Meeting Stephen Miller: Exploring St. Cloud’s Civil War Hero and Minnesota’s Fourth Governor

By: Kaila Forster: Communications Intern at the Stearns History Museum

As the Communications Intern at the Stearns History Museum, I was working on writing a Facebook post on Adam, the Museum’s Curator of Collections and Artifacts. For his photo, I asked if there was an artifact that he would like to stand with. Adam thought for a moment and then said, “Follow me.” We went back into the Museum’s artifacts storage, where boxes of historic artifacts are stored. Pulling open a cabinet, Adam took out a sword.

“Whose sword is this?” I asked. Adam told me that it was Stephen Miller’s. As a student studying history, I thought I might have a clue who this was. Unfortunately, the name didn’t ring a bell. I asked the obvious question, “Who was Stephen Miller?” Adam proceeded to tell me that Miller was Minnesota’s fourth governor and was in the Civil War. He proudly stated, “I think this is the coolest artifact we have in the museum.”

Indeed, the sword is cool. When Miller became Lieutenant Colonel of the First Minnesota Infantry in 1861, the citizens of St. Cloud got together to purchase a sword to present to him. Adam pointed to the top of the cover of the sword (otherwise known as a Scabbard for sword enthusiasts), and showed me the inscription. Inscribed in cursive, it read, “Presented May 1861 by Citizens of St. Cloud to Lieut. Col. Stephen Miller 1st Minnesota Regt.” 

Another engraving is visible; the battles that Miller had fought in. From the battle of Peach Orchard on June 29th, 1862 to the Reserve 2nd Battle of Malvern Hills on Aug. 7th 1862, I could make out 12 battle dates. The sword’s handle is gold in color and says U.S. on the side. Adam took the scabbard off to show me the decorative markings on the blade. This whole experience got me wondering – who was Stephen Miller?

I decided to go over to the Museum’s research center to see if they had anything on Stephen Miller. Jessie, an archivist at the Research Center, handed me a manila folder full of newspaper clippings, a short biography, and articles, all on Stephen Miller. As I explored the contents, the following is what I learned.

Born in 1816 in Perry County, Pennsylvania, Miller’s family immigrated from Germany. As a young adult, Miller completed an apprenticeship at a milling firm. Later, he became a forwarding and commission merchant and next moved into public service as an appointed flour inspector in 1855.

Due to health concerns (his doctor said the Minnesota weather would be good for him), Miller moved to St. Cloud in 1858 where he started a grocery and commission business. In St. Cloud he took an interest in politics and became a delegate to the Republican National Convention. His leadership grew as he headed the Republication electoral ticket for Lincoln. The campaign brought the public’s attention to Miller throughout Minnesota and his prominence grew.

In 1861, Miller was offered a positon as captain in the U.S Army. In the same year he was also offered a position as receiver in the U.S. Land office in St. Cloud. Interestingly, he declined both positons.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Miller, the Civil War abruptly changed his path. Showing his humble nature, Miller decided to join the Civil War with his son, Wesley F. Miller, as private in the First Minnesota Regiment. Miller quickly rose through the ranks to colonel in Minnesota’s First Regiment of Volunteers. It was at this time that Miller was presented with the sword from his St. Cloud friends and family.

As the war dragged on, Minnesota was fighting an altogether different kind of battle with Native Americans. On December 4, 1862, Miller became commander of Mankato’s Camp Lincoln. This notorious site is where around 300 Dakota were condemned. On December 26, 1862, on the order of President Lincoln and under Miller’s command, 38 Native Americans were executed. An article by the St. Cloud Times stated, “Miller’s firm and decisive leadership prevented a dark chapter of Minnesota history from becoming darker.”

In 1863, Miller’s son, Wesley, was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. His youngest son, Stephen, became a major in the army and survived.

While still in the Union Army, Miller became elected as Minnesota’s fourth governor in January of 1864. During his administration he worked to recruit soldiers for the Union Army. An article published by St. Cloud Daily Times in 1952 stated, “Governor Miller tried to persuade the legislature to pass laws allowing negroes, Indians, and people of mixed blood to vote. Such laws were not passed until 1868, when Miller was no longer Governor, but he helped to prepare the way for them.” Miller served as governor for two years and the Civil War came to an end during his administration.

After his time as governor, Miller worked as a land agent for a railroad in Windom, MN and then later in Worthington, MN. Stephen Miller died in Worthington on August 18, 1881 at the age of 65. In a biography of Miller, P.J. Seberger states, “Governor Miller was a practical and successful businessman, a brave soldier, a loyal governor, and is gratefully remembered for his valuable service to the state and nation.”

Stephen Miller gave his only surviving son his sword and told him that if he did not have any children, to return the sword to St. Cloud. In December 1908, Kate Miller was childless and recently widowed. She send a letter to the city of St. Cloud, which stated, “I know this memento of a prominent citizen, a distinguished soldier, and a capable and efficient governor of our state will be thankfully received, fully appreciated, and carefully preserved by the residents of his home town.” It is with pleasure that the Stearns History Museum will continue to treasure and preserve Miller’s sword for generations to come.

We are Stearns County: 2015-16 Annual Fund

My role at the Stearns History Museum changed significantly in October of 2014. The Board of Directors and staff saw the need for a change in leadership. When I was offered that opportunity, I gladly accepted. Together we created a strategic plan for the next three to five years and began the challenge to complete it successfully. When all are focused on the same goals, it’s amazing how much we can achieve together.

You hold the key to this success. Your memberships and donations will help us honor our diverse histories together and recognize that the past is what brought us to the present and is a relevant roadmap to the future.

We are at an exciting point in our lives together at your museum. We are over capacity in all of our program areas. Our community continues to grow in number and diversity. New cultures challenge us to collect and preserve artifacts and documents that represent and create an historic picture of their experiences. Our rich, new culture leads us into an exciting present and future.

We have rebuilt our staff and added bright new members to join the existing talented members to create an energized team taking us forward.

Now it’s your turn! Please join us and consider making a donation to the Stearns History Museum’s annual fund Your support now will give us a solid start in the beginning of 2016. Donations to the annual fund are 100 percent tax deductible. While there is a tax benefit to your donation, it is your passion for this place and its role in creating an investment in our community that will benefit future generations.

Our board and a few generous donors have created a $25,000 matching gift, helping your contributions go further. Special thanks go to Bob Danaher, Gretchen Leisen and Roger Klien together with members of our Board of Directors, for making this possible. Give them your thanks as well.

- Jim Davis

Q & A with Steve

Q & A with Head Archivist, Steve Penick

Known for his dry humor and dynamite breakfast clubs, Steve Penick returned to the Museum in September 2014 after spending three years working as a consultant. He has more than 20 years of experience in the field, specializing in local and state history. Steve was the SHM Collections Curator for 17 years, Program Director for two years and Archivist for one year, before being promoted to Head Archivist in September 2015. Hear more from Steve in his Q & A below.

Q: What do you like best about Stearns History Museum?
A: One of the things I like best about the Museum is helping people make connections - from family searches to understanding their place in the world. This broad spectrum is rewarding, challenging, frustrating and fun. People use the Research Center for many reasons. Most have a purpose to find something; I like to assist them in achieving their goals. I am also amazed about the different age groups that visit -- young, old and everything in between.

Q: What originally attracted you to history?
A: My Dad was big into history. As a family, we would always stop and visit those roadside historical markers on our travels around Minnesota and beyond. He loved it. He also liked museums, antiques and just old stuff. In eighth grade, I had a teacher that encouraged me to question everything, such as how did this happen, what influenced that event or how a community formed. It was a huge influence. Maybe the combination of family and education inspired me to enter the field.

Q: What do you like to do for fun?
A: I like to spend time with my family, golf, garden, outdoor recreation, bike, read, research, write and vacation. We can't wait to visit Germany. Too many activities and not enough time!

Thank you, John!

After 38 years of working for Stearns History Museum, John Decker is transitioning into semi-retirement. Known for his wit and love of history, the Director of Archives has served thousands of people in the Research Center by sharing his exceptional knowledge of all things local. Some of John's favorite assignments include the bus tours and the Century Farm program, which he helped establish. He also serves as the Associate Editor of the Museum's publication, Crossings, and was instrumental in achieving the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) accreditation. In 2014, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) presented John with an Award of Merit, the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

When asked what has been his favorite part about working for Stearns History Museum, John replied, "The best part has been dealing with the members and public in general. I like seeing the regulars in here."

We tip our hats to you, John (aka Mr. Stearns County History), for all that you've done and helped SHM accomplish. We look forward to continuing this journey with you as you move into a part-time position in the Research Center.

Meet Ann

SHM's COO, Ann Meline came to the Museum in 1985 to build exhibits in an empty exhibit gallery. She has a degree in nonprofit administration from Metropolitan State University and has worked in every area of the Museum. Ann is an advisor for the 1006 Summit Avenue Society, a nonprofit fundraising organization dedicated to preserving the grace and beauty of the Minnesota Governor's Residence, of which she also served on the board from 2008 - 2014. Ann was also on the State Historic Resources Advisory Committee (Legacy Fund) for three years, and when asked what’s her favorite part about working at the Museum all these years, she says, “the remarkable people that live in Stearns County.”

Stop by the Museum to meet Ann, and all of our wonderful Staff!

The Journey with CEO Jim Davis

What an exciting and challenging time we live in! Stearns History Museum is at a turning point in its existence. We have reached our maximum capacity for all museum functions, including archives, library and research, exhibits, program and administrative spaces. In addition, there are demands on the museum to represent an increasingly culturally diverse and technology savvy population.

Our current facility opened in 1984, and has served as the preeminent county museum in the Upper Midwest. The contemporary design belies its age. All involved in this project many years ago helped create an ageless, strikingly beautiful home for the Stearns History Museum. It has served us extremely well for more than 30 years.

The museum, however, is much more than a facility; it’s about people. Our staff is composed of some long-term loyal and talented employees who are the memory and character of this place. We also have been blessed with some recently employed staff whose education and experience are as current as today with graduate degrees from prestigious universities keeping us all challenged and growing.

Why do we need to change - to expand? We recognize the need to explore options that will serve the next 30+ years. For example, we need to bring our technologies up to tomorrow’s standards and learning styles. Our storage is so full we find it hard to accept additional items. Since every day is making history, we need to collect, preserve and store today’s history.

We are engaged together as staff and board to chart a new path into the future. The horizon is broad and the future bright. As a membership organization, our charge is to make decisions on your behalf that lead this organization in facilities, programming, research and collections decisions to be a top-rated museum in which you can take great pride. Therefore, we are working on developing a concept of what your museum could look like if we are able to implement our full strategic plan.

You may have begun to hear about some of those prospective concepts that we are considering. We want to grow all of the museum elements, and the potential plan calls for the museum to expand its exhibit and program spaces and to collaborate to bring a children’s museum to our county.

This region deserves the very best museum and cultural center at the highest value that we can provide, and these challenges motivate us to do our best for you the community we serve. Join in supporting us on this exciting journey. We welcome your input and encourage you to become a supporting member. See you at the museum!

- Jim Davis

Stearns History Museum • 235-33rd Avenue South • St. Cloud, MN  56301   

(320) 253-8424 •