Wabasha's Prairie to Winona


Site Objectives | Web Site Design | Old Settlers Association | A Collaborative Sesquicentennial Project

The objective of this web site is to encourage students to study the development of a community during a period of significant historical change. This web site is based almost entirely on primary sources. These are the sources like letters, official records, diaries, and newspapers which are the evidence historians use to discover and write the history of a people and their community. This site is designed to enable and to encourage students to study and interpret original sources from which they can better understand the lives of the people who established the many communities which make up Winona County, Minnesota.

The project will introduce Winona's story with a brief perspective of its Native-American heritage. This area on the Mississippi River was the site of prehistoric and Eastern Dakota civilizations, in particular the Mdewakantonwan band of that tribe. The Mdewakantonwan leaders known as Wabasha had great influence among the Eastern Dakota and had established contacts and relationships with early French and English traders. In the 1840's the Upper Mississippi Valley west of Wisconsin and north of Iowa was the center of American expansion efforts to extinguish the Eastern Dakota rights to the land so that it would be open to American settlers. The Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota reluctantly signed by the Eastern Dakota opened this great area to settlement.

Matilda and Willard Bunnell serve as a bridge between the Mdewakantonwan civilization and the coming of the Americans. The Bunnell's were fur trappers who had followed the fur trade from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Willard lived on the West bank of the river before 1849 with the approval of Wabasha. Matilda spoke at least four languages including Lakota, the Dakota language. Wabasha, of course, was a pivotal figure in the negotiations and acceptance of the Treaty of Mendota, which opened the territory to settlement.

Winona was founded in 1851 by steamboat Captain Orrin Smith. The period between 1851 and 1854 exemplifies the great difficulties of the pioneer period. Conditions were primitive, competition for land and opportunity was unregulated, violence was common and the goal to establish a lasting community was not easily achieved.

The division of the county into townships and the settlement patterns, which took place during the territorial era, will provide students with the information and sources to expand their knowledge of how people on the frontier established homes, farms and livelihoods. Students will be able to compare and contrast the urban and rural settlements of the county.

Winona's development "took off "in 1855 in response to a number of significant factors which led to the rapid growth of the county which continued after statehood. During this period Winona made the transition from a community to a society.


The Web Site Design

This web site will focus on the social history of Wabasha Prairie during the territorial era 1849-1858. The web site includes a new narrative of the territorial era in Winona County which is a work in process entitled, Wabasha Prairie to Winona Manuscript. Most of the site is made up of original documents like letters, manuscripts, newspaper articles, artwork and photographs. The web site will be interactive involving the student actively in the learning process. Students will be able to move about in the site to find information that will enable them to better understand the origins of Winona County and its inhabitants.

Students are guided in their study by a series of "pages" called Scratching beneath the surface which introduce the students to the study of history using original documents to understanding the "big picture" of how the Winona community developed. Specific Scratching beneath the surface "pages" deal with interpreting letters, newspapers, speeches and how to combine sources to get the "big picture," using examples from the website. Discussions of these pages by students with their teachers will encourage interest and learning. A bibliography is included for those who wish to read further about Minnesota's and Winona's territorial era.

Original Documents

This site contains three significant and substantial original documents which may be used to study the history of Winona County during the territorial era.  Two newspapers, the Winona Argus and the Winona Republican for the period 1855-1858 are available on this site.  The manuscript 1857 census of Winona County is also available on the site.  Note: These documents are large and require substantial time to download but they have been programmed for relatively easy use. For those who wish to obtain a deeper understanding of Minnesota's territorial era they are essential historical sources. 

Old Settlers Association

The pioneer settlers were very conscious of the unique role they played in establishing one of the first communities west of the Mississippi and north of Iowa. After the Civil War the formation of the Old Settler's Association led to an emotional debate as to who were eligible to join and to call themselves old settlers. After a number of meetings and discussions membership was limited to those people who had come to Winona before the admission of Minnesota as a state. Only those who were here before or during the territorial era were eligible. This was an interesting and emotional definition because many supporters of a broader definition of "Pioneer" wanted to include the veterans of the Civil War as eligible for membership. But those who favored a more restrictive definition argued that the association was for "old settlers not old soldiers."

A Collaborative Sesquicentennial Project

This web site is a collaborative educational project of the Blue Heron Art Studio, the Winona Middle School and the Winona County Historical Society funded by a generous grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to celebrate the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of Minnesota Territory.

The web site is designed and created by Mary Alice Anderson, Media Specialist, Winona Middle School; Julia Crozier, Blue Heron Art Studio; and Eddie Allen, John Moe and William L. Crozier, Winona County Historical Society.

For additional information contact William L. Crozier.

Winona County Historical Society
160 JohnsonStreet
Winona MN 55987
(507) 454-2723


August 1999