Hennepin County museum exhibit tells colorful tale of Minneapolis pioneer family

Debra George unearthed a pocket-sized, leather-bound Bible while sifting through family heirlooms in 2015. Inside it, she found that her great-great grandmother, Charlotte McMullen, had tucked a 1914 obituary of her husband, Minneapolis pioneer and onetime ship captain James McMullen.

“That kicked things off,” said George, a St. Paul artist who has blended a dozen collages and artifacts in an exhibit called “Family in Pieces” that opened last month at the Hennepin History Museum.

“I help people explore my family’s history from a variety of viewpoints, as they choose,” said George, 68, a retired financial worker. “The artwork serves to illuminate the stories.”

You couldn’t ask for a more colorful story about one of Minneapolis’ largely forgotten first families.

The son of a Scottish seafarer, James McMullen was born in 1824 in Reading, Pa., and spent his youth sailing the seven seas. He was a 10-year-old cabin boy on his first voyage when a madman swept his father off the deck of their ship, never to be seen again. McMullen spent the next 15 years on merchant ships from the Bering Strait to Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and worked for a while as a Pacific Ocean whaler.

The young McMullen narrowly escaped cannibals while collecting nuts in Chile, and was arrested in Rio de Janeiro for refusing to work on what he learned was a slave ship. He was only 17 when he was the lone survivor in a crew of 27 after a storm wrecked their ship carrying sugar from Cuba to Florida.

Enter Charlotte McNitt, who became his wife of 65 years and the focus of one of George’s collages.

“The influence of a young wife … seems to have been the influence which led the young sailor to abandon the sea and locate himself on the remotest frontier, as far as possible from the seductive influence of the blue sea,” according to an 1893 history of Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

Minnesota Territory was that remote, land-locked outpost. Within a few months of their wedding in 1849 in Maine, the newlyweds followed Charlotte’s sister to St. Anthony. They raised two sons, Albert and Wilbert, the latter of whom was George’s great-grandfather.

“How they met is a mystery,” said George, who will talk about the exhibit Aug. 20 at the Hennepin History Museum in south Minneapolis (tinyurl.com/GeorgeTalk).

In a newspaper clipping decorating one of the collages, James McMullen recalls the days when spitting on the sidewalk could result in a fine, “such as cigars for the crowd.” Charlotte remembers “rough lumberjacks” at polling places, throwing opposition voters out the window until they became too drunk to bother with them.

In St. Anthony, McMullen built winter sleds for lumbermen and used his ship know-how to portage two steamboats around St. Anthony Falls so they could go down the Mississippi River to help the Union cause. After his plan to develop Pine Bend fizzled on the river near Hastings, McMullen operated a saw mill at Lakeland on the St. Croix River.

In 1872, he built a shingle mill on Hennepin Island off Minneapolis, emerging as a leading lumberman despite three fires from 1877 to 1892 that destroyed his mills. He helped build several local firsts — the first steamboat, church and school in Minneapolis and the first brick building in St. Paul. He sat on the St. Anthony City Council and ardently opposed liquor.

McMullen helped organize the local Republican Party in 1856 and took up arms to aid “beleaguered settlers” at the outset of the 1862 US-Dakota War. According to the 1893 biography, McMullen had “a large frame, broad in the shoulders, strong of limb, with a firm tread. … His temperament is genial, though reticent in general conversation.”

McMullen’s death, a month shy of his 90th birthday in 1914, was front-page news in the Minneapolis Tribune. Albert, considered the second white child born in St. Anthony, had died 10 years earlier, and the Tribune reported that the elder McMullen had spent his last decade on crutches and in a wheelchair after injuring his hip. He and Charlotte — who survived him by three years and whose picture George has been unable to find — are buried in unmarked graves at Lakewood Cemetery.

“They are buried near the Pillsburys and Washburns,” George said. “But their stories were almost lost.”

According to Hennepin History Museum spokeswoman Rosella DePietro, the exhibit “takes the viewer on George’s journey of discovery as she learns her family played an instrumental role in the history of the early days of St. Anthony and Minneapolis.”

George told the museum: “Making art became my way of honoring discovered stories about my family history. I hope that this exhibit and my work will inspire others to explore and capture their own stories in their own ways.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strip.mn/MN1918.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: