Winona County administrative offices are located at 202 West Third Street, Winona, MN 55987; Phone: 507-457-6350.
The first inhabitants of the area [†] were the Sioux, Winnebago, Fox, Sauk and Iowa Native Americans. Many of these Nations made their home along the banks of the Mississippi River and built unique mound structures. Mounds were used for burial and ceremonial purposes, with some serving as living quarters. The main tribe in the area, the Mdewakantonwan Sioux, made the large Winona sandbar their home and under Chief Wapasha, the Mdewakantonwan Sioux first named the prairie, Keoxah, which meant The Homestead.
Father Louis Hennepin is believed to be the first explorer to this area. Other explorers followed, such as Zebulan Pike, George Catlin and many French fur traders. During this time, the region was referred to as Sand Prairie or the more common Wapasha's Prairie after Chief Wapasha. Spain first claimed ownership of the land that included Winona County in 1680. Fur trading by the French was predominant in the region until the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Under United States government, Winona County was first considered a part of the Louisiana Territory until 1849. In that year, Winona County was set apart as a portion of the Minnesota Territory.
Willard Brady Bunnell and Francis La Batha were the first Europeans to settle among the blufflands of Winona County by the 1830s. Soon after missionaries, Native American agents and land speculators joined them. The City of Montezuma was founded and platted by the Steamboat Captain Orrin Smith. Residents felt the name was inappropriate and unsuccessfully proposed the name Wenonah after the daughter of Chief Wapasha. A meeting was held by residents to bribe the mapmaker to change the name to Wenonah. However, Wenonah was misspelled as Winona and has remained since 1852.
In 1844, James Reed came from Wisconsin and constructed the first permanent log cabin in what is now the City of Winona. Reed's residence was in the area of Second and Center Streets.
By the summer of 1851, many settlers began to arrive in the area after a treaty was signed at Traverse de Sioux. This treaty ceded nearly all of Southeast Minnesota from its Native American inhabitants to the United States. Peter Burns arrived in 1852 and began farming the area now known as West Burns Valley. Immigrants and first generation Americans in the County were predominately Yankee settlers from Norway, Germany, England and other Western European countries. These settlers were eager to establish homes, farms and businesses as part of the westward expansion. As a result, their cultures, languages and customs enriched the sustained lifestyle of the entire region. As the area expanded, the population began to include additional ethnic groups from Poland, Prussia and Ireland. Many of these new immigrants came to work in already established businesses and new industrial enterprises.
By 1854 there were over eight hundred (800) people residing in Winona County. That same winter, Mr. O.M. Lord of Minnesota City trekked to Saint Paul to introduce a bill to the state legislature that authorized the distinction of Winona County from Fillmore County. Four years later, in 1858, Minnesota was admitted as the thirty-second state to the Union.
Most early settlers of Winona County lived simple lives on farmsteads. These settlers raised crops that provided nourishment for themselves and their families. Crops during this time included sorghum, rutabagas, wheat and corn. Some farmers planted fruit trees with seeds that they brought from their homeland. Settlers also raised and butchered hogs and steer that provided food and fats for soap and lard. On average, early residents kept three to ten (3 to 10) dairy cows for milk and butter. Typical farm machinery consisted of a plow, a mower, a rake, a wagon and a sled. The little money that residents acquired was spent primarily on taxes and staples such as sugar, pepper, salt, tobacco and other necessities.
The first big industry - sawmills - arrived in Winona County in 1855. These mills were responsible for rapid growth and development in the City and County until the 1900s. The mills remained in existence until the majority of the pine forests were harvested and lumbering began its decline.
† Comprehensive Plan Update: Policy Guidance for the Next Decade, 2014, www.co.winona.mn.us, accessed October, 2021.