I first came on to the beautiful plateau where now Northfield is, in the summer of 1854, and as I stood and looked to the west over the “Big Woods” and to the east over the broad prairie, and saw the clear, rapid river flowing between, it was a splendid view, and though I have seen many beautiful places, both in my own and foreign lands, I have never seen anything that thrilled me as that did, and I said to myself, “Surely where this beautiful river leaves the timber and takes to the prairie, some day there will be a busy town built up”—cities were not so common then as now—“and the surrounding country will be covered with happy homes, and I will seek no further.” And so in the month of August, 1854, myself and wife made our claim and built our log cabin…
—J.D. Hoskins, Old Settlers Reunion, Northfield, Minnesota, February 1898
A year after Robert and William Watson arrived in Minnesota, on July 30 1851, representatives of the federal government opened treaty negotiations with tribes of the Dakota nation. The purpose of the treaty was to claim title for the federal government to thirty million acres of land in southeastern Minnesota. The meetings took place on a prominent hill known as Pilot Knob, across the Mississipppi River from Fort Snelling. One of the white representatives, Alexis Bailly, had an arbor built to shelter the negotiators. Hundreds of Dakota, members of the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton tribes, camped nearby, perhaps among the oak openings on the slope where they often held ceremonies.
The Dakota called Pilot Knob O-He-Ya-Wa-He, “the place much visited.” It was a gathering place where for centuries the Dakota had come together for medicine dances and to bury their dead. Burial scaffolds, such as Robert Watson observed on his journey up the Mississippi in 1850, were frequently erected on the top of the hill. For this reason, the French who explored the area in the eighteenth century called the hill Les Buttes des Morts, the Knoll of the Dead.
The Treaty of Mendota was signed on August 5, 1851, after one week of negotiations. The Wahpekute and Mdewakanton gave up their land south and west of the Mississippi River and were forced to relocate to a reservation on the high prairie west of the Minnesota River, near St. Peter.
Wabasha, chief of the Mdewakanton, complained hat his people had lived for generations in the woodlands of southeastern Minnesota, and were not accustomed to life as farmers on the western prairies: “You have named a place for our home, but it is a prairie country. I am a man accustomed to woods. I do not like the prairies.” Out on the open prairie, the Dakota soon began to starve. In 1862, some of the Dakota on the reservation rose up against the white settlers in what is known as the Dakota Conflict. One of the Dakota soldiers in the conflict was Red Legs, a Wahpekute chief who had been present at the negotiations over the Treaty of Mendota. After the the conflict was crushed, the surviving members of the Wahpekute tribe were dispersed further west. Chief Wabasha and Chief Red Legs were driven into exile on the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.
The removal of the Dakota claim to the land opened up the land along the Cannon River to white settlement. Rice County was established and the first county boundaries were first defined in 1853. The boundaries were redrawn again in 1854 and 1855, until they were finally found satisfactory. By the fall of 1854, township lines had been located and the townships subdivided into sections for ease of settlement. Faribault was platted first, then Northfield. In the spring of 1855, a government land office was established at Red Wing. “And then,” recalled one early settler, “came the rush of home seekers.”
Most of these settlers came to Minnesota because of the availability of land and the remarkable fertility of the soil, which was ideally suited for growing wheat. In the 1850’s, the price of wheat rose rapidly—from 93¢ a bushel in 1850 to $2.50 a bushel in 1855—providing an incentive for farmers to settle the prairie lands of the west. It was wheat which drew John Muir’s father, newly arrived from Scotland, to central Wisconsin. Muir later recalled: “On our wavering westward way a grain dealer in Buffalo told father that most of the wheat he handled came from Wisconsin; and this influential information finally settled my father’s choice.”
When he was looking for a place to settle near Cottage Grove in 1850, Robert Watson sought “the ideal place, with prairie, timber, living water, shelter and accessibility.” The settlers who entered the Cannon River country a few years later found almost exactly this situation: upland prairie east to the river, dense woods west of the river, oak savannas for shelter on the slopes, and the river itself to provide “living water.” The pioneer farmers who settled along the Cannon River had access to prairie in which to raise their crops and woods from which to harvest timber for fuel and building materials. Their cattle grazed among the oak openings, their plows broke the prairie for wheat. In 1850, 1,600 acres of land in Minnesota were under cultivation; in 1854, 15,000; in 1860, 433,276. By 1860, Minnesota led the nation in the production of wheat, producing an average of 23.05 bushels per acre.
Pioneer David Humphrey, writing to a friend back east in 1855, gives this remarkable account of the settlement of the prairie around Prairie Creek, east of Northfield: “Prairie Creek, about six miles from here, is the gem of a prairie. To give you a little idea of the rapidity with which the country is filling up—this prairie of Prairie Creek was all unclaimed last Monday morning, and in three days 3,000 acres were taken. One man can have only 160 acres. All the settlers are New Englanders. The country about there is splendid, the soil almost fabulously rich, and the whole beauties must be seen to be appreciated.”
One of the earliest settlers along the Cannon River, in what is now Northfield, was Thomas H. Olin, who arrived on May 31, 1855. There were a few families already settled in the area, notably Jonathan and Ann Alexander, who had settled on one of the low bluffs overlooking the river, near an oak opening. The Olin family had originally come to America from Wales in 1678, settling in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Like many others, the Olins eventually followed the westward expansion of the new nation. In the 1840s, Thomas Olin and his wife Sarah were farming near Waukesha, Wisconsin, where their son Alvah was born on August 1, 1843. When southeastern Minnesota was opened for settlement in the early 1850s, the family again moved west.
The journey from Wisconsin took four weeks by ox team. The Olins crossed the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien and traveled up through Rochester and Cannon Falls, only to find that their claim along Prairie Creek had been jumped. The Olins moved on and took a claim along the east side of the Cannon River, in the oak savanna north of where the Alexanders had staked their claim the year before. The men constructed a log platform and pitched a tent over it until they could cut enough wood, in the forest across the river, to build a house.
A few months earlier, John Wesley North had arrived along the Cannon River. Settler J.D. Hoskins recalled: “Mr. North came in January, 1855, and immediately commenced cutting timber for his dam and mills, which he built the following summer.” The Cannon River, “improved” by the construction of a dam, would provide waterpower and enable the local wheat to be milled into flour, which could then be transported by railroad to the markets of the world. North himself later recalled: “I did not at first contemplate starting a town, much less a city; I only thought of a mill.” But once he’d made plans for establishing a mill, he began to buy up land from the earlier settlers. He hired a surveyor to divide the land into town lots to create the city of Northfield.
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