Olmsted County, Minnesota


Olmstead County History

 Olmsted County is located in the heart of southeastern Minnesota, the agricultural region of the state, with only the width of Winona County, some twenty-five miles, between it and the great Mississippi River on the east, and of Fillmore and Mower County between it and the state of Iowa on the south. It is thirty miles in length, from east to west, and twenty-five miles in its greatest width, from north to south and comprises six hundred and forty-four square miles of as fine a farming region as enriches the Middle West.

In the progress of that wave of civilization that surged westward from Jamestown and Plymouth it was nearly two centuries and a half before this became the home of the white man.

This portion of that great Northwest which lay in the unknown space stretching apparently from the early seaboard settlements to the setting sun was part of an undefined region inhabited, or roamed over, by Indians, but from the first knowledge of it by white intruders, claimed by them under the international usage of those days by which any European setting up the flag of his country anywhere in the Western Continent, established the sovereignty of that country over all that lay beyond. Under such sovereignty as this the region west of the Mississippi, including most of what is now Minnesota and several other states. was claimed by France' by virtue of the explorations of Frenchmen, later sold by France to Spain, retransferred by Spain to France under the great Napoleon and by him sold to the United States under the administration of President Jefferson, in the celebrated Louisiana purchase.

The title of those royal real estate dealers to the realty that they transferred was about as valid as that of Satan, the largest land speculator, to the kingdoms of the earth that he failed to trade off on a certain historic occasion.

The adventures and experiences, as narrated by themselves, of the French fur traders, Catholic priests, trappers and voyageurs who followed the streams in primitive canoes, always on the watch for outlets to the ocean, mixed as they are with exaggerations, add much to the romance of American history.

On the acquisition of this vast domain the United States divided it into two territories, the northern one comprising the now states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota west of the Mississippi. This was, later, made the Territory of Missouri and on the organization of the State of Missouri, all to the northward was left without territorial organization. Later it became a part of the Territory of Michigan and then of the Territory of Wisconsin, and still later, of the Territory of Iowa.

March 3, 1849, the Territory of Minnesota was created, with the boundaries now those of the state.

Prior to the white occupancy the Indian title to this portion of the new land, if the kind of eminent domain that they exercised may be dignified as a title, was in the Wapasha or Red Wing band of Sioux or Dakotas. Their principal villages were on the Mississippi, at or near the present sites of Red Wing, Wabasha, Winona and La Crosse, and this far west would seem to have been only a hunting ground.

For the first few years after the arrival of white settlers occasional small parties of Indians would camp for a few days in this vicinity on their way to or from the Mississippi, and as late as 1862 a party stayed a couple of days near the court house in Rochester. They were always peaceable, never disturbing the settlers except by their demands for something to satisfy their ever hungry appetites. It is narrated in Eaton's History as told by Esquire Bucklen, that about two hundred camped about six weeks in the early winter of 1854, on the river bottom near the mill in North Rochester, and lost four of their number by sickness, in consequence of which they changed their camp, abandoning a sick girl who was rescued from starvation and cared for by Mr. Bucklen's family till taken back by her tribe.

There is no reason to believe that the buffalo roamed over the Olmsted prairies; the bones or horns of the awkward beasts were not found by the first settlers, but elk were frequently seen and shot and their horns were often found.

The last elk was shot on the Bamber farm by Asahel Smith, of Rochester, in 1859. It had been seen by a party consisting of Mr. Smith, George W. Baker and Horace Loomis, but Smith got the last shot. It was a beautiful young creature, as it laid displayed to public admiration on the sidewalk in front of Smith & Daniels' office, on Broadway.

The early settlements of the territory were along the navigable streams. It was the steamboat, not the locomotive that built towns then. Trading posts and small villages were located and known years before any attempt was made to colonize the farming regions almost contiguous to them. So slow was the progress of development that La Crosse was not started till 1842 and St. Paul may be said to have begun its present existence in 1846 or 1847, and Winona was located, as a hamlet, in 1851.

The Indian title to southern Minnesota was extinguished by two treaties with the Sioux, made at Traverse and at Mendota in 1851, and ratified by the United States Government in 1853. The Indians were shoved along to reservations farther west on the Minnesota River.

Even before the Indians had been induced "to get off the face of the earth" a few of the most adventurous pioneers had dared to claim homes beyond the Mississippi and after the land became known as government property, the tide of immigration set in and farms were located without waiting for the government to survey it into separate sections.

And it was a most attractive region that invited the immigrant to its improvement. This county may be described as a tract of prairie and timber of rich soil and well-watered. The surface is rolling, with broad valleys and sloping bluffs. The streams were fringed with trees and across the west side of the county was a belt of heavy timber, which, since the first settlement, has much of it been burned up in the homes of the farmers and in the stoves of Rochester, and now the former forest is a cluster of well tilled farms. There were also timber tracts on the south, in the neighborhood of Chatfield, and in Quincy to the northeast. The Zumbro River and its tributaries are well spread over the western half of the county, enriching several townships, while the Whitewater and its branches add to the value of the northeastern townships, and the Root River and its branches to the southeastern townships.

Estimates of the average heights of the townships of the county, compiled from the notes of Horace E. H. Horton in his survey of the line of a proposed railroad from Wabasha to Austin, are as follow:

Quincy, 1,150
Elmira, 1,175
Viola, 1,225
Eyota, 1,205
Orion. 1,200
Farmington, 1,125
Haverhill, 1,200
Marion, 1,200
Pleasant Grove, 1,250
Oronoco, 1,075
Cascade, 1,075
Rochester. 1,125
High Forest, 1,275
New Haven, 1,100
Kalmar, 1,150
Salem, 1,175
Rock Dell, 1,275

The mean elevation of the county, derived from these figures, is approximately 1,180 feet above the sea.

A distinguishing peculiarity of the county is the uniform excellence of its farming land. Scarcely a poor tract is to be found within its limits, and it is doubtful whether any county of the state has less land un-adapted to some kind of profitable farming. The little river that, with its branches, waters the west half of the county and divides the city of Rochester, has a name of its own that is unique in its derivation. The early French explorers, finding it a crooked stream and full of obstructions, named it Riviere des Embarrass, which became abbreviated and corrupted by the careless and slurring pronunciation of the voyageurs and trappers into Zumbro, by which it has since been called.

Col. Albert Milton Lea, who, in command of United States dragoons. explored southern Minnesota in 1835, and discovered and named Lake Albert Lea, in addressing a meeting of old settlers there, describing his march of forty years previous, said: "We crossed the Cedar River at the rapids near the present city of that name; then, surmounting the high table land, we descended through a romantic valley, cut through the soft rocks several hundred feet below the adjacent level and traversed by a winding stream of crystal water with sandy bottom and full of fish, picturesque with many varied trees and forests and castellated with many rocky projections. This led us down to a river named by me Embarrass, I from the obstructing driftwood found in it, but one of the most curious transformations of this region is the conversion of the 'Embarrass' into the Zumbro. On a little brook running into this stream we encamped three days, and from it we took with pinhooks all the gold-speckled trout that we could all consume, and so fat were they, they required no butter for dressing."

The stream seems to have been named Des Embarrass long before Colonel Lea discovered it. I have seen an old map by one of the early explorers on which it is named the Embarrass River. Gen. H. H. Sibley, in the St. Paul Pioneer, in 1867, speaks of "The Rivierre aux Embarras, since corrupted into Zumbro."

Thomas Simpson, of Winona, who made the original survey of the county, says: "The stream was given on our maps, made by Nicollet and Fremont, as the Embarris, a French translation of the Indian name Waziouji."

Mr. Simpson said in a speech at the dedication of the Rochester Public Library, that the Indians had called the stream Waziouja, meaning the hindered river, and the French afterwards named it Des Embarris.

In the summer of 1854 a few settlements were made; at Pleasant Grove, Rochester and Oronoco, but mostly in the eastern part of the county, in the townships of Dover and Elmira.

The first settler within the limits of the county was Jacob Goss, who located a claim in what is now Pleasant Grove Township, in the spring of 1853. No other settlement is known to have been made that year. In 1854, following the custom of many first settlers, he sold out. The purchaser was the Pattridge family, consisting of Mrs. Pattridge, a widow from Iowa, and her sons. There were eighty acres in crops and the price paid was $1,000. Goss went to St. Paul, and it is not known what became of him: probably he pushed on farther west.

In the spring of 1854 M. O. Walker, of Chicago, established a line of stages from Dubuque to St. Paul, going through Pleasant Grove, Rochester and Oronoco, and a line was later established from Winona through Rochester to Mankato, and that became the main route across southern Minnesota. Walker was for that day and those times, as great a pioneer of transportation and as great a factor in the development of the West as that great man, James J. Hill, of the Great Northern railroad, is today. For years the Frink and Walker and M. O. Walker lines radiated from Chicago into the farther west, penetrating wherever the pioneer settler or speculator located a center of population, and blazing the route for the westward progress of the nation. The Concord coach, or more often, the old canvas-covered hack, irreverently known as a mud wagon, lumbering and fatiguing, with its team of four or six horses, driven by a profane driver over all kinds of rough and muddy or snow-drifted roads in all kinds of uncomfortable weather, was the welcome precursor of the railroad passenger train with its luxurious palace cars, and the making a new settlement a station for the stoppage of the stages was as much to be desired then as the location of a station on a new railroad would be now. By 1855 Olmsted County had become the land of promise (the Government land came into market that year) and much of the rich new land was taken up, most of it for homes by movers from older regions, but much of it by speculators, to be held for sale at higher prices.

Most of the movers arrived at their future homes in emigrant wagons. Those prairie schooners, those argosies of the frontier, were an every-day feature of the landscape wherever there was unclaimed land. A wagon covered with canvas, or, sometimes, oil cloth, drawn by two or four horses or oxen, with a sturdy father driving and a family of generally a wife and several children, as passengers, and packed full of household belongings, with often a coop of chickens on behind and more or less stock, cows or horses or both, driven, as often as otherwise, by a barefooted and bare headed, or sun bonneted girl, and a dog or two trudging along. There were the same class distinctions among the immigrants as among all people, everywhere. Some rigs were neat and cozy, others were dilapidated and impoverished looking; and nearly all were dusty and travel stained. Some well to do farmer, leaving a good home for a hoped for better new one, would have a house like cover to his wagon, and, maybe, a sheet iron stove in it, prepared to live in the wagon till his claim shanty was built; and some poor fellow with a poor looking wife and tow-headed children, would pass along with a shabby wagon and lean horse, a sample of hard luck.

The wagons often had on their covers inscriptions giving their destination, generally coarsely traced and, maybe, with an attempt at wit, as likely as not, as badly spelled as by Artemus Ward or as ordered by President Roosevelt. For several years, until the coming of the railroad, there were few days in the summer that these nomadic outfits were not to be seen on the road, and as many as from one hundred to three hundred have passed through Rochester in a single day.

Some of the assumed best families of the Eastern States trace their genealogy back to the steerage of the emigrant ship. The future aristocracy of Olmsted County may run theirs back to the landing of a prairie schooner.

The immigrants were of various nationalities: Scandinavian. Irish, German and Americans, who, naturally, found companionship in settling in neighborhoods of their own kind. The townships of Rock Dell and Salem were settled almost entirely by Norwegians, parts of Marion and Haverhill by Irish and part of Farmington by Germans.

The life of the pioneer farmer was a rough and hard one: the creation of a home in a wilderness and the transmutation of the soil into a competency was a long and laborious process. The life of the pioneer man was hard, but that of the pioneer woman was harder. Many a farmer's wife did the hard work of both a woman and a man.

It is related that at a celebration of Forefathers' Day in a little town in Massachusetts. Gail Hamilton, the brilliant sister-in-law of James G. Blaine, being called upon, after excessive eulogies of the Pilgrim Fathers by men, proposed the toast: "To the Pilgrim mothers. They had to endure all that the Pilgrim fathers endured and had, besides, to endure the Pilgrim fathers."

There was no homestead land then, the homestead law not passing till the year 1862, after a struggle of years in Congress. There have been very few homestead claims made in Olmsted County and they of late years. The early settlers bought their land by pre-emption, taking claims, generally of one hundred and sixty acres and paying the Government a dollar and a quarter an acre for them, or in most cases, turning in, in payment, a soldier's land warrant issued for services in some war and sold by the soldier for cash that he preferred to the land the warrant would have entitled him to. Around every Government land office were the signs of men calling themselves land agents or bankers, with land warrants for sale.

The United States Land office for the district including the southern tier of townships of this county was first at Brownsville, in Houston County, and then at Chatfield, and for the rest of the county at Winona and later removed to St. Peter. Many of the first settlers sold out and pushed farther west and transfers of real estate were of daily occurrence in the early years. The money loaner and land speculator, generally one and the same individual, was a necessary evil to the settler. Many were unable to pay for their claims, and money or a land warrant must be had for the land or improvements, or both, and the land mortgaged to pay for it. The money loaner was accommodating, but for a consideration. Interest was extortionate and after a while became oppressive. From two to five per cent a month was exacted and not a few of the pioneers found the problem of existence in working out from under an indebtedness of sixty per cent a year. Some of the best farms are today the homes of prosperous families who are enjoying them because their ancestral pre-emptor could not sell out for enough more than the mortgage to enable him to move on farther west. A map of the county with the mortgaged farms marked on it would have looked like a checkerboard. The burden of mortgage indebtedness became so oppressive to the people that the Supreme Court of the state came to their relief by a technical decision cutting down the rate of interest after the maturity of a note to seven per cent. The legal wisdom of the decision might be doubted, but "necessity knows no law." and it was necessary to relieve the debtors.

The feeling of a mortgage debtor toward his creditor is one of the paradoxes of human nature. At the time of borrowing he looks upon the man of money as a genial benefactor; when called upon to repay, he, more often than not, thinks him a robber. Looking back upon the experience of the luckless borrower, it seems a debatable question whether the money loaner was a blessing or a curse to the new country.

The winter of 1854-55, the first experienced by the pioneers, is spoken of by them as one of extraordinary severity. With houses miles apart and homes primitively poor, and few of the conveniences of our later civilization and lack of money added in many cases to their isolation, the period before their farms had become self-sustaining was truly one of great privation. The first three or four winters were seasons of scarcity and poverty. The winter of 1855-56 is reported to have been colder than any since.

There is said to have been ninety days in which the snow did not thaw and it is believed that if there had been any thermometers in the country their record would have lingered below zero. The winter of 1856-57 was one of deep snow-drifts covered with a hard crust that made roads impassable and deer could be killed with clubs. Wood had to be hauled on hand sleds.

The county government shared in the general poverty of the first few years of settlement and county orders were at a discount in the market till 1862, when the treasurer began paying them promptly at par. The Rochester Post, in noticing that-fact, stated that Rice County was the only other county out of debt. In 1857 Olmsted county orders sold for from 40 to 70 cents on the dollar.

During the years that the country was passing from a region of wild prairie to one of cultivated farms, the prairie fire was a constant menace to the settler. In the fall and till snow fall in the winter, the dry grass on the untilled quarter-sections of the prairie was liable to be set on fire by a careless hunter, or sometimes by a careless farmer, and then whole neighborhoods would have to turn out and fight the fire. The brilliant fire light against the sky was a frequent sight at night, and not a few farmers mourned the loss of stacks or buildings.

How incalculable has been the development of wealth from the soil since the first furrow was turned in America. This is well seen in this county. Farms transformed from wild land, valued by the government at $1.25 an acre, now selling for from $30 to $75 an acre, and all the increase in value has been wrought out of the soil. Who can realize or imagine what the total in billions would be if one could but ascertain such increase in value and development of wealth of the whole country. It is a problem defying all calculation. And that increase and development is but fairly under way. No wonder that ours is a billion-dollar nation.

  Olmsted County |Minnesota AHGP 

Source: History of Olmsted County Minnesota, by Hon. Joseph A. Leonard, Chicago, Goodspeed Historical Association, 1910.


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