Henry Sibley viewed the Mendota area for the first time in 1834 when he was a 23 year old clerk for the American Fur Company: “When I reached the brink of the hill overlooking the surrounding country, I was struck with the picturesque beauty of the scene…but when I descended to…where the hamlet was situated, I was disappointed to find only a group of log huts…” The following year he began construction on his house at Mendota on what is today Willow Street.
He hired stonemason John Miller, who used stone quarried from the surrounding bluffs. River mud served as mortar. Hand-split shakes covered the roof, and hand-cut wooden pegs joined the large timbers used by beams. The laths were formed using willows and rushes woven together with vines and grasses and plastered with mud. In later years, modern laths and plaster replaced them.
The building served as Sibley’s bachelor home and office for nine years, accommodating the Indians he had befriended.
In 1843 he married Sarah Jane Steele, sister of Franklin Steele, the sutler at Fort Snelling. Mrs. Sibley changed the office into the parlor, and an office addition was added to the house’s east. Here, the new territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, conducted his first business in 1849.
The Sibleys were gracious hosts and entertained many of the prominent people who arrived in the territory including General Lewis Cass, Henry R. Schoolcraft, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lieutenant John Charles Fremont, George Catlin, and Stephen Douglas.
Sibley built a new home in St. Paul in 1862 and sold his Mendota home to the parish of St. Peter’s Catholic Church. For the next decade it served as a convent and industrial school for girls before it was leased to several parties, including Burt Harwood, a well-known artist, who used it for a studio and art school. It later became a storehouse and subsequently a place for the homeless.
The St. Paul Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution purchased the house in 1910 and restored it for public opening that year. Over the years many pieces of Sibley’s original furniture found their way back to the house and the house looks much as it did when Mrs. Sibley entertained there 130 years ago.
There is another house near the Sibley House which was built by Pioneer Hypolite Du Puis in 1854.
During the 1950s it served as the Sibley Tea House operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Today it is the visitor’s office for the Sibley House.
The difficulty of a circle rail route prompted the railroad to seek a direct route through Mendota. An early town council approved a grade through the center of town and obtaining fill from between 2nd and 3rd Streets. The route is now abandoned, but the ridge and bridge remain and can be seen near the Sibley and Du Puis Houses.
The site is now operated by the Dakota County Historical Society, in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society.
Henry H. Sibley House