History of Jefferson, MN
From: The History of Houston County, Minnesota
Edited by: Franklyn Curtis-Wedge.
H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co.
Winona, Minn. 1919


Town Histories

Jefferson Township has the honor of having been the first settled township in Houston County, the vanguard of the pioneers arriving here in 1847. It occupies the southeast corner of the county, and also of the state of Minnesota. The northern tier of sections in the original survey was taken to help make up Crooked Creek Township, but the loss of these was compensated for by the additions of several sections on the east, extending to the Mississippi.

The eastern portion of the township presents the characteristic topographical features of the lands on the western bank of the Mississippi in this region. There are numerous sloughs extending for two or three miles inland, the intervening land being merely a mass of swampy alluvium, some of which has not yet been utilized. Back of this are ridges, bluffs, dunes, and conical shaped hills, with the intervening ravines. The greatest ravine in the township is that formed by the Winnebago River, which comes in from the west, entering by section 30, then flowing through 29 and 28, then tortuously in 27, turning south through 34, and finally emptying into a slough in the eastern part of section 35. This depression has several branches both on the north and south sides, between which are table lands of greater or less width. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad skirts the inner sloughs up and down the river, which for about two miles opposite the town is nearly a mile wide, but in section 29 narrows to less than 80 rods. A number of good springs are found, occurring mostly on the points of the bluffs near the river. In section 28 near the Catholic church, is a particularly fine spring, which in early days was so large that it was thought to furnish enough power to run a factory.

The bluffs back of the sloughs rise several hundred feet, and on their summits are some small but good farms. Along the valley, which is comparatively narrow, the soil is a rich loam. Some of the bottom lands near the river, where not timbered, furnished perennial crops of wild meadow grass, utilized for hay. The varieties of soil throughout the township are not unlike that near the river. There is timber and prairie, ravine and ridge land, forming a picturesque landscape, devoid of monotony and pleasing to the eye.

When the state line between Iowa and Minnesota, west from the Mississippi, was surveyed, no suitable place could be found to plant the iron monument designed to mark the boundary, until reaching a spot about three miles from the river, when it was placed on the line in the center of section 35. This spot is the first high ground west of the river. This line post is an obelisk of cast iron, half an inch thick, and standing five feet eight inches above ground. It is twelve inches square at the base and tapers to seven at the top. The lettering and figures are cast upon the monument, the north side bearing in a vertical line, like the characters on each side, the word, "Minnesota ;" on the south side, "Iowa," on the west, "Lat. 43 degrees 30 minutes," and on the east, "1849." It was not, however, until several years after the date thus inscribed that the post was brought up the Mississippi River by a surveying party, landed at the nearest point, and with great difficulty, hauled by oxen to the spot.

The men who started the ball of civilization rolling in Jefferson Township, and, incidentally, in the county, were John and Samuel Ross, two brothers, who arrived here on a steamboat from Galena in 1847, and disembarked at a point on the west bank of the river, whence they proceeded to select places of settlement. With the help of the Indians they erected cabins and began pioneer work, being engaged for the most part in lumbering. On the survey of the state line in 1849, Samuel, whose location was some distance to the south of John's, found that his cabin was in the state of Iowa. Several years later he sold out to John, and resided at Ross's Landing, the site of Jefferson Village, and continued logging, running his timber down to Galena. Soon after the Rosses came a man named Smith, located a claim in the vicinity, but a little later sold it to a Norwegian who arrived, accompanied by his wife. These latter settlers had not been there long, when some one calling at their cabin, found that the man had been dead for four days, and that his wife was too sick to get up from his side. The two Rosses gave the body decent burial under an oak tree near the spring, and one of them took the woman to Lansing, where she was lost sight of. Patrick Collins, who arrived in the township in May, 1854, became a permanent settler, establishing in section 30. John Cauley and family came the same year and it was about the same time that Thomas Brady, Patrick Donahue, Patrick McCue, D. Friney, and Daniel Kennedy arrived. Michael Crowley, who came from Louisville, Ky., died after living here a few years; his wife survived him until 1880. The first death in the town was probably that of their son Patrick, who was drowned in September, 1854. While taking some oxen to water he was crowded by them over a high bluff, and although soon taken from the water, all efforts to resuscitate him proved unavailing.

Robert Kenny, who was prominent among the early settlers of Jefferson Township, was born in Kilkenny County, Ireland, in 1835, and came to America with his parents when ten years old. He came to this township with his brother Thomas in the spring of 1854. In May, 1861, he married Mrs. Elizabeth Kirby, a widow, who had long been a resident of Dubuque County, Iowa. He resided in various places until 1872, when he moved to New Albin, where he built a house. For some years, while living in Houston County, he was quite prominent in local politics, but later gave his attention solely to business matters, and had a successful career. His wife died in April, 1879, and was buried in the Jefferson Catholic cemetery.

Another pioneer settler of Jefferson township was Peter McDonald, a native of Canada, who came to the township with his brother, Ensign, in October, 1855. For a number of years they had resided in New York, and in July, 1852, Peter had been married in Waterbury, this state, to Catherine McMullen. The day after arriving here he took a claim in section 7, his brother, who had been here the season before, taking one in section 28. After the arrival of Mr. McDonald's family in the following spring, he moved to section 34, where he established a permanent home. In May, 1864, he enlisted in Company C, Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, and served until the close of the war.

The first births in the township of which there are any record were those of Michael and Patrick Donahue, twin sons of Patrick Donahue. They were born in July, 1856. As already seen, the early settlement of the township was not effected without an occasional sad event occurring. To one of these James Mahion fell a victim. He resided with his sister, Mrs. Hughes, and in December, 1855, started to go to Brownsville to do some trading, but, taking the wrong track, became lost in a severe snowstorm. His remains were not recovered until the following spring. He was at first buried in town, but afterwards his remains were disinterred and transferred to a place in or near Brownsville. His sister died quite suddenly while on a visit to friends in Wisconsin, and her remains were brought here and buried in the Catholic cemetery. Her son, John, subsequently resided for many years on the old place in section 27.

In early days there were three markets generally used by the set tlers on the township, the first one patronized being a placed called Victory, in Wisconsin, which was reached in the summer time by crossing the river in skiffs. The others were Brownsville and Lansing, each about 15 miles distant.

The organization of Jefferson township took place in 1858. At the first election, held at the residence of Patrick Donahue, Robert Kenny, John Ross and Patrick Donahue were chosen as supervisors, Mr. Kenny being chairman. As available men were scarce, it was found necessary to double some of the offices. Thus, Alex. Durkee was made both clerk and constable, John Ross was assistant clerk and treasurer, Patrick Donahue was road master as well as supervisor, and Robert Kenny and Michael Brady were elected justices of the peace. It is not recorded that any of the town fathers were overworked, and matters ran along quite smoothly for the first year. It was not long, however, before friction developed, even in that thinly settled community. In the following year, 1859, Robert Kenny was again elected chairman of the board, and on the last day allowed by law presented his bond, with John Ross for his surety. It seems that the clerk wished a relative of his to have the place, and persuaded the other supervisors to name him to fill what he alleged was a vacancy. Mr. Kenny, not being willing to surrender his rights, the matter was referred to the district court, then presided over by Judge Donaldson. Mr. Kenny engaged Hon. Daniel Norton, state senator, as counsel. The result of the affair was that the clerk was required to accept the bond as tendered, and Mr. Kenny was declared the lawfully constituted chairman of supervisors.

The village of Jefferson grew up on the site of Ross's Landing, named after John Ross, whose settlement here has been already recorded. For a number of years he was the only continuous resident in the locality. In the fall of 1868 Anton Eck arrived and started a hotel, or tavern, on a slough about three-quarters of a mile north of the state. He, too, was a resident here for many years. Soon after him came James Callihan, who also opened and kept a hotel. In the fall of the next year, 1869, Lewis Hayes located here and erected a large building, the lower story of which was arranged for a store and the upper one for a dwelling. Mr. Hayes was a native of Vermont, who had come west to Lansing, Iowa, in 1852. He had married Sophia Smith, who had been living in Baraboo, Wis., and whose father, Isaac D. Smith, a native of the state of New York, came to Jefferson township at the same time, in the fall of 1869.

The land on which the village was laid out was bought of William Robinson by William and R. P. Spencer, and was surveyed and recorded as a village plat. William Robinson built a warehouse for storing grain, and was for several years in that trade. In the same fall Mr. Hayes rented his store to John Robinson and Mr. Tartt, who opened it and continued in trade for several years. After that James took the store and ran it for about a year, when he closed out, which wound up merchandising here.

What the future of the village would have been but for an unfortunate dispute with the railroad company, is a matter for conjecture. The company had started to construct its line, when a dispute arose between it and the village on the subject of damages, to which some of the citizens thought themselves entitled. The case went to the supreme court, and in 1873 the company finally built their tract by the water's edge, but erected no station. Instead of doing so, they started the rival village of New Albin, which for a few years had a rapid growth, absorbing what little life had been infused into Jefferson, which fell into a moribund condition. The latter place was in time honored by a water tank, put up for the company's own convenience. In the early eighties it had but a few residents, who were engaged mostly in fishing, some cultivating small gardens at the base of the bluffs. The fishing industry assumed considerable proportions, immense seines being used, and sometimes 50,000 pounds being taken at one haul. Indeed, there is a story, still vouched for by the older residents, that about Christmas, 1879, a haul of nearly 100,000 pounds was secured. The principal varieties of fish thus landed were sheepshead, white bass, buffalo, pickerel, pike, and often enormous catfish, weighing 40 or 50 pounds each. As to New Albin, after some ups and downs, it is now a place of considerable importance, and is patronized as a market town by the farmers of the adjacent territory.

As a proof that literary ambition was not lacking among the early settlers of Jefferson, and that even the higher flights of poetical composition was sometimes attempted, even in regard in matters of a prosaic and practical kind, the following effusion, which was received by one of the early county auditors, E. W. Trask, is herewith reproduced from an earlier publication:

"Notice is hereby given, that Jefferson John,
On the 9th day of March, thereabouts or thereon,
Was duly elected to an office of trust,
And by law is equipped to rake in the dust
That is coming or due to Jefferson Town,
From a five hundred note to a dollar bill down.
His oath and his bonds are duly on file,
And ready for action in case he'd beguile
The good town of Jefferson of its tin;
John Murphy is treasurer, so be it, Amin."
"Given under my hand, March's 31st day,
And the very same eve I sent it away.
A. D. 1880, at the gloaming or dark,
Sic Semper Tyranis; M. Crowley, Town Clark."

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