"Early Settlement of Waterloo"

Black Hawk County Iowa Area


Prior to 1845

In the northwestern part of Black Hawk county, Iowa, three rivers come together, the Cedar, the West Fork (of the Cedar) and the Shell Rock, to form what is known as "the Turkey Foot." Beaver Creek is a short distance below this junction and many lakes, ponds and marshes once enhanced the area. Wetlands occurring in conjunction with woodlands, made the area an ideal habitat for all sorts of wild game. According to C.A. ROWND, an early resident of Black Hawk county, "Deer, wild turkey, and occasionally bear inhabited this timber,..." Long before the arrival of white settlers, Indians made annual trips to the area to make use of its abundant wildlife and natural vegetation.

Black Hawk County was named after Chief Black Hawk (also called Big Black Bird Hawk), a member of the Thunder Clan, Sauk tribe.(Sauk, or Sac, Indians were the "Yellow Earth People.") Chief Black Hawk fought with Tecumseh against the British in the War of 1812.(There is no evidence that Black Hawk was ever in the county that was tobear his name.)

Chief Black Hawk's Indian name was "Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiah."He supposedly signed the first treaty in 1804, transferring a large region of mid-North America from the Indians to Spain. The land then went from Spain to France, and from France to the United States.

Using whiskey and other means, William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indian Territory, coerced the Indians into giving up 48 million acres forone cent an acre. Like most Indians, Black Hawk believed land could not be bought and sold but was instead to be shared by all people.Treaties of 1816, 1822 and 1825 reaffirmed the 1804 treaty relinquish ingIndian lands east of the Mississippi, and some on the west, to the United States.

When they lost the war fought in 1832, known as The Black Hawk War, the Indians were forced to cede even more of their territory. They gave up the Black Hawk Purchase in return for which they were supposed to receive $20,000 annually for 30 years if they agreed to move west of the purchase before June 1, 1833. Around 1840, the U.S. government brought Winnebago Indians to occupy a "neutral zone" which passed near the Northwest corner of Black Hawk County. This zone was supposed to separate Sac and Fox tribes from their enemy, the Sioux. As white settlers entered Iowa, the Sac and Fox sold all their remaining lands and left the state. They were taken to a reservation in Kansas.  In 1848, the Winnebago left for a reservation in Minnesota. The county was officially named Black Hawk on February 17, 1843 by an act of the Territorial Legislature of Iowa.

The Hannas and John Melrose

As part of the Louisiana Purchase the Iowa territory was opened to white settlement in 1803. Permanent white settlement of Black Hawk County did not occur until more than forty years later with the arrival of the William STURGIS family and Erasmus D. ADAMS who settled in the Cedar Falls area, and the George W. HANNA family and John MELROSE who settled in the area of Waterloo. This does not mean that there were no white people in the area prior to 1845, however. Men who made a living hunting, trapping and trading with the Indians were in the area perhaps for months at a time, but they had no intention of staying. Gervais Paul Somaneux (or Sornaneaux), a Frenchman, was known to have camped in the area of Cedar Falls during the summer of 1837. He returned a few years later to make his home in Cedar Falls, then known as Sturgis Falls.

George W. HANNA, his wife Mary, their sons James Monroe and John Q.,and Mary's brother John MELROSE departed White County, Illinois for Iowain May of 1845. Their transportation was two yokes of oxen and anox wagon. They also had a few head of cattle, driven by John MELROSE. They could make 25 to 30 miles a day on their best days. The party stopped at Rock Island, Illinois to visit George HANNA's brother, Philip.  While the rest of the family remained in Rock Island for a rest, George and Philip came on horseback to look over the Cedar River country.  Although they had heard there were white settlers west of the river, thebrothers were unable to ford the rain-swollen river and so returned to Rock Island.

Immediately upon their return, the family sad good-bye to Philip and started out again for Iowa. On July 4th they crossed the Mississippi at Davenport. Mary HANNA later recalled how, while crossing on a horse-powered ferry, they heard shots from up river. These were the shots that killed Colonel George DAVENPORT at his home in Rock Island. After leaving the town of Davenport the HANNA's followed the Cedar River to Cedar Rapids. There was only one settler and a single log cabin at Cedar Rapids, but Marion had a few houses, a store, and a post office.

The party reached the east side of the Cedar River at the point which later became the site of Waterloo on July 16, 1845. According toJohn Q. HANNA, it was a beautiful day. He said, "The Cedar River, unobstructed, no dams, nothing to mar the beauty of God's work, was the most beautiful stream that I have ever beheld as it flowed majestically along. During the afternoon some elk came down to the stream to drink.  We saw deer and two buffalo near the camp that afternoon as we fished.  The Waterloo Town site was beautiful. It was covered with a magnificent growth of blue joint grass to the water's edge and a veritable flower bed of Sweet William, prairie lilies and violets."

The oxen were turned loose with the cattle to graze while the Hannas cooked and ate dinner. Since they had no horses, George HANNA walked upstream and John MELROSE walked downstream to try and find a place where the river could be safely crossed. George went as far as the present site of Cedar Falls and John walked six miles before both returned in the evening. Neither had seen any sign of white settlers or a possible fording spot. While the men had been exploring, the two boys had fished the Cedar and caught 19 rock bass. When the men returned that evening, Mary HANNA prepared the fish for supper.

Although still not sure the river could be safely forded, on the afternoon of the next day, MELROSE yoked the team of oxen, mounted one and guided them into the river. After his safe arrival on the west bank, the others hitched the second team of oxen to the wagon and crossed the river also. The afternoon of the 17th, they camped on what later became Mullan's Hill. Again, George HANNA and John MELROSE went on foot to search for other settlers. While they were gone, curious Indians from a camp to the north, came to investigate the Hanna's wagon. John told his mother not to worry because he would protect her. Mary was afraid the Indians would steal her children, but the incident ended peacefully.

Returning around sundown, the men relayed an invitation from a trapper named DYER for the family to occupy his tent for the night. DYER's" pen built of poles" was located in the timber of what would become the GALLOWAY Addition. The next morning (July 18th) the Hannas and Melrose moved their camp to the site of what would become their home. That same day they began building their log cabin. DYER left a few days later in his canoe, heading down river.

The Virdens

William VIRDEN and his wife and daughter arrived soon after the Hannasand erected a cabin nearby. The Virdens were friends of the Hannasfrom Illinois. In 1846, James VIRDEN visited his brother Williamand entered a claim near the rapids. (Other members of the Virdenfamily soon came to Black Hawk county also, including Oscar VIRDEN, a relativeof William and James; and Oscar's wife, Love C. POWELL, who was CharlesMullan's sister.) Charles and America MULLAN came to Prairie Rapidsin 1846. America was the sister of William and James VIRDEN.The Mullans built a cabin on the west side of the river across a slopingprairie. (One account says William Virden came to Prairie Rapidsin 1845 with George and Mary Hanna, but this seems unlikely as most accountssay it was John Melrose who accompanied the Hannas to Iowa in 1845.)

Elizabeth VIRDEN (sister to William, James and America) recalled that they had rainy weather for the last three weeks of their journey.When there was a brief period of sunshine, they would stop to dry and airtheir bedding and clean "house". The rainy weather caused many delayswith muddy roads, swollen streams and washed out bridges. At RockIsland they boarded a ferry with their prairie schooner and crossed theMississippi.

There was less mud to contend with as the sandy Iowa absorbed the rain,but the family was soon confronted with a new difficulty -- the Iowa sloughs.In some places there was standing water and in others the ground was wetand swampy. At these sloughs the VIRDEN family had to double up twoteams of oxen to one wagon, so crossing was very tiring and time consuming.Sometimes, the wagons sank to their hubs and required two yoke of oxenand a team of horses to pull them out. Often a half day wasspent crossing a slough.

Elizabeth's brother James had built the first log house on the eastside of the river at Prairie Rapids Crossing and her other brother, William,had built a cabin on the west side. James VIRDEN's log house wasbuilt on a creek later named Virden Creek. James and his brotherhad also constructed a log house for the rest of the family, but it tookanother two weeks after the family arrived to complete the chimney andfireplace, hang the doors and install glass in the windows. Oscarand his family also stayed here until their house was built.

The day after Elizabeth VIRDEN's arrival, her brother-in-law, CharlesMULLAN, crossed the rain-swollen river in an Indian canoe. His wife,America, was anxious to see her family, but the river was high that Springand the crossing dangerous, so Charles came alone. Elizabeth beggedto see her sister so Charles finally agreed to take her across the treacherousriver if she would lie quietly in the bottom of the canoe. The familyprotested, but Elizabeth prevailed. Although the river was floodedto about half a mile wide, they reached the other side safely. Americacame down to meet them. The sisters had not seen each other for sixyears and Elizabeth said, "I found four dear children, instead of the twoI had kissed goodbye,..."


Hartman, John C. (supervising editor) 1915.
History of black hawk county and its people
Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company.

Nabokov, Peter. 1991.
Native American testimony, a chronicle of Indian-white relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-1992.

New York: Viking Press.


This page was created
Black Hawk County IAGenWeb Project
on January 30, 1998