First of a two-part series
He named his daughter Minnesota, his dog Santa Anna, his town Caledonia and his county Houston. Capt. Samuel McPhail founded the towns of Caledonia and Redwood Falls. He was a soldier, an attorney, a businessman, an Indian fighter, a tree scientist and one of the most colorful pioneers in Houston County – unforgettable to all who heard his squeaky voice relating any of his witty anecdotes.
Born in Kentucky to Scottish immigrants on May 2, 1826, and raised in Louisiana, McPhail was in military school at age 16 and at war at age 20. He was one of the Mexican War veterans who migrated into Minnesota Territory and founded towns and left other long-enduring legacies. That war experience began in the state of Texas where the soldiers served under Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott and came home with strong admiration for pro-war Texas Senator Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas Revolution and the president of the Republic of Texas before Texas statehood in 1845.
Taylor had been elected president in 1848, and Scott was a presidential candidate in 1852 about the time veteran W.G. McSpadden was founding and naming the village of Houston after Sam Houston and naming the nearby village of Winfield (for General Scott). In 1854, the naming of Houston County is attributed to McPhail – maybe influenced by fellow Mexican War veteran Job “Wild Bill” Brown, the founder of Brownsville. There was also the townsite of San Jacinto, surely named for the Battle of San Jacinto – Sam Houston’s victory that assured Texas independence from Mexico.
McPhail’s dog Santa Anna was the curious namesake of the Mexican general who fought against McPhail and Gen. Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista and later defeated by Gen. Scott during the Mexican War. Gen. Santa Anna was also the defeated commander at San Jacinto.
After the Mexican War ended in 1848, he visited California during the 1849 gold rush before residing in St. Louis, Mo., where on his 23rd birthday in 1849, he married Martha Kingston. In December 1850, they arrived in Minnesota Territory at Brownsville, which consisted of just a few cabins.
McPhail built a cabin two miles away in Wild Cat Valley before claiming the land where he founded the village of Caledonia. Arriving in 1853, he was not the first white settler there, but he was the first to envision and found a town, which some travelers called McPhailsburg. But he named it for his ancestral home – Scotland, known by the Roman Empire as Caledonia.
Odd for that time, the town site was not determined by close proximity to water. Beaver Creek was four miles to the west and Crooked Creek Basin four miles east. The first building. was McPhail’s story-and-half log cabin, measured at 16 feet by 24 feet, was completed on August 2, 1853. He also built a log store on Kingston Street, surely named for wife Martha Kingston McPhail.
According to T. R. Stewart, who had arrived in Caledonia as a child in mid-August of 1853, McPhail was taller than most, about six-feet tall, with a bushy head of dark hair and glossy beard and “a twinkle in his eye that won the stranger at once.” There was the squeaky voice, which McPhail said was not much for singing, “but a might strong one for eating watermelons.”
The family was known for hospitality, evidenced by “McPhail’s Candy Pull,” the settlement’s first gathering on Christmas Eve at the McPhail cabin, where 28 neighbors enjoyed popcorn and molasses candy.
McPhail refreshments were also credited with swaying the vote when county citizens convened for the county seat election at Smith’s Grove, just east of present-day Spring Grove. Caledonia, Houston and Brownsville all sought the honor of being the county seat. McPhail led the delegation from Caledonia, which served everyone boiled eggs and butter, the latter a novel delicacy. In April 1855, the county seat was located in Caledonia with the county offices in McPhail’s log cabin.
McPhail was said to have been the first postmaster in Caledonia as well as the chairman of the first Board of County Commissioners, who was admitted to the Bar for the First Judicial District of Minnesota Territory.
To be continued…