Back in Time: Captain Samuel Register, an early navigator of the St. Croix

Samuel Register began piloting the steamboat "Helen Mar" on the St. Croix in 1872. (Photo Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society)
Samuel Register began piloting the steamboat “Helen Mar” on the St. Croix in 1872. (Photo Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society)

Plying the St. Croix River these days are all sorts of boats, from house boats to paddle boats, the river is a summer water playground. It wasn’t that long ago that the St. Croix was a highway for logs, barges and other instruments in the daily life of commercialism. It took a special type of person to captain the tow boats and rafters down the river to their final destination. One of the most prolific pilots on the St. Croix was Captain Samuel M. Register.

Register was born in the vicinity of Dover, Del., in 1827. His parents, Francis and Mary Register — who were of French descent and whose ancestors settled there around the time of the Revolutionary War — lived on a farm.

Samuel Register left the East Coast for Minnesota in 1850. He arrived in St. Paul on board the steamer, “Highland Mary No. 2,” commanded by Captain Atchison, which landed on April 20. The next day he took a stagecoach to Stillwater. This coach being a lumber wagon and the roads being almost impassable, the Register received a thorough shaking during the trip.

By 1852 he was a pilot on the St. Croix. In 1872 he began running the steamer “Helen Mar.” He owned a third of it and captained it for five or six years. Then he began to run and pilot boats from lumberman Isaac Staples. According to the “History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley,” Register’s “thorough knowledge of the river (rendered) him very prominent in his profession and an active man in navigation.”

The Captain was also involved in the community. He was elected as a Representative to the Fifth Minnesota Territorial Legislature in 1854-55 and also served a term on the Stillwater City Council in 1859.

It seems that Register was also an ardent hunter and that many of his hunting expeditions were well known. At that time there were no hunting licenses to buy or even a limit of what one could kill. In a two week trip in 1881 he, along with Ben Thelen and O.H. Kinyon, bagged 13 deer near Hinckley, Minnesota.

Register was married by Henry Nichols, minister at the Methodist Church in Stillwater, to Minerva McCauslin on Dec. 4, 1856. Together the couple had six children, one dying while still a child. Mrs. Register became ill in 1882 and, after eight months of fighting for life, died June 2, 1883. Samuel married Hannah E. Day at the parsonage of St. Michael’s Church on April 21, 1898. Father Corcoran officiated.

After Samuel was married in 1856, the couple purchased three lots on North Third Street in Stillwater and constructed a Greek-revival style home. There was an addition to the home in 1868, but it remains true to its original style and is one of the iconic homes still in Stillwater.

In the late 1890s Register contracted Bright’s disease and continued to suffer for a couple of years. His death occurred at his home in Stillwater, 401 North Third Street, Oct. 10, 1900. The services at his funeral were conducted by Rev. F.L. Palmer of the Ascension Episcopal Church in Stillwater, and he was buried in Fairview Cemetery.


Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater.