Laying the Foundation

Matilda and Willard Bunnell.Selecting a County Seat.Founding Winona County.

Minnesota Territory
Winona County was officially established with its present boundaries on February 23, 1854, three years after Minnesota Territory was opened to settlement. Prior to that time this area was at first part of Wabasha County and later Fillmore County under the Minnesota territorial government. After Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858 the county government was established with the election of supervisors in that year and the county board was formed in 1860.

The territorial government, organized in 1849, created nine counties for the Minnesota territory. Only three of them were completely organized as counties, the rest served for the distribution of judicial and administrative officials as needed.

Wabasha County which contained the area which was to be the future Winona County was bounded by the Mississippi River on the east, the Missouri River on the west the Iowa state line to the south, and on the North the latitude drawn from the mouth of the St. Croix River over to the mouth of the Yellow Medicine River This huge administrative area included all of southern Minnesota and the southeastern portion of what would be South Dakota.

In 1853 Fillmore County was created which included most of present Winona County. The creation of this new district was unsatisfactory to Winonans because the western area of the county was sparsely settled, most of the population in 1853 was in Wabasha's prairie and the area adjacent to it including Minnesota City and Minneowah. There were a few early settlers in the hinterland of Wabasha's prairie but they were widely dispersed. A few settlers had established a trading post as far west as St. Charles. Even though the first county meeting was held in Winona all the members of the county board were stockholders in the Chatfield Land Company which was involved in a scheme to acquire the county seat for a townsite they controlled on the western border of Fillmore County. T. B. Twitford from Lansing Iowa discovered and laid out the site for Chatfield. In order to advance his town he formed a stock company to make Chatfield the county seat for Fillmore County. The stock of the company was divided among twelve stock holders, among them were Robert Pike, Jr. of Minnesota City and Willard B. Bunnell of Minneowah.

Matilda and Willard Bunnell. Willard Bunnell was a colorful individual who played a significant role in Winona's early history. He exemplified the individualistic, self-reliant settlers who established frontier outposts which developed into villages, towns, and cities. Bunnell had been a sailor, fur trapper, Indian agent and frontier merchant who was at the point of the spearhead of frontier development in southern Minnesota. Bunnell, born in Homer, New York in 1814, along with his wife Matilda, became the first permanent settler in Winona County. Young Bunnell made his first foray westward when he ran away from his home in Rochester, New York at the age of ten. He worked for a short time as a cabin boy on a canal packet. His father sought him out and brought him back from this early attempt to strike out on his own. After a few more scrapes and troubles with the truant officer, his father entrusted him to an old friend Captain Fox who taught him to be a seaman. By the age of eighteen he was an proficient wheelman on lake packets. He later advanced to the status of lake pilot. He married Matilda Desnoyer, the daughter of a fur trader in 1837 and became a trader himself. top
Willard and Matilda Bunnell and Indians from the Menominee tribe worked the area around Green Bay and the mouth of the Menominee River. By the time his brother, Lafayette, arrived to assist them the elder Bunnell was suffering from poor health. He was afraid that he would be a victim of consumption or tuberculosis which appeared to be hereditary in their family. He had heard from voyageurs that the Upper Mississippi river valley climate was a dry and healthy place for those who had a tendency for contracting tuberculosis. (1)  At Green Bay the Bunnells sold their furs and some equipment, including a large canoe which had a capacity of 4,000 pounds of furs, for a considerable profit. The Bunnells with the assistance of a Menominee Indian guide made the journey from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi by way of portages over the Fox river and Wisconsin river Route. Along the way they traded for furs which they sold at Hercule Dousman's trading post at Prairie du Chien. Seeking to establish a town site they bypassed LaCrosse in 1842 which was very small and inhabited exclusively by men at that time. They had heard that there was a woman at a settlement further up the river. Bunnell's wife, Matilda, cast the deciding vote for that place and they settled in the village of Trempealeau which is just south of the city of Winona. In 1849 Willard Bunnell who had assisted in the relocation of the Winnebago tribe, had heard that the Dakota would also soon be removed from their traditional home and relocated elsewhere, to open the Minnesota Territory to settlement.

He obtained a trader's permit so that he could trade with Wabasha's band of Sioux and because he was on good terms with Wabasha he was able to obtain his permission to build a house and reside on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Wabasha, who according to Bunnell's brother Lafayette, called Willard "The Chippewa" allowed him to enter the area prior to the date of his permit because they had established a relationship earlier. This relationship gave Bunnell an opportunity to acquire a prime site for settlement before any other white men arrived in the new territory. But because the area was still considered somewhat dangerous he relocated his wife Matilda further downriver in LaCrosse. Bunnell recruited some assistants in LaCrosse, the most important of whom was John Burns, brother of the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. He loaded a steamboat with supplies and with his workers he sailed upriver to a site he had observed as a prime place for settlement as early as 1842.

The Bunnell's built and occupied their house in the summer of 1849, becoming the first permanent settlers in Winona County. (2)  This site, a few miles below Wabasha's prairie as Winona was then known, had in Bunnell's mind the chance to become the leading river town between LaCrosse and St. Paul. The place was called Bunnell's Landing.

He chose this spot over Island Number 72 or Wabasha's prairie because after the high water of 1844, Island Number 72 or the "sand bar" as it was derisively called by some river men, was covered with water. Indians Bunnell knew, also told him that the sand bar was often underwater. This observation was also confirmed by some river men who reported its condition as they traveled up and down the river. One steamboat, the Lynx had even run aground on the lower part of what is now Winona. Another reason for his choice was that in 1844 there had been a serious outbreak of sickness on Wabasha's prairie which resulted in the deaths of a number of Wabasha's people. The Dakota custom of burial was to place the bodies on platforms. As they decomposed Wabasha's prairie became an "object of loathing" for some river men.

Bunnell claimed that he chose the site because of its natural beauty and the rich farmland which could be easily accessed from the landing. Bunnell was not a town builder, he did not have the aptitude, patience, or the tact necessary to successfully organize and develop a town site. In 1851, after Captain Orrin Smith and his assistants had laid claim to Wabasha's prairie Bunnell attempted to cover his bets by acquiring a claim on the is rapidly developing but still primitive site. This led to an explosive physical confrontation between him and Erwin Johnson; Smith's assistant. Johnson refused to allow Bunnell to establish a claim arguing that he already had a claim in the area. Johnson's argument was not entirely valid because at this time there was no legitimate process for acquisition of land. It was a situation where squatter's rights prevailed and occupation of the place was nine/tenths of the law. Bunnell threatened to use his influence with Wabasha, who he warned, could evict the squatters because the treaty was not signed yet. Johnson still refused to give up his claim. This claim controversy finally led to violence. Bunnell and Johnson each destroyed the other's shanty which was their evidence of a claim on the land. A ferocious fight between the two took place from which Bunnell emerged victorious. But further threats of violence and even a death threat followed this. Bunnell backed off and returned to develop his own land in Homer. Later on amicable settlement between the two ended the controversy.


Bunnell then settled on a scheme to build a town site on the bluffs above Homer in 1853 along with a few other promoters, some from LaCrosse and St. Paul. He called the site Minneowah or "Snow Water" which was well known to Wabasha and his band because of a cold spring located there. A number of buildings were erected including a hotel. Bunnell neglected to register the site and he eventually lost it as the area developed but not before he engaged in another struggle with the chief rival squatter claimant, Daniel Dougherty. In this fight Dougherty seized Bunnell's thumb in a "vise-like grip" and held on until Bunnell surrendered. Bunnell lost not only the fight but also his thumb, which was, so mutilated it had to be amputated. Despite these conflicts which resulted in part from Bunnell's impetuous and impulsive nature, he was widely admired. A contemporary historian, Dr. James M. Cole wrote of him, "The professional town-site speculators were "too much" for the little Indian trader...Not withstanding his active, restless temperament and impulsive manners, he was popular with his acquaintances. He was a genial, social companion, and a gentleman when frontier sociability was not carried to excess."  (3)  When the occasion arose to establish a county seat Bunnell was determined to preserve the future possibility of Minneowah becoming a county seat. It was Pike's and Bunnell's purpose to support Chatfield for the county seat primarily to deny it to Winona because it was very probable that Fillmore county would be divided and another county seat would be created giving both Minneowah and Minnesota City a chance to advance their future hopes for growth.


Selecting a County Seat. There was substantial controversy over the selection of the county seat, which reflected aspirations of local town leaders to advance their own towns and interests. Designation as a county seat was an important stimulus for future growth. At this time the only structure at Chatfield was a log pen. The closest settler was at St. Charles. When Fillmore County was created the appointed board designated Chatfield as the county seat but the legitimacy of this act was in doubt because the act creating the new county stated that the elected county board should determine the site of the county seat. On January 2 1854 the elected county board met at the home of Robert Pike in Minnesota City. The members of the elected board were Pike, Bunnell, and John C. Laird of Winona. When the vote was taken Chatfield, Minnesota city and Winona each received one vote. On January 30, 1854 the board voted to 2 to 1 to make Chatfield the county seat. The lone dissenter was Laird of Winona. There is much speculation that friendship, diplomacy and even bribes were used to try persuade Bunnell and Pike to vote for Winona to no avail. According to G. W. Willis, Manager of the Chatfield Land Company and the leading proponent of he Chatfield site, "none of the commissioners were bribed to vote for it [Chatfield], though everything else was done to influence them. Bunnell and Pike located the county seat--a majority of the board could do it....Bunnell and Pike would have voted for Tophet rather than have given it to Winona." (4)

When Lafayette Bunnell wrote his history of the early history of Winona in 1897 he reflected more philosophically on what was a very heated struggle, "It was really a foolish rivalry, and an utter lack of appreciation of the natural advantage possessed by Winona. (5)


Founding Winona County. Winonan's wanted their own county. A drive to subdivide Fillmore county and create a new Winona County was led by Henry D. Huff of Winona, L. H. Springer of St. Charles and O. M. Lord of Minnesota City. Lord, the territorial representative for the Winona area introduced a bill to the territorial assembly and won approval for it on February 23 1854. This legislation created Winona County and defined its area within its present boundaries as proposed by Lord. (6)

Although the boundaries of the county were set in 1854 considerable changes took place in township boundaries and names through 1862. The wishes of the voters determined the establishment of the names, which became the permanent township designations.

In 1854 the population of Winona County comprised only 800 people and growth was slow because there was much more interest at this time in the area around the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. The delay in removing the Indians until 1853 and the stories published in the St. Paul press praising the fertility of the Minnesota River Valley drew new settlers further north even though Winona's location seemed to be so advantageous as the gateway to the West. In 1855 a land office was established in Winona which spurred the settlement of the county, and the rapid growth of the city.


1.  This myth about the salubrious climate of the Upper Mississippi Valley was wide spread and sometimes led to tragic consequences. See Philip Jordan, The People's Health: A History of Public Health in Minnesota to 1948 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1953), 1-7.

2. Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, M.D., Winona and its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days (Winona: Jones & Kroeger, Printers and Publishers, 1897), 176-77; 203; 277-82; 345-47.

3. History of Winona County (Chicago: H.H. Hill and Company Publishers, 1883), 27

4. History of Winona County (Chicago: H.H. Hill and Company, Publishers), 366-370; Lafayette Bunnell 277-282; 348-56; 402; An Old Testament place where human sacrifices by fire were made to Moloch.

5. Lafayette Bunnell, 402.

6. Curtiss-Wedge Volume 1 210-217


Wabasha Prairie to Winona