- Historic Sites
“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”
Author of a nightmare fantasy about what the twentieth century might be like, Ignatius Donnelly never saw his other radical ideas—even the good ones—come to pass
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Few people today remember the name of Ignatius Donnelly. Mention it, and often as not it will tall forth the wary half smile of someone who hopes he is not having his leg pulled. Yet in Donnelly’s time—the last half of the nineteenth century- his voice was one of the most forceful in the whole farm protest movement, which swept through the Midwest and large sections of the South.
Donnelly was short, stout, an energetic apple dumpling of a man—clean-shaven in an era of beards. He had many careers: Philadelphia lawyer, land speculator in Minnesota, congressman, farmer, newspaper editor, amateur archaeologist, and author. Above all, he was a tireless organizer, orator, and office-seeker with every major third-party movement that came and went from the 1870’s until the turn of the century. But he undertook projects in the grand manner so frequently, and bounced back from their failure so rapidly, that he was often a hard man to take seriously. When he did achieve recognition it invariably irritated those who had been laboring patiently in the same field before him. His success, they said, was that of a vaudeville magician—brief, flashy, without substance.
Unquestionably there was a measure of hokum in much that Donnelly did. Yet beneath the showmanship, in his later years, he was an earnest reformer with a well-tuned social conscience. He was principal author of the Populist Omaha platform of 1892, one of the clearest statements of party policy devised in the United States since the Civil War. Many of the reforms he and the Populists demanded have come to pass, while many of the opinions held by the dominant majority in their time have been justly forgotten.
Four long bookcases in the Minnesota Historical Society, of letters, ledgers, and pamphlets, contain an unusually full record of Donnelly’s life—complete even to the inclusion of the fortune (aids from public weighing scales where he stopped occasionally after a hearty meal. Most interesting, however, are the diaries—red leather, vest-pocket notebooks running almost without interruption from 18^5, when he was twenty-four years old, to 189/, three years before he died. They are written in green ink, bright purple, or brown; rarely did Donnelly resort to the more conventional blue or black. He was clearly optimistic about the place history would grant him, and his account of events—particularly when they seemed to be going well—is written as though intended to require little editing for publication. Occasionally he reread the work of past years and added a word here or cut a phrase there. But in general he seemed to think well enough of his own past not to attempt major changes or deletions.
Donnelly was born in Philadelphia, one of two sons and four daughters of a well read, well-respected Irish immigrant physician. His mother was a devout Catholic, as were his sisters, though neither Dr. Donnelly nor Ignatius was a communicant in the church. The son was educated in excellent Philadelphia public schools, then studied the law, grew tired of it, and in the spring of :8ß(i headed west for the Mississippi River to see for himself the new land opening up to the northwest. “You cannot imagine, my dear wifey, how perfectly overworked I was the day I left Philadelphia,” he wrote home to Kate, his bride of seven months. “After I got into the cars my nose commenced bleeding at a violent rate and I bloodied two pocket handkerchiefs to a state of saturation.”
Donnelly shakily began his 185(1 diary volume in Toledo, Ohio, (“unhealthy place”) with capsule reactions to the trip. “Chicago—it seems to be the most progressive place in the world … Iowa City—rough woods—had accommodations—conduct of stage drive ( sic )—insolent manners.” But by the time he boarded the Mississippi River steamer York State , the diary picked up an enthusiasm that never quite disappeared until the very last years of his life. He took notes carefully on river-bank contours and possible sites for town development while the stern-wheeler pushed north in the cool May sunshine past Winona and Wabasha to Hastings, some twenty miles southeast of St. Paul: Hastings, about a year and n half old, appeared the most thriving place I had yet met. Well situated with the Cannon River Country behind it. Said to be very rich … The price of lots fronting on the river 60 x 100 was moderately stated at $1500. One storekeeper whose place was pointed out has taken in we were informed as high as $1000 in gold in one day. Very thriving place. … Immediately after leaving Hastings the River bank on the southwest side is hidden by low ground overgrown with trees dense and thick. Other side recommences those same castellated bluffs, red and green and yellow, which we saw all along the AIississippi … Night came upon us just as our eyes lit upon the site of Niningcr City—its levee front—its landing-thc little millthe store house—etc. etc.
Here, on the frontier (the real frontier was a fair distance west of the Mississippi by then, but Minnesota would do nicely Tor a man fresh from Spruce Street, Philadelphia), Donnelly dreamed of a city to rival or perhaps even dwarf St. Paul, then a town of less than ten thousand. At Nininger, an hour’s walk from Hastings, he and a group of promoters bought tip more than Goo acres of farmland on the high southwest river bank. They laid out 6,800 lots and set to work selling them at six dollars apiece.