The task was ambitious, and the odds of success slim. Nevertheless, after an exhaustive investigation, local amateur historian Michelle Gatz thinks she’s found the long lost first church bell of Minnesota. In order to uncover what ultimately happened to this important artifact of Minnesota history, Gatz found herself going all the way back to before Minnesota was even a state.
The bell dates to the early settlement period and was originally placed at the Lac qui Parle mission in 1841 -- a full 17 years before Minnesota was admitted to the Union in 1858. This early history of the bell is tied up with the story of Reverend Stephen Riggs, a religious leader, lexicographer of the Dakota language, and a primary eyewitness to the US-Dakota War of 1862. By reconstructing Riggs’ story, Gatz thinks she has finally found the answer.
According to Gatz, there are two traditional theories that explain the mysterious origins of the bell. According to one contemporary of Riggs writing in 1850, the bell was ordered from southern Ohio because Rev. Riggs and his wife Mary first migrated from there to what is today Minnesota. The other explanation is that the bell was originally cast by the Meneely Bell Company in West Troy (now Watervliet), New York. Gatz said that both explanations were plausible, but “I have found no evidence to support either theory.”
Indeed, the precise location of the bell after 1862 is unclear. In one account, the bell was brought to Traverse des Sioux in 1862, while other accounts pinpoint the bell in several other locations. Gatz explains that tracing the exact course of events during this period is challenging because of conflicting versions of events.
During the 1840s and 50s, Riggs established himself as an authority on the Dakota language and developed close connections with local Dakota people. In 1851, Riggs was instrumental in helping explain the terms of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux to the Dakota signers. The treaty, widely viewed by modern historians as an unequal agreement, ceded significant portions of traditionally Dakota land to the United States in exchange for the creation of reservations along the Minnesota River and annual payments of money and goods. Riggs eventually became a minister at the Hazelwood Republic (a self-governing organization formed by Christian Dakota farming families near the Upper Sioux Agency who broke with the communal tribal structures).
When war erupted between the Dakota and the white settlers in the summer of 1862 (as a result of repeated treaty violations by the U.S. government), Riggs was called upon to assist as a translator. In one version of events related to us by the historian Ida Kohr, the bell was lost following the destruction of the Hazelwood mission by Dakota warriors. Riggs and his family nearly lost their lives during the opening salvos of the conflict and only managed to escape through the help of their Christian Dakota neighbors. Riggs went on to volunteer as the chaplain in the army of former governor General Hastings Sibley.
“A search was made of all church bells and farmyard bells in this part of the Minnesota Valley but to no avail,” Gatz explained. She added that other historians guessed that “Riggs probably retrieved the bell later and took it with him when he established the Good Will Church near Sisseton after the events of the uprising were over” but that a search of the area “initially proved fruitless. A bell was later found roughly 18 miles northwest of Sisseton, but Gatz doubts it’s the original since Riggs never mentioned the bell in the ruins of the Hazleton mission during his visit there in 1870, a view shared by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Gatz explored several other alternative explanations, including one repeated by Granite Falls Tribune in an article from 1925. This story argued that the bell was purposely sunk in the Yellow Medicine River by a “veteran Indian fighter,” later salvaged, and then sold to a steamboat company operating in Mississippi. Upon closer inspection, Gatz concluded that the bell in this story most likely came from another the Williamson settlement near Hazelwood mission and was not the first state bell.
A major breakthrough in the search came when Gatz came across an 1864 letter written to Riggs by an acquaintance, the Reverend Edward Livermore. At the time, Livermore was serving as the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion in St. Peter, Minnesota. In the letter, he asked to purchase “the bell lately used for the Indian Mission.” He added that “it will be pleasant to hear in our chapel a memento of the zealous,” possibly alluding to the tumultuous early history of the bell.
Gatz reached out to the current pastor of the church, who agreed to dig through the parish archives. He reported to her that "the bell from the original wood church was transferred to the new church” and that “it was made by the Meenley [sic] Bell Company of West Troy." This is the same company that supposedly made the original bell. Unfortunately, the only way to confirm the finding is by checking the manufacture year usually located on the bell’s exterior. Gatz says this will be tricky since “the bell hangs outside of the church in a steeple and there is no way up to the bell but by an outside lift.”
Still, she is hopeful that she’s finally solved the 150-year-old mystery. “The evidence of Rev. Livermore that I have accumulated shows that he was a man of action but not one to keep written records,” she explained, adding that “his desire to have a complete church with a bell makes sense that he would buy a bell.”
According to Gatz, plans are already underway to verify her theory about the location of the first church bell in Minnesota. Granite Falls resident Dorian Gatchell has agreed to use his drone to inspect the bell tower, something Gatz hopes will “either confirm or deny the result.”
Although the mystery will probably linger for a little while longer, the remarkable story of the very first church bell in the state of Minnesota weaves together remote and often dark aspects of our shared history. It’s an important reminder of where we come from and the collective responsibility to preserve and honor our roots.