In 1868, John Van Dyke moved with his family from New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Wabasha, Minnesota, to retire and benefit from its healthful, curative climate. He brought with him a sterling reputation for being a successful lawyer, respected judge and stalwart Republican. He had been mayor of his hometown, a two term congressman, who served with the Great Triumvirate, and a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court. On the last day of his first term in congress, he had actually voted to establish the Territory of Minnesota, and in his second term, he had voted on the individual bills that came to form the Compromise of 1850.
But he did not retire from the law or politics. He was elected as a Republican to the state House of Representatives in 1871, and served one term. In February 1873, he was recalled to public service by Governor Horace Austin, who appointed him to fill the vacancy on the Third Judicial District Court caused by the death of Judge Chauncey Waterman. The heart of this article is an account---conjecture really---of why Austin made the surprise selection of Van Dyke, and its unlikely and unforeseen consequence: it opened the door to the election in November 1873 of the man who would become the state's greatest jurist.
Following this are newspaper accounts of proceedings before Van Dyke in the seats of three counties that made up the Third Judicial District. His term ended in January 1874, after which he retired for good. He died on December 24, 1878, at age seventy-four. At the funeral several days later, John Murdoch, a leader of the county bar, delivered a lengthy eulogy.
This article concludes with the complete text of Van Dyke's speech on March 4, 1850, to the House of Representatives, ostensibly on the Admission of California to the Union, one of the subjects of the Compromise of 1850. Of course, it is more than that. In it he methodically demolishes Southern charges that Northerners were insulting and acting aggressively toward slave owners.
This article is one of a series on a neglected area of legal history---the state's trial judges---that will be posted on the MLHP in the coming years.