpectedly on his own when a companion backed out at the last minute. He traversed indigenous homelands and a nascent nation, venturing from the industrializing East Coast to the fringes of white settlement.
“I was obliged to set out alone, no light undertaking at that early day, for as yet there were no long lines of railroad between Maine and the Mississippi River,” he wrote.
W.H.C. Folsom’s Migration to the Northwest, 1836-1850
Click the maps to see full size.
The approximately 2,300-mile journey took 30 days and at least 10 vehicles of six different types: He traveled by steamboat and sailing ship, stagecoach and train, and traversed the state of New York in a boat pulled by horses on the Erie Canal. (His canal travels would later influence his work on the St. Croix River, where he was an early proponent of forming a canal to connect the St. Croix to Lake Superior.)
Crossing Lake Huron by brig, the ship was caught by a vicious storm, but Folsom seemed to most fear the crew and his fellow passengers. The captain ordered barrels of liquor thrown overboard to lighten the load — but they kept a couple, which were opened to one and all.
“They dipped the liquor up in pails and drank it out of handled dippers. They got ingloriously drunk; they rolled unsteadily across the deck; they quarreled, they fought, they behaved like Bedlamites, and how near shipwreck was the goodly brig from that day’s drunken debauch in Chicago free liquor will never be known,” Folsom wrote.
Somehow, they made it to the village of Chicago, and his journey culminated by literally reaching the end of the (stagecoach) line in Milwaukee. With no other travel options, he traversed what is now Wisconsin on foot. When Folsom carefully crossed the barely frozen Mississippi River in December 1836, he felt he had finally reached the frontier.
“I was now at the end of my journey, on the west bank of the Mississippi, beyond which stretched a vast and but little known region, inhabited by Indians and wild beasts,” Folsom wrote.
The West was not actually a wilderness, of course, but home to many native civilizations and a rich ecosystem. Folsom’s journey had crossed the lands of at least 60 indigenous peoples, and he eventually settled in the homelands of the Anishinabewaki and the Dakota, Wahpekute Lakota and the Sac and Fox Tribes, the Ho-Chunk and Winnebago. (Learn more at native-lands.ca.)
But to him, he had arrived at the edge of civilization. The St. Croix Valley, which he wouldn’t reach for another eight years, was not even open to settlement yet. He saw the frontier as a blank canvas on which to draw his life.
Toils and tribulations
Folsom spent the first part of the winter in Dubuque, Iowa, which he later described as “certainly the worst town in the West, and, in a small way, the worst in the whole country.” (Sorry, Dubuque.) It was a mining rush town, with all the drunkenness and violence typically found in such places. One intoxicated miner shot at Folsom, and the author was only spared because an innkeeper swatted the pistol away.
He found work operating a bellows at a smelter, and then cut and delivered 50 cords of firewood for a brick maker’s kiln — for which he was never paid. Within a couple months, Folsom was on the road again, striking out for Prairie du Chien in February 1837.
In that settlement, Folsom worked a season cutting hay and harvesting crops for a U.S. Army fort, and then continued his travels. He had planned a tour and survey of the frontier before picking a place to settle permanently, and still wanted to see the South. He set off down the Mississippi River, first by birchbark canoe and then steamer to New Orleans, and then Vicksburg, Mississippi.
But Folsom did not stay long. He stumbled across the realities of a slave economy. As a white man, he couldn’t find work.
“I was in the South, where the labor was chiefly done by negroes,” he wrote. Not only that, people seemed to look at him askance simply for being a single white northerner looking for employment.
Folsom turned around and headed back north, with nary a penny to his name, returning to Prairie du Chien after five months away. He then set about farming, spending two years raising crops that could be sold to the Army, his ambitions hampered by a recurring fever.
In 1840, after four years away from Maine, writing and receiving occasional letters from family, he went back home.
Eager to see family and friends, Folsom might have also had another motivation. Single women were certainly few on the frontier, and marrying must have been part of his plan for settling in the west. While in Maine, he wedded Mary Jane Wyman, and she returned with him to Prairie du Chien — his partner and companion for the rest of their lives.
As Folsom strove to make his mark and his money in this land of rich resources ready for exploitation, he was often away from home, and depended heavily on Mary Jane. A house they built in that city is a designated national historic site.
“During their time in Prairie du Chien, he sort of got her very involved to the point of exhaustion,” says Thurman. ”She ran a boarding house and he’d be gone for months. It did eventually affect her health, which was one of the main reasons for moving northwards.”
In 1844, the Folsoms got on the Steamboat Highland Mary and headed upstream. They rode 175 miles up the Mississippi and then turned right at Philander Prescott’s new trading post, site of the town that today bears his name.
They had made it to the St. Croix River.
Historic home marked finish line for St. Croix Valley settler’s long journey
After 19 years on the move, W.H.C. Folsom built a home in Taylors Falls and stayed busy making Minnesota history and writing about it.