Up From Slavery: How early settler James Thompson became a pillar of St. Paul

Kaposia, where Thompson worked with missionary Alfre Brunson, watercolor by painter Seth Eastman ca.1846-1848 // Photo via MNHS

In 1849, James Thompson, a citizen of St. Paul, donated the lumber and shingles necessary to construct the city’s first Methodist church. The small brick structure, erected on Market Street, near Rice Park—then little more than a cow pasture—symbolized the stability and sobriety that residents hoped would someday flourish in their community, the newly designated capital of Minnesota Territory, signed into being by President James Polk earlier that year.

In fact, the city was a rough and wild place, a boomtown whose infrastructure had yet to catch up with its rocketing population. A jumble of motley shacks—some with bark roofs—lay scattered over the high bluffs, but many residents slept in tents or wagons. One visitor arriving by boat up the Mississippi River in 1849 counted two large wood-framed hotels under construction. “They will have a great deal of work to do here,” he remarked, “before they will have things as they should be.”

Thompson, however, saw St. Paul as a place of opportunity. He owned and operated a ferry, worked as a carpenter, and bought and sold property in the city. He was a founding member of the Old Settlers’ Society, which honored him in 1871 for his community contributions. In St. Paul and the surrounding region, Thompson was in fact quite well-known: He was the city’s first resident of African descent and had arrived in Minnesota in 1827 enslaved to a white man.

The price of freedom

Born in Virginia, where slave-owning was legal, around 1799, Thompson grew up in the household of George Monroe, the nephew of President James Monroe. Sold to pay off a gambling debt, Thompson became the property of a military supplier, John Culbertson, who brought him to Fort Snelling in 1827 and eventually sold him to a military officer. “Although slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787,” notes one historian, “no apparent effort was made at this early date to enforce it on the distant frontier.” In 1833, Thompson married Marpiyawecasta, the daughter of prominent Dakota leader, only to be separated from her three years later, when his owner, Captain William Day, was reassigned to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien.

The West was particularly attractive to two types of white men: those who sought adventure and those who sought converts. In 1837, Connecticut-born missionary Alfred Brunson and his family arrived in Prairie du Chien, intending to preach Christianity to the local tribe—only to discover they couldn’t speak the band’s language. He needed a translator, and when word reached him that Thompson had learned the Dakota language from his wife, Brunson devised a scheme to buy the slave’s freedom and hire him as an interpreter. On March 14, 1837, with funds from Methodist abolitionists back east, Brunson purchased Thompson—a man he deemed pious and quite intelligent for $1,200 and immediately signed his deed of emancipation.

Brunson and Thompson traveled up the Mississippi and set up a mission at the Dakota village of Kaposia, a few miles downstream from Fort Snelling. Initially welcomed by local leaders, the mission thrived. By 1839, however, things had fallen apart. Brunson abandoned his post for a new assignment and Thompson, now reunited with Marpiyawecasta, settled near Fort Snelling and for a brief time sold whiskey to the locals and Native Americans alongside other bootleggers like Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. In 1840, James and Mary, as his wife came to be known, moved to the nearby Pig’s Eye settlement, a bend in the river that eventually became St. Paul.

Stories of old St. Paul abound, and several involve Thompson. Legend has it he fought Edward Phelan over a stolen pig and won. “Ever after that, Thompson and Phelan were good friends,” according to one account. Thompson helped Phelan and his partner, John Hays, construct St. Paul’s first house and played a part in building many cabins and homes in the region. Perhaps most notably, however, Thompson rescued a 10-year-old girl, Ursula Labissoniere, after her rape by a white man in 1841 and went on to testify against him in court—an anomaly in 1800s America, where blacks were barred from serving as witnesses, jurors, and judges.

The Thompsons moved to the less-settled area of Shakopee around 1853, where they spent some years raising their children, Sarah Thompson Barnes and George Thompson. The couple returned to St. Paul after the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, however, and remained fixtures in the city—now the state capitol—until 1884, when they followed their son to Nebraska, passing that same year.

Thomas Newson, a friend of Thompson for 40 years, eulogized the black carpenter as an asset to St. Paul “fully equal to both the white and the Indian.” He added, “During the 57 years that he had trod our soil, I find nothing to mar a well-earned and excellent reputation […] Once a slave! A good man! A brave pioneer!”

The Market Street Methodist Church at its original location off of Rice Park in Saint Paul // Photo via MNHS

Not separate—and not equal

One might surmise that Thompson’s race was a non-issue after he became a free man. After all, Pig’s Eye was a small place, where any contribution to progress was welcome. Early settlers, writes Mary Wingerd in “North Country: The Making of Minnesota,” “wasted little time worrying about skin color as they worked to transform the rough hamlets they called towns into bona fide commercial and industrial centers.”

An 1849 census found 40 men and women of African descent in the territory; 20 years later, the black population numbered 700. “Minnesota’s free black population largely was considered an asset in St. Paul, where nearly all had settled,” Wingerd writes. “Most were literate, and like Jim Thompson, they contributed needed skills to the little town, as barbers, builders, seamstresses, cooks and shopkeepers.” In 1852, the Minnesota Pioneer newspaper described black residents as “attentive to their business and […] no idlers as they are represented to be in the slave states” and said they “do as much to put a civilized aspect upon the face of society as any other class.”

But then as now, Minnesota neighborliness had its limits. In 1849, the very year Thompson contributed to the construction of First Methodist, the territorial legislature took up a bill that would limit voting rights to white adult males. Several efforts were made to strike the word “white” from Bill No. 11 but none succeeded in removing the restriction. It would take nearly two decades and a civil war for black men to gain the vote in Minnesota. In that span of time, more discriminatory policies were passed further segregating black residents from white residents and adding to an intensifying culture of racism in the city. 

Thompson’s feelings on Bill No. 11 are unrecorded. He left behind no papers or autobiography. Yet surely he must have noted—perhaps with sadness or even anger—that Bill No. 11 was introduced by his neighbor Benjamin Brunson, son of the missionary who a dozen years earlier had bought Thompson’s freedom.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated James Thompson moved to the Shakopee area in 1953, instead of 1853.