Local History: Reads Landing

In 1830, the United States government met with members of the Dakota, Sac, and Winnebago tribes at Prairie du Chien in hopes of negotiating a peace between them.  As a provision in the treaty, a parcel of land west of Lake Pepin was set aside for Dakota “half-breeds” as they were called at the time.  The land, which runs between present day Red Wing and Wabasha, was meant only for those of mixed Dakota heritage.

The “Half-Breed Tract” remained largely unsettled until 1851 when the Dakota sold their land west of the Mississippi River in the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota.  Although the treaties allowed for the repurchase of the Half-Breed Tract, this provision was stricken out by Congress.  But, this did not prevent settlers from illegally squatting on that land.  Although their claims came into question, the government was unable to remove the illegal squatters and offered the “half-breed” claimants exchanging scrip which they could use to obtain up to 640 acres of unsurveyed federal lands.  However, much of the exchanging scrip was illegally bought up by land speculators.

The Half-Breed Tract 320,000 acres west of Lake Pepin set aside for Dakota Half-Breeds

Within the “Half-Breed Tract” was Read’s Landing, located at the foot of Lake Pepin and near the confluence of the Chippewa and Mississippi Rivers.  Because of its convenient location, Read’s Landing was a meeting place for all river travelers, both Indian and white.  The first trading post on the spot was established by Augustine Rocque in the early 1800s.  But the name of the area was taken from Charles R. Read, who established a trading post at the spot in 1847.

Wabasha’s Village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman, Courtesy of MNHS

Read was an adventurous young Englishman who moved to the region at just ten years of age.  In 1839, Read served in the American army in the Indian Territory of Texas which made him acquainted with Native American character.  In 1844, he began working for the traders Nelson and Churchill on the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin at the mouth of the Chippewa River.  In 1847, he established his own post on the opposite, or, Minnesota side, which angered Dakota leaders like Wabasha and Little Crow.

Then, in 1850, a Mr. S.F. Richards came to Read’s Landing and opened trade with the native people and also supplied the lumber camps up the Chippewa Valley.  This was the impetus that sparked major growth and made Read’s Landing a place of some note.  As the volume of the lumber trade along the Chippewa and its tributaries increased from year to year, the volume of trade at Read’s Landing increased until its yearly aggregate was out of all proportion to the size of the town.  It was in fact the Mississippi landing for all the supplies necessary to provision, clothe and equip the lumber camps and mills, and employees connected by waterway.

Read’s Landing, 1870, Courtesy of MNHS

But, the growth and prosperity of Read’s Landing was short-lived.  The first major setback was the Western Wisconsin railway to Eau Claire completed in 1870.  The railways were utilized by the lumber camps as a source of distribution rather than the waterways.  The railroads were quicker and could be used throughout the long winter months, unlike the waterways which froze over.  The final stroke that put a definitive end to Read’s Landing as a commercial center was the completion of the Chippewa Valley railroad to Wabasha in 1882.

According to historian Dr. L.H. Bunnell, Reads Landing had one consolation in her decay – “She has not lost ground by any penny-wise pound-foolish policy of her citizens, individually or collectively.  She has been the victim of circumstances over which she had no control.  No human prescience could have averted the destiny upon which she has fallen.  She could no more prevent the tide of business from following the channels of necessity, and flowing  where the lumber rafts crowd the streams, than could old Wahpashaw prevent the passing away of his people from the homes long enjoyed by them on the shores of the great Father of Waters.”

Sources:

Dr. L.H. Bunnell, History of Wabasha County, “Chapter 10:  Pepin Township,” http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mnwabbio/ch10.htm (accessed May 10, 2017).

Johnson, Frederick. “”Half-Breed” Tract and Scrip.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/event/half-breed-tract-and-scrip (accessed May 10, 2017).

Jerome Christenson, Winona Daily News, “Read’s Landing:  Once a Booming Metropolis,” published April 6, 2016, http://www.winonadailynews.com/special-section/pieces-of-the-past/reads-landing-once-a-booming-metropolis/article_4227f13a-921e-57d3-b6b9-87d0bf3e2419.html, (accessed May 10, 2017).