Winneshiek County Iowa Reminiscences

When the first home seekers came to Winneshiek county the remains of several Winnebago Indian villages were still in existence. Numerous Indian trails were in evidence in nearly all parts of the county, many of which led to the site of the present city of Decorah.

In “Reminiscences of Springfield Township 1 ” Hon. A.  Jacobson states : “The Indians who had inhabited this portion of the country where we settled were removed by government troops two years previous to our arrival. They had evidently intended to return at some future time as they had made large cellar-like holes in the ground in which were deposited all kinds of goods ed with the bark of trees. Such things as corn, feathers, axes, and kettles were in good preservation when exhumed by the new settlers.

“Quite large parties of Indians traversed the country, but they had their homes in the territory of Minnesota and did not molest us in the least. There were no settlements northwest of us the first year, hence being on the frontier we often felt un-easy, having heard that some traders sold them whiskey.

“Indian trails, well marked, crossed the country in various directions, and with little deviation continued to be the roads of early settlers, until the fencing in of the fields pushed the roads into the worst places:”

Alonzo Bradish, who came to Decorah in 1852, says 2 “One of their trails followed the east bend of Pleasant Hill and left off at a point about where the Catholic church now stands on East Broadway. This trail was well marked by frequent travel, and in places there were considerable depressions below the surface, caused, to a certain extent, by the dragging of tipi poles fastened to the backs of horses [travois].

“In the early days travelers had to ford the stream where the Twin Bridges now span the Upper Iowa. The road leading from here up through the valley, to the district now called Clay Hill, was known as the St. Paul stage road, and the valley was called Cruson’s Hollow. This route was very frequently traveled by the Indians. A favorite camping place of the Indians, when traveling through, was on the ground now known as the Court House Square.

“They always carried a blanket, and wore leggings that reached up over the thigh, and a clout. Many carried hatchets, of which the most were made of iron. The young Indian boys were expert marksmen with the bow and arrow, hitting pennies and nickels at fifty to sixty feet distance.

“I had opened a hardware and tin shop, and here the Indians occasionally came to have their guns repaired. These guns were the only kind used then and were known as flintlocks, the ammunition being big lead balls. The Indians were supplied with them by the government..

“A young Indian and his squaw were camped at a spot about where the stockyards. are now located at the east end of Water street. The river at this time was very low and he busied himself in making a dugout canoe from the trunk of a large cottonwood which he had felled. When the high water came they put the boat in the stream and getting in were soon on their way down stream, headed for Lansing at the mouth of the Upper Iowa, where a part of the tribe were encamped.”

Philip Husted, an old settler, relates 2 that, “Quite often parties of Winnebago Indians would travel through the country; one of their favorite camping places was on the Yellow river near Frankville. They would sell their beadwork, and were very, pleasant and peaceable with the whites.”

A number of years ago Mr. E. G. Bailey met two Indians at the Methodist church corner, on upper Broadway: One was a very old Indian, and the other middle-aged. Mr. Bailey (who was then about twenty years old) was asked if he knew where a Mr. E. Anderson lived. One of them opened a neat note book in which was written, “These Indians are good Winnebago Indians, and they are to be trusted.”

(Signed.) E. ANDERSON,
Sheriff of Winneshiek county.

It is not definitely known what year Mr. Anderson was sheriff, but his statement is only another example of the confidence early settlers placed with the Winnebagoes. Although Iowa was in a manner always neutral ground and escaped many of the worst results of the encounters between the whites and the Indians, the early settlers of Winneshiek County had their Indian scare, and they had good reason to become alarmed. What led to this was the Indian uprising and Sioux massacre in Minnesota in June, 1862.

They had swept Minnesota with bullet and brand
Till her borders lay waste as a desert of sand,
When we in Dakota awakened to find
That the red flood had risen and left us behind.
Then we rallied to fight them,-Sioux, Sissetons, all
Who had ravaged unchecked to the gates of Saint Paul.
– Joseph Mills Hanson, Frontier Ballads

At this time the Winnebagoes were at Blue Earth in southern Minnesota. Although they took no part in the Sioux massacre, and even though they offered the government their: services in punishing the Sioux, the inhabitants of Minnesota demanded their removal. They were hastily removed to South Dakota, where they suffered many hardships.

This Indian scare was general throughout the county and was an occurrence well remembered by the old settlers. A contributor to The Decorah Journal, 1882, states: “As I write the word `Indians,’ my memory takes me back to the early days of my childhood in Decorah. Again I see a rider on a foaming steed dash along Broadway, as I did twenty or more years ago, shouting at the top of his voice, `The Indians are corning!’ Again I see the street thronged with blanched faced men and trembling women, running to and fro in wild excitement and gazing with anxious faces off into the west. Again I hear the whispered consultation of the men as to the best means of protecting their loved ones. Again I feel my hand clasped in that of my sainted mother as I toddle along at her side, down Mill street hill, across the old red bridge, and over to West Decorah-a place of imagined safety. It was a false alarm, and probably faded from the memory of many of our readers, and remembered by others only as the dim recollection of a half forgotten dream.”

At Decorah, men, women, and children gathered on the Court House Square, and prepared to withstand a siege. Settlers left their homes and gathered in Decorah as a place of refuge, many of them camping on the flat now known as Park Addition. Men armed themselves with any kind of weapon that lay handy, and determined to defend their families and homes, but when the threatened attack proved to be a rumor.

J. C. Bredenburg, of Canoe township, says 3 , “I remember the Indian scare. Some one came to our house one night twelve o’clock and told father the Indians were coming and that they were about twenty miles away, killing people and burning all the houses. Father and mother talked it over and father said, ‘I will go to Burr Oak and see what is to be done.’ He left mother and me at home, and when he arrived at Burr Oak nearly all the people were there for several miles around, some with their teams and families. They held a council and decided that all should meet there and build a fort for their protection, but no Indians came, so the people settled down again. It was some time, however, before all fear had vanished:’

Other similar accounts might be given, but the preceding narratives describe the conditions as they existed, during this scare throughout the county.

There is no evidence to show that any Indian murders took place within the boundaries of our county. There were, however, several such murders committed in the near neighborhood that of the Gardner family, in Fayette county; of Riley, near Monona; and of Herchy, near the mouth of the Volga. The contaminating influence of the bootlegger was the direct cause of these murderous deeds. “Firewater” was the curse of the Indian, as it has since been to many a white man.

Taft Jones and Graham Thorn were two bootleggers who infested the neighborhood of the Winnebago reservation. The government did not allow such characters to come on the reservation, so they came as near to its boundaries as they dared and established so-called trading-posts in the vicinity of Monona, giving them the names of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Indians used to frequent these places and always got badly cheated.  Alexander gives 4 the following account.

“An old Indian visited Taft Jones’ den, at Sodom, and traded in all his worldly effects for whiskey, he even sold the blanket about from his shoulders Becoming intoxicated, he was turned out of doors, and on his way to his lodge died from exposure and cold. The next morning his son, a youth of about twenty summers, found the dead body of his father out in the snow, naked and frozen. His revengeful feelings were aroused, and going to the whiskey den at Gomorrah, he shot the first man he saw through the window. Unfortunately it happened to be an inoffensive man named Riley. A detachment of troops under command of Lieutenant David S. Wilson was sent out to capture the Indian who committed the murder. He was apprehended, taken to Fort Atkinson, and confined in the guardhouse; but by the connivance of a sympathizing white man he escaped and was never recaptured. Jones lived a short time after this occurrence and died from chronic alcoholism.”

Thus an attempt has been made to give in brief outline the Indian history of Winneshiek county. The writer soon discovered, after taking up the study of the subject, that nowhere was accurate information in concise form to be had in regard to the aboriginal inhabitants of the county; their occupation of the county seems to have been an obscure period in their history. The writer has regarded it as well worth while to gather the data here presented, and has had in view that this article should faithfully preserve the early scenes of our predecessors in the county.

The river, whose peaceful waters reflected the light of their campfires, now furnishes the power that lights the modern structures of the white men, by which their wigwams have been supplanted. But the memory of the red men will never perish from the minds of those who have succeeded them. The names of Winneshiek and Decorah, that are attached to our county and county seat, will be an enduring monument to their former occupation of the soil.

Here still a lofty rock remains,
On which the curious eye may trace
(Now wasted half by wearing rains)
The fancies of a ruder race.
Here still an aged elm aspires,
Beneath whose far projecting shade
(And which the shepherd still admires)
The children of the forest played.
There oft a restless Indian queen
(Pale Sheba with her braid and hair),
And many a barbarous form is seen
To chide the man that lingers there.
By moonlight moons, o’er moistening dews,
in habit for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer—a shade!
And long shall timorous Fancy see
The painted chief, and pointed spear,
And Reason’s self shall bow the knee
To shadows and delusions here.
Closing stanzas of Philip Freneau’s The Indian Burying-ground.


  1. Sec. II, pg. 11, Atlas of Winneshiek County, 1905.[]
  2. In a personal interview with him.[][]
  3. Sec. II, pg. 14, Atlas of Winneshiek County.[]
  4. In his history of the county.[]

History, Winnebago,

Hexom, Charles Philip. Indian History of Winneshiek County. Decorah: A. K. Bailey & Don, Inc. 1913.

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