The Wisconsin Cartters - Chapter Twelve
What was the Black River Country like? What of its past and of its potential as viewed by new settlers? The Black River Country is the drainage area for the Black River which flows some 140 miles in a southwesterly direction and empties into the Mississippi river near the present city of La Crosse. This was Indian country, heavily covered with some of the finest white pine timber in the state. In 1843, when James Bruce had first come to the Wisconsin Territory there were no settlements in all of this region. Not being prairie soil it had failed to attract the central European or the New Englander looking for available agricultural land. But there were those who were looking for other resources such as furs and timber to meet eastern demands; and away from the river there were indeed hardwood areas and openings which might be conducive to those settlers.
The question of who came first to this country is not easily answered. "History tells us that less than 30 years after the notable explorations of Nicolet in 1634, two of his countrymen visited the Black River, in the winter of 1659-'60" so says Horace Merrill in his U. of W. thesis entitled An Early History of the Black River Region.
In 1818 or '19 a French trader by the name of Rolette headed an expedition, which was fitted out at Prairie du Chien. He succeeded in reaching the present site of Black River Falls where he erected a saw mill on Town Creek, supposed to be the first built in Wisconsin. It was burned by the Winnebago Indians before it could be put into operation, and the lumbermen were driven down the river. This was Indian territory until 1838 when it was ceded to the government by the tribe. 1839 saw the first real settler arrive in the valley. Abner D. Polleys, in his Pioneer Days In The Black River Valley relates this arrival quite in detail. He tells how Robert Douglas disembarked on the sand beach where the Black River joins the Mississippi just north of La Crosse. He follows Douglas’ journey up the river to the point where the Village of Melrose now stands. Polleys writes as follows:
"Robert Douglas claimed squatters rights on land 30 miles up the Black River from La Crosse in 1839. His brother joined him later and together they hitched the first yoke of oxen to the first breaking plow to turn the first furrow on the first farm in Jackson County and also the first farm above Prairie du Chien on the Wisconsin side of the Father of Waters."
Douglas had come to America in 1837, then 22 years old, from Dumfries, Scotland. He became one of the early influential citizens of Jackson County. Readers would find Polleys' account of Douglas' overland trip on foot to Prairie du Chien, the nearest settlement, for supplies most interesting.
The extremely fine growth of white pine for which the Black River valley was famous proved a strong attraction to early lumbermen. Jacob Spaulding, the first to actually settle at the Falls on the river, arrived the same year that Douglas broke ground at Melrose. With a crew of seventeen men Spaulding founded the settlement of Black River Falls and constructed for himself a double log cabin. He also built a sawmill and began to cut timber. Spaulding became the second farmer in Jackson County when in 1841 he established a farm at the settlement.
Early in 1841 a group of Mormons, followers of Joseph Smith, who proposed to build a worship center at Nauvoo, Illinois, left their City for the pine woods along the Black River; their aim being to cut timber for their new Temple. Traveling up the river by boat they selected a good area to cut. Unfortunately they started cutting trees in an area supposedly staked out by Jacob Spaulding. By the time Spaulding and his men arrived they had already cut over 300 trees. A battle ensued ending in the Mormon's return to Nauvoo. They came back to the Black River Country however and bought part interest in Spaulding's mill. By the summer of 1843, one hundred fifty Mormons, many with their families, were working in the woods twelve miles above the Riffles, north of the Village of Hatfield. On October 12, 1842 a raft containing 90,000 board feet of lumber and 24,000 cubic feet of logs arrived at Nauvoo from the Black River Country. When Joseph Smith was killed, June 27 – 1844, and the word reached the camp, work ceased and the Mormons left, abandoning the logs that were cut. Some of the Mormon families however returned to the Black River region and settled permanently in Jackson and Clark Counties.
Transportation at this time was largely by river. Long, narrow-keel boats were used to bring in supplies from La Crosse. Steamboats were tried but not proved to be practical. The first extended highway was surveyed and built from Prairie du Chien during the years 1846 to 1848 by way of Viroqua and Sparta to Black River Falls. This road was extended north in 1850 to Stillwater, Minnesota and became a mail route with a post-office at Black River Falls. Postage on a letter at that time was 25¢.
The covered wagons and stage coaches began to appear on this road in 1854 and by the mid-sixties as many as 100 coach and drayline teams might spend the night at Black River Falls. From here they crossed on the ferry, at Dumfries, later known as Melrose. After the bridge was built at Black River Falls they would continue their journey southward to New Lisbon or Sparta, there to reach the nearest railroad.
In Jackson County Dates with Destiny, Mrs. Betty Epstein adds this interesting note, "So important was the need to water these teams that a tax relief was granted to those settlers who would set up and maintain watering troughs along the highway." The railroad did not come to Black River Falls until 1868, thirteen years after the Cartters and Swifts arrived.
For a look at early agriculture we turn again to Merrill’s thesis:
"Little was done to advance farming along the river during the early 1840’s but an added inducement to agricultural settlement came with the completion of the Government Land Survey of this area in 1847. Land was entered for sale at the government land office, first at Mineral Point in 1848, later at La Crosse, price $1.25 per acre."
Merrill continues, "In 1855 (according to census figures for Jackson County) there were 1098 people in the county and 5 years later in 1860 there were 4,170 a gain of 280%. Most of this increase came in 1855 and '56 by people interested in agriculture. Contributing to this influx of settlers was the added price of wheat which took a phenomenal jump as a result of the Crimean War. Eastern families had a desire to get west where better wheat could be grown. Dairying was also coming into the east and farmers were revolting against having to change to a new economy. The majority of farmers moving into the Black River Falls area were from western New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They were coming by 3 main routes.
(1) Up the Mississippi river as far as La Crosse or Trempeleau following from there the Black or Trempeleau rivers.
(2) By land routes from the north.
(3) From across the state. - - -
The panic of 1857 and crop failures checked further settlement during the decade."
Many families spent some time in the settlement known as Black River Falls before moving onto the land. In 1856 the population of that town was 1,000 and in 1860 it was only 600. But Black River Falls itself was developing fast. Arletta L. Jones in her 1924 thesis entitled Settlement and Development of Black River Falls, Wis. says:
"Visitors to the village in 1856 went home and reported that 'what Pittsburgh is to Pennsylvania, we believe the Falls and its additions will be to Wisconsin.' The reason for this now apparent rash statement was that a blast furnace was being built just north of Black River Falls. One of the first deposits of iron ore in Wisconsin to attract attention has been uncovered here. As late as 1846 no other body of iron ore seems to be known of in the state. - - - Forty men were employed after the company was organized in 1846."
The deposit proved to be to difficult to mine economically due largely to the perpindicular nature of the veins of ore.
Lumber production was near its peak in 1856, totaling in that year 35,000,000 bd. ft. By 1853 the entire area was part of the Town of Albion as it had existed when a part of Crawford County. It had been established in 1849. By the end of 1856 six towns had been organized in the county, namely – Albion, Price, Alma, Bristol (later called Melrose), Springfield, and Hixton. The twenty-first town was not organized until 1939.
The first towns organized from the original town of Albion were all located on the west side of the Black River and it was in this area that James Bruce centered his attention in search of a likely home site.