Perseverance and Determination:
The Story of Greenberry Chambers
Blaine Historical Society
“This township is almost unacceptable for either men or beast except when frozen up…The soil on the barrens is light-loose sand, third rate.” So concluded A.J. Hewitt, Deputy Surveyor of the 1847 survey crew that surveyed the land then known as Blaine Township 1. However, Mr. Hewitt’s conclusion did not deter pioneering spirits from attempting to settle the land. One such pioneer was Greenberry Chambers, the man who is largely recognized as the first permanent settler of Blaine Township. Others came before him, but few stayed on the land for longer than a year or two. Greenberry Chambers, on the other hand, carved out a life from the “unacceptable” land for almost two decades. Of course, perseverance and determination is what one might expect from Mr. Chambers…a former slave from Barren County Kentucky.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Greenberry Chambers was a slave in Barren County Kentucky. He had a wife, Charlotte (Lottie), and five children. By the 1860s, the Chambers family was apparently scattered among several slave owners. In 1862, several Union states ( Kentucky among them) formed regiments of black troops, later redesignated as “U.S. Colored Troops”. In 1864, after having run away from his owner and hiding in the woods for some time, Green Chambers enlisted as a private in Company H of the 15 th U.S. Colored Infantry in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
In the fall of 1864, Chambers was severely injured while helping to erect a stockade at Fort Cynthiana, Kentucky. According to his army records, Chambers was helping to roll up a log, which slipped, and “the handspike he held in his hand was forced against him and struck in such a manner as to cause a rupture which grew worse and worse”. It was a serious injury that Chambers would never fully recover from. It continued to cause him discomfort throughout the rest of his life. Still, Chambers persevered.
Chambers was discharged from the Union Army in July of 1865. According to the History of Upper Mississippi Valley, after being discharged, Chambers “went in search of his children, whom he found, and after some difficulty, released from their master.” After the Civil War, Chambers set out to find a better life for his family. It was a life not easily found in 1865 Kentucky 2. So, the Chambers family left Kentucky, traveling via steamboat to Minnesota in September of 1865. A crewman on the steamer Phil Sheridan, recalled of Chambers: “He looked poor, went lame, was bent over forward, and partially to his right side, and claimed to be suffering with a rupture of his right side”.
Still, Chambers persevered.
In 1865, the family settled in the area around the location of the present-day Centennial school campus, roughly between the current Sunset Road and Lever Street, and between North Road and about 105 th (the eastern part of present day Blaine). The farm cost about $1,500. An 1870 Census showed Chambers as a farmer, owning a farm with an estimated value of $1,000 and personal property valued at $700. Of the Chambers’ land, 30 acres were listed as improved (cultivated), and 130 acres more were not improved. The Chambers owned two horses, seven head of cattle, and 12 pigs; they raised spring wheat, Indian corn, and oats. The value of the farm’s production was placed at $616. Despite his physical limitations, and as evidence of his perseverance and determination, of the 69 farms listed in the township by 1870, the Chambers’ farm had the third highest production.
Unfortunately, Chambers’ good fortunes were not to last. In October of 1875, the sheriff foreclosed on the Chambers farm, because of a debt of $677.70 on the 160 acres. Still, Chambers persevered. Chambers and his family moved farther south, to a location believed to be somewhere in the present day Circle Pines-Lexington area. For the next nine years, Chambers and his family farmed 18 acres of tilled land, and continued to carve a life out of the harsh conditions of Blaine Township.
In about 1884, Green Chambers and his wife Charlotte moved to St. Paul. According to army pension papers, Charlotte “supported him by working at cleaning, washing, and ironing”. Green Chambers also received a Civil War veteran pension and was helped by his friends and neighbors. The pension totaled $48 per year.
In 1884, Charlotte died of pneumonia. She was buried in the center of Oakland Cemetery, in an area then known as the “African Section”. Still, Green Chambers persevered. To support himself, Green worked as porter on the railroad until 1898 when he died of old age. He likewise is buried in Oakland Cemetery.
“Unacceptable for either man or beast..”. Today, it is easy to reflect upon those words with some amusement. With a population of more than 50,000, Blaine is now one of the fastest growing communities in Minnesota. However, back in the 1860s, Blaine was a very different place. It was the perseverance and determination of a former slave from Kentucky that showed the land could indeed be tamed, and set Blaine on its early course to permanent settlement.