Pages 171-180 From the book
"History of Wabasha County" Published in 1884
Concerning Wabasha and Winona Counties in Minnesota
This chapter was transcribed by Kathryn Bryan.
Quite a number of persons came up from La Crosse on the ice about the first of January, 1852, to see the country and select claims on Wabasha prairie. As everybody stopped at Bunnell's, he, too, became infected with the prevailing epidemic of claim-making from his guests. Although he had no confidence in the success of Capt. Smith's undertaking to build a commercial port on "that sand-bar in the Mississippi," Bunnell had the shrewdness to surmise that there might be a chance for speculation in the attempt, provided he could sell out before it should be again flooded with water. He at once concluded to take a chance in the venture, and decided that he, too, would have a claim on Wabasha prairie.
At that time Capt. Smith's claim on the lower landing, claim No. 1, was considered the most valuable and most desirable as a town site. No. 4 was estimated as the next in value. Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 6 were valued in the order named.
Having determined on making a claim Bunnell went up to the prairie and looked the ground over. He found that the most desirable locations had already been taken. Notwithstanding this he fixed upon one of the unoccupied claims, and selected claim No. 4 for his purpose. This claim he considered really the most valuable.
To get possession Bunnell stated to Johnson that he had been looking for a claim, and had found one that suited him just above the Stevens claim that was not occupied, and he intended to take possession of it. Johnson replied by telling him that he could not have it; that he had already made a claim there and should hold it. Bunnell inquired how many claims he expected to hold; that he was already holding two at the lower end of the prairie. This Johnson denied, and explained to him that the one he was living on was Capt. Smith's and the other belonged to Nash.
Bunnell then tried to convince Johnson that it would be to the advantage of all who had claims there to give him an interest on the prairie, for the Sioux were then talking of driving the whites away, until the treaty was ratified; that with his influence over them he would be able to prevent trouble. Johnson replied that he would not give up that claim to any man, that he was not afraid of trouble with the Indians, that he should hold both claims as long as he staid there. Finding that Johnson could not be influenced by argument, he left with the threat that he would have it, even if he had to help the Indians drive them all off from the prairie.
Not long afterward Bunnell drove up to the prairie again and brought with him on his train two fine-looking young Sioux braves in their holiday attire. He saw Johnson and told him the Sioux were getting to be more dissatisfied with the settlers for coming on their lands without their permission that there would soon be a disturbance unless something was done to keep them quiet; that he should not try to control them unless he could have that claim; if the settlers got into trouble they would have to go to some one else for help.
Although no serious difficulty was anticipated, the alarm was given as soon as Bunnell came on the prairie with the Sioux and the asked him what he was going to do about it. "Nothing," was Johnson's reply, and remarked that he did not believe such good-natured looking fellows as Bunnell had on his sleigh would do any harm if they were well treated.
Bunnell had taken a dram or two and was excitable. He lost his temper, talked loud and made a great many violent gestures. The Sioux sat quietly in their places on the train and indulged themselves with their pipes and some of Bunnell's tobacco. They were impassive and apparently indifferent spectators of the proceedings.
Johnson, believing that this was a ruse of Bunnell's to try and frighten them, told him that he "did not scare easy and could not be bluffed with a little noise." Bunnell was annoyed that his dramatic display was a failure, and as he got on his sleigh answered: "You will have to take care of yourself if the Indians get after you; I shall not interfere again." Johnson laughed and gave some derisive reply, telling him "Not to bother himself about the affairs of others until he was asked."
The next trip Bunnell made to Wabasha prairie he brought with him two men, Harrington and Myers, and built a small log shanty or pen on Johnson's claim at the upper landing. The logs used in the construction of this claim shanty were once a part of Indian farmer Reed's old store cabin, the ruins of which furnished material sufficient for the body of the crib. It was covered with broad strips of elm bark brought from the Indian tepees in the mouth of Burns' valley.
In this little pen, not more than six feet square and not high enough for a man to stand up in, Bunnell left Myers to hold the fort and guard the claim, which he had now taken possession of in a formal manner. Bunnell furnished Myers with supplies and brought up some lumber and put up the framework of a board shanty, but did not complete it for want of material to cover it. Myers remained in quiet possession of the claim for about a week, when, considering everything safe, as he had not been disturbed or observed any hostile movements, the settlers on the prairie being absent on the island, he ventured down to Bunnell's for a little recreation and relief from his lonely and uncomfortable confinement.
It was gratification to see the man with his gun leave the prairie. He at once took advantage of the absence of the occupant of the cabin and demolished the improvements. He leveled the structure with the ground, and then deliberately cut the old logs and the lumber into firewood.
Bunnell was enraged when he found that Johnson had destroyed his shanty, and threatened to whip him the next time he saw him. Myers did not return to Wabasha prairie. He was dismissed by Bunnell for neglect of duty and left the country.
Bunnell sent messages to Johnson warning him to leave the prairie, or the next time he came up he would whip him like a dog. Johnson sent back answers that he was prepared to defend himself and his claims; that if Bunnell came on the prairie again it would be at his peril.
Neither of these men were cowards, and serious trouble was anticipated. They were small men -- hardly of medium size, Johnson a little larger and heavier of the two and of coarser make-up. Bunnell was firmer built and active in his movements, a dangerous antagonist for a much larger man in any kind of fight.
Satisfied that "talk" would not win the claim and irritated by Johnson's successful opposition, Bunnell, in company with Harrington, drove up to the prairie one evening for the purpose of assaulting Johnson if a favorable opportunity offered. Both had stimulated to a fighting degree and were primed for the purpose.
Going first to the Stevens shanty, Bunnell there found Clark and Nash, who had called on a social visit. He inquired for Hamilton and learned that he was at Johnson's. Gilmore and Wallace were on the other side of the river at Farrell's. After a short visit they left without betraying the object of their evening visit on so dark a night.
They went directly down to Johnson's shanty. Bunnell knocked at the door. On being told to "come in" he entered, saying, as he rushed toward Johnson, who with Hamilton was sitting by the fire, "Get out of this if you want to live." Johnson sprang for his revolver, which was in his berth, but the attack was too sudden; he had no opportunity to use it before he was knocked down and disarmed.
"Bunnell is killing Johnson; come down quick as you can." Clark and Nash at once started back with Hamilton on a run for the scene of conflict. When about half way, they were met by Johnson, who, although apparently injured, returned with them. They found that the shanty had been demolished, but the assailants had disappeared.
Johnson was taken up to Clarkís shanty, where he was provided for and carefully attended. He was found to have been badly bruised about the head, chest and arms. His face and hands were badly swollen and covered with blood, but no bones were broken. It afterward proved that no serious injuries had been received. Johnson had been terribly beaten by Bunnell and was compelled to lay up for repairs.
When the battle-ground was visited in the morning the full extent of damages to the "pioneer claim shanty" was revealed. The first evidence of actual settlement on Wabasha prairie had been destroyed. The pile of brick and stone which formed the fireplace, with some broken dishes, marked the locality where the little cabin once stood. It had been turned over and with its contents thrown on the ice of the river.
Johnsonís supplies and other traps were secured and carried up on the bank, where they were sheltered with the lumber from the shanty. The stable and cattle had not been disturbed. Johnson and Nash lived with Clark until their shanty was reconstructed. Johnsonís revolver and double-barreled gun were carried off by Bunnell as trophies of his victory.
Soon after this affray, Peter Gorr and Augustus Pentler came over from the island to visit the settlers on the prairie. Mr. Gorr had his rifle with him, which he was induced to leave with Johnson after hearing the incidents of his quarrel. Johnson then sent word to Bunnell that he would shoot him on sight if he ever made his appearance on the prairie again.
Bunnell had no design to interfere with the occupancy of the claim at the lower landing. His attack on Johnson and destruction of the shanty was for retaliation and to intimidate him. He became satisfied that he would not be able to hold the claim at the upper landing without some serious fighting.
Homer was started about this time, in which Bunnell was for a while interested. Bunnell returned to Johnson the revolver and the gun he had taken from him, peace was negotiated and the "little difference" that had existed between the parties "dropped" without further action. Bunnell, however, became more emphatic in maintaining and more free in expressing his opinions of "that sand bar up there" and more zealously advocated his theory that the "main land" was the only place for a permanent settlement.
This was the first attempt at "claim jumping" ever made in the settlement of this county. It was afterward a common occurrence.
M. Wheeler Sargeant, an early settler, once gave a very appropriate definition of a claim in an address before the Winona Lyceum in 1858. He said: "A claim is a fighting interest in land, ostensibly based upon priority of possession and sustained by force." Many of the old settlers will readily recognize the pertinency of this description. The law of might, as well as the law of right, was often the means by which possession of claims were retained.
Soon after this first claim quarrel, a claim association or club was formed for the mutual protection of settlers in holding possession of their claims. The first meeting was called to meet at Bunnellís about March 1. The prime movers in the matter were some residents of LaCrosse who had recently selected claims on the west side of the Mississippi. They came up prepared to complete the business and the organization was created at this meeting. It was called the Wabashaw Protection Club. The important matters of constitution and by-laws were duly discussed and gravely adopted, and officers elected with customary formality. The settlers from Wabasha prairie attended the meeting, but were in the minority and failed to secure any of the offices. The officials were residents of LaCrosse. Mr. George W. Clark was a member of the club and was present at that meeting. He says from the best of his recollection the president was George G. Barber, the secretary William B. Gere.
The Wabashaw Protection Club was the first regular organization of any kind among the settlers ever formed in the county.
It is not now positively known, but it is very probable that Bunnell knew the Indians designed to demand a bonus from the settlers for the privilege of remaining undisturbed. It was supposed that the treaty would be ratified during that winter, but it was not fully confirmed by government the next year.
During the winter some officious personages had given the Indians begging letters addressed to the settlers recommending that contributions be given to the Sioux of Wabashaw's band to keep them quiet and peaceable until the ratification of the treaty. That the Indians were needy, and to prevent dissatisfaction the settlers were advised to contribute to their wants, and suggested that a barrel of flour, or its equivalent in money, be given for every cabin built on their lands.
Some of Wabashaw's band came over from the other side of the river where they were camped and presented their written document. To avoid any difficulties or annoyance from them, Johnson agreed to give them the flour, but told them they must wait until the Nominee came up in the spring. To this they consented and went off apparently satisfied with the arrangement. Johnson supposed this was one of Bunnell's tricks to alarm them and that was the finale of it; but in the spring the Indians returned and demanded the flour. This "shanty tax" assessed by the Sioux was paid by a few of the settlers.
The Sioux and Winnebago Indians visited the settlers on Wabashaw prairie frequently during the winter and were at all times friendly. There was not a single instance where it was known that they disturbed a settler or his property, not even in the absence of the owner.
Johnson rebuilt the shanty on Capt. Smith's claim, but put it on the bank a little way back from the river and a few rods below where it first stood. This was an improvement on the first structure. It was about 8 x 12. The fireplace so much valued by Johnson in his first cabin was omitted in its reconstruction. Johnson induced Augustus Pentler with his wife to occupy this shanty. He boarded with them and made it his home until he built a shanty on his claim at the upper landing. Mr. Pentler lived in this place three or four months and then made a claim on the river below Bunnell's along the bluffs, where he lived for several years. He is now living in the western part of the state. Mrs. Pentler was the first white woman among the early settlers to make Wabashaw prairie her place of residence ~ the first white woman that settled in what is now the City of Winona.
About March 1, Silas Stevens and his son, William H. Stevens, came up from LaCrosse on the ice. They brought with them a pair of horses, wagon and sleigh. This was the first span of horses brought into the county by a settler. There had been no demand or use for horse-teams. In banking wood and hauling logs ox-teams were the most useful and economical. Bunnell kept a saddle horse, which in winter he drove harnessed to a kind of sleigh called a train, a kind of conveyance peculiarly adapted to travel over unbroken trails drifted with snow.
On the arrival of Silas Stevens, Mr. Clark delivered up to him his claim and gave possession of the shanty and other property entrusted to his care. About this time, or not long afterward, Mr. Nash put up a small log cabin on claim No. 2. Clark and Gilmore occupied this with Nash as their headquarters until they built shanties on their own claims. This shanty stood about two blocks back from the river on what is now High Forest street. It was about 10 x 12, built of small logs and covered with bark. The bark for the roof and the lumber used in its construction was taken from the old Indian huts or tepees, which were standing on the prairie about a mile above the upper landing.