Spirit greatest asset of area pioneer families
|Oxen wagons provided primary means of transportation for settlers. Oxen proved more versatile then the horse for plowing and breaking land. Oxen were also used in the woods to tote logs.|
came in covered wagons; each wagon with one or two yoke of oxen and packed with
Each man brought two cows and a box of chickens and they camped and cooked meals outdoors. They were nearly three weeks on the road and came by way of Black River Falls through Eau Claire.
They had disposed of their holdings in Dane County after seeing the land here the previous year.
"We arrived in the Town of Spring Brook May 20, 1855, and camped on the banks of Mud Creek and made camp under the spreading of a burr oak tree.
Men built shanties
camped there three weeks while the men were building log shanties on each man's
These were the comments made by Eugene Wiggins, published in the Dunn County News June 14, 1923, as recalled from pioneer days.
Wiggins was five years old in 1858 when his family came to Dunn County. His story is similar to one told by many who came to this area during those early years.
His family was among the first to settle in what was then known as Fall City.
Toughest on women
|Settlers cut trees to clear land for farming and used the woods to build houses, barns, fences, furniture and tools. Hardwood ashes from firewood and chips burned in the smokehouse were saved to make lye for soap. Pioneers often girdled trees and kelled them by cutting through the bark around the trunks. Sumps left staning made plowing and harvesting difficult.|
families endured many hardships, and much of the burden fell on the women.
Chauncey Cooke, son of a pioneer family which settled in Pepin County, remembered problems facing his mother while writing for a county history, "We came 360 miles from Indiana. I don't know how my mother survived it. She held my brother, Kit, who was sick throughout they journey, while sitting on that jolting and swaying wagon.
"When we stopped she had to prepare breakfast, dinner and supper, bake bread and wash clothes. All she had to look forward to was another day of it the next day."
Many settlers came any way they could. During the first years they came mainly from New York; then others arrived from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and the southern part of this state. Transportation was whatever they could find.
Some came on flat boats
stories, most often recorded from "Old Settlers Days," discuss the
number of settlers who came on steamers up the Mississippi and poled their way
up the Black, Trempealeau and Chippewa Rivers on flat boats.
Others, such as the Wiggins and Cooke families, came with yokes of oxen pulling wagons with all the family's possessions, and stock driven behind.
Use of oxen instead of horses for all kinds of teaming was common. Oxen were slow, but possessed enormous strength and endurance. The ox was preferred to the horse in early times because it was better adapted for heavy work, breaking farmland and carrying produce to market.
Getting produce to market was as much a problem as growing enough to gain a surplus to sell. Bridges were scarce and flimsy, roads on hillsides were narrow and frequently gullied by rains, making teaming difficult and slow.
Relied on each other
the custom when long trips were contemplated for neighbors to go together to
assist one another in case of accident or to cooperate when bridges and roads
were in need of repair.
One pioneer wrote of the travel, "everyone needed oxen to pull the wagon. It was slow going, up one hill and down the next. There were no bridges."
The Rev. Edward Doughty, coming to Buffalo County in 1856, arrived with his brothers and sisters and mother on a steamboat at Pepin. He headed north along the river, but was not able to cross the Beef Slough area. This forced the family to build a ferry across the river. It took them a week, though it was a distance of only 12 miles to Maxville.
Log houses built
|Many of the first homesteads, particularly on cutover lands, appeared like this scene from Barron County. A log house and shelter for the animals were the first buildings constructed, followed by breaking of the land. Farmers built few fences in those days, allowing their small amount of livestock to wanter freely. Most farms were lcoated near springs or streams.|
the settlers arrived, log cabins were often hastily made with little material
other than timber hewn into logs. A glass window was something to behold.
Mrs. D. C. Baldwin at an Old Settlers meeting at Menomonie in 1917 said:
"The James and Andrew Mathews families had one of those log houses - logs just rolled up but no chinking. They had blankets hung up at the windows. Dick Bennett and the Knapp, Stout Co., Company crew all camped in the house and in the morning it was 40 below zero.
"The family had one cow but no stable to put her into and she froze her udder so bad they could not milk her.
"The family went to the marsh above where Colfax now stands, broke the ice and gathered moss and filled the open spaces, fixed the windows and the house became more comfortable.
Used mud for chinking
Foster, who came to the Minnickinnic Valley in Pierce and St. Croix counties in
the 1840s, in his memoirs wrote:
"There were gaps in the walls of the cabin. We made a fire and heated must to put in the cracks. By the time we got the mud up to the walls, it was frozen."
Another settler account reports the Rev. D. P. Knapp had come from Ogedesburg, N. Y., via Milwaukee to take up a homestead in Dunn County.
When at last the family moved into their fist cabin home, Mrs. Knapp wept bitterly when she thought of the fine parsonage they had left. The story continued that the roof was so poor, it let the snow and rain through. It was said the Knapp children, and there were nine of them, could see the stars through the roof at night.
A story from Trempealeau County notes that in 1864, a man by the name of Fitch was found frozen to death. He had cut some hay in the coulee, but when the snow became too deep he was unable to drive his oxen up the valley.
He tried to snowshoe to the hay and bring back some to feed his stock. He didn't return from one of the trips and was found dead. The coulee took the name Fitch's Coulee.
Pioneers who failed to dig deep wells the first summer were in trouble during winter when the water level dropped and they had to drive stock to the river, about a mile and a half each day. The Rev. Mr. Knapp was one of these.
felt being near water was most important. J. C. Tricknor wrote years ago, "the
farmers located so that the water from a spring or a creek could be used. They
deemed good water very important."
In the early 1860s, Frederick Olsen settled near Strum in a certain location because of the spring located a few feet from where he first built his cabin and started to clear land. Today, that same spring is still active on the Chester Olsen farm.
Most settlers came in groups. near Arcadia, in 1858, settlers looked over the land and decided to draw lots for choice parcels. The person having first choice had to pay a greater share of the expense of buying the pooled property.
Other problems too
land was claimed, there was no guarantee the battle was over. In October, 1964,
D. C. Baldwin and Albert Hinckley left Waukesha for Dunn County and drove 120
sheep to Oconomowoc, sent them by rail to Sparta and then drove them to the
On May 20, 1865, the flock was destroyed by prairie fires. The sheep were valued from $10 to $50 each and were of a high grade. Wool at the time was $1 a pound.
Mrs. Thomas Huey, Downsville, who lived in the area in 1864, wrote, "I did not come into Dunn County riding after any fine dapple gray horses; instead I came riding after an ox team. We moved to the Hudson road west of Menomonie.
"We got as far as Durand where there were no more boats to take up upstream. My father walked to five miles west of Menomonie and got a friend to come back with oxen and a wagon to take us to our home.
"My father had brought some carpenter tools and he made furniture for us which consisted of two beadsteads, a table and some benches. After 65 years," she wrote years ago, "I can still remember father carrying home a sack of flour on his back, five miles from Menomonie."
Often walked distances
not unusual for a man to walk long distances while carrying flour on his back.
John Hess, who settled in 1852 in Beaver Valley in Tremealeau County, once
carried flour 20 miles, trekking to Lewis Valley near La Crosse to reach the
Supplies had to be brought by whatever means possible. Ephraim Boardman and his brother J. S. Boardman were the first to settle in the Thorp area in the late 1860s. Ephraim opened the first store and had to haul supplies from Greenwood with a yoke of oxen and a stoneboat.
Transportation was limited. Joel Foster at River Falls had one of the few teams in the first days and helped many families with moving and other chores for which a team was necessary. His records showed he was seldom paid in cash, but took his reward in labor or merchandise. Settlers used a sort of barter economy based on supply and demand as well as neighborly willingness to lend a helping hand.
Word is good enough
of Thorp, a farmer, Anton Baldeschwiler, once loaned a neighbor money to buy a
horse. The borrower offered to sign a note, to which Baldeschwiler replied, "if
a man's word is no good, his note is no good either."
Food was no problem in summer and fall months because most farmers and those working in the mills had a cow or two and there were plenty of berries and nuts. In fall the families lived on vegetables, mainly potatoes and rutabagas.
There were so many rutabagas grown in the Colfax area it became known as "Baga" town. A Mr. Simon one year raised 1,400 bushels.
Winter, however, was a different story unless the family was able to put up plenty of salt fish and pork.
The main dish in winter was meat obtained by hunting. But that was not always possible.
Food conditions poor
conditions in 1857 were so poor in Eau Claire that a famine seemed imminent.
Men went to Read's Landing with a keel boat to bring back supplies. Meanwhile,
a man named Ephraim Brown, a hunter, came into town with a bear and sold its
carcass for 25 cents a pound.
Maple sugar was often made in spring and honey was a treat, as noted by Mrs. Huey in her reminiscences. "... when we arrived at Mrs. Cockeram's house (on the way to homestead) she had some honey for supper which they told us had been gotten out of tree in the woods. We thought it was wonderful."
There were no vaccinations during the pioneer period and when an epidemic started there was not much early settlers could do about it.
In the summer of 1860, George Leslie moved his family to the Town of Thorp. In May diphtheria struck, leaving many aching hearts and empty chairs. J. S. Boardman and his wife lost four children. all lying dead in the house at the same time. The Ephraim Boardmans lost two. In all, 11 of the little clan were dead from the epidemic.
Small pox strikes Humbird
future looked bright for Humbird in 1872 when the railroad was completed, land
sales were good and the community was growing.
However, in the fall of that year a visitor carried a small pox virus into the community.
One out of eight of the residents died during the first winter. Funerals were conducted at night and families buried their own dead. The town lived in virtue isolation from the rest of the world, and the scars of the pox were carried by many. Within a few years the town was again drawing visitors and some settlers. In 1870, the settlement of Colfax "was visited by an epidemic of smallpox which proved fatal to many."
lesser side of problems was constant annoyance of mosquitoes and gnats, not only
for humans but also for animals.
Foster in his writings, said, "...when the weather became very warm, the buffalo gnats got thicker. The breasts of the horses were sore and the gnats were bothering them something terrible. The pike in the stream were very fat and I got the idea to catch them and try fish oil on the sores. In a few days the gnats left the horse. Skin from a freshly slain deer provided good padding for the horses and it took the fever and soreness out of them."
One Eau Claire settler, Selim Peabody, was so bothered on his surveying trips by mosquitoes that his wife used some of her black-netted veil to make him a headpiece. Soon, the story goes, others were coming for some of the material.
There were other accounts of mosquitoes and gnats driving cows crazy and sending them off to the woods, only to feel the sting of other mosquitoes.
Settlers tried smudge fires at night and sometimes could keep the pesky insects away.
bothersome, but more damaging to the stock of the early settler, were wolves,
bear and in at least one instance, eagles.
Wiggins, in his early accounts, wrote "There were no bars at first and they made cow yards out of tamarack poles near the house and shut in the cattle for the night. One dark night a bear came near the house, got in the fence and killed the only calf we had. Father grabbed a gun but it was dark and he couldn't seen anything. The bear must have been strong because it carried the calf 80 yards from the house where it ate its fill. Four men stayed vigil over the carcass for two nights but the bear never came back."
There were other accounts of bear's attacking stock of settlers, often raiding pig pens. On one occasion a group of settlers organized a hunt and returned with four bear and divided the meat.
Wolves always around
were always around, one settler wrote. "We met wolves face to face in the
field, but they always ran one way and we the other. I have always been
inclined to believe that we made the best time."
A settler in Trempealeau County once reported eagles had swept down to attack lambs from his flock. Dogs were a good deterrent because eagles wouldn't have anything to do with them.
Early settlers often came in contact with Indians. Although the Indians were feared, especially by the women, there were only a few times actual physical harm resulted.
One of these was in the Pepin area where a settler built a cabin just below present Durand. A gang of Sioux bound the husband and attacked the woman in front of him, Thomas Randal wrote in his recollections of the early valley.
Cooke noted that one time while living in Pepin County the Sioux, who were on friendly terms, visited their cabin while his father was away. he said his mother, when she saw an Indian coming with rope, thought they were going to hang her. But the Indian was coming only for a pony that had wandered away. The Indians did beg for bread.
While there, they heard shooting near their camping place downstream, grabbed their guns and hurried off. Later Cooke and his father counted several trenches which appeared to be graves, and reasoned the Sioux had buried those killed by the Chippewa attack.
Attracted by singing
Butterfield was teaching school in the Running Valley area west of Colfax and
students were in their customary song session when suddenly a dozen Indians,
attracted by the music, were peering in the windows. Miss Butterfield held her
ground and the Indians eventually disappeared.
One settler in the Spring Brook area in Dunn County had a warning horn his wife could use to alert him from the fields. He heard the sound and headed home to find 40 Indians lingering around the log shanty. They had done no harm, bud did eat everything in the house and took everything they took a fancy to.
Foster wrote settlers didn't dare let horses graze in the fields in Pierce County for fear of the Indians stealing them.
Randall, in his writings published in the "Eau Claire Free Press," said: "The struggles and hardships encountered by the pioneers in the settlement brings them into a very close relation with each other...a common interest and a common dependence...the great expense of getting here; the utter isolation; the winter's food supply frequently running so low that every pound was distributed; those who lender to those who had none...all conspired to make every event of this early period full of interest to those who, coming at a later day, know nothing of those vicissitudes and experiences."
- Arnie Hoffman
Extracted from the Eau
Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.