Sunday, March 16, 2008

On Lake Pepin

At La Crosse and Wabasha, the steamboat passed several Indian villages. “We noticed at each village as we passed,” Watson recalled, “the scaffolds made of crotches and poles about twelve feet high, on which they laid the dead who had died during the winter, there to wait until spring thawed out the ground so that they could bury them.”

Lake Pepin, ca. 1830, by Seth Eastman (1808-75).

Above Wabasha, the steamboat passed into Lake Pepin. In mid-March, bald eagles congregate on the river, soaring down from the bluffs and fishing off the melting edge of the ice. In the winter, the local Indians would fish for sturgeon on the lake, casting their spears through holes in the ice. Steamboats arriving before the ice broke up on the lake had to unload their cargo at Reed’s Landing, near the southern entrance to the lake. The cargo was then taken overland by wagon to the top of the lake. By mid-April, when the Nominee made its first trip, the ice was gone, but there was perhaps only the faintest tinge of green on the wooded bluffs. The poet William Cullen Bryant said that “Lake Pepin ought to be visited by every poet and painter in the land.” The landscape was, and still is, magnificent.

“On Lake Pepin,” Epes Sargent wrote in 1855, “you see grandeur putting on all forms of beauty, and wearing, under all aspects, a smile. Even its ravines are so hollowed and smoothed that every rugged feature has been softened down… The curves and undulations of verdure assume every fanciful and delightful form; now sweeping so as to create a regular amphitheatre between two high bluffs; now sinking into basins; now sparsely dotted with trees; now entirely bare of trees, and richly carpeted with grass; now crowned with noble forests; and now rising into a perpendicular and precipitous wall of sandstone.”

At Red Wing, the site of another Indian village, the steamboat passengers would have noticed Barn Bluff, an island of limestone 3100 feet long, 800 feet wide, and rising more than three hundred feet above the river. The French called it Mont La Grange, which means Barn Mountain, because of its barn-like shape. Just above Red Wing, about three miles beyond Barn Bluff, Robert Watson may also have noticed a smaller river emptying into the Mississippi: the Cannon River.

“Soon after leaving Lake Pepin,” E. S. Seymour wrote, “an Indian village, called Red Wing, inhabited by a tribe of Sioux, was seen on the Minnesota shore. It appeared to contain about one dozen bark lodges, and half as many conical lodges, covered with buffalo skins; also, a log or frame house, occupied by a missionary. Indian children were seen running, in frolicsome mood, over the green prairie, and Indian females were paddling their canoes along the shore. This village is near the mouth of Cannon River. The bottom land above, on both sides of the Mississippi, is covered with a dense growth of tall, straight, and pretty timber, such as is seldom seen in this country.”

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