Wabasha is one of the oldest cities on the entire upper Mississippi River and has been occupied continuously since 1826.
WABASHA’S CHRONOLOGICAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE
Wabasha was named in honor of an Indian Chief of the Sioux Nation, Chief Wa-pa-shaw. This group of Indians’ principal camping ground was in this valley on the Mississippi River. Chief Wapashaw had a nephew, Augustin Rocque, who was the first white settler in this area. His father, Joseph Rocque, was a Frenchman and his mother was the sister of the celebrated Chief Wapashaw. Augustin was born in Prairie du Chien sometime about the year 1795. Both Augustin and his father Joseph were fur traders and both were Indian interpreters in the service of the British. At the conclusion of the War of 1812, and between the years 1817 and 1823, Augustin, accompanied by a government appointee named Long, came up the Mississippi River and established his home with Wabasha’s trading posts on the upper Mississippi River, extending his operation from the foot of Lake Pepin, up the Chippewa River as far as the Falls and down the Mississippi River into Turkey River and cedar River Counties in Iowa. At about the same time came Duncan Campbell. Both settled in the extreme western part of Wabasha on the Mississippi River, just north of Wabasha’s St. Elizabeth Hospital.
Prior to 1830, treaties existed with the Northwest Indian tribes. However, in 1830, a second treaty with these tribes was held at Prairie du Chien. It is this treaty and the records maintained by the U.S. government plus trading posts and shanties established by Augustin Rocque that actually established Wabasha as the oldest town in Minnesota. At this treaty the Indian tribes represented were four bands of the Sioux, the Sacs, Foxes, Iowas, Omahas, Otoes, and Missouri Indians. They surrendered all of their claims to the land in Western Iowa, Northwestern Missouri and especially the country of the Des Moines River Valley. The Medawakanton Sioux, Wabasha’s band, had a special article (no.9) inserted in the treaty for the benefit of their half-blood relatives.
The Sioux bands in council earnestly solicited that they might have permission to bestow upon the “half-breeds” of their nation the tract of land beginning at a place called the Barn, below and near the Village of Chief Red Wing and running back fifteen miles; thence in a parallel line with Lake Pepin and Mississippi River; thence fifteen miles to the Grand Encampment opposite the Beef River. The United States agreed to allow these mixed blood people to occupy this tract of country, holding title in the same manner that other Indian titles were held. Certificates were issued to many and there was much speculation in these certificates and litigation over them in subsequent years. In time “Lake Pepin half-breed” certificates became very valuable to the holders. The Second Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1830) was approved by U.S. Senate in February 1831, allowing these individuals to settle permanently and legally in the area specified.
After the treaty, Augustin Rocque built a larger trading shanty in 1833, again just north of Wabasha’s St. Elizabeth Hospital and near the residence of Patrick Riley (built 1870). To further historically substantiate the settlement of Augustin Rocque, a government military leader Featherstonhaugh Found Augustin and his trading post here in 1935, and gives Augustin’s Indian name as Wahjustahchay or The Strawberry.
After conclusion of another treaty with the Chippewa at Fort Snelling July 29, 1837 allowing whites to settle on the west side of the Mississippi River, General Dodge requested the Indian agent Taliaferro to select a delegation of Sioux and proceed to Washington to finalize terms of the treaty. Augustin Rocque accompanied the chiefs in consort with Alexis Bailly, Joseph LaFramboise, and Francois LaBathe. Along with them were H.H. Sibley, Alexander Rocque, and Alexander and Oliver Faribault representing the fur traders’ interests.
The result of this treaty was the government set apart 450 square miles of territory for the benefit of the half-reeds. In 1836, Duncan Campbell built a shanty near that of Augustin Rocque and in the Fall of 1838 Oliver Cratte was the first white man to settle in the area of the village of Wabasha. Cratte came down from Fort Snelling to open a government blacksmith shop on the levee. Joseph Buisson came a few weeks later and Pierre Hortobese, a nephew of old Chief Wapashaw, also built a shanty on the south side of the Zumbro River.
An elderly man named LaBatte, a skilled carpenter and riverboat pilot, put up a shanty for Alexis Bailly in 1840. All of these men were connected with Indian trade or were employed by the U.S. government to assist the Indians and half-breeds.
The city of Wabasha was not named until 1843, when it was called Wabashaw, after the old chief. The ceremony was performed by digging a hole in the ground on the levee, which is now between Alleghany and Pembroke streets, a bottle with a piece of paper giving an account of the event was placed in the hole, then a post was set up over it with a board nailed to it upon which was printed or written the name “Wabashaw”. The “w” at the end was dropped in 1868 when mapmakers and published statutes had abandoned it.
Lumber and commerce were the main industries before the turn of the century, when steamboats moved up and down the Mississippi carrying supplies until the railroad replaced the need for them. Clamming was once of major importance to Wabasha. The first clammers on Lake Pepin were searching for pearls and discarding the shells. Experiments proved that shells could be utilized in the manufacturing of buttons and similar objects. In 1913, there were between 500 and 600 clammers who harvested 2400 tons of clams and 90 percent of the shells were available for manufacturing purposes. Lake City and Wabasha had button factories, but with the introduction of synthetic materials, the industry came to an end around 1940. Today Wabasha serves as the county seat of Wabasha County. It lies just south of the foot of Lake Pepin, half way between Winona and Red Wing. Several sites are on the National Register of Historic Places including a four block downtown commercial district.
In 1857, the completion of the first of five state roads was the Mendota to Wabasha road. It was 75 miles long at a cost of $538 per mile totaling $40,000 to build. Ten years later the Minnesota Central Railroad built its line alongside the road, running side-by-side much of the way. In 1871 Chicago and St. Paul Railroad was completed southward giving Wabasha communication with the cities of the east. By 1878 Wabasha had a population of 3000. They boasted a library, a button factory, parks, tuberculosis sanitarium and 6 passenger trains each way daily on the main line to Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Railway.
Before the bridge was completed, Wabasha had a ferryboat that was pulled by a cable across the river into Wisconsin. In 1931, the first bridge was completed between Wabasha, Minnesota and Nelson, Wisconsin at a cost of $550,000 and was a toll bridge. It was torn down with the construction of a latest bridge. The dedication of the new bridge linking Wisconsin to Minnesota via Highway 25 was July 30, 1988.
In 1915 Wabasha claimed 9 lodges, 2 banks, 5 churches, 2 public school buildings with 88 high school pupils and 201 grade school children, St. Felix Parochial School with 230 enrolled in grades 1-12, Wells Fargo Express Company, Princess Theatre, Anderson Hotel, Fire Department with 2 trucks, Big Jo Flour Mill, health department, St. Elizabeth Hospital, 17 elevators, mercantile company, lumber company, boat yard, Catholic orphanage and Poor Farm.
Wabasha has several prominent churches. St. Felix Catholic Church was built on land donated by Augustin Rocque in 1862. It was given the name of the then pastor’s patron saint, Saint Felix. In 1893, the church was completely destroyed by fire and nine months later the same year the new church was completed at a cost of $17,000. The three bells, which had been recast after the fire, received their second baptism and still serve the church today.
Grace Memorial Church was designed in 1899 by Thomas Irvine as a memorial to his wife. Emily Hills Irvine, and her parents, Reverend and Mrs. Horace Hills. Rev. Hills was pastor of the Grace Episcopal Church from 1872 until 1877. Irvine’s only request was that the church be named Grace Memorial. The Church is similar in plan, materials and style to the 1894 Gothic design for St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul. It has stained glass windows and one was designed by Tiffany Studios in New York, which is titled Three Marys at Tomb.
The rare American Bald eagle thrives in the Wabasha area. Their nesting ground is the thousands of acres of wildlife area known as the Nelson Bottoms located directly across from the city of Wabasha. During the late fall, winter and early spring, it is common to see them soaring and diving for fish in the open water from the foot of Lake Pepin to the south of Wabasha. The National Eagle Center is located on the riverfront at the end of Pembroke Avenue in Wabasha providing interactive exhibits, classes and displays on eagles. Wabasha, Minnesota is one of the few remaining true-to-life river towns. It has boating, camping, river recreation, golfing, skiing and ice fishing. The moves “Grumpy Old Men” and “Grumpier Old Men” were written by a young man who’s grandfather lived in Wabasha. The parks, marinas and historic charm make Wabasha a great place to spend a day, a week or a lifetime.
Sources: “An Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Minnesota Published by A.T. Andreas, 1874”; “HISTORY OF WABASHA COUNTY” Compiled by Dr. L. H. Bunnell, Published Chicago by H. H. Hill, Publishers, 1884.