Channel Bank Erosion

The Kanaranzi Creek has had sustained flows at high water levels over much of the past two years. As a result, very active erosion has exposed a whole variety of features.

Long shot perspective of the high bank with two features marked.

This is a view of the high channel bank near the bluff just north of our house. The oxbow described in the last two posts is located less than a quarter mile downstream behind the plum thicket and between the two white ovals. The first of four unique features are located within the ovals and are shown in the two photos below.

The foam line marks the high water level in mid-April after a two-inch rain event. The water has now dropped to a level approximately the same as before the rain so now we can see features above water that we haven’t seen for several years. The light-colored gravel exposed just above the water was deposited by melt water from the last glacier and we’ve found bones of Ice Age animals that have probably come from this layer. The gravel is buried beneath black silt deposited more recently by the Creek. The photo on the right shows modern animal burrows down at the water line (dark semicircles below the foam line) and also up higher in light colored sand. The lower burrows were probably beaver dens, but the burrows up in the sand may have been exposed by active bank erosion. That critter probably burrowed down from the grassy surface and now has his living room opened out into the creek bank. The view is better, but that home is now no doubt abandoned.

This is a view of the same high channel bank now looking to the right of the cottonwood tree. It was taken earlier this spring before everything was green and when the water level was still pretty high. There also had not yet been much of the spring-time erosion, so there’s a unique pattern preserved that may have archaeological significance. The vertical light colored band shown in the photo on the right seems to have a triangular “plug” of grass at the top. This geometry is similar to the pattern of a cache pit used for storage by Native Americans. In fact this is near an area where we’ve found artifacts and buffalo bones so that might support the interpretation of a storage pit. In any case, you can’t see it now because of recent bank modifications. In contrast, the exposed boulder can now be seen even more clearly because of the lower water levels.

These two photos compare views of the boulder from earlier this spring to this past week. There’s less of the boulder exposed at the higher water level; at several times over the past two years the boulder was completely under water. Now, the boulder looks like it’s almost out of the water and surrounded by dark mud. Several years ago, before the high water flows, the boulder was not exposed at all because it was completely buried back in the bank behind it. The high bank has eroded back several feet to now expose that hidden boulder. As one of our neighbors commented, “Someday that boulder will be out in the middle of the channel.” He’s exactly right and he was concerned because he and his family and friends have canoed the Creek and the boulder is a new challenge and/or landmark.

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Water Levels in the Oxbow

This has been a really nice spring. The cold winter weather didn’t just slam into hot summer. We had a lot of sunshine in April; only about a quarter of the days were overcast. In contrast, last year about half of the April days were totally overcast and it rained….a lot. During April and May last year, we got almost 6 inches aver the average. This year April and May have had below average rainfall until last week when we had a 2 inch rain event and the water level in the Creek and oxbow came up 2 feet.

Before that rain event, water levels in the oxbow had been lower than in all of 2018 and 2019 because both of those years had record-setting rain. The resulting high water table and general saturated conditions maintained sustained bank-full flows through most of both years. And, those high water levels caused lots of erosion and deposition that produced lots of changes in the Creek channel.

The channel shifted laterally because of erosion (red) on the steep banks and deposition (yellow) on enlarged sandbars. This map (from the post on April 1) shows changes in the main channel between 2017 and 2019. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at changes near the “Bluff” upstream from the oxbow. But, the changes within the oxbow were much less dramatic. Most oxbow changes were vertical build-ups by deposition, especially where the more stable oxbow channel joins the dynamic flows in the main channel.

In 2014 the oxbow formed when a meander in the stream channel cut through to isolate the pond and wetland from the main flow. This first picture shows the location of the animals described in last week’s post. It also has the parts of the oxbow labeled as they appeared in 2015. The upstream plug and downstream plug are areas of depositional build up that separate water in the pond and wetland from the water in the channel, unless there is a high water level. Then the plugs are over-topped and water flows into the oxbow. The second picture shows the location of the two views shown below.

On May 12 before the recent rain event, the photo on the left shows the view toward the north of the tie channel as it appeared at low water level. The lightly vegetated high area through the central field of view was built during the high water levels of 2018 and 2019. After the recent rain event, the photo on the right is the view of the tie channel toward the south. This second picture was taken on May 18 at the time of a high water level similar to last year. The central vegetated area has been completely inundated and now the water in all parts of the oxbow is connected to the main flow in the channel. Raising the water level by 2 feet makes a big difference in both the biological habitats and in the environments of erosion and deposition.

This is a brief explanation about information sources. Weather and water level measurements were made here on Lone Tree Farm for databases maintained by the state of Minnesota. The map of cut and fill areas was produced in the Rock County Land Management Office. The oxbow components are based on a technical paper by Rowland and others (2005).

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Animals in the Oxbow

Last week I saw this turtle in the Creek. Usually we see snapping turtles (and have had some exciting family adventures with them!), but this one is different. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen one like this before. It’s a spiny soft shell turtle according to a friend who has done field surveys of amphibians and reptiles for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Their website says that the spiny soft shell turtle is not particularly rare and isn’t endangered, but it was a unique sighting for me along Kanaranzi Creek.

The turtle was actually in the main channel, but it was right next to a distinctive feature called an “oxbow”. An oxbow is a cut-off part of the main channel that usually supports a wetland or a pond during part of its existence. Ours formed in 2014 when part of the steep channel bank caved in and the Creek cut through the narrow part of a big meander bend. Our oxbow has both a wetland and a pond, depending on how much rain and flooding we’ve had. And, it has predators.

This heron didn’t fly away when I tried to get closer because it was fishing. I kept walking toward it and suddenly the head went down and it came up with a fish wiggling in its beak. The heron is standing right where the pond grades in to the wetland at the west side of the oxbow. I don’t know what kind of fish it came up with, but we know that there are Topeka Shiners in the oxbow because there have been two surveys that documented them in the last four years. There are also cricket frogs that probably also provide food for the predators. The blog post from April 13, 2019, has a picture of the frog and a description of the fish survey.

Here’s a nest of goose eggs that was along the shore of the oxbow last month. And, the nest looked a lot different last week. There aren’t any shells left in the scattered nest, so it’s hard to tell if they hatched or if a predator got them. It seems like the Canadian geese have not been around during the day for the last several weeks. Last month, they’d set up a racket whenever I was down there. Maybe they’ve moved up the Creek or maybe even flew on up farther north?

We’ve had a pair of eagles spending a lot of time this spring around the big cottonwood tree just to the north of our house. It would be really cool if they decided to build a nest and stay around all of the time instead of just visiting each spring and fall. As the leaves start to get bigger fill in the branches, it’s getting harder to spot eagles when they’re in the cottonwood. I don’t know if this big feather that I found at the oxbow is from an eagle or from a goose. Let’s just say that it is from an eagle….that would be more fun!

The wetland and pond water levels in the oxbow are the lowest that they’ve been in a couple of years. However, the heavy rain that we had this past weekend brought the Creek up more than two feet! The post next Wednesday will give some more details on that.

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Trails to Rails

Overland trails became the routes of railroads that provided critical links between farms and markets. In the 1920s and 1930s, Grandpa George (the son of the homesteaders) shipped cattle to Chicago from a siding called Midland located in Iowa about three miles southeast of the farm. Sometime during those same years, Grandma Daisy (the Civil War veteran’s daughter who also grew up along Kanaranzi Creek) took her daughter and son to New York City to visit relatives. The children and grandchildren of the homesteaders depended on railroads as critical infrastructure.

The first railroad in the area was built by the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad Company. In 1871 the route for the first track was surveyed through the tall grass prairie by horse-drawn buggy (Crippen, 2016, p.34). By 1871 the railroad had reached Worthington (Rose, 1911, p. 70) and plans projected a route west to Sioux Falls, SD, through Luverne. This 1874 map from the Minnesota Historical society shows the proposed route relative to the Farm. Track was laid to Luverne by the Centennial Year of 1876 and completed to Sioux Falls in 1878 (Rose, 1911, p. 85).

This was in the Gilded Age and the oligarchs who owned the company built huge personal fortunes as well as railroad corridors. Land grants from the state extended up to 20 miles on either side of the right-of-way. That meant that every other section of land (odd-numbered parcels of 640 acres each) was owned by the Company all the way south to the Farm on the state line. The sale of this land was intended to finance construction of the railroad.

However, in addition to the lucrative land grants, the Company also demanded and generally received direct cash payments from counties, townships, and towns. Rock County voted to issue bonds to meet a Company request for $50,000 (that’s over $1.2 million 2020 dollars) in April of 1876. The three southern townships, including Kanaranzi Township where the Farm is located, voted against issuing the bonds, but the rest of the county voted to approve (Rose, 1911, p.86). Unfortunately, many railroad bonds in the area only returned 25 cents on a dollar when they came due several decades later (Heikes, 1995, p. 32).

Eventually in 1884, a second company, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, laid track from Ellsworth in adjacent Nobles County through Kanaranzi (Rose, 1911, p. 101) which was located about five miles north of the Farm. That company also built a branch from Ellsworth through Midland, Iowa, to Rock Rapids. This 1917 map available from the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows the grid of routes, as well as the location of the Midland railroad siding near the Farm. In contrast to these overland routes, a branch known as the “Bonnie Doon” followed the Rock River parallel to an earlier trail between Rock Rapids and Luverne. This branch went through Ash Creek located about five miles west of the farm and was built by the company that serviced Luverne.

However by then, the Sioux City and St. Paul was known as the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha; it would become the Chicago, and North Western and eventually the Union Pacific. Meanwhile, the company that serviced Ellsworth, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, changed its name to the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific (Crippen, 2016, p. VII). This evolution in name changes reflected mergers and acquisitions through changing times. But, it also contributed to the confusion around earlier land grants and issued bonds. The oligarchs obviously benefited from this lack of transparency about their business transactions related to this critical infrastructure.

So in 1917, the Farm was located about equal distances from three railroad sidings that could provide access to the nationwide system. That transportation system would eventually be replaced by roads and highways, but railroads were an early example of infrastructure that life on the Farm needed and utilized. And like railroads, these systems generally depended on public money to incentivize private enterprise. I don’t know what year the telephone came to the Farm, but I was alive when electricity came in the mid 1940s and when rural water came in the late 1990s. And of course there’s the Internet. The relatively recent installation of fiber optics in Rock County was the product of cooperation between the public and private sectors. Dispersed populations in rural areas usually cannot pay enough to deliver the services, so a public-private partnership was needed to build the network for Internet connections in the same way that the infrastructure of railroads came in to support the farm economy almost 150 years ago.

Growing up on the Farm in the 1950s, I remember hearing an early morning train whistle. It was the train from Ellsworth to Rock Rapids that passed through Midland. However, the elevator and stockyards that Grandpa George used were gone by then. In the 1960s and 1970s most of the tracks in the area were taken up and the raised roadbeds were flattened out. Now those right-of-way corridors have been returned to land owners and the depots have been converted to museums or torn down. Now we use a different set of systems to provide critical infrastructure.

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Civil War Trails

The trails that our family followed in 1870 weren’t confined to just stream valleys. Their overland route from Waseca to the Kanaranzi Creek was probably laid out 10-15 years earlier, before the Civil War. This map was compiled (Trygg, 1964) from the field notes of those early surveyors who laid out the grid of townships and sections over the land.

The north trail is labeled as “Madelia to Sioux City” and also as the “Mail Route to Sioux Falls and Yankton”. It’s highly likely that this is the trail that the Shurr’s covered wagon followed, because Waseca is only about 50 miles east of Madelia. Family tradition says that they were part of a wagon train of Scandinavians headed for Dell Rapids in Dakota Territory. But, they left that group and drove south to get to the land in Iowa and eventually settled on Lone Tree Farm (shown by the purple star at the bottom of the map).

The south trail crossed Kanaranzi Creek at the purple oval about five miles upstream from the homestead on the Minnesota side of the Stateline. That south trail is labeled “Spirit Lake to Sioux City” and carries memories of earlier violent times. The Spirit Lake “Massacre” in 1857 has been suggested (Harnack, 1985, p.14) to be part of the reason that homesteading was delayed in southwestern Minnesota and adjacent areas in northwestern Iowa and eastern South Dakota.

One of the main participants in the 1857 action was a Dakota leader named Inkapaduta. My grandmother, Daisy Walker Shurr, shared an adage about him: “When the wind is in the northeast along Kanaranzi Creek, you can hear Inkapaduta’s war cry.” Although the local settlers vilified him and there is controversy about his role in the conflict (Van Nuys, 1998, p. 415-450), he has been generally held in high regard by many Native Americans.

During the Civil War in 1862, the U.S.-Dakota War was another conflict that may have limited early settlement. But in any case by the early 1870s, many of the first settlers in the area were Civil War veterans. Daisy’s father, James O. Walker, was a veteran who homesteaded along the Creek just over the county line to the east in Grand Prairie Township. He was one about eight veterans who clustered along the south trail (Heikes, 1984, p.11) within the purple oval. Her uncle, George Barnes, was also part of this cluster. His homestead on Kanaranzi Creek may have been the location of the battle that gave the Creek its name (Heikes, 1984, p.16).

This map of settlement patterns in Kanaranzi and Clinton Townships has Civil War veterans’ land patents marked with gold squares. Veterans were identified using newspaper coverage of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) preserved in the Rock County History Center. The GAR was a veterans’ organization active in both Rock and Nobles County in the decades following the Civil War. The four veterans who located north of the farm can be added to the eight just to the east to make a total of a dozen within the limited area of the purple oval. Two or three miles to the north near Magnolia, there were three or four more veterans who might also have been part of that “neighborhood” cluster. Another cluster of four veterans settled along the Rock River and the parallel trail that is shown as a gold line. The diagonal gold line in the northeast corner of the map is the southern trail shown on the first map.

Clusters of Civil War veterans have been identified and interpreted in South Dakota (Hackemer, 2019, p. 91):
“Those who settled in the older counties in Dakota Territory were more likely to do so with wartime comrades than those who settled in the newer counties farther west.
The number of clusters and their location may be more important than the number of men who settled in clusters. Although there are exceptions, clusters were more prevalent in counties where veterans are underrepresented relative to the rest of the population. Clusters may simply be markers for comradeship, but they also enabled veterans to more easily integrate into otherwise challenging environments with more established institutions or social structures, or simply to survive in challenging circumstances.”

Similar dynamics may have been at work along Kanaranzi Creek, although the large cluster of veterans within the purple oval may have almost qualified as a more formal “colony”. It has been suggested (Hackemer, in review) that men in such colonies usually had experienced more wartime trauma than other veterans. Daisy Walker’s uncle, George Barnes, was part of the “colony” and died at a relatively young age. It was thought that his death was a result of his Civil War duty (Crippen, unpublished manuscript, p. 227).

There were other colonies in the general area at a slightly later time. Young Englishmen were located just to the west in southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa (Harnack, 1985, p.5). Irish immigrants were organized into a colony just to the east in adjacent Nobles County (Heikes, 1995, p.49-52). Both of those colonies, however, were one result of the railroads that replaced trails as the dominant overland travel routes.

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Homesteading on the Kanaranzi

In the spring of 1870, John B. Shurr and his nephew, stood on a hill about one mile south of the State Line and looked out to the east over the valley of the Kanaranzi Creek. The Rock River valley was down the hill to the west behind them. They had made the trip from Waseca, Minnesota, to acquire some of the rich soil that made Iowa famous.
Over the next several months, the two men would cut timber along the Rock River and stack it on that parcel of land. An earlier arrival, Dudley C. Whitehead, was already established about four miles downstream where the Kanaranzi joins the Rock. The plan was for him to build a cabin for the Shurrs in trade for their labor of doing some “breaking”, i.e. plowing up the thick prairie sod. John and Alfred did the plowing, left a stove sitting next to the pile of wood and went back to Waseca. John, his wife Hattie and their three children would return in the fall.

After spending that fall and early winter in northwest Iowa, the family finally settled on Lone Tree Farm in the spring of 1871. The trade deal with Whitehead had some complications because the land parcel in Iowa was part of a “school section”. Since the asking price was too high for that Iowa land, the home quarter was established just over the State Line and about two miles up the Kanaranzi Creek from the original location. Here’s a link to a description of the complications and subsequent delay in getting settled on the Minnesota land:

Rivers and tributary streams were important corridors of resources during homesteading. Wood and water were essential for completing a successful claim. The new home place was up on a hill on the east side of Kanaranzi Creek just over the State Line in Minnesota.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management maintains the records for the General Land Office. The online records include the location and date of land patents granted to specific people and are available at:
This link was provided by Shirley Klosterbuer who is on the Board of the Rock County Historical Society. The online information has been used to generate a map of settlement patterns in southeastern Rock County.

Lone Tree Farm is located at the purple star on this map of Kanaranzi and Clinton Townships. Red dots mark land grants made in the 1870s; blue dots mark those made in the 1880s; and green dots are 1890s. There are some clear patterns on the map:
1) The red dots (1870s) tend to be clustered along Kanaranzi Creek and Rock River while the blue dots (1880s) are located more on the surrounding upland areas.
2) The red early parcels also show a more irregular scatter along streams compared to the more orderly arrangement of the later blue quarter sections on the uplands.
3) The green dots from the 1890s are clustered around the village of Kanaranzi in the northeastern part of the township. The village had been established in 1885 by the town site company associated with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (Rose, 1911, p.95).

The odd-numbered railroad lands are conspicuously empty because no small claims could be made there. Railroad companies received land grants from Federal and state governments as incentives to build the critical infrastructure. About half of each thirty-six square mile township became railroad land. The companies were given every odd-numbered section (one square mile) of land for a distance of ten miles, and sometimes up to twenty miles, on either side of the proposed right of way. That severely limited the land available for “little guy” homesteaders. Some of the company land was subsequently tied up for decades by speculators and railroad “barons”.

Even though our family settled on the farm in 1871, the abstract lists the land grant patent as 1885. That’s why it’s marked with a blue dot. Since the Homestead Act only required five or six years to “prove up”, I don’t know why there was a fifteen-year delay to get the formal patent. The abstract for the contiguous half section 33 just to the west says that the Shurrs acquired it in the 1890s.

The owner of that added parcel was a trust set up for the estate of George Harrison. His title to the land is part of the 1867 land grant to the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad Company. In fact he was on the governing board of the railroad, was also involved in banking and had a mansion in the Twin Cities. So, information available on the Internet basically brands him as an oligarch in the Gilded Age.

In contrast, the settlers on Lone Tree Farm lived and worked on the land. Dad used to say that this ax was the original one used by the homesteaders. He said that the handle had been replaced three times and the head had been replaced twice. BUT, it was the ORIGINAL ax.

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What’s in a Name?

“Runs as the crazy man walks.” That’s what Grandma Daisy Walker Shurr said the word “Kanaranzi” meant. This is what the Creek looked like back in the early Seventies below the hill where our house is located. A friend of brother Bob’s took the photo as a tribute. The image seems to re-enforce the interpretation that Grandma Shurr shared.

She was raised on a farm homesteaded by a Civil War veteran located about six miles up the Kanaranzi Creek from Lone Tree Farm. When she was a girl, Native Americans traveled along the Creek, so maybe she heard a translation from them?

Other Euro-American settlers in the area claimed that “Kanaranzi” meant “Crazy Woman”. The cabinet delegated to Kanaranzi in the Rock County History Center has a placard that says that very thing. A handwritten history for the village of Kanaranzi in the Historical Society’s files also refers to the “Crazy Woman” translation. In addition, that history describes letters from school children sent to the township board of supervisors. The kids had an assignment to get information on a place name that they found interesting. “Kanaranzi” is clearly a unique word.

An early, published history of Rock County (Rose, 1911, p. 63) says Joseph N. Nicollet’s map of 1843 spells the creek name as “Karanzi”. You can see that in this screen shot taken from the online image the map available from the Library of Congress.

There is more detail on the word’s origin in Nicollet’s journals that have been translated from the original French (Bray and Bray, 1976, p. 69): “Kanrhanzi witcha ktepi [Kanaranzi Creek] or the river where the Kansas were killed.” Although there are several alternative spellings, “Kanrhanzi” refers to the Kansas or Kansa tribe.

The Kansa were linguistically related to the Dakota, but were usually located much farther south along the Missouri River. The Dakota people who lived in our area did fight with the Kansa, but Nicollet’s journal is the only known reference to a battle this far north (Bray and Bray, 1976, p.70). It seems like Euro-American histories always emphasize the battles with Native Americans.

The Kansa are linked culturally to the Omaha, Ioway, and Ponca traditions (Thiessen, 2004, p. 365-367). Over the past three or four decades my career took me all over the Great Plains and I have discussed translation of the word “Kanaranzi” with enrolled members of the Omaha, Ioway, Lakota, and Dakota tribes. Most did not recognize the word as part of their language.

However, I recently visited with educators who are teaching the Dakota language in Flandreau, South Dakota. They confirm (Avery Jones, personal communication, 2019) that Nicollet’s translation as “river where the Kansa were killed” is correct. They also made no mention of crazy people—man or woman. So, “Kanaranzi” does carry implications of violence, but at least it’s gender neutral.

This is the first in a series of posts commemorating the one hundred fifty years that four generations of the Shurr family have lived along Kanaranzi Creek. So, things will be heavy on the history for the next several months. BUT, it is spring and Nature will not be denied. There’ll continue to be some science posts interspersed with the history.

Meanwhile, here are two invitations for you:

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