How did our local government evolve?
by Mason Witt
Land ownership and the governmental units that decide how it shall be managed have a long and varied history in Houston County. Generally speaking it has been done in a way that benefited the population living on and using the land, but not always.
The first people to drift into what would become Houston County, would have little or no ability to understand and comprehend our complicated land usage of today. To them it was theirs for the using, with no idea of ownership as we think of it. They may have declared this valley or that hill as theirs and the area to the east belonged to a group who was related to their leader. The people were few and the space large, so there was no need for anything remotely resembling land ownership and government. They took no more than they needed and did little to disturb the natural vegetation.
Slowly through time and many generations, their ideas of land ownership began to change, but only to the extent that they could control a larger area because their group size had grown. Still there was no sense of land ownership by an individual. Each group used what they needed and left the rest unspoiled and free. This is a successful system when the population of the area is small and often very mobile.
The Native Americans lived very successfully in this fashion. Their populations tended to ebb and flow with climatic conditions, little influenced by outside forces. Epidemics and life style practices could cause a sudden or slow decline of a group, but sooner or later population growth elsewhere would fill the void without becoming a major conflict. This came to an end when the Europeans finally made contact with North America in sufficient numbers to have an effect on the native population. In the beginning stages it was rather benign, but increasing numbers brought increased conflict.
Two distinctly different cultures were in conflict and superiority of arms outweighed any rights of prior occupancy. When the French fur traders from Canada eventually made their way to the Root River Valley, they made little or no change in the life style or sense of possession of the land. If anything, they chose to adapt the Native American way rather than attempt to change them. The less trouble they made, the more furs they had to send back to Canada. Unfortunately, this was short lived. The French claim to Houston County by right of discovery and first use was tenuous at best.
The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 saw the removal of France as one of the major players in governing Houston County. Their control of Canada was transferred to England and their claim to lands west of the Mississippi River to Spain. The Native Americans would have understood the intrigue of the European rulers, but not their intent to control large areas of land beyond their European territories. For 35 years the rulers of Spain controlled the destiny of Houston County and did little or nothing with it; if they even had any idea what was here. In 1800, France again regained control of our “county.” Had Napoleon not had such grandiose plans of conquest in Europe, we can only speculate what might have taken place.
By this time, the United States had gained control of the lands ceded them at the end of the Revolutionary War and were settling the Ohio River Valley and adventurous explorers were casting covetous eyes on the Mississippi River and its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. Owned by Spain by right of discovery and possession they were in control of the Mississippi River Valley, even though they only had possession of the lands west of the river. When they passed possession back to France the situation changed; France was now in control. Wars are expensive and Napoleon needed money. Ever since the United States learned of the change in ownership of the Mississippi Valley they had been making overtures to the French about selling. Suddenly 15 million dollars looked like a large windfall to Napoleon. A deal was concluded and the United States took possession of New Orleans and the west bank of the Mississippi in 1803.
Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, 1804 – 1806, had little effect on our area. Fur traders, both French and English, continued to follow their trade and the Native Americans took advantage of the trade goods, but ignored the more abstract idea of land ownership. Population growth in the more settled East and demand for land gradually increased the Americans presence in the Upper
Mississippi River Valley.
With the granting or statehood to Iowa in 1846 and
Wisconsin in 1848 there were more and more “Americans” casting covetous eyes at the Indian lands on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. Gradually they made their presence felt and when the land between the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers was left in limbo by Wisconsin’s statehood something had to be done. People and governments abhor a vacuum.
An act of Congress on 3 March 1849 created the Minnesota Territory and solved the problem of the lands between the St. Croix and Mississippi. It also included lands all the way west to the Missouri River and north to Canada. Only a small portion of the lands, between the St. Croix and the Mississippi, had been ceded to the United States by the resident Native Americans. Everything else was Indian land and not yet open for settlement.
Houston County during the last stages of occupation by the Native Americans was something of a No-Man’s Land. The Dakota and Ojibwe to the north and the Sauk and the Fox to the south all made incursions into the area, but none of them really controlled it. In an attempt to avoid conflict, the United States government in 1825 established an east-west line in northern Iowa below which the Dakota were not to hunt. Problem was no one, least of all the Native Americans, knew exactly where it ran. Then to compound the problem, in 1830 the government established the Neutral Ground. A strip of land 20 miles north and south of the 1825 hunting grounds line. This may have included a small part of southeastern Houston County. In 1832, the north half of the Neutral Ground was ceded to the Winnebago as they were being pushed out of Wisconsin. All the government actions concerning this area had little or no effect on the Native Americans use of the land as they little understood or cared about the “white man’s” strange ideas about land. They continued to use it and the fur traders continued to “mine” it.
With the establishment of the Territory of Minnesota came a need to put governmental units in place and with it the creation of counties and then townships. One of the first nine counties created, on 27 October 1849 by the territorial legislature, was Wabasha County. It encompassed the southern portion of the Minnesota Territory from a point just above the junction of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, west to the Missouri River, with the Iowa state line as its south border. Gradually through a series of treaties the Winnebago and Dakota ceded their rights to Houston County.
Even before the Indians had ceded title to their lands, there were white men squatting in what became Houston County. Despite the fact that the county was not open for settlement, the Census of 1850 lists six or eight people living in what is now Houston County. Some of them were timber cutters who worked the Mississippi River bottoms and the Root River Valley. They would cut trees in winter and float them down stream during the spring thaw. The fact that this was an illegal activity was of little or no concern to the Wisconsin sawmill operators. The loggers probably wouldn’t take them to La Crosse; it was safer to take the logs down stream some distance. The sawmills could claim the loggers told them they were operating upstream in Wisconsin, as a few may have been. Logs in Minnesota were free for the taking.
After the Indian treaties ceding the land to the United States were ratified, the next step was opening the land for settlement and the establishment of a land office. Brownsville, in 1854, became the site of the first land office in southeastern Minnesota and was soon doing a booming business with a rush of incoming settlers and speculators. As more land was opened for settlement further west, the office was relocated to Chatfield in 1866.
On 5 March 1853, the county of Fillmore was created from Wabasha County. This division included all of present day Houston County. The Fillmore County commissioners, at a meeting in Winona on 9 July 1853, created the first subdivision within Fillmore County. The Root River voting precinct was the area between the mouths of the Root River on the south and the Black River, in Wisconsin, on the north, thence extending west to the county line. The second voting precinct in Fillmore County was created 27 August 1853 and encompassed all the land south of Root River. The designated voting places were the home of John S. Looney in the Root River Precinct and in the public building in the Brownsville Precinct.
Less than a year later, Houston County was set off from Fillmore County on 24 February 1854, by an act of the legislature. Three county commissioners were elected on a county-wide basis on 4 April 1854, in the above named voting places. Convening in Brownsville, the new county seat, on 26 May 1854, they set up five voting precincts: Brownsville, Caledonia, Pine Creek, Root River, and Spring Grove. These five precincts served the county for the next four years. In action by the commissioner’s court, as the commissioners were known, on 6 April 1858, they established 14 townships: Brownsville, Caledonia, Crooked Creek, Hamilton (Money Creek), Hokah, Houston, Jefferson, La Crescent, Mayville, Sheldon, Spring Grove, Wilmington, Winnebago, and Yucatan, With the addition of Union, these 15 townships were confirmed by the state legislature on 13 August 1858. This act came three months after the granting of statehood by Congress on 11 May 1858. Mound Prairie was created by the commissioners in December 1858 by taking land from La Crescent and Union Townships; and Black Hammer came in April 1859, created from land once part of Spring Grove and Yucatan Townships.
The villages of Brownsville and Houston were platted in 1854; Caledonia, Hokah, and Spring Grove followed in 1855, and La Crescent in 1856. Eitzen was also platted about this same time. Numerous other villages were platted in the county by optimistic entrepreneurs. Some existed on paper only, others had a business or two and a post office for a time, and some still in existence today with larger populations than any time in the past.
In the beginning these small villages operated as part of the township in which they were located. Gradually seven of these platted villages each went to the state legislature and were granted legal status as villages, separate from the township. Brownsville, Caledonia, Eitzen, Hokah, Houston, La Crescent, and Spring Grove were later upgraded to cities by an act of the legislature. These seven cities and 17 townships form the local level of government in Houston County in existence today.
Submitted by the Houston County Historical Society