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The North Star Flag



"While young farming families unloaded their baggage from the steamboats, policy-makers in St. Paul were busy authorizing and desiging a seal that would signify the territory's potential.  In 1849 Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey and congressional delegate Henry Sibley supervised the selection of the design.  After considerable thought they agreed that the best drawing [at left] was offered by Seth Eastman, an Army captain stationed at Fort Snelling whose illustrations of contemporary Indian life were well regarded.  What Eastman's penwork communicated was that the white man's civilization was pressing the Indian into obscurity.  Against a distant background of Minnehaha Falls, an Indian brave on a horse is seen turning away from a settler who has cut into the soil with his plow and into a tree with his ax.  Eastman's drawing, later incorporated into the state's seal, forecast the heavy price the Sioux and Chippewa nations would pay throughout the nineteenth century.  Mary Henderson Eastman, the artist's wife, wrote a poem reflecting her husband's work.  Her words are poignant, not because she crafted her thoughts well but because they represent the zealousness of the new arrivals that doomed the proud Indian nations.

Give way! Give way young warrior!
Thou and thy steed give way!
Rest not, though lingers on the hills,
The red sun's parting ray."

(Text from D. Gelbach, From This Land, 29-31.)

The first of Minnesota's official seals was created in 1849 when Minnesota was still a territory.  It symbolized the philosophy of "Manifest Destiny," i.e., the white man taking over the frontier and pushing the Indians westward as the U.S. spread (see column at right).  There was one obvious problem: The Indian -- who was supposed to be heading westward into the sunset -- appeared to be heading eastward into the sunrise, because the seal was engraved in reverse.  (Reverse image of original dye)  The territorial seal was based on a watercolor (as above) by Captain Seth Eastman, an astute artistic observer of frontier life.

Upon statehood in 1858, Governor Henry Sibley modified the territorial seal by reversing its image so that the Indian would be riding westward as originally planned.  He also changed the previous Latin motto to "L'etoile du nord" ("The North Star"), representing the call of the northern frontier to the human spirit of exploration.  He apparently rendered the motto in French as a tribute to the pioneering spirit of the voyageurs.  His state seal was officially adopted by the legislature in 1861.  (Image of original dye from Roots, Fall 1984: 22)

After damage from a fire at the capitol, the state seal was re-cast in 1881.

Because of complaints about the seal's portrayal of the white man's takeover of the frontier from the Indian (see column at right), a new version of the seal was authorized by the Secretary of State in 1971.  Although it had no legal standing, the Indian was replaced by a "white rider."  This seal was apparently promoted and employed by the office of the Secretary of State, but was never used on the state flag.

In 1983, the legislature modernized and standarized the design of the seal. To respond to objections to previous designs (see column at right), the Indian rider is now portrayed as trotting southward while facing the white man, rather than fleeing westward from the advance of the white man.  The design was drafted by Jacki Bradham, a state employee.


Robert M. Brown.  "The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota."Minnesota History 33 (1952): 126-129.

Seth Eastman, “Design for Minnesota Territorial Seal,”, watercolor, AV1984.331.1 (Accession Number), Minnesota Historical Society (official website).

Nancy Eubank, "The Dakota."  Roots 12:2 (Winter 1984).  St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.   4.

William W. Folwell.  History of Minnesota.  1:459-462; 2:25-26, 357-361.  St. Paul, 1924.

Deborah L. Gelbach.  From This Land. Northridge, CA: Windsor, 1988. 29-31.

David Gillette, “Redesigning Minnesota’s State Flag,” TPT Almanac, News Video, Twin Cities Public Television, March 28, 2018.

Jeffrey A. Hess.  "Minnesota Almanac."  Roots 13:1 (Fall 1984).  St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.  21-23.

"Minnesota's New State Seal."  Minneapolis Star-Tribune.  Nov. 11, 1983.

“State Seal,” Minnesota Secretary of State (Official Website).

Lori Williamson, “Minnesota Territorial Seal, 1849,” Collections Up Close, Minnesota Historical Society (official weblog), July 2, 2014.


Nancy Eubank, "The Dakota."
Roots 12:2 (Minnesota Historical Society, Winter 1984), p. 4.
"In the 1840's, when American settlers reached Minnesota, the Dakota lived along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers on prairie lands that were ideal for plowing and planting.  The rich land made white farmers eager to use it in the way that seemed best to them.  The settlers felt that if the Indians did not want to farm the land they should move away, whether they wanted to or not.  The Dakota did not move on, forced by the U.S. government to give up their hunting grounds.  This sad part of Minnesota's past -- the Indians' loss of their land -- is pictured on the state seal.  In the foreground of the seal a farmer plows his field, while in the background an Indian on horseback gallops away.  Mary Eastman, the wife of the soldier-artist Seth Eastman who helped design the seal, wrote a poem about its meaning:

Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun's parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough."

Jeffrey A. Hess, "Minnesota Almanac."
Roots 13:1 (Minnesota Historical Society, Fall 1984), p. 21-22.

"When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, its lawmakers picked a committee to design a territorial seal.  The committee chose a design that showed an Indian family offering a peace pipe to a white settler.  But the territorial legislature did not approve this design.  Many of the lawmakers believed that there would never be peace in Minnesota until all the Indians had moved westward out of the territory.  Since the legislators could not agree on a design, they left the decision to Governor Alexander Ramsey and Henry H. Sibley, Minnesota's delegate to Congress.  Sibley suggested using a picture drawn by Captain Seth Eastman, an artist and commanding officer at Fort Snelling.  This design was accepted by the legislature and became the seal of the Minnesota Territory.  Eastman's picture shows a white settler plowing a field beside the Mississippi River near the Falls of St. Anthony.  His ax and gun rest on a tree stump in the foreground.  In the background an Indian on horseback, spear in hand, gallops away into the sunset [...]  Then during the 1960's, some people began to question whether it was a good state symbol.  Citizens are supposed to be proud of their state's symbols.  But how could Minnesota Indians be proud of a seal that seemed to say they were not wanted in their own state.  In 1968 the Minnesota Human Rights Commission asked the state government to design a new seal that all Minnesotans could be proud of."

"Changing State Seal Expensive,"
(Saint Paul Pioneer Press, November 28, 1968, p. 21)

by Robert Whereatt, Staff Writer

It would be rather expensive to Minnesotans to cover a dark part of the state's history by changing the Great Seal of the state.  The Minnesota Human Rights Board has recommended a new seal be designed because, the board said, the current seal "illustrates a dark part of our history."  The seal shows a white man plowing in the foreground, and an Indian in the background riding toward a setting sun.  The white man has a musket and powderhorn nearby.  The Indian carries a spear. The rendition of the state's past apparently offends the state board which has suggested a new seal "which will demonstrate and promote Minnesota's current attributes and its potential for future devolopment."

But changing the seal would require more than a simple redesigning of the seal now guarded zealously by its custodian, Secretary of State Joseph Donovan.  About 35,000 notaries public in the state certify documents with notorial seals which have the state Great Seal design in their centers, according to Donovan.  The current cost of replaicng these seals is about $8.50 each.  So it would cost almost $300,000 for the notaries to get new seals.

In addition, the Great Seal is in the center of the state flag.  The major manufacturer and distributor of state flags, a Minneapolis firm, estimates conservatively that current value of large state flags sold over the past 11 years is not less than 100,000. The Great Seal is more ubiquitous than just flags and notarial seals.  County and state officers have the seal at the center of their official seals.  Official state stationery has the seal on it and the paper used in bills enacted by the legislature has the seal imprinted in it. The seal is imprinted in paper used for bonds issued by the state and in blank certificates of various kinds.

Gov. Harold LeVander was asked about the great Seal controversy Wednesday.  "It's not a matter to be overly concerned about," he said.  He implied the Human Rights Board could better spend its time in other areas.  "It's been in existence a long time," LeVander said.  "It's difficult to change history or rewrite it."

"Is Bad Art Good History?"
(Minneapolis Star, November 26, 1968, p. 7A)

by Austin C. Wehrwein of the Editorial/Opinion Staff

The Minnesota Board of Human Rights is on the warpath against the Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, re-opening thereby a 119-year-old legal dispute.

What worries the board about the seal, which is a little like a state trademark, is that it "depicts warfare" between the early white settlers and the red men, and "places the Indian in a derogatory light."  Human Rights Commissioner Frank Kent, a black man, will ask the legislature to think about authorizing a new seal.

As civil rights issues go, this is rather esoteric.  The seal we have is, without doubt, a horrible example of 19th century government art, but the board had no need to defer to the seal's "historic significance."  In 1849 its almost identical predecessor was ridiculed as depicting "a scared white man and an astonished Indian" and "a man plowing one way and looking another."

Gov. Sibley selected the seal's motto, "L'etoile du Nord" (North Star).  William Watts Folwell's "History of Minnesota" says one newspaper "poured out vials of sarcasm upon 'Mister' Sibley for selecting a motto from Canadian French patois, the only French known to him, and one conveying no appropriate sentiment."

In 1860, the Minnesota attorney general said the seal had been sanctioned by usage but implied that Sibley had adopted the design without authority.  In 1861, the legislature, to cure any illegality, passed a law that said, for sure, the great seal was the great seal.

The seal, of which the secretary of state is the "custodian," is supposed to appear on all "official" documents, including the governor's stationery.  This is a relic of the time when seals were used to authenticate documents, a practice akin to certifying checks.  In the old common law, a seal had to be a blob of wax on the document on which an impression of a design was made.

The battle of the Minnesota seal began with territorial Gov. Ramsey who cooked up his own, a sunburst with the motto, "Liberty, Law, Religion, and Education."  Then he asked in 1849 for a law to authorize an official seal, apparently suggesting a design that showed an Indian family welcoming a white man with a peace pipe to symbolize inter-racial friendship, precisely the sentiment the Rights Board would prefer.

However, the legislature rejected the particular design, while authorizing a seal to be selected by Sibley, then a delegate to Congress, and Gov. Ramsey.  The design we have today took its first form from sketches by Col. John James Abert that were redrawn by Capt. Seth Eastman.

That seal depicted a farmer, hand on plow, his musket leaning on a stump.  He is watching an Indian, armed with a lance, riding bareback into the sunset, with St. Anthony Falls in the background.  Sibley is credited with providing the motto, Latin for "I Wish to See What Lies Beyond."   Whatever it was supposed to mean, one Latin word was misspelled by the engraver.

The version we have today is virtually the same, except that [...] the motto is "The North Star."  It was adopted by the new State of Minnesota in 1858.  Or rather by Sibley, who was by then governor [...]

In the absence of artistic directions from the legislature, Gov. Sibley played with the territorial Seal.  The newspaper that objected to his North Star motto also said nastily that he should have designed a new seal [...]

But objection to the design died until the 1968 Human Rights Board revived it.

The present Custodian of the Great Seal, Secretary of State Joseph Donovan, said he wanted to "analyze and digest" the new seal proposal.  Said he of the frightened farmer and fleeing red man, "I don't know if you can eradicate and erase history to bring it up to date to conform to issues of the time."