History of the Minnesota State Flag and Seal

1849 | Minnesota Territorial Seal

1849 Minnesota Territorial Seal
1849 Minnesota Territorial Seal (image flipped vertically for clarity, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

The territorial seal was designed by Capt. Seth Eastman, based on a sketch by Col. J.J. Albert, at the request of Gov. Alexander Ramsey and Delegate Henry Sibley. Eastman’s wife, Mary Eastman, wrote a poem about the seal in which she described the westward flight (into the sunset) of the Indian from the pioneer in Minnesota.

“Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun’s parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough.”

These sentiments would cause controversies over the seal in the 1960’s. The seal was mistakenly engraved in reverse.

1858 | Minnesota State Seal

1858 Minnesota State Seal
1858 Minnesota State Seal (courtesy Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State)

The bill for a completely new state seal seems to have been “mislaid” by Henry Sibley, who simply modified his territorial seal — an arrangement confirmed by law in 1861. Sibley created a new motto for the state seal: “L’etoile du nord” — which is French for “the North Star.” In 1881, the seal was re-cast (with minor changes) after a fire at the Capitol.

1861-65 | Minnesota’s Civil War Battle Flags

1861 5th Minnesota Battle Flag
Battle Flag of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment

In keeping with Union custom, several Minnesota regiments carried blue battle flags with the state seal in the center, including the 1st Minnesota (which fought at Gettysburg), and the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Minnesota. Most other Minnesota battle flags, however, had the American eagle in the center, by federal regulations. Many of Minnesota’s battle flags are today displayed in the Capitol rotunda.

1893 | The First Minnesota State Flag

1893 The First Minnesota State Flag
The First Minnesota State Flag (courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

In 1893, the Minnesota delegation to the Chicago World’s Fair held a contest (under the auspices of the state legislature) to design a “Minnesota State Flag.” The flag was intended to serve as a promotional tool for the state at its exhibition pavilion in Chicago. Amelia Hyde Center of Minneapolis submitted the winning entry: a white flag with the state seal, framed by other symbols. The reverse of her flag was blue. To date, the inspiration for her design is unclear. Some historians believe that she imitated Minnesota’s Civil War battle flags, but others believe that she simply imitated existing state flags, elsewhere. Because of its complexity, her design was rarely reproduced. (Cf. “The Origin of the Minnesota State Flag: A Theory“)

1957 | The Second Minnesota State Flag

The Second Minnesota State Flag (1957)
The Second Minnesota State Flag (1957)

Infrequent use of the state flag and complaints about its bulk and expense caused the legislature to simplify its design, in preparation for the state centennial (1958); an interim committee was established (1955) to work out the details. The new flag became law in 1957. Both sides of the new state flag were blue, with the reverse side being a mirror-image of the obverse. Citing problems with the committee’s ideas, several legislators had instead proposed a completely new design which was red, white, and blue, with gold stars. Chief among these legislators was Rep. John Tracy Anderson, who collaborated with the-then adjutant general.

1983 | The Third State Flag

The Third Minnesota State Flag (1983)
The Third Minnesota State Flag (1983)

In 1968, the State Human Rights Commissioner asked the Secretary of State to have the state seal changed, because of complaints that it portrayed the flight of the Indian from the pioneer. The request was considered inopportune. However, during the 1960’s, the Secretary of State (on his own initiative) introduced a new seal in which the fleeing Indian was replaced by a pioneer on horseback. This seal was never used on the state flag. Then, in 1983, a new law restored the Indian to the seal, and standardized the seal’s exact design, since many small differences had become clear in its various renditions. In the new design, the Indian rides toward the south (rather than westward), in response to the earlier concerns of civil rights advocates. The new seal results in the third version of the state flag.

1989 | A Proposal for a New Flag

The North Star Flag
The North Star Flag by Rev. William Becker of Winona & Lee Herold of Rochester

In 1989, a citizens’ coalition began to campaign for a new flag, in time for the centennial of the first state flag (1993). They also proposed the retention of the current flag as a ceremonial standard for state executive officers. Two hearings were held in the House Governmental Operations Committee, under the bi-partisan sponsorship of Rep. Wayne Simoneau and Rep. Gil Gutknecht. The House leadership did not permit the study to continue. Nevertheless, the proposal received numerous endorsements from international flag experts, including the expert who designed the flag of Canada. Endorsements also came from state newspaper editors, including the editors of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press even held a “contest” for a new state flag. The proposal of the citizen’s coalition was based on the following international standards for flag design:

  1. To Espouse Minnesota’s Ideals: the flag’s message must be timeless; it must use traditional colors and symbols; its message must be unifying.
  2. To Identify our State: it must have a proper graphic form; it must communicate well at a distance; one must be able to remember its design/meaning; it must be easily distinguished from other flags.
  3. To Be Widely Used: it should not be too costly; it should be manipulate (in various shapes, sizes); it should admit of exact legal standardization.

2001 | Experts Rate Minnesota Flag as Poor

A national organization of flag scholars, the North American Vexillological Association, published a survey in which experts rated Minnesota’s current flag as one of the ten worst designs in the U.S. and Canada (67th of 72 flags rated). The expert survey judged flag designs according to their visibility at a distance, and effective use of pattern and symbol. News organizations widely reported the study. The study still bolsters legislative efforts to change the flag.

2000-Present | More Proposals for a New State Flag

In February 2000, and again in February 2002, Senator Edward Oliver proposed that the state flag be changed. He held press conferences and introduced a bill (SF #3201) calling for a study of the matter. In 2002, his bill passed in House committee, but failed in Senate committee. Oliver retired from the legislature after the 2002 session. In March 2006, Senator Linda Higgins re-introduced Oliver’s previous bill (SF #3459) calling for a study of the state flag. The bill passed the Senate committee but failed in the House committee. It was re-introduced in the 2007 session by Rep. Tina Liebling (HF #1385 / SF #1454).

Questions Raised by the State Flag and Seal’s History:

  • The state flag has been in use for over a century (despite alterations), and likely has roots in some Minnesota battle flags carried in the Civil and Dakota Wars. Does this make its tradition inviolable? When does a flag-design enjoy a “living tradition” as opposed to “heirloom” status?
  • The seal on the flag originally celebrated the “manifest destiny” of the white man to replace the Indian on the frontier. What does this history mean for the future of the flag? Should a flag propose historical ideals for the future, or instead commemorate actual history (even the negative aspects)?
  • In 1983 the legislature rearranged the figures to suggest harmony among the races. Can a legislative decree actually redefine the original meaning of the seal and flag?
  • The state flag has its origins in a painting; namely, a watercolor of a pioneer and Indian on the frontier. Do paintings make good flags, or do flags comprise a different artistic medium?
  • Three different versions of the flag have been in force since 1893, due to modifications of its sign-elements. Have these changes made it a successful symbol of Minnesota for the future?

Sources: in addition to the links above, cf.
William M. Becker, “The Origin of the Minnesota State Flag,” Minnesota History (Spring 1992), 2-8 & 41.
Minnesota Legislature, “Minnesota State Symbols,” Official Website.

Author: Rev. William M. Becker