History of Olmsted County


For thousands of years, native peoples have traversed and settled in our general area. Ancient trails have developed into roads and highways. Discovered burial mounds, arrowheads, spear points and other artifacts attest to occupation here. These people came from Upper Mississippi cultures, from the Northern Woodlands and Western Prairies. In the last few hundred years, the specific tribes most frequently in our area were the Dakota Sioux, Ojibway, and Winnebago. Even today, these tribes live on reservations and settlements in the general area and many live and work in local urban areas including Rochester. 

Minnesota's history is rich in the romance of the colorful explorers who came seeking a Northwest Passage to the Pacific. 

First to arrive were the French in 1660 - Father Louis Hennepin and Pierre LeSueur. Later Jonathan Carver and other English explorers paddled their birch bark canoes to Minnesota - either up the Mississippi River or across Lake Superior. 

For almost two centuries after Father Louis Hennepin paddled his canoe up the Mississippi, few white men saw the rolling plains and deep valleys of what is now southeastern Minnesota. Under a treaty concluded in 1853, the Sioux Indians relinquished this area to the territory of Minnesota and then came the surveyors, laying out county, township and section lines. 

Perhaps the first white settler in Olmsted county was Hirman Thompson, who staked his claim near the village of Dover in 1853. Soon prairie schooners rumbled into the Zumbro River Valley bringing the great-grandparents of some citizens of our county.

Migration to Minnesota reached its peak in 1885 and the green valleys and flowing streams of this southeastern area of the state received more settlers than any of the territory.

On February 20, 1855 - two years after the white man made his first permanent settlements here - the Territorial Legislative created Olmsted County from 660 square miles of land then a part of Winona, Fillmore, and Wabasha Counties. That same year this county sent its first representatives to the legislature.

Our county was named after David Olmsted, who first came to Minnesota in 1848. He was elected a member of the first Territorial council and in 1854 was elected the first Mayor of St. Paul.

Olmsted was a newspaper publisher, fur trader, friend of the Indian and a man known for his honesty and integrity. He never lived in the county that was named to honor him.

George Head, a pioneer resident of this county, named our county seat after Rochester, New York, which had once been his home town. On July 12, 1854, George, his wife, his brother, Jonathan, and their father laid claim to land that now forms part of Rochester's business district. It was here that they built a log cabin known as Head's tavern that probably was Rochester's first place of business. 

When George Head arrived - Rochester was a crossroads camping spot for the wagon trains that rolled into southeastern Minnesota. Two years later the new village had 50 inhabitants, and four years after Head arrived Rochester had a population of 1,500. 

About a year after George Head staked his claim the Olmsted County Commissioners held their first meeting at the village of Oronoco on the banks of the Zumbro River. 

In 1857 prospectors saw gold flecks in the Zumbro River near Oronoco and a gold rush followed but it ended abruptly in the spring of 1858, and life at Oronoco settled down to a slower pace. 

1858 Courthouse The commissioners established the county seat at Rochester and, from 1858 to 1866, met in a large two-story frame structure built by Charles Lindsley and leased to the county. 

From this building the commissioners moved into spacious quarters in a brick building surmounted by a dome. The new courthouse looked like a state capitol, and was a prominent feature of Rochester's landscape for almost a century.

In 1863 Doctor William Worrall Mayo arrived in Rochester to become examining surgeon of federal draftees during the Civil War. More than 1,200 Olmsted County men left Minnesota to fight in the war that tore this county asunder from 1861 to  1864. Following that war the citizens of Olmsted settled down once again to the realities of dirt farming.

1880 CourthouseHowever, in 1883, a war of a different kind struck the village of Rochester. On August 21st of that year the swirling winds of the "Great Tornado" swept through Rochester killing 26 persons and destroying much of the north side of town.

After the original dome was destroyed in the "Great Tornado", the Lady of Justice (Themis) was rebuilt and placed on the magnificent courthouse. 

In the wake of that terrifying experience, Sister Mary Alfred, a Franciscan Sister teaching in Rochester, approached Rochester's "county doctor" to discuss the need for a hospital.  The Sisters of St. Francis offered to build and maintain a hospital if the good doctor would provide the medical staff.

Thus the humanitarian spirit of a Franciscan Sister combined with the professional dedication of a small town physician named William Worrall Mayo set in motion a force that today has become one of the world's foremost centers of medical care. 

1958 CourthouseHis sons, William J. and Charles H., grew up in Rochester and helped Dr. Mayo in his medical work. When they had completed their formal medical education, William and Charles joined their father in the practice of medicine. Other doctors joined the Mayos, and the medical team developed scientific laboratories to test and refine their medical knowledge. A world-famed institution, the Mayo Clinic stands in the heart of the community. 

Descendants of original natives to our area hold annual powwows and craft expositions in Rochester sponsored by the Native American Center of southeastern Minnesota. 

Mayo Clinic purchased the courthouse at 515 2nd St. SW when Olmsted County moved to their present location. The building is now known as the Ozmun Building.

1993 CourthouseThe new Government Center was constructed at 151 4th St. SE and was dedicated June 30, 1993. In addition to the Government Center, many other buildings in Olmsted County are the location of offices staffed by County employees who provide services to citizens.