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Madison County at the Outset of Settlement


Posted By: Kent Transier (email)
Date: 7/28/2016 at 14:09:58

George Washington Guye was born in White County, Tennessee in 1826, afterwards moving to Missouri and in April, 1846, when 20 years old, traveled with his family from Missouri to Madison County, being among the first settlers. In 1915, he gave an interview to The Winterset News regarding his recollection of that early settlement. That interview, revised into a narrative and edited for readability, follows.

We came from Maryville, Missouri, to Iowa, with ox teams. Nearly all the early settlers in this county came from north Missouri which had been settled for years. You remember how well this country was settled while northern Iowa remained a sea of prairie? Well, that was the way it was with southern Iowa then. The people did not commence to come here from straight east until we had been here for five years. There were four families of us from the same place in Missouri.

How did we find our way and how did we cross the streams? That was easy enough. The government had made a treaty with the Sacs and Foxes for this country and they were removed to Manhattan, Kansas. That year when the Indians went to Kansas they left a broad trail right down the divides. It followed the ridges. There was no difficulty in finding the trail. The Indians had worn it well. Probably they had used it always for they traveled much. We forded the streams and as we did not cross any large ones we did not have much difficulty. The bottoms of all the rivers of this country and northern Missouri were covered with heavy timber and in making their trails the Indians kept to the prairies. The main Indian trail did not come into Madison County. It crossed middle River south of Springhill and went over the ridge to Des Moines.

This was the Three River Country – – South River, Middle River and North River. It had a great reputation with us as a wonderfully fertile country before we left Missouri. Yes, I have heard they called the three Raccoons the Three River Country, but that was a mistake. Ours was the famous “Three River Country”, and the people who had seen it were enthusiastic over it. Madison County was known as Black Oak Grove to the few whites who had been through the country before we came.

There were plenty of Indians when we came. This country belonged to the Sacs and Foxes and the Pottawattomies. The Pottawattomies and Foxes seem to be together a great deal. The Fox Indians were the Mesquakies and they were short and rather heavy set Indians. The Pottawattomies were larger. The Mesquakies were here when we came. I learned their language and could once talk as well as I’m talking to you. Mesquakie means Fox. One time a big lot of them camped on Middle River west of Buffalo. Yes, that whole valley clear to the Backbone was then covered with timber. A few other whites were there before me. They tormented one Indian until he drew a knife and said he would kill them. They ran like good fellows and after they were gone I bought all the furs they had to sell. There must’ve been 300 furs in that bunch. Where did I sell my furs? At St. Joseph. There was no Kansas City then. St. Joe was our trading place. I used to go down every year or so.

Were there any Indian towns in Madison County? Not many. There was a big Pottawattomie town near Springhill in Warren County. There was a big Indian town on North River where the John Cox farm is. That was the Johnny Green band. The empty huts or teepees stood there for four or five years after we came. How were they made? Of lodge poles and elm bark. They took five or six poles or as many as they needed and crossed them at the top and covered them with elm bark. They stripped the bark in June. Some of the largest would be partly covered with cloth or skins but mostly they used the bark. There must’ve been a hundred or more of these teepees on North River. That bottom was not covered with timber. It was prairie and looked like it had always been prairie. They built all their lodges that way. They did not build like the Chippewas or the Northern Indians – – build an oval bark or skin hut.

Did they farm any? Mighty little. A little corn a few pumpkins, a patch of watermelons, and a few cucumbers were all they raised. They had no fields and only a few cultivated patches. What did they live on? Meat, game meat. I ate with them many times and all they had to eat was meat. I guess they ate meat year in and year out. Where did they get their salt? They had no salt. Of course there were plenty of nuts and wild plums and berries, but their main food was meat. I never could taste salt in their meat. They did not have it. They had horses – ponies. In the wintertime, when the snow came in, the ponies could get no feed, the Indians would cut down cottonwood trees and horses would live on cottonwood and buds.

How could all those Indians living in those one hundred huts kill game enough to live on if they lived exclusively on meat? Wouldn’t the game near the town soon get killed off? You have no idea what a game country this was. The deer were like sheep – – thousands of them. I could have killed enough meat for an army. There were plenty of elk but in a few years they went back to the pond country up in Dallas County. There were thousands of wild turkeys, but the buffalo were gone. Their bones – – plenty of them – – were here. We used to go hunting up Coon River after the elk got scarce and would bring back a wagon load of elk meat. We chased the elk into the ponds with dogs and then shot them down.

The Mesquakie Indians that lived here were rather short and heavyset. They went to Manhattan, Kansas, and afterward to a reservation below Fort Reilly, and then were sent on to the Indian territory. The first road to Des Moines was cut out or staked out by four of us. We started August 2, 1846, and staked the road clear to Des Moines. The man who ran a ferry over Coon River took us over free of charge when he found out what we were doing. The vote on the adoption of the Constitution was to be taken and all four voted, as we had a right to do.

The Indians burned all the country off in the fall. There were patches of grass left here and there on the prairies, and much in the woods. The Indians wanted the country burned so they could see the game better. There was no blue grass here when we came. It was a long time before we found out it could be grown here. We went down as far as Clay County, Missouri, after blue grass seed. It took a long time to get our folks to believe we could raise Timothy and clover.

There were thousands of prairie chickens in the county – – great packs of them, many more in winter than in summer. What did they live on if the grass was all burned? Well, mostly on wild rose seeds, I believe, but on any kind of seeds. We had many in the wild grasses. Our prairies in the spring stretched far away. It was a sea of grass but in season it was covered with flowers. You cannot imagine how beautiful a country this was in May and June. There were no quail here when we came. They came afterward. And there were no rabbits. I suppose the Indians and wolves cleaned them out and kept them cleaned out. It was three years before we saw a rabbit track.

There were many wolves – – the big gray wolf that barked, the fierce black wolf, the prairie wolf and the coyote. I never knew of an Indian killing a wolf. They never told me why. I think, however, they considered them sacred. When I would go to one of their camps I would see wolves sitting all around it. In the night they would sneak in and pick up what they could. I never saw an Indian kill any kind of snake. I think they considered them sacred too. I asked them why many a time, for snakes were common, but no one ever gave a satisfactory answer.

The Indians had many dogs. What kind? All kinds, big and little – – all curs. Some of them were crossed with wolves but most of them looked like these Eskimo dogs. When a dog got fat they would eat him. They wasted nothing. If they killed a muskrat or a mink for its fur, they ate it. The Indians did not scatter through the country like you would think. When they went hunting they all went. They never wantonly killed anything, fish or game. They ate everything of an animal, even its intestines. All that was left was the bone.

There were only a few black bears in the country. My brother, Jim, killed the biggest panther up north of Earlham, ever killed here. We sent his paws back to Indianapolis where they excited much attention. The next day after Jim killed that panther, Bilderback killed another close to the place where Jim got his. Howerton Creek got its name from a man who lived up there. He crippled a big black wolf and they had a terrible fight. He did not recover from it for a year.


Madison Documents maintained by Linda Griffith Smith.
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