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Pioneer Stories

These stories were discovered at the end of the chapter on Watopa Township. Since they do not have the nature of biographies or historical sketches and since they concern people and events from around the entire county, not just Watopa, I have given them their own page.


The material of which the pioneers of Wabasha county was constructed is illustrated in the following item of fact which was related to Mr. F. Talbot by the actor, as also to other parties, thus making strong proof of the truth of the narrative.

When Mr. Alexis Bailly was about nineteen years of age, and while attending school at Montreal, Canada East, Lady Selkirk, fearing some conspiracy was brewing by which the life of the earl was in danger, sought in vain for some days the means of communicating with her husband. A thousand miles in midwinter was a formidable journey which no one seemed willing to attempt. The gallant heart of youth, who was not without the love of adventure, and who knew from former experience the route to Detroit, Michigan, offered his services to the lady and gave her such assurance of his readiness and ability to communicate with the earl, if anybody could succeed, that she gave him carte blanche for an outfit.

Securing the services of two hardy Frenchmen, grizzly old voyageurs, and getting together a good dog team, with such provisions as were requisite for men and beasts, and not forgetting the little bags of ground parched corn, with its proper sprinkling of sugar and an ample supply of blankets for emergency, he turned his heel to the civilization of the French metropolis and took up his line of march for the wilderness and the earl, whose headquarters he reached in due time without accident or adventure worthy of note.

The earl complimented him for his bravery and hardihood in undertaking and accomplishing so perilous a journey in winter, and detaining him until thoroughly recruited, supplied his train for the return trip, and entrusted him not only with letters to Lady Selkirk, but with other important documents.

On the return a beclouded sun for some days brought affliction and almost disaster to the party. The long detour from the right path of their journey almost exhausted their provisions, and for eight days their only subsistence was one of the little sacks of parched corn. The Frenchmen were determined to kill and eat the dogs, and it was only from the fact Mr. Bailly, youth as he was, resisted sound sleep and with pistol in hand watched not the dogs but the voyageurs. While at Fort William with Earl Selkirk he learned that an employee of the Hudson Bay Company had deserted, and there was a rumor that he was in a certain location trapping. As good fortune proved, such was the fact, and Mr. Bailly and his party made their way to his camp, where they feasted for some days on venison alone, for the hunter had no other provisions. From his camp, supplied with sufficient venison to prevent suffering, he led his train in safety back to the metropolis, to be received by Lady Selkirk not alone with verbal expressions of a grateful heart, but with a kiss of joyful approval. The trip was performed about the year 1819.

We again hear from this young man, who was to be no inconspicuous mover in the settlement of Wabasha county.

The following is from a record of Mrs. Van Cleve: "Early in August, 1821, a young Frenchman, Alexis Bailly, afterward a member of the legislature of the territory, left the cantonment with the first drove of cattle for the Selkirk colony, and returned the following winter."

The cantonment was the embryo of Fort Snelling. Those who now make the trip in well-warmed cars, with a dining-car attached, know little of the courage and hardihood demanded of that undertaking. Mr. Bailly and his son Henry were among the original proprietors of the city of Hastings.


The picture of Tah-mah-haw, the friend of Gen. Pike, together with a commission as a chief from Gen. Clark, of Missouri, dated in the year 1814, are in the possession of the old Indian's friends in Wabasha. Tah-mah-haw was called by the old French voyageurs the "Old Priest," because he was a great talker on all occasions. In the war of 1812 he rendered important service to the government, and it was his boast that he was the only American in his tribe. At one time while carrying dispatches from Prairie du Chien to Fort Snelling he was pursued by a party of Sacs and Foxes. Being hard pressed, he noticed a log cabin at some distance, and on getting to it rushed in. The family, it appeared, had just abandoned the house and left the fire burning. Tah-mah-haw, on looking around for a place to secrete himself, thought of the chimney, and up it he rushed. His enemies coming up soon after, entered the house, but not thinking of the chimney did not stay long. After waiting awhile until the coast was clear Tah-mah-haw got down and took the other trail. Another time he was surprised by a war party of the same nations, and being on the bank of the river when it was full of running ice, he jumped in, and by diving managed to escape to the other shore. The old man was taken away from here at the outbreak of the Sioux war in 1862, and died at the Santee Agency, Nebraska.


Many amusing anecdotes might be told of early times in Wabasha, among which to the writer occurs his first experience in attending church. On a Saturday in March, 1856, he arrived in Wabasha and put up at what was then known as Harrold's hotel. In the morning inquiry was made if there was religious services in the place that day, and was cooly informed that he believed that there was an "old Methodist minister that did some kind of howling up at Hays' hall," so at the proper time the writer wended his way to the hall. There was quite a congregation assembled and religious services commenced. The room below the hall was occupied as a saloon. In that was fiddling and dancing. Very soon a free fight was organized below, when every man, except the preacher and the writer, rushed out to see the fight, and the women present crowded to the windows to overlook the fight. Between the cursing and swearing of the belligerents below and the screams of the women above as some of their friends would be knocked out of time, it seemed as though pandemonium had broke loose. The fight soon ended by all hands repairing to the saloon and taking a drink. Reverential thoughts were driven from the minds of the congregation, and they quietly departed without waiting for the benediction.


In the spring of 1856 a feud existed between two disciples of Esculapius (the mythical Greek god of medicine), one residing in the town of Greenfield, the other at Wabasha, both of Irish descent. It happened one day that the learned doctor from Greenfield was met in the street at Wabasha by his brother of the pill-bags, when the latter drew his pistol and commenced firing at the former. A running fight ensued, the doctor from Greenfield making quick time for what is now Hurd's hotel, the doctor from Wabasha following up and firing his pistol at intervals until his rival was safely ensconced in the hotel. Five shots were fired, three of which penetrated the clothing of the Greenfield doctor, and one slightly wounding him in the back. The learned doctor was so badly frightened that he dare not leave the hotel, and sent word to his friends to come to his relief. The next day the quiet citizens of Wabasha were astonished to see a regularly organized company of Irishmen, about thirty in number, march into town with colors flying and drums beating, all heavily armed. They marched to the hotel where their comrade was hidden and soon had him mounted on horseback, when, with more zeal than discretion, and much more valiant than on the former day, now that he was surrounded by his friends, he began to make threats to raid, to kill, murder and hang the citizens, especially the rival doctor; but better counsel prevailed, especially when he observed that quite a number of the citizens were congregating at Harrold's hotel and arming themselves for the pending affray. The Irish legion quietly marched out of town, no blood being spilled and no one in injured except the old man Augustin Rocque, an old French trader and Indian scout, who had seen service and was anxious for a fight, who in flourishing his small sword accidentally wounded himself in the arm, from which wound he soon after died.


The last survivor of the Sioux Indians who fought with the Americans against the Sacs and Foxes at the battle of Bad Axe lives in his little cabin a short distance below the city of Wabasha. Mah-Kah-Kee-day, "Burnt Land," such is the name of the old man, who belonged to Wah-pah-sha's band, and distinguished himself during the Black-Hawk war. When Wah-pah-sha was at his village, where Winona now stands, called at that time Wah-pa-sha Prairie, Gen. Dodge called on the chief, and requested him to take part in battle against their old enemies the Sacs and Foxes. Wah-pa-sha, after consulting with Wah-kuh-tah, who was chirf of the band on the lake, told the general that when white people went to war they provided for their families, but that Indians had to trust to luck. Gen. Dodge took the hint, and ordered the captain of the steamboat to roll off a number of barrels of flour and pork, to be distributed to the different Indians. Wah-kuh-ah was here a few years ago visiting his relatives, and told the writer about those stirring times.

Many wonderful stories are handed down from generation to generation by the Indians, and the more wonderful the better appreciated. Wah-kuh-tah, whose village stood at the head of Lake Pepin, told the writer that a long time ago and immense fish was found on the shore of the lake. One of the Indians took his bow and measured across the head four lengths, and that the body was long in proportion. The fish had the make of a catfish, and when found it was dead. Another story is told of a snake having been seen in a crevice of the rocks near Maiden Rock, that probably belonged to Donnelly's Age of Fire and Gravel. His snakeship, according to the tradition, must have been sixty or seventy feet long, and about a bow's length across the face. The Indians who saw him were afraid to go near it, as they said that his eyes shot forth fire. He was probably the last of his race, and no doubt his remains will be found by some scientist embedded among the rocks of the beautiful lake.

NOTE: I. Donnelly's Donnelly's Age of Fire and Gravel: a theory (pub. 1883) regarding sheets of unconsolidated rocky debris strewn across the planet being the consequence of impacts of comets.


Oliver Rosicot (pronounced Rosico) went to Mendota in the year 1831, and ranks next to Oliver Cratte as being the oldest resident of the state. Mr. Rosicot was sent about 1841 as blacksmith by the government to the foot of the lake to attend to the wants of the Red Wing band of Indians. He is now in his seventy-sixth year, and has lived at his old home ever since. His place is in the town of Pepin, and directly opposite the town of Pepin in Wisconsin. Like Mr. Cratte, Mr. Rosicot has seen the rapid changes that have taken place in half a century throughout the state.


The picture of Wah-pa-sha was taken from a painting in the possession of the family of Alexis Bailly, Esq., now deceased. This is the chief the place was named after. He was a noted man in his day, and was recognized as head chief of the River bands of Sioux. During the troubles with the Winnebago Indians, at Prairie du Chien, at an early day, Wah-pah-sha was invited by them to a council. After listening to the Winnebago chiefs, and what they proposed doing to the whites, Wah-pah-sha arose, and, pulling a hair from his head, blew it away, telling the council that if they harmed a white man he would blow them from the face of the earth as he had blown the hair. The chief with his band made their summer residence on what is now called "Sand Prairie," or, as it was called by the old voyageurs, "La Prairie au Cypre."


About the year 1841 Macey, the United States geologist, while exploring the mineral resources of this country, found a vein of lead on the Zumbro river. In his report to the government he stated "that it was an east and west crevice, and lay deep in the magnesia limestone." Mr. Macey stopped with Mr. Oliver Cratte during his stay in this vicinity, and showed Mr. Cratte pieces of lead that he broke off the rocks in the crevice. Nothing was done about the "find" at the time, as Mr. Cratte said since that there were no white men in the country to work it, and besides, the Indians would have objected. When Mr. Francis Talbot came here in 1853, allusions were made to the lead on the Zumbro every once in a while. As the exact location of the crevice was not given by the geologist, no definite idea of the place could be fixed upon. During the war, when things were "flush," he conceived the idea of forming a company to make explorations and find the mineral if possible. The company consisted of W. T. Dugan, S. S. Kepler, W. S. Jackson, A. G. Remondive, with F. Talbot as president, and S. S. Kepler, secretary. An old river man and ex-galena miner, by the name of J. Morrison, was employed to "test" the ground, and if possible "catch on" to the vein. After working all winter, nothing was found that would warrant a larger outlay, so the enterprise was abandoned, although good specimens of lead were found. Another company was formed in the year 1866, of which Mr. Wm. Wetherbee (now deceased) was president. Mr. Wetherbee's company, called the "Zumbro Lead Mining Company," met with no better success, and they too had to give up the search. There is no doubt, however, about there being lead on the Zumbro, as Macey's report is positive and clear on the subject. Mr. Cratte stated that the lead was discovered about nine or ten miles from this place, but in what direction he could not say.


Among the great hunters of the northwest at an early day, Jos. Rocque, of this place, was the most noted. When Joe was a young man, and before he gained any reputation as a hunter, his father killed a dear, and told his son that when he went hunting to bring back something like that. Joe said nothing, but waiting his opportunity started out one morning with nothing but the ramrod of his rifle, and finding a dear followed it, and actually ran the animal down and drove it home. Going to his father he said, "Father, when you go hunting, bring home a deer on foot, and save your powder." The poor animal was so used up by the long chase, that its flesh could not be eaten. After that exploit Joe's reputation was soon established, and numerous stories have been told of his achievements in the chase. Louis Rocque, a brother of Joe's, when a boy, was sent to the mission school at Mackinaw, and recollected John Jacob Astor, when that gentleman was there looking after the interests of the American Fur Company. In after-life Louis acted as guide for Gen. Fremont and Nicollet, when they visited this locality.