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Homestead Act's promise of free land spurred settlement in Otter Tail County

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Perham, 56573
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

As far back as 7,800 years ago, human beings were "choosing" Otter Tail County.

In the 1870's, people were choosing Otter Tail at the urgings of Horace Greeley, who famously stated "Go west, young man." What has drawn people here?

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That is the question posed by the Otter Tail County Historical Society in the 150th anniversary of Minnesota's statehood.

Society director Chris Schuelke presented a slide and speech presentation at the April 22 township historian meeting in Ottertail.

Here are some highlights and excerpts.

Earliest human evidence in Otter Tail dates back 7,800 years

While excavating for the Highway 59 project near Pelican Rapids in 1932, workers uncovered the remains of a young woman, buried with a tool made of elk antlers and wearing a shell pendant. Known as "Minnesota Woman," it remains one of the earliest archeological finds in North America--dating back at least 7,800 years.

Near East Otter Tail's Dead River, more evidence of human activity was discovered in 1977. Archeologists unearthed thousands of pieces of pottery shards, spear and arrow points and scattered fire hearths. The pieces date between 1,000 and 1,200 years ago.

The first white people in Otter Tail County included a British Army officer and an agent for the Northwest Trading Company. They set up a trading post on Leaf Lake--east of Otter Tail Lake.

With all the interconnecting waterways, a "voyageur could travel by canoe from Leaf Lake all the way to the Hudson Bay.

Before the rails came to west central Minnesota, is was ox cart trails.

Ottertail City was first county seat

In 1858, Minnesota's statehood year, the county's first boundaries were established--with Ottertail city as the first county seat.

The Civil War and Indian uprising of 1862 slowed development in the area, but the Homestead Act of 1862 started opening up the country to settlement. Anyone could file for 160 acres of free public land.

Clitherall was the first permanent settlement in otter Tail County, founded by a group of break-away Mormons. The village was named after George Clitherall, a U.S. land agent in Ottertail City from 1858-1861.

Otto Township, Rush area second permanent settlement

East Otter Tail County, specifically where the Otter Tail River meets Rush Lake, was the location of the second permanent settlement. Sometimes referred to as the "Otto Colony," the 1866 settlement was in present-day Otto Township.

Led by renegade Catholic Priest Joseph Albrecht, he and his followers established St. Lawrence Church--still an active congregation today. Three of those settlers were ancestors of families that live in Otter Tail today: Schoenberger, Boedigheimer and Doll.

The group's intent was to establish a community where they could practice their religious beliefs without interference.

Townsfolk threaten to "tar and feather" land squatter

Other Otter Tail history trivia from Schuelke's presentation:

• A Swedish settlement evolved in the Parkers Prairie area. One of the Swedish colleagues arrived only to find a "squatter" on the land he had legally claimed. The elders met, and the record of that meeting still exists. The group voted to "tar and feather" the squatter, unless he moved off the land.

• Here's a horrific story of a Norwegian settler, in Trondhjem Township, who was caught in a blizzard and suffered frostbite so bad--he amputated his own fingers.

• Gorman Township residents will be interested to know that their settlement was originally going to be named "Nashville" after one of its founders, whose last name was Nash.

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