Houston County, Minnesota—history

This post is a stub, subject to frequent updates. First publication [not published]. © Thomas G. Kohn, 2013.

Figure 16. Fur trading in Canada, 1777.
When, by the early 18th Century, the French fur traders from Canada (Figure 16) made their way to the Root River Valley, they made little or no change in the life style or sense of possession of the land.[18] If anything, they chose to adapt rather than change the Native American way. The less trouble, the more furs they could send back to Canada. However, the French claim to the area by right of discovery and first use was tenuous at best.

The Louisiana Purchase

Figure 17. Area of the Louisiana Purchase.
The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 saw the transfer of French influence to England in the north and French land claims west of the Mississippi River to Spain. For 35 years the rulers of Spain did little or nothing with the destiny of the region. Spain owned the Mississippi River valley by right of discovery, even though they had possession of only the lands west of the river. In 1800, France regained control of the area, but Napoleon’s grand campaigns in Europe drew attentions away from America. By this time, the United States gained control of the lands ceded them at the end of the Revolutionary War. Citizens settled the Ohio River Valley and explored the Mississippi River down to the Gulf of Mexico. Understanding that Napoleon needed to finance his empire’s expansion, the United States made overtures to the French about selling. Fifteen million dollars was a windfall to Napoleon, and the deal was concluded. The United States took possession of New Orleans and the west bank of the Mississippi in 1803 (Figure 17).

Figure 18. USA states and territories, 1850.
Meanwhile, the French and English fur traders followed their trade. The Native Americans took advantage of the trade goods, but ignored the more abstract idea of land ownership. Population growth in the more settled East and demand for land resulted in an American presence in the upper Mississippi River Valley. With the granting of statehood to Iowa in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848, the Indian lands on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River grew more attractive. Congress on 3 March 1849 created the Minnesota Territory, which included lands all the way west to the Missouri River and north to Canada.

Only a small portion of the lands had been ceded to the United States by the resident Native Americans. Everything else was tribal land and not yet open for settlement. The Dakota and Ojibwe to the north and the Sauk and Fox to the south made incursions into the area that would soon be Houston county, but none really controlled it.

Figure 19. Iowa: the Neutral Ground and other lands ceded by
native tribes.
In hopes to avoid conflict, in 1825 the United States established a line across northern Iowa below which the Dakota were not to hunt. However, the line was indeterminate, and no one, least of all the Native Americans, knew exactly where the southern border was. The border was further confused in 1830 by the establishment of the “Neutral Ground,” a swath of land 20 miles north and south of the 1825 hunting grounds line (Figure 19). In 1832, the north half of the Neutral Ground was ceded to the Winnebago as they were being pushed out of Wisconsin. The Native Americans used the land with little change, since they little cared about the strange idea of “owning” land. On the other hand, the Native Americans understood the fur traders and their harvested pelts, and the trade was left undisturbed.

Territory of Minnesota

Figure 20. The Minnesota Territory, 1857.
Today’s border is the same on the eastern side and on the eas-
tern parts of the north and south sides. Houston county is in
the extreme southeast corner.
With the establishment of the territory in 1849 (Figure 20) came a need for governmental structure, counties, and townships. The territorial legislature created nine counties by October 1849. One was Wabasha county that encompassed the southern portion of the territory, with the Iowa state line as its south border. The county included lands claimed by Native Americans, and these areas were closed to settlement. Nonetheless, white men were squatting in what would become Houston county. Despite the county’s closure for settlement, the Census of 1850 lists six or eight people living in what is now Houston county. Some were timber cutters who worked the Mississippi River bottoms and the Root River valley, cutting trees in winter and floating them downstream during the spring thaw. Though timber poaching was illegal, the Iowa sawmill operators could claim the timber was from areas that were open for logging.

The Winnebago and Dakota ceded their rights gradually. After a treaty ceded the land, the United States ratified the agreement, then opened the land for settlement, and established a land office. Brownsville, in 1854, became the site of the first land office in southeastern Minnesota. The office soon had a booming business with the rush of settlers and speculators. The office was relocated to Chatfield in 1866, as more western land was opened for settlement.

On 5 March 1853, the county of Fillmore was created from the southeastern portion of Wabasha county. Four months later, the Fillmore county commissioners created the first subdivision, the Root River voting precinct. The precinct was bounded by the Root River on the south, and it extended west to the county line. Another month later, the commissioners created the second voting precinct, which encompassed all the land south of the Root River.

On 24 February 1854, Houston county was set off from the eastern half of Fillmore county. Three county commissioners were elected on 4 April 1854. Convening in Brownsville, the new county seat, on 26 May 1854, the county commission identified five voting precincts: Brownsville, Caledonia, Pine Creek, Root River, and Spring Grove.

The villages of Brownsville and Houston were platted in 1854; Caledonia, Hokah, and Spring Grove followed in 1855, and La Crescent in 1856.[19] Eitzen was also platted about this same time. Numerous other villages were platted in the county by optimistic entrepreneurs. Some existed on paper only, others had a business or two and a post office for a time, and a few are still in existence today with larger populations than any time in the past. The county seat was the village of Houston for a few years, but the county commissioners moved the official records to Caledonia for safe storage in the cabin of Commissioner Samuel McPhail. The first court hearings were held in that cabin, and a one-story courthouse and jail was built in Caledonia in 1857.

Minnesota Statehood

Figure 21. Map of Houston county, Minnesota, 2001.
Minnesota was admitted as the 32nd state on 11 May 1858. A month before, in anticipation of statehood, the county commission established 15 townships, and on 13 August 1858 the state legislature confirmed them: Hamilton (later renamed Money Creek) in the northwest corner, Yucatan, and Spring Grove at the west and in Range 7; Houston, Sheldon, Caledonia, and Wilmington in Range 6; Union, Mayville, and Winnebago in Range 5; and La Crescent, Hokah, Brownsville, Crooked Creek, and Jefferson at the east border of the county and generally in Range 4. Mound Prairie and Black Hammer townships were created in 1858 and 1859 (Figure 21) from land once part of surrounding townships.

At first the villages operated as part of the township that surrounded the village. Gradually seven villages each were granted legal status as incorporations separate from the township. Brownsville, Caledonia, Eitzen, Hokah, Houston, La Crescent, and Spring Grove were later upgraded to cities by an act of the legislature. These seven cities and 17 townships form the local level of government in Houston County in existence today.

Turmoil over the county seat continued, a two-story building was built in Caledonia in 1867, and several referenda allowed Caledonia to prevail as the county seat by 1874. From that point on, Caledonia prospered, and Houston slowly diminished. The only other area of prominence was La Crescent, which benefited from its connection to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Immigration Waves

Soon after the region was open to settlement, agents published stories of the verdant land and new opportunities.[20] “The earliest settlers were largely Irish. Norwegians settled in the western and southwestern parts of the county near Spring Grove. Germans settled near Eitzen and the northern part of the county. Luxemburgers [sic] settled around Caledonia and Freeburg.” Among the settlers from Luxembourg—the Palens from Harlange and Schwindens from Kaundorf[21]—were German families from the Trier area, including the Reinerts from Igel, the Arnoldy families from Kaschenbach, and Konzems from Temmels and Igel (or other towns).

Several immigrant families set up as shop keepers, but the majority became farmers. The University of Minnesota documented how farming developed in the county.
Farming in Houston county has passed through several periods in which different systems of farming were tried and abandoned. During the pioneer period, nearly all products were consumed at home. In the mid 1860s, wheat growing became profitable because of the rapid development of farm machinery and the increased demand for food stimulated by the Civil War.(13) For several years wheat was the only crop grown on some farms. During this time Brownsville was an important shipping center, receiving wheat from as far as 50 miles inland. Wheat growing was nearly discontinued by the end of the 1880s due to crop losses from disease and insect damage.
After the decline of wheat as a main crop, hog raising became the major farming enterprise. Corn grown in large fields was not well suited to the highly erodible sloping soils. Corn growing during this period involved intensive tilling of the soil to prepare a seedbed and many cultivations to control weeds.(10) The resulting loss of organic matter, poor soil tilth, and large fields of exposed soil led to severe gully erosion. Erosion was so severe that some fields were abandoned.
Dairy farming began in the 1890s but did not become important until about 1910. Dairying and beef production are well suited to the sloping to very steep topography. Dairying largely utilizes the more productive soils on the summits and upper side slopes of the ridge tops. Forage crops are fed in large amount to dairy cattle. These crops are very productive on the silty soils; at the same time forage crops provide a cover of sod that protects the soil from erosion. Relatively large areas are too steep for cropland but are suitable for pasture that supports beef cattle enterprises.
Today’s system of livestock farming is basically in harmony with the climatic and soil conditions in the county. Since 1935, conservation practices have been applied to most farms. Most ridge top farms have contour strips. Gullies have been filled, shaped, and seeded to grassed waterway. Terraces are also used on some farms. These practices, along with diversions and dams that have been built, help reduce flooding in the valleys.
Corn and hay are presently the most important crops grown in Houston county. In 1977, 66,000 acres of corn was planted to grain or silage, 57,300 to hay, 16,400 acres to small grain, and 2,800 acres to soybeans.
Livestock numbers have been increasing steadily in Houston county. In 1977, 91,600 head of cattle and calves were in the county, of which 17,600 were dairy cows. Additionally, there were 140,000 hogs, 55,000 chickens, and 500 sheep.
In 1977, there were 1,395 farms in the county. The average farm was 237 acres. Approximately 165,000 acres were used as crop land.(17)[22]
Neill provided notes on the development of religious congregations from about 1840 to 1880. He documented these communities of religions in the county.[23]
  • Catholic in Brownsville, Caledonia, Crooked Creek, Hokah, Houston, Jefferson, La Crescent, and Wilmington
  • Evangelical Lutheran in Brownsville, Crooked Creek, Hokah, Houston, Mound Prairie, Sheldon, Spring Grove, Union, Wilmington, and Winnebago
  • Episcopal in Caledonia and Houston
  • Presbyterian and Congregational in Brownsville, Caledonia, Hokah, Houston, La Crescent, Sheldon, and Yucatan
  • Methodist in Brownsville, Caledonia, Crooked Creek, Hokah, Houston, La Crescent, Money Creek, Sheldon, Union, Wilmington, and Winnebago
  • Baptist in Houston, Money Creek, and Winnebago
  • German Reformed in Mound Prairie, Union, and Winnebago
  • United Brethren in Christ in Houston
  • Disciples in Union
  • Christian in Brownsville
  • Non-denominational in Black Hammer
Catholic churches remain today in La Crescent, Hokah, and Brownsville. However, only two rectories are occupied by resident priests.

Previous sections: Background for family historyParish, Local Development
Next sections: Reinert History in the Area, Travel to Kansas in 1872, Tipton KS, Seguin KS, La Crosse WI



The historical notes in this section are derived from an essay by the Houston County Historical Society, accessed 2013.10.19. Some corrections were made based on information in Neill.


Neill, p. 274.


How did agents receive information about the county? Do advertisement schemes exist that document the agents’ work? These simple questions might require a great deal of research.


The source of these two assertions is not clear. Perhaps from a Reinart researcher, .


Soil survey of Houston County, Minnesota, Robert A. Lueth, United States. Soil Conservation Service, University of Minnesota. Agricultural Experiment Station. Pages 2-3. Accessed 2013.10.19. Internal citations to 10: Marvin Simon, 1965 Pioneers forever, Whiting Press, pp 101 and 102; 13: Soil Survey USDA 1929, p 36; and 17: USDA MN Crop and livestock reporting.


Neill, pp. 327 (Black Hammer), 340 (Brownsville), 359-361 (Caledonia), 382 (Crooked Creek), 393-394 (Hokah), 408-410 (Houston), 420 (Jefferson), 429-430 (La Crescent), 439 (Money Creek), 450 (Mound Prairie), 455-456 (Sheldon), 467-469 (Spring Grove), 485-486 (Union), 491-492 (Wilmington), 501-503 (Winnebago), and 510 (Yucatan).

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