By Avigail Oren
In This Tender Land (2019), William Kent Kreuger’s loose update of Huck Finn, the O’Banion brothers and their compatriots Emmy and Mose end up in St. Paul, Minnesota, after escaping from the Lincoln Indian Training School—and its despicable, abusive, headmaster Mrs. Brinkman—and sailing down the Minnesota River in a canoe. After passing Fort Snelling, under whose shadow Mose signs to the others, “that’s where the soldiers who killed my people come from,” the four pull ashore at the West Side Flats. While you can still visit Fort Snelling today, the old West Side Flats is now an expanse of office buildings and warehouses. Between the 1870s and 1950s, it was a densely packed neighborhood settled by whatever immigrant community had most recently arrived; first it was the French, then the Germans and Irish, then Jews from Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, with Mexicans and Mexican Americans putting down roots in the 1930s. In 1932, when our protagonist Odie O’Banion lands in the Flats, it was heavily Jewish. Indeed, these adolescents on the lam have been advised to seek out a woman named Gertie Hellman.
Kreuger’s portrayal of the Depression-era Flats is based on historical and archival research he conducted for the novel, but it’s a fictional landscape that he conjures, one that suits his picaresque story. However, the spaces and characters of This Tender Land’s St. Paul offer a different vision of the Twin Cities’ past than the one of Scandinavian settlement that I learned as a child from reading On the Banks of Plum Creek and the American Girl books about Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant to Minnesota. (When I asked other historians about their primary associations with Minnesota history, they mined entertainment from the more recent past, citing Mary Tyler Moore, Prince, The Replacements, and Husker Du most frequently. If these are the other dominant narratives, This Tender Land most certainly helps widen the lens.)
The St. Paul that Odie, his brother Albert, Mose, and Emmy encounter is dominated by water—they leave their canoe in a “boat hotel,” cross an “arched, stone bridge” to downtown, socialize on towboats, and walk past homes marked with black waterlines “two feet up the outside walls” from the Mississippi’s spring floods. Water defines this northern state, as historian Katrina Phillips writes in the introduction to her forthcoming post in this series, the Dakota word for water, mni, became part of its name.
The origins of the Twin Cities lie at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, which the Dakota People call Bdote (where the waters meet). In 1805, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike purchased 100,000 acres of the land around Bdote from Dakota leaders in a shady deal; Pike lacked the authority to negotiate a treaty, and he determined the terms of the sale without consent from the Dakota. Disregarding its tenuous claims to the land, the United States military built Fort Snelling in 1820 as a base from which to defend the Northwest from the British and protect the fur trade by maintaining peace between settlers and the Dakota and Ojibwe people (who themselves often clash). Over the next 40 years, through a series of legitimate but unjust and unfulfilled treaties and a war, the United States expanded the borders of its territory.
St. Paul began as an agricultural settlement just beyond the bounds of the military lands surrounding Fort Snelling. Over the course of the 1840s, it grew into a small town of 200 people, but despite its size St. Paul became the capital city when Minnesota Territory was officially established in 1849. The opening of the territory led to a building boom as new settlers steamboated up the Mississippi to buy lands that had, until recently, been inhabited by the Dakota.
As Michael Lansing demonstrates in his contribution to this series, loggers and millers established Minneapolis 10 years later than and 10 miles upriver from St. Paul at St. Anthony Falls, where water could power nascent industry—first lumber, then wheat milling. St. Paul’s head start and downriver location made it the commercial hub of the territory, while Minneapolis harnessed the energy of the falls to become a major manufacturing city. This trade and industry, plus the arrival of the railroads, contributed to the massive growth of both cities during the second half of the nineteenth century.
While early arrivals to the Twin Cities tended to be native-born migrants from the east, by the 1880s immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland, and Canada made up the majority of newcomers to Minnesota (which became a state in 1858). Many took advantage of the Homestead Act and bought farmland, while others landed in the Twin Cities—increasingly in Minneapolis, where they labored in the mills and related industry. In St. Paul, settlement spread out from the riverside downtown district; by the late 1850s “the city’s limits, once confined to Upper Town and Lower Town, had expanded more than a mile in every direction except the river,” architectural historians Jeffrey Hess and Paul Clifford Larson note. Twenty years later, most St. Paul residents still lived within a mile of downtown, but “as the downtown area became increasingly commercial in the 1880s, old settlers and new immigrants alike boarded a recently expanded streetcar system for outlying residential neighborhoods,” including West St. Paul, where the flood-prone West Side Flats made housing accessible to the poorest immigrants.
In This Tender Land, the first person the O’Banions, Mose, and Emmy meet when they come ashore is John Kelly, a fellow teen whose actual name is Shlomo Goldstein. When the group tells him they’re vagabonds, he says of the Flats, “hell, we got Arabs here and Mexicans and Jews, but I ain’t never heard of Vagabonds.” The Jewish community of the West Side Flats took root in 1882, when 235 Russian Jewish refugees arrived in the Twin Cities, surprising the existing German Jewish community, itself only about 30 years old. Many of the Russian Jews found work in St. Paul, crossing the bridge over the Mississippi each day, returning home with earnings that they used, in part, to bring over additional family members. As the Jewish population of the Flats expanded, more Jews found work on the West Side in businesses like “American Hoist and Derrick, Minnesota Macaroni, Gedney Pickles, and the Waterous Company,” or in emerging Jewish businesses like “junk dealers, egg candlers, tailors, cobblers, and butchers.” Institutions also sprang up, with at least six congregations, Neighborhood House (a settlement house established by the German Jewish Mount Zion congregation in 1897), homes to shelter Jewish youth and the aged, and a Hebrew Institute established in the neighborhood by the 1920s.
This was Shlomo Goldstein’s milieu. Beyond its ten square blocks, however, Shlomo went by the name John Kelly to avoid getting beaten up by Irish cops and kids. In fact, the Twin Cities’ Irish community was relatively small, though they made up a greater proportion of St. Paul’s population than Minneapolis’s. Germans were the largest ethnic community in the Twin Cities in the early twentieth century, though Minneapolis was predominantly Scandinavian.
The Flats that the O’Banions, Mose, and Emmy temporarily inhabited was about a third Jewish, but as Shlomo tells them, the neighborhood had already began diversifying as Jews began moving to St. Paul’s Selby-Dale and Highland Park neighborhoods and to Minneapolis (where they encountered virulent antisemitism, eventually earning the city the reputation as “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States”). “The voices coming from Fairfield Avenue often spoke in Yiddish,” Odie noted, “but…there were also occasional shouts in Spanish and Arabic and other tongues foreign to my ears.” Mexican Americans arrived in the Flats during the years of WWI, and a community of Syrian Christians also emerged. In 1931, Our Lady of Guadalupe took its place alongside the synagogues of the Flats.
Gertie Hellman, who takes in the vagabonds, was one of the Jews remaining in the Flats in the 1930s. With Flo, her partner in business and life, she ran a bare-bones restaurant, which Odie explains “served only one offering for each meal…good, homemade fare at a decent price.” One evening Odie returns from helping Shlomo Kelly deliver newspapers in St. Paul and, finding Flo alone in the kitchen, asks her if everyone living in the Flats is Jewish.
“Not quite everybody.”
“So you and Gertie are Jewish?”
“Not me. Confirmed Catholic. You ask Gertie if she’s Jewish, she would probably say no.”
Gertie returns then, and as Odie heads to bed he “watched with surprise as Flo took Gertie into her arms, held her tenderly for a moment, then kissed her long and lovingly.”
The Twin Cities before World War II was, Ryan Patrick Murphy and Alex T. Urquhart argue, a society that “venerated homosocial spaces as foundations of prosperity and productivity, tempering anxieties about homosexuality in the process.” Whether in the masculine spaces of lumber camps or the feminine spaces of the domestic sphere, productivity and temperance mattered more than men having sex with men or women with women. Gertie and Flo may not have kept the idealized middle-class household, but they were typical insofar as “model families of the period did not necessarily involve heterosexual relations and a single male provider as head of household.” In the city’s settlement houses—perhaps even at Neighborhood House in the West Side Flats—women internalized “ideas about ‘good women’—as they applied to both the private household of the family and the public household of politics—not through women’s interactions with or dependence upon men, but via homosocial relations with other women.”
From the desire to control men’s productivity by keeping them away from alcohol, prostitutes, and gambling came a willingness to look the other way when men had sex with men; from the desire to insulate innocent women in the home, where they could manage productive domestic economies, came a willingness to look the other way when women had sex with women. As a result, in the Twin Cities “spaces opened for gender transgression and homosexual desire,” like the love of Gertie and Flo, “to abound with relatively little public notice or outcry.” That would change after World War II, as public and private institutions reorganized society around the heterosexual nuclear family, but in the Twin Cities (as elsewhere in the United States) queer communities developed strong activist movements in response to the increased discrimination and punishment inflicted for deviating from the (hetero) norm.
Although the nature of their relationship is unclear, Flo’s brother Truman (Tru) Waters also lives with another man, Calvin, on the towboat Hell or High Water. Like Mose, Calvin is Sioux; as Mose signs to Odie after a few weeks in the city, “He’s my people.” Katrina Phillips explains in her contribution to this series that a native presence remained in the Twin Cities even after treaties clawed away their lands. The Dakota and Ojibwe population expanded greatly, and rapidly, following the 1956 Indian Relocation Act, and Minneapolis became a hub of Indian activism when the American Indian Movement was founded in 1968.
From Native peoples to Russian Jewish refugees to queer life, This Tender Land opens a window onto distinctive and varied vistas of Twin Cities history—but it’s far from a full picture. Most notably, although Saint Paul is twinned to Minneapolis, the cities’ pasts (and presents) diverge in significant ways. Indeed, John S. Adams and Barbara J. VanDrasek use a delightful analogy to illustrate how, “for all their similarities, Minneapolis and St. Paul are distinct places.”
An astrologer once described Minneapolis as a Pisces, with an artistic bent and a yen for Old World architecture, a liberal town that maintains outward decorum and reserve but dances with lampshades on its head at home at night. And St. Paul was deemed a Scorpio, the perfect marriage partner for Minneapolis.
Jennifer Pierce offers a more grounded explanation, arguing, “Because Minneapolis and St. Paul are different cities in different counties, they differ significantly in terms of law and geography. Their proximity to each other, however, makes them in many ways inseparable.”
A defining, shared feature of the Twin Cities’ postwar history is their acceptance of refugees. As Stefanie Chambers and Betsy Kalin share in their co-authored post about Somali incorporation in Minneapolis and St. Paul and their documentary, Dreaming in Somali, the Twin Cities have welcomed waves of refugees since Minnesota accepted Jewish displaced persons for resettlement in 1948. In the 1970s, Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia found refuge in St. Paul, and twenty years later East Africans arrived in Minneapolis, encouraged by the success of Hmong resettlement. (They added to the Twin Cities longstanding but small Black population.) In 2019, 28 percent of the population in the seven-county region of the Twin Cities identified as persons of color, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, as evidenced by this summer’s uprising following the murder of George Floyd, racial disparities and discrimination have a long history in the Twin Cities.
Just after Odie arrives in St. Paul, Shlomo’s mother gives birth to a baby boy she names Mordecai David—Mordy, Shlomo calls him. In the late 1950s, when Mordy may have gone to buy his first house in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park—where writer/filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen were born in the 1950s—Jews faced few restrictions to purchasing property. The Supreme Court had already deemed restrictive covenants unenforceable and the state of Minnesota had made illegal the creation new restrictive deeds. But the truth is that after 1919, when Emmanuel Cohen successfully lobbied the Minnesota legislature to ban covenants on the basis of religion, not even one percent of the city’s covenants restricted Jews from purchasing property. While antisemitism remained rampant, Jews accumulated capital in ways that Black residents of the Twin Cities could not. If Shlomo and Mordy’s fictional grandchildren still live in the Twin Cities, they would reside quite a distance—geographically and economically—from the West Side Flats.
While this overview lays some of the groundwork for the series to come, it’s like a little stream compared to the mighty Mississippi of the Twin Cities’ long and deep history. We offer the bibliography below, if you want to wade into deeper waters, but it too is only a starting point and not remotely comprehensive. We are incredibly grateful for The Historyapolis Project’s Research Guide to Minneapolis History (2014), compiled by Kirsten Delegard, Kevin Erhman-Solber, Heidi Heller, Anna Romskog, and Rita Yeada. From its 500 pages of Minneapolis-related materials, we selected books and articles published after 1990 and complemented them with publications released since 2014. As always, we welcome additional suggestions in the comments.
St. Paul Historical. https://saintpaulhistorical.com.
The Historyopolis Project. http://historyapolis.com.
Adams, John S., and Barbara J. VanDrasek. Minneapolis-St. Paul: People, Place, and Public Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Anderson, Philip J. and Dag Blanck. Swedes in the Twin Cities: Immigrant Life and Minnesota’s Urban Frontier. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
Bauer, Heidi. The Privilege for Which We Struggled: Leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.
Bergin, Daniel (Twin Cities Public Television). Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis. 2011.
Bessler, John D. Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Borja, Melissa May. “‘To Follow the New Rule or Way’: Hmong Refugee Resettlement and the Practice of American Religious Pluralism.” PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2014.
Buff, Rachel. Immigration and the Political Economy of Home: West Indian Brooklyn and American Indian Minneapolis, 1945-1992. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Busacca, Jeremy. Seeking Self-Determination: Framing, the American Indian Movement, and American Indian Media. Scholar’s Press, 2013.
Cavanaugh, Patricia. “The Politics of Building Urban Interstates: A Contextual Analysis of Twin Cities Cases.” PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2008.
Chambers, Stefani. Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus: Immigrant Incorporation in New Destinations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.
Child, Brenda J. “Politically Purposeful Work: Ojibwe Women’s Labor and Leadership in Postwar Minneapolis,” In Indigenous Women and Work: From Labor to Activism, edited by Carol Williams. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Chrislock, Carl Henry. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety during World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.
Davis, Julie L. Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
D’arcus, Bruce. “The Urban Geography of Red Power: The American Indian Movement in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, 1968-70.” Urban Studies 47, no. 6 (2010): 1241-1255.
Delegard, Kristen. Mapping Prejudice. https://mappingprejudice.umn.edu/index.html.
DeCarlo, Peter. Fort Snelling at Bdote. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2020.
Diers, John W. and Isaacs, Aaron. Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Engstrom, Susannah. “Building a Midwest Cultural Capital: Professional Theater and Urban Development in Minneapolis.” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 6 (2015): 962-80.
Enke, Anne. Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Faster, Karen E. “Newspaper Coverage and Cultural Representations of Racial and Ethnic Groups in Minneapolis, 1941-1971.” PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003.
Faue, Elizabeth. Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Fuller, Sherri Gebert and Sheila Chin Morris. Chinese in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.
Goetting, Jay. Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011.
Hart, Joseph and Hirschoff, Edwin C. Down & Out: The Life and Death of Minneapolis’s Skid Row. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Hart, Sadie. “Urban Community Leaders: Ojibwe and Dakota Women, Urbanization, and Community Renewal in the Twin Cities from 1940 to 1969.” MA thesis, University of Nebraska-Kearney, 2016.
Hase, Michiko. “W. Gertrude Brown’s Struggle for Racial Justice Female Leadership and Community in Black Minneapolis, 1920-1940.” PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1994.
Hess, Jeffrey A., and Paul Clifford Larson. St. Paul’s Architecture : A History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Hickey, Georgina. “The Geography of Pornography: Neighborhood Feminism and the Battle Against ‘Dirty Bookstores’ in Minneapolis.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 32, no. 1 (2011): 125-151.
Hofsommer, Donovan L. Minneapolis and the Age of Railways. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Lorenz-Meyer, Elizabeth Ann. “Gender, Ethnicity, and Space: Jews in Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1900-1930.” PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2006.
Losure, Mary. Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Manuel, Jeffrey T. and Andrew Urban. “‘You Can’t Legislate the Heart’: Minneapolis Mayor Charles Stenvig and the Politics of Law and Order.” American Studies 49, no. 3 (2010): 195-2019.
Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
McCarthy, John. “Values and Identity in the Working Class Worlds of Late Nineteenth-Century Minneapolis.” In The Archaeology of Urban Landscapes: Exploration in Slumland. Cambridge University Press, 2001, 145-153.
—– and Jeanne Ward. “Sanitation Practices, Depositional Processes and Interpretive Contexts of Minneapolis Privies.” Historical Archaeology 34, no. 1 (2000): 111-129.
Millett, Larry. Twin Cities Then and Now. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1996.
—–. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.
Millikan, William. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizen’s Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
Montrie, Chad. “‘A Bigoted, Prejudiced, Hateful Little Area’: The Making of an All-White Suburb in the Deep North.” Journal of Urban History 45, no. 2 (2017): 300-320.
Murphy, Kevin P., Jennifer L. Pierce, and Larry Knopp, eds. Queer Twin Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Nathanson, Iric. Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.
Pennefeather, Shannon M. Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.
Peterson, Garneth O. Jewish Settlement in Minneapolis, 1860s-1972: Historic Context for Minneapolis Preservation Plan. St. Paul: Landscape Research, 1997.
Roble, Abdi and Douglas F. Rutledge. The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Peterson, Penny A. Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Rush, Martha Lee Sevetson. “Race and Education in the ‘Citadel of Civil Rights’: A Study of How the Minneapolis Public Schools Became Segregated.” M.A. thesis, University of Minnesota, 2001.
Schloff, Linda Mack. “Building Community, Building Bridges: Jewish American Women’s Organizations in Minneapolis, 1945-75.” PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1998.
Smemo, K. “A ‘New Dealized’ Grand Old Party: Labor and the Emergence of Liberal Republicanism in Minneapolis, 1937-1939.” Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 11, no. 2 (2014): 35-59.
Spear, Allan H. Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Stoecker, Randy. Defending Community: The Struggle for Alternative Redevelopment in Cedar-Riverside. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994.
Twin Cities PBS. Jim Crow of the North. Season 1, Episode 20 of “The Minnesota Experience.” https://www.tpt.org/minnesota-experience/video/jim-crow-of-the-north-stijws/.
Van Cleve, Stewart. Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Walker, Charles R. American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Williams, Yolanda. “The Intellectual Capital of the Black Music Educators of the Twin Cities (1974-1994).” PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2017.
Winegerd, Mary Lethert. Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
—–. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Featured Image (at top): F. L. Wright, “Boat landing, St. Paul, Minn.,” ca. 1907. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
 William Kent Krueger, This Tender Land (Atria Books, 2019), 345.
 Paul Nelson, “Fairfield and Livingston,” St. Paul Historical, September 17, 2020, https://saintpaulhistorical.com/items/show/128?tour=31&index=3.
 “The Expansionist Era (1805-1858),” Historic Fort Snelling, https://www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling/learn/military-history/expansionist-era.
 Jeffrey A. Hess and Paul Clifford Larson, St. Paul’s Architecture: A History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 1-8.
 John S. Adams and Barbara J. VanDrasek, Minneapolis-St. Paul: People, Place, and Public Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 28-33.
 VanDrasek, Minneapolis-St. Paul, 34-37.
 Larson, St. Paul’s Architecture, 8.
 Larson, St. Paul’s Architecture, 37-39.
 Krueger, This Tender Land, 348.
 Lorraine E. Pierce, “The Jewish Settlement on St. Paul’s Lower East Side,” American Jewish Archives 28, no. 2 (November 1976), 144-45.
 Paul Nelson, “West Side Flats, St. Paul,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/place/west-side-flats-st-paul.
 Laura Weber, “From Exclusion to Integration: The Story of Jews in Minnesota,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society, http://www.mnopedia.org/exclusion-integration-story-jews-minnesota; Pierce, “Jewish Settlement,” 157.
 VanDrasek, Minneapolis-St. Paul, 10, 42.
 Weber, “From Exclusion to Integration”; Pierce, “Jewish Settlement,” 157.
 Krueger, This Tender Land, 368.
 Nelson, “West Side Flats, St. Paul.”
 Krueger, This Tender Land, 366-67.
 Ryan Patrick Murphy and Alex T. Urquhart, “Sexuality in the Headlines: Intimate Upheavals as Histories of the Twin Cities,” in Queer Twin Cities, eds. Jennifer L. Pierce, Kevin P. Murphy, and Larry Knopp (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 42-58.
 Urquhart, “Sexuality in the Headlines: Intimate Upheavals as Histories of the Twin Cities,” 60.
 VanDrasek, Minneapolis-St. Paul, 9.
 Jennifer L. Pierce, “Introduction,” in Queer Twin Cities, eds. Jennifer L. Pierce, Kevin P. Murphy, and Larry Knopp (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xv.
 Krueger, This Tender Land, 372.