The area of Polk County, Minnesota was inhabited by various early
American Indian tribes. The Sioux and the Chippewa, in particular, struggled over the
possession of the wild rice fields. Trappers and traders began traveling the area as early
as 1825 using the Pembina Trail for their ox carts. It was a 400 mile trip taking 30-40
days. In 1851 Minnesota Territorial Governor Ramsey negotiated a treaty with the Indians
at Pembina. But, this treaty was never ratified by the U. S. Congress. Hence, many Indian
uprisings between 1851-1862 resulted in the death of numerous early white settlers whom
the Sioux, in particular, resented. Finally, in 1863 Governor Ramsey and U.S. Commissioner
Morrill negotiated the Old Crossing Treaty at the place where the Pembina Trail crossed
the Red Lake River.
At the first meeting of the Minnesota State legislature in 1858
Polk County was created. On the west it ran from the mouth of the Turtle River to
Georgetown. On the south the border was from Georgetown up the Buffalo River to the
northern boundary of Breckenridge and Becker Counties and eastward to the southeast
extremity of Lake Itasca. On the east the boundary moved from Lake Itasca north and east
up the Mississippi River to the northeast extremity of Cass Lake and then due north to the
boundary of Pembina County. The northern border was a straight line due east from the
mouth of the Turtle River to the southern boundary of Pembina County. Polk County was the
parent to the following present-day counties: Clearwater, Pennington, Red Lake, Mahnomen,
and Norman Counties, and parts of Clay, Becker, Beltrami and Marshall Counties. The first
county seat was Douglas, a trading post established by Norman Kittson and Joe Rolette
where the Pembina Trail crossed the Red Lake River. This is now known as Huot.
The first settler in Polk County who built a house was W. C. Nash
in East Grand Forks in 1869. Nash was employed as a mail carrier, contractor and Indian
trader. In June, 1871 other permanent settlers traveled into the region in wagon trains
driving their cattle with them. Since the land was unsurveyed, everyone was a
"squatter" thus making their own boundaries. They raised cattle since there was
plenty of prairie hay for feed. Ox teams were used for transportation and farm work. Each
family farmed on a small scale for their own needs because of the lack of markets and the
overabunndance of grasshoppers. Most of the 1871 settlers were Norweigians from
southeastern Minnesota. These families included the surnames: Steenerson, Estenson,
Setermoe, Jevning, Ose, Simon, Spokley , Tollefson, Knutson, Bremseth, Jacobson, and
A BRIEF HISTORY
Polk County in 1858 had the unique distinction of having two watersheds
draining in opposite directions. The Mississippi River, which formed the
southeast boundary of the county from Lake Itasca to Cass Lake, emptied its
water ultimately in the Gulf of Mexico, while the Red River of the North,
which formed the western boundary of the county, emptied its water into
Hudson Bay. After all of the changes in land area of the county had been
made, the county today lies wholly in the Red River Valley.
In 1958, the land area of the county was less than one-half its original
area. The land area of Polk County was established when Governor H. H.
Sibley signed the bill creating the county on July 27, 1858. The land area
for the county was set off from the territorial county of Pembina, which
included parts of northwestern Minnesota and northeastern North Dakota. The
law set up the southern boundary of Pembina as the northern boundary of Polk
County. When the present counties north of Polk were established, the name
Pembina was erased from the county map of Minnesota.
The boundaries of the county, as originally established, commenced at the
southwest corner of Pembina county, opposite the mouth of the Turtle River
and running up the Red River to the mouth of the Buffalo River at
Georgetown; thence, easterly up the Buffalo River along the northern
boundary of the then named Breckenridge County and then along the northern
boundary of Becker County to the southeastern extremity of Lake Itasca;
then, north and east up the Mississippi to its intersection of the county's
eastern boundary line at the northeast extremity of Cass Lake; then, due
north to the southern boundary of Pembina County, then, due west to the
point opposite the mouth of the Turtle River, the place of its beginning.
The first division of the county occurred in 1862, when a sizable strip of
land across the southern boundary was allotted to Clay County. The southern
boundary of Polk and the northern boundary of Clay counties were established
on a line between Townships 142 and 143.
The second division of Polk County occurred in 1866 when all of the land
east, between the ranges 38 and 39, was set off to form a part of Beltrami
County. (The land adjacent to the eastern boundary of the county was later
separated from Beltrami County to form the present Clearwater County).
Some confusion occurred, regarding the northern boundary of Polk County,
when Marshall County was established in 1879. The act establishing Marshall
County had the dividing line between the two counties, between Townships 154
and 155N, while the original boundary, when Polk was set off from Pembina,
was fixed between Sections 6 and 7, Township 154N. This boundary was
reaffirmed by the following legislature, and remains at the present northern
county boundary. With the squaring up of the south and east boundaries, the
land area of the county was reduced to 4,450 square miles.
At the 1880-81 session of the Minnesota Legislature, an act was passed
creating the new county of Norman from the southern third of Polk County.
The new southern boundary of Polk County and the northern boundary of Norman
County were fixed on an east and west line between Townships 146 and 147.
Norman County was allotted 1,432 square miles of land area and it in turn
was later reduced when 572 square miles of the eastern part was set off to
form Mahnomen County.
The last division of Polk County took place following the general election
1896, when an irregular portion of the north central and northeast
townships, totaling 1,039 square miles, was set off to form Red Lake County.
The eastern boundary of the central section of Polk and the western boundary
of Red Lake was established between Ranges 46W and 45W, beginning at the
north boundary of the county and extending south to the northern boundary of
Township 150, Range 45W (Gentilly Township); thence south along the eastern
boundary of that township to an east and west line between Townships 149 and
150 to form the south boundary of Red Lake County. The southern boundary of
Red Lake extends east to Range 41W, thence, north and east bordering on
Township 150, Range 40W (Chester Township); thence, north and east f
ollowing the west and northern boundaries of Township 152, Range 39W
(Johnson Township); thence, north along the eastern boundary of Polk County
to the Marshall County line. (Red Lake County, too, suffered dismemberment
when in 1920 its north half [approximate] was set off to form Pennington
While the successful attempts to divide the land area have been duly
documented, yet the history of Polk County would be incomplete unless a
brief account of the unsuccessful attempts to divide the county were made in
this report. The writer, upon his arrival in Polk County, was intrigued by
the reports, many of them first hand from participants, of the unsuccessful
attempts to divide the county. Argument for county division was not without
justification. Before the general use of the automobile in the early
twenties, a relay journey by team and railroad meant about a two-day trip to
the county seat for residents in the northwestern and northeastern part of
The ambitious and aspirations of the citizens of the towns and villages to
become county seats were the other driving forces working for county
dismemberment. The law passed by the State Legislature in 1893, which
permitted voters to decide at general elections on county division, added
fuel to the fire of enthusiasm of factional groups for county division. Four
sectional groups filed petitions for county divisions, which were voted on
in the general election of 1894. The proposed divisions of the county with
proposed county names and county seats were: west, Nash with East Grand
Forks as county seat; north central, Red Lake with Red Lake Falls as county
seat; east, the group favoring McIntosh as county seat submitted the name
Columbia – those designating Fosston as the county seat submitted Nelson as
the county name. This first attempt to slice up the county into three parts
The following session of the legislature amended the County Division Law to
permit voters to vote on only one division proposal at any one election.
Similar petitions for county division were again placed before the voters in
the general election of 1896. This election carried for Red Lake County. The
last important county division election occurred in 1902 when petitioners
sought to separate the eastern part from the parent county.
The late Charles Conger, a friend who then resided in McIntosh, gave an
excellent report of the county division fight in the 1916 HISTORY AND
BIOGRAPHY OF POLK COUNTY, entitled "The rise and Fall of Columbia County".
The four petitions voted on in the 1902 election were in agreement on land
area, fixing the line of separation on the western boundaries of Garden,
Woodside and Grove Park Townships. The groups were in disagreement, however,
on the county names and county seat towns. The proposed county names and
county seats were: Nelson with Fosston, Columbia with McIntosh, North Star
with Erskine and Valley with Mentor. The petition for Columbia County
carried the most yes votes and Governor Van Sant issued his proclamation
declaring the proposition for the creation and organ ization of the Columbia
The new Columbia County proceeded to organize the commissioners named in the
petition as the organizing agency. The legality of the election was
questioned, inasmuch as all petitions included the same land area. Polk
County contested the election before the State Supreme Court. The Supreme
Court handed down its decision on April 16, 1903, stating, "That the
pretended organization of the new county was invalid and of no effect and
its pretended officials were ousted from the offices they claimed to hold".
Considerable business had been transacted by the new county officials before
the Supreme Court decision was handed down. The 1907 legislature however
legalized in part many of the acts of the temporary organization pertaining
primarily to estates, tax payments, marriage licenses and other minor& ;nbs
p; matters. The final attempt to divide the county by the Nelson County
advocates was decisively defeated in the 1908 election.
One interesting sidelight of legal significance was brought out in the final
division of the county. The issue in controversy, between Polk and Red Lake
counties, was whether or not Red Lake County should bear its share of the
bonded indebtedness incurred while it was still a part of Polk County. The
State Supreme Court reversed the decision of District Judge William Watts
and ruled that Red Lake County should pay its share.
Title: Centennial History of Polk County
By T. M. McCall, 1961.
Copyright 2006-2015 MNGenWeb & Shirley Dorgan
Updated Oct. 30, 2006, S. Dorgan
Updated March 27, 2015, K. Kittleson