Redwood Falls Gazette
  • Early steamboat travel in southern Minnesota

  • Covered wagons get most of the publicity, but many of the earliest pioneers in southwestern Minnesota arrived by steamboat along the Minnesota River....
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  • Who were some of these early pioneers, and how did they arrive in Redwood County and in other parts of southern Minnesota? Have you ever wondered how these pioneers traveled in the early days? Have you ever wondered what they brought with them and who they were? The soldiers arrived at Fort Ridgely, paving the way for white settlers in about 1853. For the most part, they came from Fort Snelling by steamboat, using the Minnesota River. With them came workmen, such as carpenters, stone masons, cooks and the like. A whole company of soldiers arrived at Fort Ridgely from Fort Dodge, Iowa, but they traveled over land the entire way. Their journey took them an entire month. The U. S. Army stationed at Fort Snelling and Fort Ridgely relied heavily on riverboat transportation for moving troops and provisions. The U. S. artillery units stationed at Fort Ridgely also relied on steamboats to move their military units, provisions and artillery pieces. During the late 1850s and 1860s, steamboats were utilized by most people who wanted to travel up and down the Minnesota River or to various places on or near this river, such as Henderson, Le Sueur, St. Peter, Mankato and New Ulm. These steamboats carried people, provisions, cattle, soldiers and merchandise and other cargo. Kegs of powder, barrels of salt pork and boxes of gold meant for the Indian annuity payments were transported by steamboat. Dignitar-ies from Minnesota and out east traveled up and along the Minnesota River by steamboat. Excursions for entertainment and for curiosity seekers were the norm during these years. They came to see the land and the Dakota Indians. The curious folks wanted to watch the Dakota dance at these annuity payments. These payments were great cause for excitement which meant celebrating and dancing. Up to 5,000 Dakota Indians attended these payments. Even a photographer and his helper came all the way from Chicago to take photos of the Indians and of the Indian dancers, as did, Henry David Thoreau and his companion. Thoreau came in 1861, and the photographer arrived in 1862. Men like Capt. Louis Roberts, who owned five steamboats during his lifetime, used his boats to carry provisions up the Minnesota River to his various trading posts, and then on the return trips brought furs back to St. Paul. He became a millionaire, but he was a shrewd and energetic businessman who knew how to make a fast buck. Remember, in these early days there were few roads – if any – for travel. So the rivers were heavily utilized for travel and for carrying heavy cargo. Remember, too, that there was no telegraph and no telephone system. In fact, there wasn’t even any electricity. If homes were lighted during the night, it was by homemade candles or oil lanterns.
    If you wanted to correspond with anyone in those early days, one had to rely on the United States mail, which was carried by steamboats, on horseback and later by stagecoaches. The following article on the Frederick Holt family was told by Mrs. Henriette Holt (April 27, 1841 – May 25, 1927) and published in the “History of Redwood County,” of 1916. According to the historic account, after serving through the Civil War, Frederick Holt came to Northfield, with Fred Steincamp, Herman Hackmann and Heinrich Shafer, young men he had known in Indiana before the war. From Northfield they came to Redwood Falls in 1867, and here Holt bought 160 acres of res-ervation land on Section 26, in what is now Swedes Forest Town-ship. This tract had meadow land, timber and running water, ad-vantages which caused him to locate in Red-wood County rather than on the open prairie of Renville county, where his friends took up homesteads. That year he returned to Northfield and remained there until the Spring 1869, when he married Henrietta Moeller, a widow with three small children, the oldest not yet seven years of age. Mrs. Holt was still living in the county in 1916 and was one of its most honored and respected pioneers. After recounting the story, Mrs. Holt, in speaking of pioneer times stated, “After our marriage we at once made preparations to move to Redwood County. We were soon ready, and left Northfield the last week in May, all our possessions in a prairie schooner, drawn by a yoke of oxen. We came through Dundas, St. Peter, New Ulm and Sleepy Eye and made the trip in a week. We carried a stove with us and at meal time would set it up to bake biscuits and cook coffee. “One day on the journey I baked bread. At night we slept in the schooner except once when we were near St. Peter, a farmer’s wife took us in. It was raining, and she gave us supper and had us sleep in the house. It rained so much and the roads were so bad that we often got stuck and then we would have to unload our things and get out of the mudhole as best we could. The latter part of the journey we came along the old government stage road and arrived on our land on the Second of June, 1869. Redwood was a beautiful country then, with its miles upon miles of untouched prairie lands and the grass taller than the backs of our oxen on every side of us. “Mr. Holt’s friends came over from Renville County and helped him cut down trees and build our log cabin. They put it up in a week. “That first summer we raised potatoes, pumpkins and rutabagas on breaking, but no grain, so Mr. Holt drove back to Northfield to work in the harvest fields, leaving me and the children to look after our place.” Holt brought back a milk cow he earned while there, and at St. Peter he bought enough rough unplaned six-inch boards to put floors up stairs and down in our little cabin. “In the fall of that same year he made a trip to New Ulm for a load of wheat, which he had ground into flour at the old Rieke mill down near Franklin. During the first years we lived here our wheat had to be hauled to Sleepy Eye or to the equally distant Wilmar. “From the latter town we hauled lumber to put up a frame house. A few times we took our grain to North Redwood and loaded in on a steamboat which came up from St. Peter, when the river was high enough.” When Swedes Forest township was organized, it included Kintire and part of Delhi. Mr. Holt was chairman of the board of supervisors for several years. He also helped organize school districts No. 10 and 55, and served a good many years on the school board. He was a charter member of the German Methodist Episcopal church in Flora, Renville County and a trustee of that church from the time it was established until his death. Mrs. Holt commented on the “Government Stage Road.” This road was probably the military road that stretched from Fort Ridgely to the Lower Sioux Agency and connected to the Upper Sioux Agency. This road crossed the Redwood River just north of Ramsey Park and the golf course where the river is relatively shallow. This was where they forded the Redwood River. In general the military road followed the course of the Minnesota River, staying mostly on top of the bluff of the Minnesota Valley. After taking the road out of New Ulm, the Holt Family probably picked this road up at the Lower Sioux Agency and then followed it westward until they reached Swedes Forest. Many times soldiers from Fort Ridgely marched on this military road between Fort Ridgely and the Upper Sioux Agency. Not only did these soldiers march on the road, but many wagon loads of people and provisions were carried in oxen drawn wagons to these agencies and to the missionaries near the Upper Agency. The traders also used this road to carry their goods to the agencies. In 1855, Charles Flandrau and his carpenters used this Military road to transport themselves, their tools and equipment to the Falls on the Redwood River so they could build the Government Saw Mill for the Dakota Indians.
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