The story of Winona County begins in one of these sites of an earlier civilization, called by the French, Prairie Aux Aisle meaning Prairie with Wings, and by the early rivermen, Sand Prairie. It was the site of an Indian village called Wabasha's Prairie. It is known in modern times as Winona, Minnesota. This site became the spearhead for the occupation of the territory beyond the town of Winona--it was the gateway for the migration that eventually occupied southern Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The westward migration across the United States began at the very founding of the nation and has continued into the 20th century. The founding of Winona was a part of this westward migration process. Settlement had reached the eastern bank of the Upper Mississippi River Valley early in the 19th century. In the 1830's, settlers crossed the Mississippi to establish river towns in Iowa. Minnesota Territory to the north of Iowa, however, was closed to settlers because it was the land of the Chippewa and the Dakota. In 1851, the United States was able to force upon these Indian tribes the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux--treaties that deprived the Indians of their ancestral lands confining them to reservations and opened Minnesota to permanent settlement by Americans.
During the closing decades of the nineteenth century and well into the first decades of the twentieth, Winona became an important commercial, industrial, and transportation center in southeastern Minnesota. From its early beginnings, the city built its prosperity on the natural advantages around it: its flowing river at its front door and its wooded hills and rolling fields at its back. The whole setting combined to supply it with the resources it needed to emerge as an important lumber milling and grain handling center for a large portion of the state. At all stages in its development, its growth was fostered by its position on the bank of the Mississippi River. The rich farmland beyond the city became the resource through which Winona county developed into one of the leading counties of the state of Minnesota. The city's strategic location on the river, however, was critical for the growth of the hinterland.
What is probably the earliest written record of the place dates from the first years of the nineteenth century. On September 14, 1805,Lieutenant Zebulon Pike recorded his Impressions of the Mississippi Valley near island number seventy two (on his map), which would one day be Winona, Minnesota. He wrote,
Less than fifty years later, Pike's island seventy two was selected by Captain Orrin Smith as a townsite on the west bank of the Mississippi River. For over twenty-five years, Smith had sailed the river between Galena, Illinois, and Fort Snelling, Minnesota as owner and pilot of the river packet Nominee. When he learned that a treaty to establish a reservation in the interior of the state was being negotiated with the Dakota Indians, he realized that there would be a rush to develop townsites on the Minnesota side of the river. As the place to stake his own claim, he selected a site called Wabasha's Prairie where he had long stored firewood for his boat. In October, 1851, Smith landed his ship's carpenter, Erwin H. Johnson, on the island, along with deckhand Caleb Nash, leaving them orders to build a claim shanty, to hold the island against other claimants, and to cut and store wood for the next year. Other rivermen scoffed at Smith's choice, which was commonly known as "sand prairie." But Smith had recognized that Wabasha's Prairie, with its two boat landings, was strategically located between Dubuque and St. Paul, and could well become the gateway to southern Minnesota. He foresaw that after the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, Minnesota territory would grow rapidly in population. As a matter of fact, settlers came in such a rush that by 1860 there were eighty-seven towns established in the territory.
Smith believed that Wabasha's Prairie would grow and prosper because roads could be built up the coulees, or valleys, through the high bluffs that stood at the prairie's doorstep. Farmers who settled on the plateau and the broad hinterland beyond would provide the raw materials, agricultural produce and the market area necessary for the expansion of the city.
Winona was part of an urban system that was developing during the last half of the 19th century. The urban system was a regional phenomenon. Urbanization and the history of Winona were related to other cities and towns in the Upper Mississippi River Valley-places like Chicago, Burlington, Clinton, Davenport, Rock Island, LaCrosse, St. Paul, and Minneapolis.
Winona in 1856