First Como settler didn’t stay long

Angelina and Charles Perry

In 1847, government surveyors mapping the area around the hamlet of St. Paul, Wisconsin Territory, encountered a solitary dwelling on the east side of what is now known as Lake Como.

This likely was the farmhouse of 31-year-old Swiss immigrant Charles Perry, the first white settler in the area, part of the land east of the Mississippi River that some writers of the era referred to as the “Sioux Purchase.”

Perry’s family had been among the earliest Europeans to arrive on this portion of the frontier, initially as squatters on the Fort Snelling military reservation years before the land outside was opened for settlement.

Charles was born in 1816 to Abram Perret—as the name was originally spelled—and his wife, Mary Anne, in Berne, Switzerland. In 1822, the Perrets were among a contingent of Swiss recruited to help populate a colony in North America started by Lord Selkirk, a Scot who owned a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company.

An arduous journey, during which one of the Perret children died, brought the party to the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the site of modern-day Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Almost nothing turned out as promised in the Selkirk Colony, but the Perrets hung on, battling the elements, insects and other calamities. When a flood in 1826 wiped out everything they had accomplished, the Perrets and fellow colonists headed south, driving cattle in front of them, bound for Fort Snelling. The 700-mile journey took six months.

Most of the refugees kept on going, but the fort’s commandant, Josiah Snelling, allowed a few to stay, including the Perrets, who settled around Coldwater Spring, about a mile up the Mississippi River from the fort.

During the next 10 years, Abraham Perry, as he became known, farmed and developed a fine cattle herd. His wife was valued by the officers’ wives for her skilled services as a midwife. But the fact remained that they and their fellows had no legal standing to be on fort land.

Major Joseph Plympton, the commanding officer who replaced Snelling, was less amenable to the squatters, especially to the whiskey sellers among them who were causing havoc with both his soldiers and the native people. So in spring 1838, he ordered his troops to evict the civilians from the military reservation. The Perrys and the notorious Pig’s Eye Parrant, one of the whiskey dealers, moved to the vicinity of Fountain Cave, near today’s intersection of Randolph Avenue and West Seventh Street. They were evicted again in 1840 when Maj. Plympton decided to extend the boundary of the reservation farther east, to what later became known as the Seven Corners area, near today’s Xcel Energy Center.

After a life of trials and misfortune, Abraham lacked the energy to start over. He and his wife moved in with a married daughter.

Charles, now 24, struck off on his own and in 1841 married Emilie Bruce at Mendota. Emilie was said to be a Native American and bore three children before dying at a young age.

When the surveyors came by, Perry must have been a recent arrival on the shore of Sandy Lake, as it was then named, raising potatoes and grazing cattle. The surrounding countryside, according to one account was “a rank growth of hazel brush, scrub oak, with an occasional cluster of pines on the low lands.”

Over the years, some have contended that Perry gave Lake Como its name, in honor of the original in the Italian Alps. However, it seems much more likely that it would take a person of powerful imagination—such as a real estate developer—to conjure up a connection between one of Europe’s most beautiful bodies of water and what some described as little more than a swampy, shallow pond.

Just such a person arrived in St. Paul in 1851: Henry McKenty, soon nicknamed “Broad Acres,” quickly became involved in land speculation. His presence in the area was sufficiently established by 1853 that a booklet promoting St. Paul listed “McKenty’s Lake,” rather than Sandy Lake.

It was, in fact, McKenty’s “poetic salesmanship,” as a former Como Park superintendent once described it, that led to the Lake Como allusion, picturesque imagery for the resort community he envisioned. The Panic of 1857 ruined McKenty and prevented that dream from becoming a reality.

As for Charles Perry, he pulled up stakes after only a couple of years, according to the St. Paul Globe newspaper, because “neighbors were becoming too thick and interfered with his cattle raising.”

He moved north to Mounds View Township and in 1850 became the first white settler in what is now Arden Hills, near another lake that McKenty would name, this one for his wife, Johanna.

Lake Como was about 50 acres larger in 1847, extending onto what is now the golf course. The structure indicated at the top right of the lake is likely the Perry farmhouse. (Minnesota Geospatial Information Office and David Arbeit)

Perry planted potatoes and other crops—Charles Perry Park on New Brighton Road is on the site—and became quite prosperous. He remarried and his wife, variously identified as Orelia, Angelina or Amelia, gave birth to 15 children.

In the 1880s, Thomas Newson, who wrote biographical sketches of the old pioneers, had this to say of Charles Perry:

“Of course, he remembers (St. Paul) as it was, but he never dreamed of its present growth. He is an unsophisticated farmer, living almost outside the limits of civilization and probably enjoying himself better there than amid the dazzling splendor of city life.”

15 Responses

  1. Molly Aaker

    So following back up on this. Still trying to find the Napoleon connection. It definitely seems like the rumor is perpetuated throughout our family. Did a blood DNA test and it says I’m 9% Northern Italian likely on my dad’s side. I still don’t understand how no one has figured this out yet. There’s got to be a DNA test somewhere that has his DNA. Has anyone taken one?

  2. Michelle Walklin

    Fascinating article. I’m interested in information on Charle’s first wife Emilie Bruce. How did she die. What happened to their children after her death.

  3. DClewett

    Roxanne Sittlow – I know this inquiry is many years past your original post, but if you see it maybe you can help me out? My husband’s family are descendants of Rose Ann Perry Clewett and J. R. Clewett (thus Abraham and Marianne Perry are his greatX4 grandparents.). I would be very interested in any information you can provide on the Perry’s and their ancestors in Europe. Thank you!

  4. Lisa Perry Guetterman

    Charles Perry is my 2x great grandfather and 3x great grandfather. Charles youngest son Peter married his sister Elizabeth’s daughter, Olive Baldwin. Pretty interesting.

  5. Jonathan Perry

    Charles Perry is my great-great-grandfather. Most of this information seems correct, some of it doesn’t correlate with other things I’ve read.

    Abraham Perret left France to avoid being drafted into the army. He was not related to Napolean as far as I know.

    Charles Perry did in fact name Lake Como, regardless of the fact that the lake pales in comparison to the original. Maybe Lake Como can be called a swampy, shallow pond, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a point where he saw the lake in the perfect conditions and thought the name suited it.

  6. Judith Sweets

    Very interesting story about the Perret/Perry family. I agree that Charles was born in 1816 or 1817 and was about four or five years old when he arrived at the Red River Colony in Canada with his family. I checked the list of Red River Colonists from the book “Le Canada et les Suisses” by E.H, Bovay. It gives Charles Perret’s place of birth as Geneva, Switzerland.

    I am a descendant of another Swiss colonist who lived for five years at the Red River, Lydie MAIRE FOURNIER, a widow with four children who married a French man, Jean Baptiste VARING/WERING at the colony in 1821. Would like to hear from other Red River Colony descendants.

  7. Rachel Carpentier

    Roxanne Sittlow – Charles Perry is my three times Great Grandfather and I’m very interested in what you know about the family history…I’m very interested to see if you know the exact place Charles was born in Switzerland as I can only find conflicting information. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

    And how interesting that another woman suggested we’re related to Napoleon??? I’m able to go back pretty far and haven’t found anything to that point.

    Thank you!

  8. Ulysses Tennyson

    Is there any known connection between Margaret “Indian Rose” Perry of Virginia MN, who was found murdered in a burning car in Wisconsin in March of 1932 in an apparent gangland assassination and the Perrys of Lake Johanna?

  9. Roxanne Sittlow

    Molley Aker – Charles Perry is my great grandfather. I have a complete history of my Perry family ancestors if you are interested. Our family has a historian which researched and put together the family tree. Abram Perret, and his son Abraham, escaped France to Switzerland because Abraham did not want to be inducted into the French Foreign Legion during the Napolean Wars. Abraham married Mary Anne Bourquin and when Charles was 5 years old they imigrated to Canada and lived in the Selkirk Colony until they couldn’t take the floods, bugs, etc. and traveled to Fort Snelling as stated above. I have Abraham’s complete family tree as well as Charles.

  10. Vickie Fowles

    Abraham Perret (Perry) was born in Paris, France to Abraham Perret and Judith Madeline Tissot. Rumor has it that Abraham Jr. fled to Switzerland to escape Napolean. I am a descendant of Roseanne Perry Clewitt.

  11. wendy caldwell

    Uh. Charles Perry’s 2nd wife was Aurelia Morrissette. My daughters descend from their daughter, Damis Perry who married Clement Dauphinais/ Dulfay,

  12. Wow, this is more detailed information than I’ve ever been able to find.. where did you get the information about my ancestors – The Perry’s? There’s a rumor that our family is related to Napoleon and I’ve been trying to figure out if that’s true for years.. and believe it has something to do with that line.

  13. Rog Bergerson


    I’m sticking to my guns. The Perry family left Switzerland when Charles was no more than five years old. Several sources say it was McKenty who named the lake.

  14. Jim Ramstrom

    On the the debate regarding who named Lake Como- The case for Perry is supported by the fact that he grew up within a hundred miles of the town of Como and Como lake on the border of Italy and Switzerland. He was likely well familiar with the reputation of the lake. McKenty on the other hand was 30 years old in 1851 fresh from Philadelphia.
    True, that Warren Upham suggests that Mc Kenty named the lake but it seems more plausible that he popularized it. He took a good idea and ran with it. The real question is– who ever named it Sandy lake. Especially when early writings usually referred to it as a swamp. Old post cards refer to it as a man made lake, probably because it was modified by dredging and artificial water maintenance until it became to costly.

    Enjoyed your story.

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