Saturday, August 19, 2006

Way Back When

Those of you that were a tiny bit dismayed at the ease in which I was able to find old photos of my house with no real effort on my part may want to skip this post. It may lead to despair :-)

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through one of those neighborhood type newspapers. I live on the border of a few neighborhoods, so I get three or four of these newspapers each month. Mostly I look through them for coupons to local stores. But, on this day I ran across an article that sounded kind of interesting. It was about one of the first families to stake claim to land in South Minneapolis. In particular, the story talked about two sisters in the family that became some of the first female doctors in Minneapolis....and the country.

Something about the story rang a bell with me. The Wass where had I heard this name before?? In Minnesota, when you purchase a house they give you the complete Abstract of Title. It is a summary of the history of the ownership of your parcel of land. My Abstract is pretty thick and I've tried to read through it and make sense of it a few times. It includes things like sales, mortgages, deaths, court judgments, bankruptcy info. and foreclosures (for some reason there have been quite a few on this property).

I pulled out my Abstract and much to my amazement, John and Eliza Wass were the very first recorded owners (of course, the Sioux (Dakota) Indians where here much longer) of the land where my house sits - once part of Fort Snelling. According to my Abstract, John Wass purchased "my" property from the United States on January 19, 1856. He appears to have lost it to forclosure in 1862.

The full article, written by Eric Hart, can be found in pdf format at this neighborhood council website. I've included some of the more interesting (to me) excerpts from the article below:

"Nearly 100 years when women were only a tiny fraction of physicians, the amazing Wass sisters, Anness and Lizzie, were practicing medicine in Minneapolis. The Wass family, despite their humble beginnings in the early frontier days of the neighborhood, produced these extraordinary women who practiced much of their adult lives in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles. The sisters parents were John and Eliza Wass.

The family moved to the Minnesota Territory in 1851 from Indianapolis. Traveling with the infant Anness they probably took a train south to Madison, IN which was on the Ohio River. That was as far as they could get by train in 1851, the first rail connection to the Mississippi from the east wouldn't come until 1854. In order to get to Minnesota, they would have to take a steamboat down the Ohio River to Cairo, IL where the Ohio goes intothe Mississippii, well south of St. Louis. There they could get another steamboat north to St. Paul where they would take a bumpy stage coach ride through the wild Minnesota Territory to St. Anthony, their final destination. St. Anthony was on the east bank of the Mississippi at St. Anthony Falls, directly across from present downtown Minneapolis.

It is likely that as soon as John Wass heard that the Traverse-des-Sioux Treaty had been signed with the Dakota Indians in July of 1851, he made plans to come and claim land in this vast new tract opened up for settlement. He didn't go very far to stake his claim of 156 acres on October 1, 1852. This technically wasn't part of the land the Dakota had ceded to the United States (it was still part of the Fort Snelling ) but that didn't stop these hardy pioneers who expected the land to be quickly opened up for settlement. He was part of the group of early settlers that claimed about half the land in the neighborhood in 1852. In 1852 Minneapolis did not even exist and Hennepin County had just been formed. It was truly the wilderness with many wild animals including wolves!

When the Wass family arrived, they had neighbors just north of present-day Lake Street (tenants in the house that Dorwin Moulton built) and the Atwood's lived just to the south of their property. John Wass built a 12X14 foot log cabin in October 1852 which his wife Eliza and their nearly 2 year old daughter Anness moved into before the end of the month. Their cabin would easily fit in the living room of most houses today! Later he would build a slightly larger 12X16 frame house with three windows and two doors. It was probably in this house that Lizzie was born on August 15, 1854, one of the first white children to be born in the neighborhood.

In those early territorial days, Indians outnumbered white settlers by a large margin and often interacted (for better or worse) with white settlers as they passed through the neighborhood. Indians would have been roaming the neighborhood probably until about 1862 when the Sioux Uprising in southern Minnesota caused all of the Indians to be rounded up and put on reservations. John Wass is listed in the 1857 and 1860 Census as a farmer and in the 1860 Agricultural Census he had a modest 27 acre farm where he raised enough crops and livestock to support his family. He had an additional 155 acres that weren't improved and still in their natural state. Breaking additional acres for farming would have been quite labor intensive due to the scattered oak trees and thick underbrush (later much of the area would be used for the grazing of dairy cattle).

The Wass family moved to Hot Springs Township (St. Helena), Napa County, California in the late 1860s. They probably moved in the summer of 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad was completed from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. If they had left any earlier, they would have taken the long and dangerous overland route by wagon train or taken a lengthy and dangerous sea voyage around the tip of South America. It is unclear why they suddenly moved to California, one possible theory is that one of the family members was ill and they were attracted by the hot springs resort that was just outside St. Helena.

While in California, the sisters must have become interested in becoming physicians and the family moved back east so they could attend medical school at the Women's Medical College of Chicago. At this time women rarely became physicians and for the most part were only admitted to medical schools set up especially for woman. Such medical schools hadn't been set up in the West and the one in Chicago was the closest to Minnesota. The sisters enrolled in the Women's Medical College of Chicago in 1878 and probably lived in Chicago the first year of their program.

The Wass sisters graduated from the Women's Medical College of Chicago in 1882 and immediately started practicing medicine in Minneapolis. They were in the first group of physicians to be licensed in the State of Minnesota in 1883 and two of only 7 licensed women physicians at that time (out of over 700 who were licensed that year). In 1890 there were only about a dozen women physicians in Minnesota, a tiny minority of the nearly 1200 physicians actively practicing that year.

The family lived at 10 different addresses during their second stay in Minneapolis (1878- 1901), mostly in south Minneapolis or near downtown and twice in the Seward neighborhood in the vicinity of 24th Street and 26th Avenue (the home at 2224 26th AVE South where they lived in from 1897-1899 is still standing today). They don't appear to have ever owned their own home and it is unclear why they moved so often. John always lists "real estate" as his occupation which could mean any number of things. One small source of income for the family would have been sales of lots from the Wass Addition, a small subdivision on John Wass' original land claim in the neighborhood that was platted by Anness and Lizzie in 1887.

In the face of strong social norms against women becoming physicians, the Wass sisters overcame those obstacles to have amazing and long careers. It has only been in the last 25 years that women have started to become physicians in large numbers and women like Lizzie and Anness blazed the way for them over 100 years ago.

Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.


Greg said...

Here, let me start your next blog entry for you….

Today I was walking down the street and I found a scrap book from the man who built my house just sitting on the sidewalk. It had detailed notes, blueprints, and photos documenting the construction…..

StuccoHouse said...

Lol...hmm, I'll have to go for a walk today :-) The blueprints would be nice ;-)

You do have to give me credit for recognizing the name from my Abstract....that was some effort on my part.

Josh said...

I'll give you credit for that name recall. What a great story! Looks like it's time for me to re-read my abstact-- I just don't remember those pioneer names.

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