The Jodon Family & Morrison County’s Ties to Slavery

The house built by Zachariah Jodon in Little Falls, MN, in 1858. It is constructed in the Greek Revival Style. Photo by Mary Warner, March 2016.

The house built by Zachariah Jodon in Little Falls, MN, in 1858. It is constructed in the Greek Revival Style. Photo by Mary Warner, March 2016.

Part of the intrigue of history is that new information can come to light on topics that have been previously covered. Such is the case with the Jodon house in Little Falls. As the oldest house still standing in town, built in 1858, it has received attention from the Morrison County Historical Society from the aspect of preservation. Because the house was built so early, a mere two years after the formation of Morrison County, records from the era regarding Zachariah Jodon, the house’s builder and first owner, are sparse. The following article, written by guest writer Christopher Lehman, provides new information that gives the story of the Jodon house added dimension. – Mary Warner


One of the rare relics of Minnesota’s ties to slavery stands on a street in the community of Little Falls in Morrison County. The relic is a house of Greek-Revival architecture, and this style was popular among southerners. Zachariah Jodon, who built the house, had indirectly participated in African American slavery in the southern state of Maryland before moving to Minnesota. Therefore, his wealth from ownership of African Americans helped enable his investments—including real estate—in Morrison County.

Zachariah was born to a slave-less family in the first decade of the nineteenth century in Frederick County, Maryland. By 1840 his mother Susan led a household of three women, and Zachariah headed his own household, which included a free African American man for a boarder. Within the decade all of the Jodons moved to western Virginia, and they shared a house in Lewis County. Zachariah led the household, and the other residents were his elderly mother, his children, his younger sister Adeline, his younger brother Benjamin, and Benjamin’s wife and children.(1)

The 1850 Slave Schedule for Lewis County reveals Zachariah’s indirect involvement in slavery. No free African Americans resided there with the Jodons, but Benjamin held four valuable slaves at the family home. He owned a woman in her twenties, a six-year-old boy, and two girls—ages four and one. If the woman birthed all three children, her fertility and prolific reproduction meant possible new slaves for Benjamin via childbirth instead of additional purchases. Also, the children had potential to grow into healthy and fertile adult slaves. At the time a slaveholder could sell slave women and their children as a collective unit for thousands of dollars, and all of this prized human property was under Zachariah’s roof.(2)

Slave ownership set the Jodons apart from most of their neighbors in Lewis County. Western Virginia’s rocky soil and mountainous terrain discouraged most of its residents from holding slaves, and that portion of the state depended on slavery much less than eastern Virginians did. None of the Jodons were farmers or planters, and they did not run a massive plantation that required dozens of slaves. Rather, most slaves in western Virginia were domestic, and Benjamin’s ownership of a young woman and three toddler children suggested that he did not require a strong and numerous unfree workforce at home.(3)

Susan died in 1853, and by 1857 the rest of the family left Virginia and moved to Minnesota. From there, however, the family split into two households in two different cities. Both Zachariah and Benjamin were physicians, and they ran practices in their respective communities. Also, the separation allowed Zachariah to sever his connections to Benjamin’s involvement in slavery. Zachariah and his new wife Sarah settled in Little Falls, and the couple purchased Lots 7 and 9 of Block 17 in town and built the Greek-Revival house. At St. Paul, Benjamin headed a household consisting of his nuclear family, his sister, and at least one African American from Maryland.(4)

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in March 1857 legalized slavery in all territories—including Minnesota. Before Dred Scott the institution was illegal there via two federal laws—the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820—and Minnesota Territory’s own legislation from 1849. Longtime residents did not engage in the practice after the verdict, and they pushed for Minnesota to enter the Union as a free state. Minnesota achieved free statehood in May 1858, but Benjamin may have legally kept his African American occupant as a slave in St. Paul during the fourteen months that Dred Scott applied to Minnesota Territory.(5)

The Civil War further separated the Jodon siblings, and sectional loyalties may have played a role in their estrangement. During the conflict Benjamin’s household returned to Lewis County in West Virginia, and he reported announced that he was “in favor of the South.” In contrast, Zachariah and his family stayed in the North in Minnesota. By then they had left the Greek-Revival house and moved to Stearns County, and Sarah became a proprietor of the town of Cold Spring. After the war Zachariah moved to Ohio, where he died in 1873. Benjamin relocated there soon after his brother’s death.(6)

As for the Greek-Revival house, it remains at 213 N. E. 2nd Street in Little Falls. The Jodon family no longer owns the property, but in recent years local residents have considered the building of significant historic value. They have worked to restore the house and to secure its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Their efforts have indirectly resulted in the preservation of a landmark that embodied how slavery and the Civil War tore families apart in “free” Minnesota.(7)

Christopher P. Lehman
Guest Writer

Christopher P. Lehman is a professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University. He was a visiting fellow at Harvard University in the summer of 2011.

This article was originally published in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, Volume 29, Number 1, 2016.

End Notes:

1) US Federal Census 1840, District 5, Frederick County, Maryland, 5, 9; US Federal Census 1850, District 30, Lewis County, Virginia, 17.
2) US Slave Schedule 1850, District 30, Lewis County, Virginia, 1.
3) Christopher P. Lehman, Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), 133-134.
4) Minnesota Census 1857, Little Falls, Morrison County, 4; St. Cloud Democrat, 11 August 1859, 5; Minnesota Census 1857, Saint Paul, Ramsey County, 433.
5) Henry A. Castle, “General James Shields: Soldier, Orator, Statesman,” in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, vol. xv (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1915), 721.
6) US Federal Census 1860, Stearns County, Minnesota, 49; “Jodon, Chalfant, & Co.,” Weston Democrat, 4 April 1870, 3; St. Cloud Democrat, 11 September 1862, 3; US Federal Census 1870, Weston, Lewis County, West Virginia, 11; US Federal Census 1880, Clinton, Wayne County, Ohio, 9; Weston Democrat, 1 September 1873, 3; Weston Democrat, 18 October 1875, 3.
7) Mary Warner, “It’s Greek Revival,” Morrison County Historical Society, http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?page_id=4765.

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