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An Old Settler's Story - Jonathan C Conger


Posted By: Joanne Breen (email)
Date: 9/12/2023 at 13:32:43

An Old Settler’s Story

This story written by William Bragg won the prize offered by the Washington Chapter DAR in the recent historical essay contest; conducted by the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs and the State Historical Society. To stimulate greater interest in Washington the local DAR offered special prizes for the best stories.

I approached him rather timidly because he was an old gentleman with faltering steps and hair as white as snow, while I was just a boy looking for material for an essay on “An Old Settler’s Story”.
He was sitting on the porch of his beautiful Colonial Home. Its wide lawn magnificent in its setting of old trees, sun-dial and bird waterers. The scene made the foreground of the most beautiful flower garden I have ever seen.

“Yes, I was an Old Settler, come sit down and make yourself comfortable and I will tell some of the experiences I had when I was a lad about your own age.”

“I was born in New York, January 5th, 1819 and was named Johnathan Clark Conger. The “Jonathan” was for my father, and as far back as I know there has always been a “John” or a “Jonathan” in the family.”

My father died when I was just a small lad, and I was compelled to give up my school life at fifteen. I was bound out to a cobbler for five years. I worked hard for him three years. I was then eighteen and had mastered the trade so well that my boss decided to go to Massachusetts on a visit, leaving me with a large order of boots to make for a firm in Albany, New York, and telling me that if I’d get the boots done, while he was away, he would buy me the best suit of clothes his tailor could make. For fear the boss would forget his bargain I immediately ordered the suit myself when the boots were finished. I decided if I was competent to do his work while he was away, I could start in business for myself. So, putting my new suit, which was wonderful to a boy of my age, in my carpet bag, I started West.

Having a brother in Mansfield, Ohio, I’d probably go there, and bit by bit I had saved a little money and by walking most of the way I reached Buffalo, New York, where I took a boat through the lakes to Cleveland, Ohio, where taking my carpet bag in hand, I started to walk to Mansfield. When I was within about ten miles of there I came to a stream and taking off my travel warn clothes, I took a swim, put on my new suit, and sat down to wait for the stage which passed that way. It soon came and I rode to my brother’s home in state.”

“I secured a job at boot-making and while thus employed, met two young men who were longing to go West, to Flint Hills, now Burlington, Iowa. We got enough money together to buy a team and wagon and started in the spring of 1839. When we arrived, there seemed to be much excitement among the people, both Indians and Whites. Inquiring the cause of this were told two men had murdered an old German couple for their money. The murderers had been caught and were to be hanged that day. I was only eighteen and thought it would be quite exciting, after our uneventful journey, to see this hanging. I will never forget it as long as I live. It made me sick all over and my curiosity as to hangings was satisfied. This was the first hanging in Iowa.”

“I secured a contract that fall to make one hundred pairs of boots, and with the money, I purchased through the land office in Burlington four hundred acres of land at a dollar twenty-five cents an acre. The land was located in Jackson township in Slaughter County, now Washington County. When I came to look it over, I found a wonderful country, and was well pleased with the investment.”

I returned to Ohio with a wonderful story of the fertile soil, luxuriant growth of prairie hay, abundance of water and timber for houses and fuel. Surely this was a land flowing in milk and honey.”

The old gentleman settled himself in a little more comfortable position, a dreamy look came into his eyes as he hesitated for some time. I knew he had journeyed back through the years and I was content to wait, for I thought he would finish his story for me. He soon continued, “I met my wife then, she was Jane Sloan of Haysville, a town about fourteen miles from Mansfield. She was the daughter of Oliver and Jennie Carris Sloan. She was born September 30th, 1819, was just twenty-one when we were married December 30th, 1840. We were very young to brave the dangers and lonesomeness of the Pioneer life. We were living in comfort among our relatives and friends and to move to a strange country where everything even the mode of living was different, the neighbors mostly Indians, took a stout heart and nerves.”

“The main part of Slaughter County, was opened for settlement by the Blackhawk Treaty of 1832, but no one braved the dangers of wild animals and Indians to look for a home until the fall of 1835. Then come two men, Adam Ritchey and John Black, who were so impressed with the new country that they concluded to make it their home. Returning to Illinois they gave such glowing accounts that Ritchey, his brothers Matthew, and Thomas, and Mr. Humphrey arranged to emigrate. In the spring of 1836, they crossed the Mississippi on the ice at Burlington and came back to this county, selecting land near what is now Crawfordsville, Iowa. They all returned to Illinois except Adam Ritchey who stayed and built a cabin on the north side of Crooked Creek. While living alone he was taken sick with malaria and was found in that condition by a band of Indians who nursed him back to health. He later brought his family from Illinois.”

“The next Pioneers to come were John Mosteller, George Baxter, William Hunter, Thomas Baker, John Maulsby, Oliver Street, John B. Bullock, Mile Holcomb, David Goble and family and Richard Moore and sons. Bullock and Holcomb built a grist mill and trading post on Crooked Creek, south of what is now Washington City. Five hundred Indians were camped close by.”

“In 1839 Milo Holcomb returned to Monmouth, Illinois, married Rachel Jackson, a girl of seventeen and brought her back with him to his home in the wilderness. When they arrived at their cabin the Indians proceeded to make things interesting. They danced and howled and circled around the cabin and were pacified about sunrise only by being given a quantity of white flour. They were offended if offered corn meal as they had that of their own. History records this as the most unique and hair-raising reception ever given a bride.”

From 1839 until 1851 the County affairs were managed by a Board of Commissioners and from 1851 until 1861 by a County Judge. Enoch Ross being the first County Judge.”

“The site for the City of Washington was to have been selected by three men on June first, 1839, but when the time came only two of them, John Gilliland of Louisa County and Thomas Ritchey of Henry County arrived. After some discussion they compromised and selected the present site. The Board advertised for sale of lots for August 19th, 1839. Joseph Patterson acted as crier. The lot where the Colenso Hotel now stands sold for Seventy-Two Dollars. The one where the Temple Building stands sold to Thomas Ritchey for Sixty- Nine Dollars, and where Lemmon’s Pharmacy stands to Thomas Baker for Sixty-Eight Dollars. The east side of the square was offered for Three Hundred Dollars, but a slough ran thru it so it did not find a ready sale.”

The first settlement in the city was that of Joseph Adams on October 17th, 1839. He purchased two lots on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Jefferson Street, building a blacksmith shop and residence of logs. The first white child born in Washington was a daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Adams, September 22nd, 1840, she later married John Farra of Sigourney, Iowa. The first white child born in the County was Isabella Ritchey, June 12th, 1837. She was the daughter of Adam Ritchey. The first white male child is to have been Roll Organ, July 19th, 1844, he is still living in Chicago, Illinois. The first marriage was John Bullock and Nancy Goble by Adam Ritchey, early in 1837.
“Daniel Powers built the second house after Mr. Adam built his. This was used as a Tavern and stood on the south side of the square. Having a tavern and a black smith shop, it was time to expand, so early in 1840 John Daugherty established the first General Store in a part of the Tavern. My Boot Shop was on the north side of the square and my residence adjoined.”

"The first school to be held in Washington City was in a log cabin, which was in your grandfather, John Wesley Morton’s yard, it was taught by Miss Ashby. The first school in the country was on the claim of Thomas Baker near Crawfordsville, Iowa, with Martha J. Crawford, teacher”.

The first court house was built on the corner now occupied by the Pioneer drug store and was almost entirely made of walnut, this was completed in 1840 at a cost of Seven Hundred Fifty-Nine Dollars, and used until 1847 when a Court House was built in the center of the park: This stood until 1869.”

I could see by this time that the old gentleman was growing tired, but there were still the churches and railroads which had not been touched upon, so I asked him when the first church was held? ‘Oh, yes.” “The Methodist church was organized at the home of Will Harvey a mile and half southwest in Oct., 1839, but the Associate Reformed was the first organized in the city, it was afterward divided into the First Presbyterian and Seceder.”

“The first railroad train came into Washington September 1st, 1858.” A feast was spread in the park by the ladies of the town for two thousand visitors who came to see it.”

“That was a long time ago son, I think as I sit here alone, how the times and customs have changed. We came here in our youth, my Jane and I. We worked hard and raised a family of six children. My daughter Clara, who married Colonel Charles J. Wilson, lives with me. My Jane has been gone eight years and I will not be here long. Life has been full of ups and downs.”

I knew he was through: his story was ended. I lingered only long enough to thank him for a wonderful afternoon and this vivid description of the early life of the Pioneer.

“In the heart of the grand old forest,
A thousand miles to the West,
Where a stream gushed out from the hillside,
They halted at last to rest.
And the silence of ages listened,
To the axe-stroke loud and clear,
Divining a kingly presence,
In the tread of the pioneer.

He formed the prostrate beeches,
A home that was strong and good;
The roof was of reeds from the streamlet,
The chimney he built of wood.
And there by the winter fireside,
While the flame of the chimney roared,
He spoke of the good time coming,
When plenty should crown their board.

When the forest should fade like a vision,
And over the hill-side and plain,
The orchard would spring in its beauty,
And the fields of golden grain.
And to night he sits by the fireside,
In a mansion quaint and old,
With his children’s children around him,
Having reaped a thousand-fold.

Washington High School,
Washington, Iowa

Source: Washington Evening Journal, May 20, 1924

Transcribed by Deborah Johnson Wagner


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