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A Brief History of the Minnesota Historical Society

Long before the place we call Minnesota had a motto, a capitol building, or a voting member of Congress, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) was helping people understand the region’s past. From the start, our mission was to collect and preserve Minnesota’s stories in all their forms.

As its fifth official act, Minnesota Territory’s pioneer legislature established the Minnesota Historical Society in 1849. No other U.S. territory or state created a historical organization so rapidly. Charles K. Smith, Minnesota’s first territorial secretary with a reputation as a political rascal, drew up the legislative act, wrote the founding charter, and attached the names of eighteen distinguished supporters (several of whom had not given their permission). MNHS held its first annual meeting, for fewer than 100 members, on New Year’s Day 1850. Statehood followed eight years later.

In its earliest decades, MNHS hosted discussions of historical topics, established a library and collection of manuscripts and artifacts, began building an endowment, and published reminiscences and scholarly works — including a groundbreaking Dakota dictionary. It operated from a series of temporary quarters. The Minnesota Historical Society survived devastating fires in 1857 and 1881, guided the creation of Itasca State Park in 1890, and entered the 20th century with 300 members, 100,000 volumes in its library, and a dozen people on staff.

To protect its growing and scattered collections from another fire, MNHS needed permanent quarters. That home arrived with the completion in 1918 of a dedicated Minnesota Historical Society building in the capitol complex. (The Roman Renaissance-style structure currently serves as the Minnesota Judicial Center.) With a secure base of operations, MNHS could in the following years provide more public services — helping county and local historical societies organize, welcoming tens of thousands of visitors a year, and beginning radio broadcasts and other kinds of public outreach — while vastly increasing the size of the library and manuscript collections.

MNHS acquired its first historic site in 1958, eventually telling Minnesota’s stories through a network of sites across the state. As MNHS continued to grow in size and ambitions — launching educational programs, granting funds to local history organizations, and becoming a force in such fields as archaeology and historic preservation — the space and technological limitations of its old headquarters became clear. The Minnesota History Center — with marvelous facilities for exhibits, programs, library and collections — opened in 1992.

Today, the Minnesota Historical Society welcomes more than 800,000 guests each year, along with another 3.2 million website visitors, 50,000 social media followers, and 25,000 members.

By Jack El-Hai