The Big Woods
Prior to 1850 this area was unknown to European settlers. Early French explorers found a vast expanse of hardwood forest, composed primarily of elm, sugar maple, basswood, hickory and red oak trees. The French named this 3,000 square mile forest “Le Bois Grand” – The Big Woods. The Big Woods was a diagonal swath of forest, 100 miles long and 40 miles wide, stretching from south-central Minnesota to western Wisconsin.
A rare remnant of The Big Woods has been preserved at Wolsfeld Woods Scientific and Natural Area located east of Willow Drive, north of County Road 6.
Wolsfeld Woods, a remnant of The Big Woods
Oil painting by Frank B. Mayer, a witness to the negotiations and signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Painted in 1885.
Credit: Minnesota Historical Society
Dakota Sioux, the First Inhabitants
The first Europeans to discover this region were French fur traders who traveled the area but never settled here. At that time, the area around Lake Independence was predominantly forest and wetlands occupied by Native Americans from the Dakota Sioux tribe. The tribe moved often, depending on the seasons and the availability of wild game, fish, berries, wild rice and maple sugar. Birch bark and dug-out canoes traveled up and down the streams and rivers, and provided contact with other people. The Dakota interacted with and traded with other tribes in the region, and with the French fur traders. Some of today's county roads, including Cty Rd 19 and Cty Rd 24, were originally Dakota trails. Native Americans apparently made use of the island at the north end of Lake Independence – the geological survey crew that did the first survey of this area in 1855 found numerous Indian artifacts in mounds on the island.
In 1851 the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux between the local Dakota tribes and the United States government transferred ownership of much of southern and western Minnesota from the Dakota people to the United States. The treaty opened up the region to white settlers, who were attracted by the huge stands of timber and the availability of land for farming.