The North Star Flag
A PROPOSAL FOR A NEW MINNESOTA STATE FLAG
THE GREAT SEALS
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."
(Image & text from D. Gelbach, From This Land,
"Minnesota's New State Seal." Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Nov. 11, 1983.
Nancy Eubank, "The Dakota." Roots 12:2 (Winter 1984). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society. 4.
Deborah L. Gelbach. From This Land. Northridge, CA: Windsor, 1988. 29-31. (Photo of Eastman's watercolor: 31)
Robert M. Brown. "The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota."Minnesota History 33 (1952): 126-129.
William W. Folwell. History of Minnesota. 1:459-462; 2:25-26, 357-361. St. Paul, 1924.
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
Jeffrey A. Hess,
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
Ramsey and Henry H. Sibley, Minnesota's delegate to Congress.
suggested using a picture drawn by Captain Seth Eastman, an artist and
officer at Fort Snelling. This design was accepted by the
and became the seal of the Minnesota Territory. Eastman's picture
a white settler plowing a field beside the Mississippi River near the
of St. Anthony. His ax and gun rest on a tree stump in the
In the background an Indian on horseback, spear in hand, gallops away
the sunset [...] Then during the 1960's, some people began to
whether it was a good state symbol. Citizens are supposed to be
of their state's symbols. But how could Minnesota Indians be
of a seal that seemed to say they were not wanted in their own
In 1968 the Minnesota Human Rights Commission asked the state
to design a new seal that all Minnesotans could be proud of."
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
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 whtie 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.
Ther 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."