Artist's concept of the house from a report on its excavation Mn Hist. Society, 1968



Only low walls remain

Low stoic walls of cemented quarried granite are all that remain of the once grand residence of Joseph R. Brown. Time, weather and social elements conspire to change and reclaim the physical evidence of human inhabitation.

Today, the outer walls of the house are clearly visible in granite blocks which form a structure whose dimensions are 47 feet, four inches by 27 feet, six inches. The north wall stands about 12 feet tall in the center and projects about three feet tall and the side walls vary between four feet and five feet tall. The southeast corner stands about four and a half feet tall.

The setting has changed, too. The suppression of wildfires has allowed cedar and box elder trees to dominate the landscape on the site and the prairie hillsides surrounding it. Trees now block the commanding river view, once prized by Joseph Brown.

Who was Joseph R. Brown?

Joseph R. Brown was born in Maryland in 1805 and grew up in Pennsylvania. At the age of 13 he joined the U.S. Army, coming to Minnesota in 1819 as a drummer boy with the first troops assigned to build Fort Snelling. HE remained a soldier at Fort Snelling until 1825 when he began a long career of trading with the Dakota people, first with a trading post in a cabin just outside the Fort. From 1825 to 1835 he was an independent trader associated with the American Fur Company headed by Henry Sibley, and was stationed in isolated posts along the Minnesota River near the Chippewa River, Big Stone Lake, and Lake Traverse.

It was at Lake Traverse in 1835 that he married Susan Frenier, the daughter of a French-Canadian father and Dakota-Scotch mother who had been raised near Lake Traverse by her Dakota mother and stepfather. During the 1840s, they lived in the Wisconsin Territory at a town site he platted and named "Dakota" – the town is known today as Stillwater, Minnesota. In 1849, Brown served on the first central committee of the newly organized Democratic Party in Minnesota.

In the 1850s, Brown served as secretary of the Territorial Council, chief clerk of the House of Representatives and a member of both the State House and Senate. He edited the Minnesota Pioneer and platted the Minnesota River town of Henderson, where he lived and published a newspaper. In 1857 he served as chief of Henry Sibley’s successful campaign for election as the State’s first governor and later played a role in formulating the State constitution.

In 1857, Joseph Brown was appointed to Sibley to serve as United States Indian Agent for the Dakota, a federal political appointment. Between 1857 and 1861, the family lived at the Yellow Medicine or Upper Sioux Agency. Brown was responsible for activities at both the Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies, which had been established in 1851 after the sighing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. IN 1858, he led a delegation of Dakota to Washington, D.C. on a visit that resulted in the signing of the 1858 treaty in which the Dakota forfeited their reservation on the north side of the Minnesota River. Brown served as U.S. Government Agent to the Dakota until 1861 when a Republican appointee, Thomas Galbraith, a man who was unfamiliar and unsympathetic with the Dakota people and their needs, replaced him. Some historians believe that the removal of Brown from the position of Indian Agent was a major factor in the increased tension that eventually exploded into the Dakota conflict of 1862.

Construction begins.

Construction of the house began in June of 1861, after Brown had lost his agency position. Although no known photographs exist of the house, family members and others wrote descriptions of the building. The house was a three-and-a-half story, 19-room stone structure built by a crew under the direction of Leopold Wohler. The house measured 48 feet long and 28 feet wide, and was build into the hillside with the first floor main entrance on the south side and an opening into the second floor. The length of the house’s south side was covered by a wood frame second story porch and a third story open balcony.

Pinkish granite blocks cut from a quarry near the site were used to build the exterior of this house. It is thought to be the earliest known house make of quarried granite in Minnesota. Lime for the stonework was made in a local kiln. Interior walls were constructed of bricks made at the Upper Sioux Agency government brickyards. The interior walls were finished with two or tree coats of lime plaster that was strengthened with animal hair and tinted different colors in the different rooms. Most of the lumber for the windows and floors came from New Ulm, although some may have been cut at the Upper Agency’s sawmill. The house is thought to have had 31 windows.

The first floor of the house had a wide central hall, with two large rooms thought to be a kitchen and dining room and four smaller rooms that may have served as pantries and storerooms. The second and third floors served as parlors, sitting rooms, and bedrooms. The attic contained a billiard table and Joseph Brown’s desk. The house was furnished and upholstered furniture, heavy Damask curtains, bronze and crystal chandeliers, a piano, and the latest cooking and serving utensils.

Fire destroys the house.

The Brown house had just been completed when the Dakota conflict occurred. On August 19, 1962, Susan Brown, her 12 children, hired help and neighbors abandoned the house. During the conflict the house was gutted by fire and nearly all of the Brown’s furnishings and personal belongings were lost or destroyed. Substantial damage was done to the structure. Only the walls were left standing. Remains of lime plaster, metal, glass, and ceramic mingled with the ashes piled on the first floor.

The ruins of the Brown house remained abandoned from 1862 until 1865 when it was homesteaded by Lotus F. Green. He converted the stable building into a house and lived there from 1865 to 1876. During the next 60 years much of the stone from the house walls and foundation, stable and root cellar was removed from the site by local citizens and used to construct other local structures.

Archaeological excavations of 1938 and 1968

In 1937, the Brown House ruins and three acres were acquired by the State of Minnesota for use as a park.

An archaeological investigation on the house and sit was first conducted by the Division of State Parks in June of 1938 to collect information for a possible reconstruction of the house. Richard R. Sackett led a crew, comprised of Minnesota Historical Society personnel and workers from the Works Progress Administration, in this investigation.

The first archaeological investigation was conducted from June 6 through June 26, 1938. When the work began, the house foundation was visible, with only one small section of wall between two windows still standing. All the other walls had collapsed into the first floor. What remained of the collapsed walls was covered with soil and heavy sod. After the soil and sod was removed, the granite blocks from the fallen walls were exposed. These heavy granite blocks covered the buried cultural material and served to protect it from looters and souvenir hunters.

Below the layer of granite blocks, the excavators found a mass of brick, mortar, and plaster, which had collapsed in from the interior walls and chimney. Beneath the brick was a layer of ash. Contained in this layer of ash were what remained of the Brown family’s personal belongings and furnishings.

Sackett’s crew cleared away the soil from around the foundation and removed the granite block, bricks, plaster, and debris lying inside the surviving walls. It was this excavation that determined the interior dimension and first floor layout, the methods and some of the materials utilized in construction, and recovered and identified most of what remained of the cultural items.

All of the material removed from the house was collected 250 feet south of the foundation and separated into piles of granite blocks, brick and ash. The ash was left with the intention of screening it at a later date.

Much of the cultural material recovered during this excavation was in poor condition. Items such as wooden furniture, clothing, leather, cloth, and foodstuffs did not survive the fire or the years buried in the ash layer since very few objects made of these materials were found. Many of the recovered metal objects were unidentifiable because of a heavy coating of lime. Most of the glass was melted beyond recognition. Only large sherds of ceramics and china were recovered.

Because the wooden structural parts of the house such as beams, joists, flooring, walls, stairs, railings, porches, roof, rafters, windows and doors were destroyed when the house burned, it could not be determined what type of wood was used, or its dimensions. Nor could it be determined the arrangement and appearance of the second and third floors, and the type and number of windows used.

Identifying the recovered objects.

The 1938 investigation by Sackett uncovered and identified several hundred items, including: metal parts from one piano, door locks, hinges and latches, a meat grinder, a broken skillet, iron kettles, a cooking stove, large quantities of broken china, a heating stove, flatirons, brass candlesticks, thimble and embroidery scissors, and a sewing machine. The location of these items in the ruins was used to give an indication as to the activity or function within each room on the first floor. The available evidence did not allow Sackett to determine arrangement of the rooms on the second and third floors. The Brown sewing machine is now in the possession of the Renville County Historical Society.

In 1939, after Sackett’s dig, the Division of State Parks stabilized the ruins by blearing the base of the foundation and covering it with a layer of crushed rock, removing a large section of the original walls and the granite porch supports. The upper portions of the foundation were then stabilized with granite blocks newly quarried about a mile from the site. The stable remains were covered or removed and the remaining site was landscaped.

The current wayside site marker was placed there in 1959.

In July 1968, the Minnesota Historical Society conducted further excavations and literature searches to complete those done in 1938. Carla G. Lindeman and David W. Nystuen were the principle investigators on the 1968 excavation. They sought to locate and examine the ash pile from the 1938 excavation, examine the north entrance at the second floor level, root cellar and well, and locate the stable and steamboat landing. Attempts to locate the stable and the steamboat landing were unsuccessful. It is thought that the wayside site marker now stands on the stable site. The constant changing course of the river over the last 100 years had eliminated any evidence of the landing by 1968.

Almost 3,000 items were recovered from the ash pile, cellar and north entrance excavations. Nails and plate fragments comprised the majority of recovered items. Other items identified are: lime plaster, window glass (much of it fused), kettle and stove fragments, bottles and bottle fragments made of colored glass (most of if fused), and ceramic fragments from saucers, bowls, pitchers, jars, and crocks. Some pieces had identifiable potter’s or registrations markings.

The Brown house – Modern and luxurious for its time.

The materials recovered in the 1938 and 1968 excavations confirmed reports of the house’s modern and luxurious furnishings. An example of the luxurious furnishings was: the use of kerosene lamps that were only recently introduced in America. However, candles were used, too, as candle holders were found during the excavations. Kerosene was probably difficult to obtain because of the distance to the nearest local supply at New Ulm. The piano and sewing machine, parts of which were found during the 1938 excavation, were considered genuine luxuries.

The Brown house was unusual for its time and location. It was the first house to be built of quarried granite in southwestern Minnesota during the 1860s. In southwestern Minnesota, most structures were cabins or small wood frame houses. Brick houses had been built at the Upper Sioux Agency and stone buildings were at the Lower Sioux Agency and Fort Ridgely. None of them could compare in size and grandeur to the Brown house.

RT. 2, BOX 92