From History of La Crosse County, 1891.
A region inhabited by savages, jealous, revengeful and degraded. The nearest place at which supplies
could be obtained, or social amenities cultivated, distant a journey of several days. In health
it must have been cheerless, in sickness simply desolating.This was the condition of affairs when Nathan Myrick, the pioneer settler of La Crosse County, landed opposite the foot of Main street, in the present city, on the afternoon of November 9, 1841. The scene was by no means encouraging to the enterprising visitor, who had, before attaining his majority, settled in the West, and, after serving an apprenticeship to B.W. Brisbois, a fur trader at Prairie du Chien, extended his field of observation, and decided to locate at La Crosse. He was confident of the future; no doubt entered his mind of what the harvest would be, yet in spite of his hopes and ambitions, and determinations to realize from substantial foundations, there was little to encourage in the appearance of affairs for the time being. The season of the year, with its solemn, gloomy, melancholy days, the landscape that but a brief period before had rejoiced in an exuberance of flowers and foliage, was now drooping, dying, epitomizing, as it were, the closing scenes in a year that was cycling into the irrevocable past. Mr. Myrick, without companionship, save the presence of Horatio Curtis, Eben Wells, and a man named Reed, who accompanied him, and, while there was much to inspire him to acts, there was much to persuade him to retire whence he came, and idendify his fortune with that of the friends and associates nearer the confines of civilization.
The prompter’s bell has rung down the curtain on forty years since that day, in the life of Nathan Myrick. He has lived to see the prairies and bluffs blossom as a rose; to see the narrow Indian trails yield precedence to roads made by the hand of man, to lines of travel connecting with the East and West through the darkness of the night; to see a city created over the ruins of the Indian wigwams, and the mighty river overcome and bridged from shore to shore. The places he knew in those days primeval, have passed into obscurity, and their trials become as a tale that is told. The lives of men to-day are as holidays compared with those of men who were identified with its development and cultivation. Life in those days must have been attended with unlimited hardships and privations without the possession of a compensating number of blessings and privileges. The mighty achievements that have since been made, are the result of small beginnings, supplemented by constant industry, daring enterprise and untiring energy. The waste places have been made to yield abundant harvests, villages and cities have arisen as if by magic, and civilization and the arts “soar Phoenix-like to Jove.” The marts of trade and traffic, and the work-shops of the artisan are thronged; a common school system increasing in value and influence with each succeeding year, has been established, and children of the rich and poor press forward eager to participate in the benefits thereby afforded. Churches have been built, and a Christian ministry ordained for a cultivation of a religious life, the promotion of piety, the inculcation of morality and virtue. The press, the Archimedean lever which moves the world, sends forth floods of light to illuminate the land and benefit the sons of men. Railroads are completed to facilitate the acquisition of independence, and the electric telegraph shortens the intervals of space at the behest of mankind. As these pages are read, bright memories will blossom out of the shadowy past, glorifying and beautifying its dimness. Many herein mentioned have long since gone, like visions of the beautiful, to be seen no more. Many yet remain who have almost reached the Biblical limits of human life, and are waiting to say: ” Now let thy servant depart in peace,” leaving as a heritage to their descendants in long years hence, the ripe and perfect glory of a domain of which they laid the foundations, while a large number of those who participated in the foundation of the county, sleep
after their labors, and their works do follow them, an equally large number remain who have survived the rush of matter and wreck of worlds, and contemplate the scene as a Rock of ages cleft for the good and faithful servant.
At the time of Myrick’s arrival, there was no one residing at La Crosse or on the islands contiguous thereto. The only resident in the vicinitv, immediate or remote, was La Batt or La Bathe, a French trader, of whom mention is made above, but whose sojourn, as already hinted, was far from permanent. The voyageurs had come from Prairie du Chien with the object of establishing a trading-post, bringing with them a stock for that purpose. It Avas the intention of Mr. Myrick to erect a store at La Crosse and begin operations at once ; but the scarcity of material prevented this consummation, and so he located temporarily on the island opposite the city, where limited and comfortless accommodations were secured. Here he opened his kit of goods and hither tended the wanderings of the Winnebago Indians, who having received their annuities, sought the disposition of what was paid them without any unnecessary delay. In these roughly improvised and contracted quarters Mr. Myrick and his companions passed their time, eating, sleeping, making sales of goods in exchange for furs or their equivalents in money, and doubtless dreaming of days when after patient watch and prolonged vigil, they would be rewarded with returns that should more than compensate them for the trials they had endured and the deprivations to which they had been subjected. Thus were the long winter days and nights of that heroic period passed, and if the truth were known, they were doubtless the happiest days of lives that had not always been uncheckered or complacent.
A Dangerous Journey
One week before Christmas of the year of his arrivla, Mr. Myrick began a journey to Prairie du Chien, to renew old associations and drink a cup of gladness to days lang syne, as also to procure a fresh supply of materials he kept in stock. He started upon his trip in a canoe, and looked forward to an early arrival at his destination with feelings of pleasure and pardonable impatience. At the hour of his departure the weather was comparatively hospitable. Autumn had not yet doffed her garments, and Winter was seemingly loth to enter upon the contest for supremacy. But suddenly changing his determination in that behalf, old Winter introduced himself without being announced, and made a day of it to see what was going on, as it were. He found the hopeful voyager en route on his trip, but whistled about him dolefully as sighs in a churchyard, and urged his delay Avith such persuasive eloquence as proved irresistible, and delayed Myrick beyond all comparison. After a brief season, the rain turned into sleet, finally resolving itself into snow, and causing the traveler in search of business and pleasure to regret that he had emerged from his hut on the island. Added to these aggravations the wind blew a gale, ranging over prairies, whistling down Coulies, and performing antics among the trees and brush, original as they were provoking to the Prairie du Chien-bound tourist.
He had in the meantime abandoned his canoe, and sought to expedite his advance by the way of a trail which then skirted the western approaches to the bluffs. Here his progress was by no means more satisfactory. After the rain, the snow and wind resumed their presence, and kept him company-on his cheerless way. When he reached Coon Creek he found that stream over its banks and impassable to pedestrians. This supplemental embargo was far from cheerful to the wearied wanderer, but by no means disheartened he canvassed the situation, and at last discovered a bridge formed of a tree which had fallen over the otherwise impassable stream. He mounted this connecting link, and had reached mid-stream when he lost his hold and was precipitated into the freezing waters beneath. After making one desperate effort and failing, he succeeded in crawling out of his bath, and nearly numbed with the cold, as also fatigued with the efforts necessary to procure his deliverance, he made his way to Bad Ax, which he reached after dark. The only domicile that afforded him protection from the storm and an opportunity to dry his now frozen garments, was at an Indian camp near by, where the Indians were all drunk and engaged in the peculiar motions of the war dance to the unmusical tom-tom, beaten by a decrepit but fierce-looking and very inebriated Winnebago. The appearance of things didn’t seem to mollify the feelings of the visitor, but an aged and sympathetic squaw took him in charge, and with signs admonishing him not to be afraid, tucked Mr. Myrick away in her wigwam. He slept little during the night, and arose in the morning considerably fatigued and sore. Nevertheless he pursued his journey, making seven miles by noon, his muscles yielding somewhat to the exercise necessary, when he bathed in the snow and emerged from his icy experience comparatively limber. He reached his objective point soon after, consuming four days in a trip that is now accomplished in as many hours.
Upon concluding his business there he returned to the island and attended to the engagement which had attracted him thither, until February, 1842. Through the long months of this inhospitable season of the year, as has already been observed, there waa absolutely nothing to encourage the hope of immediate immigration in the direction of Prairie La Crosse. The inclemency of the weather, together with a well-defined apprehension of attack from marauding bands of Indians, had the effect of checking the enterprising disposition of Myrick and his subordinates, and no improvements beyond those indispensable to protection from the weather where proposed or inaugurated. His store was patronized by the Indians, and so long as the money received by them at the Turkey River Agency lasted, the times Avere lively indeed, so lively upon one occasion as to cause serious fears of the consequences.
The Settlement on the Mainland
In February, 1842, Reed and Wells, who had accompanied Mr. Myrick from Prairie du Chien in November, removed with him to the mainland, where La Crosse now is. The same month, H. J. B. Miller came up the river and became an employe of Myrick. During the winter the latter passed on the island, he had prepared the necessary timbers for a house, with the aid of Reed and Wells, shoved it across the Mississippi on a hand-sled, and erected the first house in Prairie La Crosse, on the corner of State and Front streets of to-day, the site at present occupied by the Minnesota House of Alexander Whelan.
At that time, Mr. Myrick is positive as to the appearance of the future city site, which, he asserts, furnished no indications of what was reserved in the future. There was no habitation of any description between the river and the bluffs, nor a sign of one, except the puncheon protectors put up by the soldiers in 1840, as a means of safety against the anticipated raids of Indians. The prairie stretched out to the east, south and north, without the slightest vestige of civilization to vary the monotony of the landscape, the log cabin of Myrick being the only evidence of the white man’s handiwork visible, far or near. This conclusion is borne out by the testimony of many who came into the vicinity soon after, notwithstanding the doubt that is sought to be attached to his claim of precedence in effecting the settlement of La Crosse.
That year an occasional transient passed this way and tarried long enough to recuperate, when he continued his journey West, the majority of these being bound for the Black River country. Jacob Spaulding went up there in 1839, and removed his family thither two years later. In 1842, Andrew Shepard, William K. Lewis, John Lewis, Col. Johnson, and a Mr. Valentine passed through La Crosse en route to that section of the country. The portion about La Crosse was the central point and rendezvous of the Indians, which may, doubtless, have worked some delay in its settlemet after Myrick & Miller (who, meantime, had become partners in trading with them) had made a start. They gathered about the store, and at other eligible points in the vicinity in large numbers and were occasionally disposed to be pugnacious, especially if the least affected by liquor or the want of it. Hand-to-hand contests were of frequent occurrence between travelers and Indians, as also among themselves, and, notwithstanding the paucity of numbers, the Caucasian was capable of maintaining his supremacy and become an interested spectator of the squabbles which the red men improvised in their own homes, when aggravated by a continued period of peace.
Myrick’s Adventuer with an Indian
There were fifteen lodges on the island, and one Sunday morning two of the savages became inspired with the determination to possess themselves fully of the gore of the traders. One of them visited Mr. Myrick’s store with a loaded gun, which that gentleman secured and discharged into the air. The intruder then began to manifest familiarity with the stock, and sought its ownership without the usual tender of value. These proceedings naturally disturbed the
serenity of their legitimate owner. Upon being refused their transfer, the Indian again loaded his gun, but its discharge was prevented, owing to a squaw having knocked out the priming.
After repeating his threatenings once more, Myrick, who was standing outside his cabin, hurried therein and barricaded the entrance, and from the window surveyed the preparations for assault making by the Indian. When the latter had completed his preliminaries, he advanced upon the cabin, and demanded admittance, which being refused, he opened fire. The attack was then commenced, which lasted for a brief period, when hostilities were suspended, without any other damage having been sustained than that occasioned by the shot entering the-Jogs of which
the house was built.
While the firing was in progress, Alexis Bailey, residing down the river, hearing the shots, hurried on to the scene, and was instrumental in quieting the ” perturbed spirits ” of the savages. At Myrick’s request, he interrogated them as to the cause of their assault, to which some of the Indians responded that it was because Myrick had fired off his gun at them, referring to the discharge above mentioned. A peace was finally concluded, when Mr. Bailey pursued his trip homeward, followed by the Indian who had originated the disturbance. He had reached a point below the present city of La Crosse, when he was startled by the explosion of a gun, and noticed the leaden messenger therefrom ricochetting along the ice, in too close proximity to himself to be comfortable. He demanded the cause of this unlooked-for divertisernent, when the savage replied that he was shooting at a mark, and slunk off up one of the ravines that terminated on the river bank. The blood-thirsty aborigine subsequently returned to the island, and, escaping the penalty of his misbehavior, gave no further cause of alarm during Mr. Myrick’s sojourn there.
From these incidents, it will be readily appreciated that the lives of those who began the settlement of La Crosse were far from being as ripe with sunshine as a day in June. On the contrary, his conversion of the wilderness into fields that to-day blossom with the harvest, was surrounded by trials and labors. The-embargoes to be encountered and disposed of in the effort inaugurated for the establishment of homes in regions remote from civilization, and unsought,
therefore, save by wandering Indians and savage beasts, were not of a character that was calculated to inspire an endless felicity. The years were replete with trials and hardships, against which no soul rebelled and-no voice was raised. They also shone with promises in rainbow tints that have long since been more than realized. Out of the darkness there shone a light; out of the sorrows and disappointments an exceeding joy came forth.