Minnesota’s population of 5,220,393 (2008 estimate) ranks 21st in the nation, though its population density of 61.8 people per square mile ranks 31st. Fifty-five percent of Minnesotans live in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, which is the fastest-growing part of the state. Another 20 percent live in the triangle formed by the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Moorhead.
Since the 1990s, Minnesota has been by far the fastest-growing state in the Midwest. Its five most populous cities are Minneapolis, 390,131; St. Paul, 288,055; Rochester, 102,437; Duluth, 85,220; and Bloomington, 85,238.
The state’s ethnic breakdown is 89 percent white, 4.6 percent black, 3.5 percent Asian, 1.2 percent Native American, and 1.3 percent biracial. Latinos totaled 4.1 percent of the population. Although per capita immigration totals are average compared to the rest of the nation, and the foreign-born population is just six percent of the population (compared to 12 percent nationally), more refugees choose Minnesota than just about any other state.
Although immigration peaked at the beginning of the 20th century, few Minnesotans have completely let go of their heritage. Just about every town still celebrates at least some of the traditions of its founders in annual festivals, and local historical museums usually feature cultural displays from the motherland.
Scandinavian traditions are the most widespread and still so ingrained that the Swedish and Norwegian royal families visit Minnesota occasionally. Lutefisk and lefse remain vital to many family celebrations; a multitude of cities have Scandinavian import stores; and most Minnesotans still love a good Ole and Lena joke.
The newest immigrants, like Somali and Hmong, have brought their own food, crafts, and traditions to the state, and Native American pride is as strong as ever.
Since the time the first Europeans came in search of furs, the Native Americans residing in Minnesota have been almost exclusively the Dakota and Ojibwe. Historically bitter enemies, the Ojibwe, with the help of the French, slowly pushed the Dakota south and west. The current distribution of reservations, Dakota south of the Minnesota River and Ojibwe to the north, generally reflects the balance of power that was achieved between them by the time Europeans began to appropriate their lands.
The Dakota have four reservations, all under two thousand acres, while the Ojibwe, by far the larger of the two, have seven reservations, none smaller than 48,000 acres. The Dakota lands are so small because following the Dakota Conflict they were expelled from the state and only a few later returned, at which time the government gave them new land.
Minnesota, with about 53,000 Native American residents, has the 14th-largest Native population in the United States. Only about a third actually live on the reservations, while nearly 40 percent live in the Twin Cities metro area.
While many Europeans came to the New World hoping to strike it rich, most were fleeing poverty or religious and political persecution. Minnesota’s land rush began at the end of the 1830s and most people were drawn here by cheap land, though some sought logging and iron mining jobs. Initially most settlers came from the eastern United States and Canada, though some northern European immigrants arrived during the early years too.
The first arrivals in Minnesota were the French, who spread the fur trade across the Northwest. Most who came to Minnesota did so not directly from Europe, but through Canada. The most notable of the French-Canadians were the Métis, an ancestral mix of French and Native American, who ran oxcart trains of furs and supplies between St. Paul and Winnipeg.
Despite the widespread reputation of its Scandinavian heritage, German is actually the most common ancestry of today’s Minnesotans, and it has been that way almost from the start. Germans settled across the whole of the state but with the densest concentrations in the southern and central counties, as towns such as Cologne, Hamburg, Heidelberg, New Germany, New Munich, and New Ulm attest.
Minnesota remains one of the country’s most ethnically German states, and New Ulm is not only the nation’s most German city, but has the greatest percentage (66 percent) of any single ethnicity in cities with 5,000 or more residents.
Collectively the state’s Scandinavian descendants outnumber the Germans, and they have left the most indelible mark on Minnesota. The rush of Norwegians and Swedes, who share not only similar backgrounds in Europe but also similar experiences in early Minnesota, began in the 1850s. More Norwegians and Swedes came to Minnesota than went to anywhere else in the world, and more than the next two states, Wisconsin and North Dakota, combined. Scandinavian ethnic supremacy in the state was achieved by the end of the 19th century, and immigration en masse didn’t tail off until around 1930.
Even today, Thief River Falls and Cambridge are respectively the nation’s most Norwegian and Swedish cities of 5,000 or more residents. While the climate was a factor in their choice, the primary reason so many chose Minnesota was timing: Lands were opening up for settlement in Minnesota just as food shortages, overpopulation, and economic strife hit the homeland. They settled throughout the state (statistically Swedes are a little more common in the north, and denser Norwegian distribution is found in the south and west) and dominated state politics even before surpassing Germans in number.
The Danish population, a much later arrival than other Scandinavians, is only about a fifth the size of either that of the Swedish or Norwegians, but it is still one of the largest Danish communities in the United States. Tyler, in the far southwest, is Minnesota’s main hotbed of Danish culture.
For the most part the Finns came even later than the Danes did, though in equal numbers, and Minnesota’s Finnish descendants also constitute one of the largest such populations in the United States. Though some farmed, most notably around New York Mills and Embarrass, the vast majority dug the mines of the Iron Range. The “Red Finns,” as they were known across the north, were persistent and effective union organizers and fought hard for improved working conditions—they were often severely persecuted for their efforts. Finnish saunas are still prevalent across the northeast.
The number of Icelandic immigrants was minimal, but because the population of the island was so small, the percentage of Icelanders who left their homeland and came to Minnesota during the end of the 19th century was higher than for most other countries. Most took up sheep farming on the prairies of Lyon, Lincoln, and Yellow Medicine Counties in the far southwest.
Minnesota’s fourth-largest immigrant group, the Irish, made their new homes primarily in the southeast corner of the state, and, unlike most other Irish immigrants to the United States, farming was their principal livelihood. One of the first ethnic groups to arrive in large numbers in Minnesota, the roughly 12,000 exiles from the Emerald Isle living here in 1860 constituted one-fifth of the state’s foreign-born population.
The Irish continued to arrive in large numbers through the early 20th century and because, unlike other foreigners, they arrived with a mastery of the English language, a large number became political leaders of the state’s new towns. While always outnumbered by Germans, St. Paul is still considered an Irish town.
British immigrants were also early arrivals and included enough Welsh that when the push for statehood began, the proposed constitution was translated into their ancient tongue. Though best known as miners, most Welsh in Minnesota came to farm. A few Cornish miners relocated from Michigan with the discovery of iron ore in the northeast. Though most eventually relocated elsewhere in the United States, their practical meat-and-potato-filled pasties remain an Iron Range staple.
Scots were noted fur traders, and Simon McTavish’s North West Company set up its inland operations at Grand Portage, but few settled here permanently. Many English professionals relocated here in the 1870s to start new lives as gentleman farmers, and though they gained fame across the state from newspaper accounts of their crimson foxhunts and horse races, they weren’t cut out for rural living, and the grand settlements failed.
While Russian and Eastern Slavic (Ukrainian, Belarusian, etc.) immigration dates back to the 19th century, the main surge began in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many Russians chose Minnesota because they liked the climate, and they were one of the largest immigrant groups of that decade. Today’s Russo-Minnesotans tend to be highly educated professionals, and they include many Jewish and Pentecostal Christian refugees. Most settled in the Twin Cities.
While Poles, most of whom arrived in Minnesota between 1900 and 1915, settled across the state, the most distinct community has always been in Winona, where the Church of Saint Stanislaus Kostka and the Polish Cultural Institute memorialize the city’s Polish past and present. Czechs and Slovaks came during the same time, but in smaller numbers. The former are pretty widespread around the state (though most notably in New Prague, where much effort is made to maintain the culture), while the latter took residence almost exclusively in Minneapolis.
Almost all of the Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene, and Montenegrin (the peoples of the former Yugoslavia) arrivals worked the mines of the Iron Range. The Iron Range was, in fact, Minnesota’s great melting pot. Three dozen ethnicities came to dig, and, at the turn of the 20th century, half the population was foreign born. This accounts for the tremendous number of taverns in Iron Range towns—the multitude of ethnicities worked together during the day, but drank separately at night. In the 1990s a group of Bosnians fled the civil war and ended up in Pelican Rapids.
Other nationalities who migrated here in small but significant numbers include Italians, who came to the cities (principally St. Paul and Duluth) and the Iron Range, and Dutch, who are predominantly rural. The small number of Swiss, who were at Fort Snelling as early as 1821, settled throughout the state.
Africans and African Americans
African Americans are the largest minority group in Minnesota. Although black migration to Minnesota began in earnest after World War I—as Southerners came north looking for factory work—Africans have been in Minnesota from the start. They first came as fur traders back in the late 18th century, most famously the Bonga (sometimes spelled Bungo) family.
Pierre Bonga had settled in north-central Minnesota after gaining his freedom and opened a series of trading posts across the region. His son George, educated in Montreal, garnered such respect and fame as a trader, explorer, interpreter, and negotiator that his death in 1885 was reported in newspapers around the country. Bungo Township and Bungo Brook in Cass County are named for the family.
In the early 19th century many slaves accompanied their owners to Fort Snelling, none more famously than Dred Scott, who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom based upon his two years of residence in free territory. The case, which reached the Supreme Court, and its far-reaching legal ramifications fanned the already strong antislavery fires of Minnesota and the rest of the North.
The census of 1850, the year after Minnesota officially became a territory, tallied 39 “free colored,” and they earned the right to vote in Minnesota in 1868. Minnesota was one of the few states to grant this right prior to passage of the 15th Amendment. Following the Civil War, new arrivals came slowly but steadily up the Mississippi River. Many settled in rural areas to farm, but most eventually made their way to the Twin Cities.
Today 91 percent of Minnesota’s 172,000 blacks live in the Twin Cities metro area, though an increasing number have relocated to other parts of the state in recent years.
East Africans, principally Somalis, but also Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Sudanese, are the newest group of immigrants in Minnesota, arriving as refugees in large numbers since the mid-1990s. For some of those years Somalis were the largest immigrant group coming to Minnesota, and today there are an estimated 25,000 in the state (unofficial estimates range as high as 60,000)—the largest Somali population in the United States. Most live in Minneapolis, but other significant populations are found in St. Paul, St. Cloud, Rochester, Marshall, Owatonna, and Mankato.
Latinos are the most widely distributed minority group in the state. Two-thirds of Minnesota’s Latinos are of Mexican descent, though over 20 countries from Central and South America and the Caribbean are represented. Latinos have been arriving since the mid-19th century, but only in large numbers since the last half of the 1990s. Minnesota had a grand total of two residents of Mexican descent at statehood, but a population explosion of sorts led to the tripling of that total by 1880 and a further quadrupling by the turn of the 20th century. One of those 24 was an oboe player named Luis Garzon who, while on tour with the Mexico City Orchestra in 1886, fell ill and was left behind—he remained in Minneapolis for over 50 years.
Labor shortages north of the border during World War I drew many Mexicans to the United States looking for work, and, in Minnesota, a few migrant workers found employment in the sugar beet fields. By the 1920s, as the sugar industry expanded, thousands of migrants came for a few months each summer, and some, finding work with the railroads or in meatpacking plants, “settled out.” By 1990 the state’s Latino population was 53,884 and during the next decade, thanks in part to the state’s low unemployment rate, it climbed to 143,382, and Minneapolis surpassed St. Paul as the city with the largest Latino population. The population is primarily urban, with over 100,000 in the Twin Cities metro area, but thriving populations exist in many southern and western agricultural towns like Willmar, Worthington, Pelican Rapids, St. James, and Albert Lea. Despite a decreased need for field workers due to new technologies the state’s farm fields still see thousands of migrant workers each summer.
Like all the state’s other minority groups, Minnesota’s Asian residents are centered in the Twin Cities, with 85 percent of the nearly 142,000 calling the metro area home. More reside in St. Paul, most notably in Frog Town, than any other city. While significant immigrant populations have come from India, China, Nepal, Tibet, the Philippines, and Vietnam, the 60,000 or so Laotian Hmong (about one-quarter of all those in the United States; only California has more) are most noteworthy.
The first Hmong arrived in Minnesota in the late 1970s following the Vietnam War. Hoping that they could carve out an independent homeland, many Hmong joined the United States in the fight against the North Vietnamese. When the war was lost, tens of thousands of Hmong, facing reprisals by the government that they had fought against (most, in fact, had nothing to do with the war, but the often-violent revenge was indiscriminate), fled to refugee camps in Thailand and, over the next two decades, slowly picked up their lives and filtered into other countries, primarily the United States.
Since the Hmong are traditionally an agrarian people residing in small mountain villages, the Twin Cities now has the world’s largest urban Hmong population. Many continue to farm, and Hmong vendors are regulars at local farmers markets. Mee Moua of St. Paul, whose family fled Laos when she was five, was elected to the State Senate in 2002, becoming the first Hmong legislator in the United States. With about 1,500 living here, mostly in Minneapolis, Minnesota has the nation’s second-largest Tibetan community.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition