News: Mormons Lived in Old Clark County, Wis.
Contact: Tiffiney Hill


Few Landmarks Still Remain in and Around Neillsville Territory

Neillsville, June 20 - As the centennial of the first visit of white men to what is now Clark county approaches, old settlers recollect evidences of the early settlement of the county which have long since disappeared.

Comparatively few present-day residents of the county realize that the first buildings to be erected on Clark county soil were built by the members of the religious sect. The Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, who felled the first of the millions of feet of pine timber that were to go into the building of cities along the Mississippi.

Only a few years after the first white men, a group of French - Canadian trappers, set foot upon the soil of what is now Clark county, the Mormons, who had formed a settlement at Black River Falls in 1841, made their appearance near the present site of Neillsville.


A number of them had come to northern Wisconsin, where they engaged in cutting timber which they floated down the Black River to the Mississippi, and down the larger stream to Nauvoo, Illinois, the Mormon city which was then in the building.

Settling first at La Crosse, they gradually worked their way up the Black River and until a few years ago vestiges of their log buildings still remained in four places in the vicinity of Neillsville.

Hatfield, a summer resort on the Clark - Jackson county line, was know up until recent times as "Mormon Riffle", and Cunningham Creek, on of Clark county’s largest streams took its name from Jonathan Cunningham, a Mormon who was drowned in its swift waters nearly 90 years ago.

In the spring of 1841 a group of Mormons under the leadership of Elders Lyman Wight and George Miller arrived in the vicinity of Black River Falls, and tradition has it the first white child born in Jackson county was welcomed into the world by the ministrations of the Mormon women, who had just disembarked from their flatboats.


They rented the mill of Spaulding and Son at Black River Falls, and trading some lumber for supplies which they had already obtained at La Crosse, floated the remainder down - river to Nauvoo.

In the fall a number of families of Mormons returned down river to La Crosse and settled near the town that is still know to old residents as "Mormon Coulee." The citizens of La Crosse considered them and their religion as highly immoral.

A number of the men were employed, however, as wood-choppers and shingle –shapers, and it is related that these men commandeered a fleet of flat boats one winter night, loaded their goods, set fire to their erstwhile homes and set out down the river to avoid payment of debts they had incurred. They were overtaken, however, and a settlement of a kind was arranged, before they departed, never to return.


The group at Black River Falls had also succeeded in rubbing the wool of previous settlers the wrong way, jumping a claim owned by one Jacob Spaulding, a "lumber baron". Spaulding, marshalling a force of 20 men, sent them, as an old account tritely puts is, "heading downstream with doubts as to the Lord’s supremacy that high up on Black River".

A third group of Mormons, located at Nichols Creek, took Spauldings’ action to heart and is reputed to have sent a messenger to Nauvoo for men and guns. Spaulding appealed to the commander at Fort Crawford for aid in case of a Mormon attach, but the attack never materialized. In the following spring Spaulding sold them his property at the Falls for $20,000, to be paid mostly in lumber.

It was shortly after this experience that members of the sect penetrated the forests as far north as the present site of Neillsville. They had had little opportunity to utilize the vast timber resources of the section, however, when their fellows at Nauvoo became embroiled with the government, and their leaders, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, were killed.

This led to the exodus of the Mormons from the Mississippi valley and the establishment of the sect at Great Salt Lake, Utah, in 1847, where their numbers grew to more than 600,000.

Called back to Nauvoo by these developments, the Mormons who had been carrying on their lumbering operation in this region were forced to desert the scene of their labors. They had not attempted to proselyte intensively in upper Wisconsin, yet a few converts were attracted to them and several of these accompanied the main body on the western hegira.

Today, no physical sign of their efforts remains in upper Wisconsin, but such names a Mormon riffle, Mormon Coulee, and Cunningham Creek remain to bear witness to the explorations of the sons of the Prophet Mormon.



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