History of
The Yellow River Watershed Area

By Dennis Lenzendorf

Valley Where the Sunset Reaches the Big River
The Yellow River in northeast Iowa is a place well known for early American Indian cultures. Little evidence of the Paleoindian occupation of the Yellow River has been found, although Ellison Orr, a 20th century archeologist and naturalist, found a Paleoindian point near Postville in a area of peaty wetlands where evidence of Pleistocene mammals such as the mastodon and mammoth have been discovered. When the Pleistocene ended, the climate began to warm and the vegetation patterns changed significantly.

Nomadic hunters continued to follow herds of animals on the plains of present day Iowa. Around 7000 years ago, a warm and dry period known today as the altitherm led to changes in life patterns for people of the Archaic period. The prolonged drought led to a semi-sedentary way of life with more dependence on food resources along the big rivers. Archeologists believe the first permanent residents along the banks of the Yellow River, where it joins the Mississippi River, where people of the Archaic culture. They gathered food from the river and adjoining wetlands and moved seasonally to rockshelters during the colder months. Several rock shelters that contain evidence of early American Indian occupation are located in the Yellow River Valley.

In terms of prehistory, the Woodland Culture is the most well known prehistoric culture in the Yellow River valley. As early as 2500 years ago, Woodland Indians constructed mounds as their spiritual belief system and connection to the valley were firmly established. Around a thousand years ago, the Effigy Mound Culture built mounds used in ceremonies that were shaped like animals. Pottery became an important technology used by these people. The bow and arrow began to be used by ancient hunters of the Late Woodland period. Warmer climate along with vegetation patterns of oak savanna provided habitat for deer and elk, primary food sources for camps located along the Yellow River. As populations increased, a wide variety of food sources from the Mississippi River, the Yellow River and wetlands located near the Mississippi River continued to be utilized for food. It was during the end of the Late Woodland period, that corn, beans and squash began to be grown by people living in the Yellow River valley and along the Upper Mississippi River.

The Oneota Culture became the dominant force in the Upper Mississippi River Valley about 900 years ago. The small camps of the Woodland cultures were replaced by larger village sites located along the upper Iowa River and the LaCrosse Terrace 60 miles to the north. Evidence of Oneota pottery, projectile points, and some pipestone objects often associated with Oneota tradition have been found in the Yellow River Valley. Little in terms of habitation sites of the Oneota Culture have been discovered upriver beyond the mouth of the Yellow River.


Riviere Juene
The earliest contact French traders made with Indians in the area were with the Iowa tribe located along the Upper Iowa River. The Iowa, or Boxje, have oral traditions that the mounds along the Yellow River were built by their ancestors. Many of the descendants of these people live today in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. In the 18th and 19th century, the Dakota lived in the area of the Yellow River and north throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley until the 1730's. The Sauk and Fox Nation where pushed from the Fox and Wisconsin River valleys east of the Mississippi River by the French. The Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) continued to live in present day eastern Iowa until the 1830's. In September of 1832, the lower part of the Yellow River Valley was ceded to the United States Government following the Blackhawk War.

The Yellow River was named the Rivierie Juane by the French fur traders who arrived in the Upper Mississippi River in the late 17th century. In the late fall of 1766, Jonathon Carver, visited Les Prairie des Chiens, today's Prairie du Chien, a village of 300 dwellings, "well built in the Indian manner". A group of Carver's traders spent the winter on the banks of the Yellow River, their trading post strategically located across the river from Prairie du Chien.


In early September of 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike's party passed by the Yellow River as they left Prairie du Chien on their search for the headwaters of the Mississippi River. In the early historic days, little was written about the Yellow River, as it was a river that had an east-west orientation, whereas travel occurred on the Mississippi River north and south. The western interior was uncharted wilderness for the most part.

In the summer of 1823, Major Stephen Long of the US Army Topographic Engineers, led an overload expedition, starting one and one half miles up the Yellow River. His expedition was split at the mouth of the Yellow River, the "gentlemen" of the expedition traveling north on the Mississippi while Long and five party members traveled on horseback across present day north east Iowa and southeast Minnesota. Major Long's journal give a description of the lands he traversed, "Knobs of various elevations with summits beautifully rounded and clad in a rich verdure- conical peaks rising like a pyramid from the valley and vieing in altitude with the hig(h)est hills, and the valleys of watercourses sunk far below the general surface covered with a rich carpet of grass and flowers, and exhibiting their crystal streams meandering in graceful folds conspire to give both beauty and majesty to the landscape".


Two Cultures Clash
In August of 1825, the Great Council of Indians of the Upper Mississippi River and Plains convened in Prairie du Chien. With 5000 tribal delegates and soldiers in attendance, camps were located for several miles up and down the Mississippi River. With the location of Yellow River across from Fort Crawford, likely some of the delegates set up camp along the Yellow River. One of the outcomes of the 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien was to establish a boundary between the Dakota and Sauk and Fox. The boundary line started at the mouth of the Upper Iowa River and extended west across present day Iowa skirting just north of the Yellow River. The land of the Yellow River continued to be part of the Sauk and Fox territory that extended from the boundary south to the present day boundary of the state of Missouri.

Some believe that an incident that leads up to the Winnebago uprising had its origins in the Yellow River area. In the spring of 1826, Francis Methode and his family crossed the river from Prairie du Chien to gather maple sugar. The family was massacred leading an Indian agent from Prairie du Chien, Nicholas Boilvin to arrest three Winnebago Indians. Several other incidents occurred including the Redbird incident which led to an all out reprisal against the Winnebago tribe. Many historians believe the incident happened in Paint Creek, but the exact location remains a mystery.

Following the Winnebago Uprising, The US Army decided a stronger military presence was needed on the Upper Mississippi River. The old Fort Crawford was suffering from many floods with the palisade rotting away and in disrepair. In 1828, a detail of soldiers from Fort Crawford traveled up the Yellow River to look for a suitable location for a sawmill to saw lumber for the new fort at Prairie du Chien. Fort Crawford had already established a "garrison gardens" on the bluffs south of the Yellow River, in what was known as the military reservation. The gardens and the sawmill on the Yellow River were viewed by Keokuk as a breech of the 1825 treaty, and he voiced his displeasure in 1829 to Major Kearney, Commander of Fort Crawford. In spite of Keokuk's opposition the sawmill, located three and one miles from the mouth of the Yellow River became operational in October of 1829. The sawmill was located on the first riffle of the Yellow River, where a dam was built to create the necessary headwater to power the saws. In the summer of 1831, Lt. Jefferson Davis oversaw work at the sawmill, although during most of the time stationed on the Yellow River, Davis was ill. The sawmill location is found today in the Heritage Addition of Effigy Mounds National Monument. Some tangible evidence of the site was documented by rangers Bob Palmer and Dennis Lenzendorf in the fall of 2003, when low water exposed a few timbers and an old cabin site was located just to the west of the sawmill.

In 1830, another treaty in Prairie du Chien created the Neutral Ground whereby the Dakota and Sauk and Fox gave up 20 miles either side of the 1825 boundary line. The south line of the Neutral Ground started at Paint Rock and headed west crossing the Yellow River several miles upstream. Captain Nathan Boone, a relative of Daniel Boone, surveyed the Neutral Ground was begun in 1832 but was held up by hostilities of the tribes. By 1833, the US Government decided to move the Winnebago tribe from all territories east of the Mississippi River to the Neutral Ground.

In 1834, a mission school was built under the direction of Indian Agent of the Winnebago, General Joseph Street. The mission site is located 4 1/2 to 5 miles up the Yellow River. The site was located north of the Yellow River, at the base of the hill to provide protection from the winter winds. The site overlooked a rich prairie suitable for farming and a possessed an excellent spring. The sawmill located one mile downstream was used to help cut lumber for the mission school site. In the fall of 1837, forty-two students attended the school. Before it was closed in 1840, as many as seventy-five students attended the school. The mission school on the Yellow River was viewed by many as a failure, although Agent Street believed it to be an important step in the assimilation of Winnebago into an agricultural society.


The Military Road
In order to facilitate the removal of the Winnebago from their villages east of the Mississippi River, Fort Atkinson was built on the Turkey River, fifty miles west of the Mississippi River. A road was constructed in 1840 along the ridge just south of the Yellow River to connect Fort Crawford on the Mississippi with Fort Atkinson on the Turkey River. The first road started one mile south of the mouth of the Yellow River. Later MacGregor's Landing located six miles south in Coulee De Sioux became a popular ferry crossing site. MacGregor's Landing quickly developed into the Town of MacGregor.

The trip from Fort Crawford to Fort Atkinson took two days. The military road was known for its halfway house operated by Joel Post and his wife Zeriah. In the 1840's, two "dens of inequity" opened up near present Luana. The tavern operated by Taffy Jones was aptly called Sodom while a nearby resort operated by Graham Thorn was named Gommarah. Many stories and legends revolved around the two taverns before they shut down following the closure of Fort Atkinson.

In 1849, the state legislature set up the county of Allamakee, named for a trader named Allen Magee. Beyond the rugged lands of the bluffs overlooking the river, settlers found a magnificent prairie at first, the edges of the rolling prairie were settled. In order to set up a homestead, the pioneers needed a place that had water nearby and timber for constructing shelters and outbuildings. The high ridges that divided Bloody Run, the Yellow River and Paint Creek were covered with a mixture of prairie and oak savanna. South facing slopes were often free of trees influenced by more intense sunlight, drier soils and periodic fires. North facing slopes and valleys where forested. Open prairies along the divides where plowed into farmland, while the lack of fire produced a scattering of woodlots to shoot up between fields.

Ellison Orr, Visions of a National Park in Iowa
One of the most interesting people to live in the Yellow River was Ellison Orr. Born in a log cabin near MacGregor in 1857, Ellison Orr grew up on a farm just south of the Yellow River near Postville. Orr, more than anyone else, recorded what he observed along the Yellow River giving us a glimpse into the past. The elk that Winnebago Indian Agent Joseph Street had documented twenty five years earlier in the Yellow River valley had all but disappeared. In the 1850's prairie chickens were still plentiful on the prairies. Within a few years following settlement, the prairies were plowed and areas left untilled grew up into trees and brush in the absence of fire. In his youth, Orr witnessed flocks of fifty to hundred prairie chickens bunched up for winter in fields near the home farm. Market hunting and conversion of prairies to farmland led to the disappearance of prairie chickens in northeast Iowa before the end of the 19th century.

As a young boy, Ellison Orr witnessed passenger pigeons nesting in the Yellow River Valley, where he said every branch in the oak trees was bending under the weight of pigeon nests. In the Yellow River, Orr reported a nesting colony of passenger pigeons that was five miles long and two miles wide, with many large trees with a dozen or more nests. As a young man, he collected eggs from a passenger pigeon nest that he later lamented as possibly being the last passenger pigeon nest in the Yellow River Valley. By the 1870's the species was gone from the Yellow River.

Wolves were found in the Yellow River Valley well into the 20th century. Allamakee County still paid a bounty on wolves until 1937. After the extirpation of the wolf, coyotes replaced the timber wolf as a dominant predator in Northeast Iowa. The brush wolf, or prairie wolf as coyotes were called have continued to thrive in the Yellow River Valley. Bear hunting was a popular sport until 1854, when the last big hunt ended in a lawsuit. A "scoundrel" outside the hunting party killed a wounded bear and skinned it out taking the meat before the hunting party arrived. He was taken to court by the hunting party but the court decided for the plaintiff.

The study and documenting of the natural and cultural history of the Yellow River Valley became a life long goal of Orr. Ellison Orr had many interests including birds of the area, the archeology of northeast Iowa and beyond, and geology. At various times, Orr worked as a teacher, a surveyor, a real estate agent, and a Superintendent of a local phone company. But it was the wild places of northeast Iowa that interested him most. Much of what is known about the early animal life of the Yellow River comes from sketches of life written by Ellison Orr. His journals included many accounts he recorded of stories of peregrine falcons along the Mississippi river, detailed accounts of birdlife, and geology of the region.

It was Orr's detailed accounts of the archeology that he will be most remembered. After his retirement, he spent his latter years mapping and documenting archeological sites in Iowa. He once was heard to say that he had visited every known archeological site in Clayton, Allamakee and Winneshiek Counties. Before his death in 1951, Orr was instrumental in mapping mounds along the Yellow River that would be preserved in Effigy Mounds National Monument. Orr was active in establishing the Iowa Archeological Society during the last year of his life.

The Paleozoic Plateau
The Yellow River is a classic example of a dendritic geological feature. Hundreds of springs and creeks flow out of side valleys giving the appearance of great tree. Water released from clouds from countless storms for millions of years has been carving deeply into the Paleozoic Plateau, that piece of uplifted high ground that makes up northeast Iowa. Springs bubble forth from the ground and form the lifeblood of the Yellow River. Like an artist painting a picture the elements have created the work of in the landscape of northeast Iowa known as the Yellow River Valley. No wonder that geologist James H. Lees called northeast section of the state the "Switzerland of Iowa".

The stream begins at Ossian, forty miles to the west of the river's mouth. According to William Peterson, the Yellow River was misnamed. Only in the last few miles does the water take on a muddy appearance. Otherwise the stream flows over rock with a fine layer of silt found in pools. On its journey to the Mississippi River, the Yellow River passes steep cliffs with north facing slopes that contain white pine, hemlock, and balsam fir. On one stretch of the river, the water drops over 27 feet in a mile. The Yellow River proved to be an ideal location for building mills in the 1850's.

Mills of the Past
The Yellow River has been called the "River of Lost Mills." The first mill was a sawmill built in 1829 three miles from the river's mouth. Today known as the Jefferson Davis Sawmill Site, this mill was used in the construction of the second Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien and also the Indian Mission School in 1834.

In 1840, Jesse Dandley built another sawmill a mile below the mission school but floods took the dam away and the site was abandoned. Other mills were more successful. In 1858 several mills were already built along the yellow River. Austin Smith established a sawmill that was sawing lumber for nearby towns in 1853 and 54. The Town of Smithfield sprang up at this location.

Another mill was built further downstream at a place called Buckland by the Smith Family. The names of towns remain today in legends, but most of them have disappeared with the mills. Smithfield, Buckland, Ion, Volney and Manchester made the Yellow River, for a brief period in history, one of the "liveliest centers west of the Mississippi."

The Yellow River may not be remembered as pivotal in the history of our country, but nonetheless, it is a river with a long and fascinating history. The valley contains some of the best wildlife habitat in Iowa. Some of the wildest country in the Midwest is found in this small valley today. It will continue to provide recreational opportunities as well as preserve habitat for a diverse population of wildlife. The Yellow River is well known to American Indians who ancestors lived here long ago. The Iowa People believe the clays along the banks of the Yellow River are sacred. As Reuben Kent, an artist who works with clay and a member of the Northern Iowa Tribe of Kansas shared, "The clays of the Yellow River that make up the pottery of our ancestors was also used in ancient burial practices. The clay of the Yellow River contains the bones of our ancestors and is sacred. This is our connection to the sacred land of our people."

Lenzendorf, Dennis. Effigy Mounds: Guide to Effigy Mounds National Monument. Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National. 2000.

Mallam, R. Clark. The Iowa Effigy Mound Manifestation: An Interpretive Model. Office of the State Archeologist. Iowa City: University of Iowa. 1976.

Orr, Ellison. Reminiscences of a Pioneer Boy. Reprint from the Annals of Iowa. Edited by Marshall McKusick. Part 1, Vol. 7 (Winter of 1971). Part 2 Vol. 8 (Spring of 1971).

Peterson, William J. River of Her Valleys. Des Moines: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1941.