Northeastern Iowa and Winneshiek County are dotted with early
archeological sites. Archeological excavations in 1994 below Palisades Park
in Decorah yielded artifacts that suggest two distinct periods of
human occupation: one dates from around 500 AD and the second from about 1200 AD.
Late Woodland and Oneota cultures of these early Decorah groups were complex societies with sedentary villages based on agriculture, fishing and hunting. In the latter case, deer and elk were especially important. The 1994 diggings in the river valley near Twin Bridges give some indication of the relatively small, but sophisticated, early settlements.
In the years after the European conquest and before the settlement of the state of Iowa, the major groups in this region were the Winnebago, Sauk (Sac) and Fox, and Oneota. The last major contingent of these people, the Winnebagos, were removed from northeastern Iowa by treaty arrangements with the U.S. Government in the years 1846-48.
On June 10, 1849, nine members of the family of William Day (1791-1860) camped beside a spring. They soon started to erect permanent buildings. As they worked, they heard the sounds of trees being chopped down. They soon met William Painter (1820-1902) who was building a mill. Painter first visited the area in March 1849. John Sutton Morse (1808-1887) arrived soon after the Days. The Days, Painters and Morse families became the nucleus of the settlement that was later named Decorah. The Days erected the first Winneshiek Hotel, and Painter and Morse began the milling industry.
Judge Eliphalet Price of Clayton County is said to have been the person who first suggested the name Decorah for the settlement. Chief Waukon Decorah (ca1775-1868), whose name is associated with two northeast Iowa cities, was a fourth generation descendant of Sabrevoir DeCarre, a French soldier-fur trader who died in Ste. Foye, Canada in 1750, and Glory of the Morning, daughter of a prominent Indian chieftain. He was one of several offspring to bear the name Decorah, an Americanization of DeCarre, which evolved through such forms as DeCarrie, DeKauray, D-cari, DeCori, DeCora, DeCorta, and DeKorah.
By the time the 1850 county census was taken, there were 500 individuals in 100 households with foreign-born represented by Upper Canadians, Norwegians, Rhinelanders and Irish. Decorah was named as the county seat in a disputed election in 1851. Decorah grew rapidly with an estimated one hundred people living there in 1854. The first plat of the Original Decorah was made in 1856. Construction of the first county courthouse began in 1857. Decorah was legally organized in April 1857, but was not incorporated as a city until 1871. West Decorah, or the settlement “on the other side of the river,” was incorporated in 1878, and legally recognized by a legislative act in 1894. The two settlements, Decorah and West Decorah, merged into a single unit in 1902.
The “English Colony” of the late 19th century began arriving in 1867. For the
most part, the men of this group were the younger sons of English gentlefolk, or
would-be gentry, seeking their fortune among the riches of Iowa’s natural
resources. They were undoubtedly a stimulus to the city’s business and
industrial life. But a combination of unrealistic expectations, the hardships of
life in Winneshiek County at the time and the collapse of the wheat market in
the 1870’s caused most of these settlers to move elsewhere or to return home.
The Irish were a successful minority. Unlike the Norwegians, whose standards were often cultivated by an intellectual elite, or the English Colony’s would-be gentry, the Irish were industrious, hardworking laborers who made good as farmers in Decorah and Bluffton Township northwest of the city and in business and professional occupations as they chose. Unlike the two other groups, they tended to be members of a Catholic church rather than Protestant.
In the 19th century, Decorah lived off its rich natural resources. Water provided power to run its mills, and the mills processed grain, lumber and stone from the surrounding countryside. The earliest mills were either grain (grist or flour) mills or saw mills for lumber. Stone quarries yielded construction materials such as the so-called “Decorah Marble”, and eventually attempts were made at manufacturing other things, such as chairs, cloth and beverages.
Commerce and industry got a major boost in 1869 when the railroad reached Decorah. Rail lines carrying passengers and freight served the city for a century. For the remainder of the 19th century, the railroads were Decorah’s lifeline to the rest of the world. Only horses, wagons and the stage coach offered any real alternative for moving passengers and commercial goods in and out of the city. With the coming of the new century, however, things changed. Automobiles, trucks and eventually airplanes broke the railroad’s monopoly-like grasp of transportation. Railroad service was officially discontinued February 1979.
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