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Throwback Thursday: No cats in Wabasha Prairie
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Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: No cats in Wabasha Prairie

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This story originally appeared on Oct. 24, 1925, in the Winona Republican-Herald, a predecessor of the Winona Daily News.

E.B. Drew, Winona County’s first farmer in the third and last installment of his memoirs, which have been running serially in the Republican-Herald relates the experiences and difficulties of the first settlers.

Following is the concluding installment of Mr. Drew’s diary:

“All the settlers at Minnesota City built some kind of shelter to live in the first summer. They were what were called gophers. Quite a number of log houses were built later to winter in. These gopher houses were built before any lumber could be had. They lived all summer in such habitation. Mr. Thorp with his family lived in an extra good one of large size. During 1852 we broke all the land we possibly could. The great difficulty was to keep our plows sharp, there being no blacksmith shop handy. We had to sharpen our plow with a file. We turned over in good shape some 25 acres of that tough soil before it got too late.

Then we had to fence out our cattle from the breaking which we did by breaking a strip a rod wide from bluff to bluff, over 100 rods at the mouth of the valley. We cut the tough sod with a sharp spade into suitable lengths and laid them up stone-wall fashion, about four feet high, making a very effective fence. It did not look bad either. That is what we called a sod fence.

Indians paid with flour.

“I think it was along in June when we heard that the treaty with the Indians had been ratified by Congress. We were all glad to hear that. It was a great relief. Before that we really had no business to occupy this land. The Indians knew it very well and had bothered a good deal while we were yet living in the wagon.

One was said to be “Old Wabasha,” a dignified old fellow. They wouldn’t say a word in English even if they could. They pointed to the covered wagon and said “tepee.” They took a stick and pointed to our breaking plow, jabbering in Indian. Some said they wanted our plow. We soon learned that they wanted a barrel of flour from every tepee for the privilege of living on their lands. They got that from the settlers along the river, above and below us. They kept bothering us until the association finally made a lump bargain with them, giving five or 10 barrels of flour for the whole settlement. That stopped their troubling. The flour was paid for out of the treasury of the association.

“When we first arrived in Minnesota there was quite an Indian village along the river where the roundhouse and machine shops of the Northwestern railroad are now. The village was of tepees, the Sioux called them, built of poles covered with bark. About a mile from there at the mouth of Gilmore Valley were several such habitations and quite a piece of ground that had been cultivated. It was rich and level bottom land. I have heard that at one time white men, a farmer and blacksmith, (James Reed and Francis du Choquotte) were employed by the government to work for the Indians. Very few Sioux Indians were ever seen in this part of the country after the treaty was ratified.

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“Well worn Indian trails (paths) were all the roads west of the Mississippi when we first came. Some of them were worn deep by much travel. The Indians always traveled single file afoot or on their ponies. I never saw any Sioux dressed otherwise than in their blankets.

“When we took the head out of the barrel of potatoes that we brought up the river, out jumped a mouse. It got away and ran under the shanty. It had entered through a hole in the barrel and built a nest. We regretted so much bringing that mouse to our shanty to bother us. It got on the table and shelves, and we could hear it during the night. It went on that way for a couple of months until finally, I succeeded in killing it. We were much rejoiced to get rid of that mouse, but we soon found that killing that mouse made no difference. We devised home-made traps, and with excellent results. We persevered In trapping them until finally, we got the last one. That was along in the fall. According to my recollection, we tallied 89 mice. I never before realized the value of a cat, but no cats were to be bad for several years after our settling in Minnesota.

“About the last of August, 1852, J.B. Denman and wife were up on Sunday to a meeting at the house of Elder Henderson. It was the first religious service that I can recollect as being held in a private house. The Sunday meetings had been held all summer in the public grounds. Denman told me that they had named their town Winona. It was a long time before we got used to calling it Winona. It was “Wabasha Prairie” or “down to the steamboat landing.”

A few hundred dollars could have bought all Winona

“A very small part of the city of Winona is on the original Johnson and Smith claim. If it had been managed right, it might have been a good thing for Haddock and Murphy to have taken Johnson’s offer, heretofore mentioned, provided they could have bought out the other claimants on the prairie, which at that time, I think, a few hundred dollars would have done. Then each member of the association could have had a business lot and also a couple of acres in what has long been a valuable part of the city.

“Dr. Childs, a member of the association, bought the claim that takes in the C. & N.W. railway shops for $80 soon after I first landed on the prairie. Sanborn bought the claim south and adjoining Johnson and Smith in May, 1853, I think, and Huff bought one in June of the same year that joined Johnson’s on the west.

Old man Sillsbee sold his claim south of Huff’s in 1854, not long after shooting Huff in a dispute over the division line between them. I think he did not realize enough on it to make him independent, judging by the way he moved afterward. He lived in a little rough board shanty on the upper end of the prairie the following winter, and I think for two winters. He worked when he could get work. That prairie must have been a bleak place for the first comers, without shelter, but as it was on the main channel of the river the pioneer squad could have obtained lumber and built comparatively comfortable shelter by the time any women and children arrived.

A very good majority of the association would have been just as well off on the prairie for they had no use for farms. Their gardening would have been more successful there that season than where there was stiff sod. There was plenty of rain that summer with no long dry spells. All could have obtained good farms, though not exactly as they had pictured in their investigations close to the townsite. They had the whole of southern Minnesota to pick from.

“We heard big fish stories from Wabasha Prairie. They were getting fish from the lake back of the townsite next to the bluffs by the wagon load. Mr. Lord sent me word to meet him at the creek and go with him for fish. Sure enough, when we arrived at the lake we found fish, by the thousand, catching them by simply throwing them out of the water with pitchforks. The lake had frozen over solid, then a heavy fall of snow prevented the fish from getting air except in a few places along the bank next to the bluff where springs came out into the lake, keeping the water from freezing. At these open places, there was a living mass of fish of all kinds known to the river.

“When my house was finished we moved into it. I then had a home and farm of my own, though very little else. I never felt so rich as I did that night when I went to bed. There was a happy feeling that I never experienced before or since, though I knew I had yet to perfect my title from the government.


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