Joseph R. Brown was a man of many talents

Joseph R. Brown was a frequent visitor to this part of Minnesota. He came here when he was just 13 years old, and enlisted in the U. S. Army as a drummer boy, assigned to work on the construction of Fort Snelling. After six years in the Army, he took a discharge and went to work as a fur trader, setting up shop just outside the fort he’d helped build. For 10 years he worked on his own, trading for furs with the Dakota people who lived near the fort.

Future state governor Henry Sibley, who represented John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, liked what he saw in the young fellow and hired him as a company trader, to deal with the Dakota people who lived along the Minnesota River around Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse.

In 1835, at age 30, he married Susan Frenier. She was the daughter of a French-Canadian father and a Scotch-Dakota mother. The happy couple lived in the Lake Traverse area until the 1840s, when he opened a post on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River in a town he had platted and named “Dakota.” It is now known as Stillwater, Minn. The fur trading there was a successful venture, and Brown could take the time to serve as the justice of the peace for St. Croix County, Wis., and to serve in the Wisconsin legislature.

Two attempts to create the Minnesota Territory out of part of the Wisconsin Territory are credited to the activity of Joseph R. Brown. Eventually, in 1848, 18 men met in Stillwater to organize a territorial convention, aimed at the organization of a Minnesota Territory. Brown was an active figure in that convention and in the ensuing negotiations. Another was H.H. Sibley who had been chosen as a delegate. Only a few days later Abraham Lincoln, then a congressman from Illinois, voted to confirm his position. He also acted as the successful manager for his friend Henry Sibley’s run for the office of the first Governor of Minnesota.

It would almost seem that, with all this activity, he could settle down to hearth and home. But that wasn’t his style. He moved to the Minnesota River town of Henderson, where he built a home, published a newspaper, and tried to modernize another of his enterprises.

As the fur trade slackened, due to the heavy harvesting of beavers, J. Brown started a dray line to help keep Fort Abercrombie, in southeastern North Dakota, supplied as well as carrying on active trading with posts in Canada, His wagon trains were oxen-powered and, at one time, he had barns and service buildings capable of servicing over a hundred oxen, where Lake Lillian now stands. Trade goods would be sent down the Minnesota River from St. Paul to Henderson, where oxen took over. At Fort Abercrombie the goods to be sent on were shipped up the Red River to what is now Winnipeg. Trading stock reversed that pattern for the trip back to St. Paul.

Brown was nothing if not inventive. He was always looking for new things or ways to improve the then current conditions. Travel by oxcart was slow. The carts ran on wooden axles which had to be greased daily, and still they could be heard up to five miles away. He had heard that someone, somewhere had invented a self-powered machine which would (and did) eventually replace oxen. He bought one and had it shipped to Henderson where final assemblage was completed. It could pull a lot of ox carts.

That was quite a day in Henderson when Brown inaugurated his — new delivery service. People came from miles around to see this new marvel. The driver, who came with the machine, fired up the boilers, blew the whistle, and the ox carts started squealing. All went well the first few miles. People walked alongside to see it in action. The action they got came when the machine tried to cross a creek. Halfway across its front wheels sank into the mud and Joseph R Brown’s dreams of new horizons sank with them. Eventually the machine was returned to Henderson; and J. R Brown’s ox carts kept running until new railroad lines put them out of business the 1870s. One of the fur traders at the framing and adoption of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was J. R. Brown. It was he who guided the Dakota into signing the Traders Indenture by which they pledged to pay $90,000.00 in debts to the fur traders and served in that capacity until 1861. He was also one of the three men who, in 1849, formed the Democratic Party. In 1851 he led a delegation of Sioux leaders to Washington, D.C. where negotiations led to the Sioux.