Second of a two-part series
The founder of Caledonia, Capt. Samuel McPhail, credited with naming both that village and Houston County during the early 1850s, was a most prominent early settler in both Southeast and southwest Minnesota. Arriving in Brownsville with his wife in 1850, he founded Caledonia in 1853 and was greatly responsible for it becoming the county seat. If not for McPhail, there would have been no Caledonia to challenge Houston and Brownsville in the county seat election.
He donated two lots for the first school. And although known for his consumption of hard liquor, McPhail, in 1857, ironically donated two lots for the building of the Methodist Church, a denomination in the forefront of anti-alcohol campaigns.
There was tragedy with Sam and Martha losing two of their four children – first child Minnesota and third child Ara, both about age two and buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Raised in the deep south, McPhail realized that war was imminent and in 1861, recruited the first group of Houston County volunteers even before actual fighting had begun in the Civil War. There are conflicting accounts of whether he actually served in the war. When the Sioux tribe threatened western Minnesota in 1862, it is certain that he – commissioned as a colonel – commanded the First Regiment of the Minnesota Mounted Rangers in suppressing that uprising.
Some accounts have McPhail returning from Civil War duty to fight the Sioux and then returning to Civil War service. But county military historian David Klinski maintains the Civil War service is unsubstantiated, and McPhail – except for the Sioux uprising – was home in Caledonia during the war. The military draft, first instituted during the Civil War, was scary to many who, if drafted, would rather avoid military service by securing a substitute or paying the government a $300 commutation fee. Always an entrepreneur, McPhail started an insurance company to alleviate that fear. If a policy holder was drafted, the company would supply the $300 commutation fee.
After war ended in 1865, McPhail – at age 39 – was again a pioneer. While combatting Indians, he evidently had been attracted to the western prairies. He left Caledonia and the graves of two children behind, and along the Redwood River, founded a town he would name Redwood Falls.
He built a cabin with salvaged logs and salvaged bricks, and also constructed a stockade, since there was still concern about roving bands of Sioux. He opened his cabin for the education of the children and hired their teacher.
A year and a half later, McPhail platted the town of Redwood Falls. He sold lots but again donated land – for county use, notably the courthouse. The Colonel also financed the first years of Redwood County operations. McPhail was the Judge of Probate, the first county attorney, first road supervisor, editor of the first newspaper, dealt in real estate, acquired an interest in a sawmill and contracted for railroad construction. In 1874, Redwood Falls had a population of 200, and Col. McPhail was its most distinguished citizen.
A most colorful tale involved a “walking duel,” after a liquor-laden tavern dispute, with saber-swinging Sam following his gun-toting adversary two miles out of town before it ended when McPhail stopped at a brewery for refreshment.
After 12 years in Caledonia and a decade in Redwood Falls, Col. McPhail – at age 49 in 1875 – made one more move to Lincoln County, where he would reside during his final 27 years. He settled on a tree claim, where for the government, he studied which trees flourished best in the Minnesota climate. And he was the county attorney – for a third Minnesota county.
His wife Martha died in 1885, and he married again and would father three more children. He died of stomach cancer in 1902, at the age of 75, and was buried in the front yard of his farm home eight miles west of Minneota, Minn. Years later, the family moved his remains to a cemetery in Canby, Yellow Medicine County.
Raised in Louisiana, fought in Mexico and married in Missouri, McPhail spent his final 52 years in Minnesota founding two county seats while pioneering three counties before being buried in a fourth.
Much of this information came from the publication Caledonia Pride and the research of county historian David Klinski.