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Early travelers through Lyon County

It was in 1837 that George Catlin, the famous traveler and Indian delineator, and an Englishman by the name of Robert Serril Wood, traveled through parts of Brown, Redwood and Lyon counties to visit his old friend Joseph LaFramboise’s fur trading post in the Lynd woods along the Redwood River. Traveling with these two gentlemen was an Indian guide by the name of O-kup-kee. They were on their way to visit the Pipestone quarries.

Catlin made the trip from New York City to organize this expedition at the falls of St. Anthony, traveling 2,400 miles within the space of eight months.

Traveling by horseback, the party of three followed a route along the south side of the Minnesota River. When they reached the Traverse des Sioux (near the present site of St. Peter) they were warned by a band of Indians not to persist in visiting the quarries. They were determined to do so by crossing to the north side of the river at Traverse des Sioux, proceeding west and crossing the Minnesota to the south bank near the present site of New Ulm. They continued to travel through Brown, Redwood and Lyon counties despite warnings received from Indian residents along the way to “go back.” Catlin declared this area the most beautiful prairie country in the world with not a tree or bush to be seen in any direction. “This tract of country, as well as that along the St. Peter’s (Minnesota) River, is mostly covered with the richest soil and furnishes an abundance of good water, which feeds from a thousand living springs. For many miles we had the cotueau in view in the distance before us, which looked like a blue cloud settling down in the horizon, and we were scarcely sensible of the fact when we had arrived at its base from the graceful and almost imperceptible swells with which it commences its elevation above the country around.” (North American Indians, by George Catlin.)

The next white men to penetrate Lyon County were government-employed explorers Joseph Nicolas Nicollet in 1838, and his second in command, John C. Fremont (who later became the nominee of the Republican Party for president of the United States.) They passed through the southeast corner of Lyon County where the city of Tracy now stands and proceeded from there to the Pipestone quarries. From 1836 to 1843 Nicollet, assisted by Fremont, conducted a geographical survey of the upper Mississippi country. He explored nearly all portions of Minnesota and many other parts of the country that were, until this time, uncharted. His operations in southwestern Minnesota were quite extensive. After spending three days at the Pipestone quarries, the Nicollet party visited and named Lake Benton (for Fremont’s father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton) and then traveled west into Dakota. As a result of Nicollet’s exploration, several physical features of Lyon County were given names and appeared on a map for the first time. Among them were Tchanshayapi or Redwood River, Waraju or Cottonwood River and the Pejuta Zizi or Yellow Medicine River.

Of the country through which he passed on his way to the quarries Nicollet wrote: “Whatever people may fix their abode in this region must necessarily become agriculturists and shepherds, drawing all their resources from the soil. They must not only raise the usual agricultural products for feeding as is now but too generally done in some parts of the west, but they will have to turn their attention to other rural occupations, such as tending sheep for their wool, which would greatly add to their resources, as well as finally bring about a more extended application of the industrial arts among them.”

The next recorded visit of white men was in 1844 when an expedition in the charge of Captain J. Allen came up the Des Moines River to chart it and other streams. He passed through Jackson, Cottonwood and Murray counties and came to Lake Shetek which he decided was the source of the Des Moines River. He named it Lake of the Oaks. With Lake Shetek as temporary headquarters, Captain Allen extended his explorations in several directions including the Marshall and Redwood Falls areas.

For a decade after Captain Allen passed through Lyon County there were probably some fur traders who traveled through on occasion. When the Minnesota Territory was created in 1849 the southwestern portion of Minnesota was uninhabited, with less than 50 white men having traveled through the area. All the land west of the Mississippi was in undisputed ownership of the Sioux Nation and white men (except for licensed fur traders) had no rights whatsoever in the country. But with the tide of immigration and settlers clamoring for the rich land west of the Mississippi, this legal barrier was eventually removed.

Sesquicentennial celebrations were observed throughout the state in 1999 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of the territory which took place on March 3, 1849.

Sources: History of Lyon County 1884-1912, by A.P. Rose; Tracy Headlight Herald, August 1962.

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