Let’s start with the town’s namesake: Red Wing. He was probably born about 1750 and was probably the nephew of Chief Wabasha I, though no one is sure. He was a shaman and a very successful military leader of the Mdewakanton Dakota in the latter part of the 18th century. In Dakota his name was Tatankamani (Walking Buffalo). French explorers, for reasons that are not well documented, called him L’Aile Rouge (Red Wing). He broke from Wabasha’s band, leading a group of 100 who lived near the mouth of the Cannon River. He led an active life in the middle of changing times, chatting with the explorer Zebulon Pike in 1805 and fighting with the British against American interests before switching sides in the middle of the War of 1812. He traveled to Portage des Sioux (Missouri) in 1815 to sign a treaty of friendship with Americans. When he was older, he gave the name Red Wing to his oldest surviving son, Wakute, and called himself Shakea (The Man Who Paints Himself Red). He died March 4, 1829 while hunting.
The land around the Cannon River was not open to legal settlement until 1853, but a few Europeans still found a way to move in. The first to arrive were two families of Swiss missionaries: Samuel and Persis Denton in 1837 and Daniel and Lucy Gavin in 1838. They stayed until 1845, probably converting no one. Another group of Presbyterian missionaries and their families arrived in 1849 when Minnesota became a territory. At that time, Red Wing was home for about 300 Dakota. Among this group of missionaries were Joseph Hancock (b. 1816 in Orford, NH) and his wife Maria Houghton Hancock. Joseph built good relationships with the Dakota and learned their language. In 1850, Maria died during childbirth, and the next year his son died, too. Distraught, he left Red Wing for several years. John Day came from Wisconsin and moved—illegally—into the abandoned mission house, trying to establish a claim on land that still belonged to the Dakota. The Dakota were not amused, so they tore down the house. Day built a new house and the Dakota tore that one down, too. This process repeated itself about a dozen times before Day finally left.
The Dakota ceded the rights to their lands with the 1851 Treaty of Mendota and were removed from Minnesota by the 1860s. With the Dakota gone, Europeans flooded in and reshaped the area. Red Wing was platted in 1853 and became the county seat. Joseph Hancock eventually returned and played a central role in the city’s development, serving as post master and writer of first county history, among other things.
Most early settlers were from the East, but there were also many Scandinavian and German immigrants. Hotels were built to house new arrivals, including an ill Henry David Thoreau who came for a four-day health respite in June 1861. He was trying to recover from tuberculosis but died the next year. While in Red Wing, he climbed Barn Bluff and was so moved he wrote about the river valley: “Too much could not be said for the grandeur and beauty.”
Red Wing counted 1,251 residents in 1860 and over 4,000 just 10 years later. Much of Red Wing’s early growth was fueled by wheat. In 1873, Red Wing had a warehouse that could store one million bushels of the grain; twice that amount shipped from town that year. The wheat trade declined in importance by 1880, but Red Wing had a strong, diversified economy with businesses like shoe manufacturing, sorghum processing, the Red Wing Iron Works (1866-1983), cigar factories (mostly 1870-1920), brewing, brick manufacturing, lumber, and quarrying.
Pottery makers have been mainstays in the local economy for generations. In the early years, local clay was plentiful and was an especially good raw material. The industry began with German immigrant Joseph Pohl in 1861; he later decided that farming was a better fit for him. William Philleo founded a terra cotta business in 1870 and had a nice run. He moved his company to St. Paul in 1880 and renamed it, but some of his former employees stayed in town and founded the Red Wing Stoneware Company. In 1906, the three existing pottery companies merged to form the Red Wing Union Stoneware Company, which produced pottery until 1967. In 1984, the Red Wing Pottery brand was brought back to life.
Red Wing’s economy today is a mix of light manufacturing, healthcare, and tourism; the Red Wing Shoe Company is the largest employer.