Another IAGenWeb Project





AMONG the incidents of the winter of 1857 and 1858 may be mentioned the formation of a claim club. It will be remembered that the government surveys were not yet made, and that claims were held under the laws of the state, giving each person the right to defend his possession to three hundred and twenty, acres. Of course, it gave him no title to the land, but simply the right to defend his possession against everything but an adverse title. Under the provisions of the Dickinson County Claim Club, each inhabitant was entitled to two claims, one in his own name and the other in the name of some other party who was to settle upon, and improve it within one year from the time it was taken. According to the articles of association adopted, the club was to be under the command of a captain and two lieutenants, who were to call out the club when the assumed rights of any of the claimants were trespassed upon. The captain of the club at the time of its organization was William Carsley. The lieutenants were Charles F. Hill and J. D. Hawkins. The organization was short-lived and was never called into service.


The first postoffice in the county, and, in fact, the first one in all northwestern Iowa, was established at Spirit Lake in February, 1858, by the appointment of R. U. Wheelock as postmaster. Previous to this time most of the settlers had their mail addressed either to Fort Dodge or Sioux City and forwarded from there as opportunities presented themselves. There had been a semi-monthly mail route from Mankato to Sioux City, established as early as 1856, but it was not regularly carried until the winter of 1857. The contract was in the hands of, a Mr. Babcock, of Kasota, Minnesota, for which he received the sum of $4,000 a year, besides a government subsidy of one section of government land for each twenty miles of route in Minnesota.


A Mr. Pease, of Jackson County, Minnesota, had taken the contract of Babcock as subcontractor. He carried the north part himself, and sublet the south part from Spirit Lake to Sioux City to Jareb Palmer, as has been before stated. During the summer of 1858 this mail contract fell into the hands of two young men residing at Kasota, Minnesota, Orin Nason and Cephas Bedow, who run it until 1862. In addition to carrying the mail, which they did promptly and faithfully, they did numberless errands for people along the route. There was no store between Mankato and Sioux City, consequently there was no end to the little purchases they were required to make, and upon their weekly arrival their vehicle had much the appearance of a Yankee peddler's outfit—loaded down with articles "too numerous to mention."


When they commenced running the route there was no trail whatever between here and Peterson, so on one trip they took along a lot of bushes and set them along their route at such distances apart that they could easily see from one to the other. In this way they soon had a trail they could follow without difficulty. At one time while they had the route there came a heavy snow storm which rendered crossing the wide prairies with a light rig like theirs impossible. Bedow started with the mail as usual and got as far as the Norwegian settlement at the head of the south branch of the Watonwan when he found it would be impossible to get through. Accordingly he engaged a Norwegian by the name of Torson to make the trip. A person who has never seen a Norwegian on his snowshoes can have no idea of the rapidity with which they get over the road. All of the ravines and low places were filled with snow which had been packed hard by the strong wind, making the finest kind of a track for the long, slender "skees."


On this occasion Torson made the trip from Spirit Lake to Sioux City and return in five days, with the heavy mail sack strapped to his shoulders. The distance as then traveled was over one hundred and twenty miles, or for the entire trip near two hundred and fifty miles, or an average of fifty miles a day. Some days he must have made considerably more than this. He made a few more trips until the snow went clown so they could put their teams on again.


R. U. Wheelock continued in this position as postmaster at Spirit Lake until he left the county in 1861, when it was turned over to B. F. Parmenter, his brother-in-law, who performed the duties of the office until he left the county, a year or two later.


The Okoboji postoffice was established about a year after the one at Spirit Lake. G. H. Bush was the first postmaster, but as he left after a few months the office was transferred to M. J. Smith, who, after a few years, turned it over to J. W. O'Farrell. These were the only two postoffices in the county up to the time of the establishment of the Milford office about 1869.


The semi-monthly mail from Mankato to Sioux City was kept up until 1862, although other mail facilities were provided before that time. In 1859 a weekly mail was put on between Algona and Spirit Lake. Judge Asa C. Call, of Algona, had the contract, which he sublet to a Mr. Henderson, of the same place. Bob Henderson is well and kindly remembered by all the old settlers of that day. These routes were both discontinued in 1862, and a weekly route from Spirit Lake to Fort Dodge substituted in their place. This route was carried by John Gilbert and may be referred to again.


It will be difficult to give the minor events of the period now under consideration in anything like the order in which they occurred, and, indeed, except for the fact that they are the first, the commencement, of anything like civilized life in this new country, would be considered decidedly commonplace and not worth relating at all.


The first funeral services held in the county were at Okoboji in the spring of 1858. Daniel Poorman, a blacksmith from Newton, had commenced the erection of a shop at Okoboji, .and had it partly completed when one Sunday several of the boys were in bathing, he among the rest. He struck out some distance where he was seized with a cramp, and before they were aware of any trouble, he was past resuscitation. They recovered the body and did what they could to bring him to, but without success. The boys made a rude coffin out of such materials as could be found, and he was buried the next evening near the south end of the east shore of West Okoboji Lake.


Later on, during the same summer, a child of William Barkman was drowned while playing on the dock to which a boat was fastened. This was on the isthmus, near the old red mill. Mr. Barkman lived on the isthmus at that time, and was helping Peters get the old mill into operation. It was a singular circumstance, and one that occasioned a considerable remark at the time, that for three or four years after the first settlement of the county there were no deaths except by accident. But such was the case.


The first white child born in the county was Robert Wheelock Howe, son of Mr. and Mrs. O. C. Howe, born in February, 1858. The first girl, and second child born in the county was Dena Barkman, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Barkman, born in the summer of 1858.


In the spring of 1858 there was a reasonable amount of emigration. Many of those who had been here the previous year on prospecting tours, returned in the spring for permanent settlement, bringing their families with them. Other families also came on the representations of their friends. Prominent among those who brought their families here that spring were J. D. Howe, R. U. Wheelock, B. F. Parmenter, J. S. Prescott, Henry Schuneman, Henry Barkman, James Ball, Leonidas Congleton, Alvarado Kingman, William Barkman, George Ring, Philip Risling and several others. M. J. Smith and his sister, Myra Smith, came that spring. These, with those who wintered here, constituted quite a company and was the commencement of the formation of society in northwestern Iowa.


The young ladies belonging to the several families at that time were as follows: Misses Sarah and Mary Howe, Miss Belle Wheelock, Miss Myra Smith, Misses Mary and Emma Congleton, Miss Sarah McMillen and Miss Dema Adams. The number of young men here at the time was about thirty.


As has been before stated, the places claimed by Granger and his men remained vacant until this spring, when M. J. Smith made a claim on what is now known as Smith's Point, a couple of young men by the names of Dan Calwell and T. S. Ruff on what is known as Dixon's Beach, and Jareb Palmer on upper Maple Grove, now known as Omaha Beach. Cabins were built on most of the claims, and some farming was done this season. It seems like a wild statement now, but it is a fact nevertheless, that the greatest hindrance to successful fanning .at that time was the ravages of the blackbirds. No person who was not a witness to it can form any conception of the extent of the destruction possible to be wrought by a flock of healthy blackbirds.


Corn was the principal crop, as no machinery for handling small grain had been introduced into the country. The time when the blackbirds were the most destructive was when the grain was just coming out of the ground, or about the last week in May and the first two weeks in June. They would come in such clouds as to almost darken the sun, and lighting down on the mellow fields where the corn was just coming up, would destroy a large area in an incredibly short space of time. They have been known to destroy for one man an entire forty acre field in one day. And one great difficulty about it was that there was no way of keeping them off. Scare them up in one place and they would immediately light down in another and keep right on with their work of destruction. Shooting among them had no appreciable effect, but it was lots of fun for the boys and gave them good practice. Fred Gilbert, who has so long held the world's championship trophy, first acquired his wonderful skill as a wing shot by shooting blackbirds in his father's cornfield with an old muzzle-loader.


Effigies and scarecrows placed in the field had no effect whatever. Various schemes and devices were tried to circumvent them, but with indifferent success. Some claimed that soaking the seed in copperas water or in tar so as to give it a bitter taste kept them off, but about the only remedy that had any appreciable effect, and one by which many farmers saved a portion of their crops, was to scatter corn on their fields every day for the birds to pick up. By this means, and a continuous working of the corn until it was too large for them, a portion of the crop was saved for the time. But the farmer's tribulations were not by any means over when his corn was too large for them to pull or scratch up. Just when the kernel was forming, or when it was in "roasting ears," the birds were very destructive; nearly or quite as much so as in the spring. They would light on the ears, and stripping down the silks and the husks, would destroy the grain on the ear in a very short time. Many a man who had neglected to watch his field for a few days was surprised on going to it to find only a few dried cobs. Some farmers saved a portion of their crops by erecting several high platforms in their fields and keeping their children on them yelling, screaming, ringing cowbells and drumming on tin pans until they were completely worn out. This plan had one advantage, if no other; the children made all the noise they wanted to and nobody scolded them for it. The pest became so general that in the Eighth General Assembly Mr. Blackford of Algona, succeeded in getting a bill through providing for paying a bounty on blackbirds, which remained in force about four years, when it was repealed. The pest died out gradually as the country settled. As the area of tillable land was gradually increased, the birds scattered until their depredations were no longer noticeable.


The emigration during the summer of 1858 was not quite up to the expectations of the settlers, but was all that could have been reasonably expected under the circumstances. The summer was a remarkably wet one. Continuous rains had swollen the streams so as to render them almost impassable. The larger streams were out of their banks for weeks at a time, while the smaller ones, which were ordinarily nothing but little rivulets that one could step across, were now spread out to a width of several yards and swimming deep. As a matter of course, such a season was very unfavorable to emigration and settlement. To a person having had no experience in matters of this kind and unacquainted with the various devices and contrivances which were resorted to for crossing swollen streams and bottomless sloughs, it would seem to be an utter impossibility to make any progress whatever in the face of such formidable obstacles.


And yet the emigration of the summer of 1858 was made in the face of just such difficulties. Most of the travel was with ox teams, but very few horses being used at that time. Oxen were preferred on account of requiring so much less grain, and from the fact that all the care they needed was to be turned loose on the prairie at night, and they were, all ready to start again in the morning. It was customary to travel in small parties consisting of three or four or half a dozen teams, each team consisting of two to four yoke of oxen hitched to the proverbial covered wagon, or "prairie schooner," as it was then best known.


Each wagon was or should have been provided with a cable rope from seventy-five to one hundred feet long. In traveling, whenever a party reached a slough or marsh, or other place difficult to cross, it was customary to "double up" and help each other over. This was done by driving up as near to the slough as could be done without miring down, and then one or more of the boys would take two or three yoke of cattle, or as many as were needed, and cable enough to reach to solid ground on the other side and cross over. The cables were then rigged from the team and wagon on the one side to the teams that had crossed over, and as soon as everything was in readiness the signal was given to start, when by dint of much yelling and whipping, and some swearing, which, under the mitigating circumstances, wasn't usually considered a very serious offense, the other side was usually reached without any mishap other than a general bespattering of everything with mud and water. It was absolutely necessary after once starting in to keep going until solid ground was reached on the other side, since if by any unforeseen accident, a wagon should "mire down," it would keep settling and the black, sticky mud would settle in around the wheels until it would be impossible to extricate it in any other manner than by unloading and prying out, and this in two or three feet of mud and water was no picnic. This process had to be repeated with variations until every wagon was over.


In crossing streams that were too deep for fording, the method of procedure was somewhat different. It was customary to take the best wagon box in the outfit and caulk it, making it as nearly water tight as possible. Cattle are natural swimmers, and they seem to like it when they get used to it. They soon learn, upon arriving at a stream, to strike straight across .and make a landing upon the further side without any delay whatever. upon arriving at a stream too deep for fording the wagon box that had been fitted up for that purpose would be taken off and transformed into a ferry boat. A cable would be rigged to each end of it, when a boy would mount one of the oxen that had been trained for that kind of work, and swim the stream, holding the rope in his hand. Arriving at the opposite side, he would make fast his rope, turn his cattle loose and proceed at once to business, which was to ferry the balance of the party across. The first load to go over would of course be men enough to manage the ferry and take care of the goods as they were sent over. The wagons would now be drawn up to the bank of the stream, where they would be unloaded and their contents placed .aboard the improvised ferry boat, and drawn over to the further side by the men who had previously crossed over, and there unloaded again. The wagon box would then be drawn back and loaded and again sent over. This operation would be repeated .and re-repeated until the contents of all the wagons were over. Then the wagon boxes would be lashed down to the running gear and the wagons floated' over. The cattle would then swim across, the balance of the party be ferried over and the labor of crossing the stream finished.


The next job was reloading and repacking the wagons and getting ready for another start. It was no uncommon experience for a party, on arriving at the banks of a stream, to go into camp for the night and then spend the whole of the next day in crossing over and getting reloaded, and camp the second night on the opposite side of the stream. The experience described above was the rule and not the exception in the summer of 1858.


But this was not all. The financial crash of the previous year, which, by the way, was the most disastrous the country had ever known, was now being felt through the West with terrible severity. It became necessary to adopt a system of economy and self-denial, such as had not been experienced for many years previous and has not been known since. There was absolutely no money in the country. People residing in the older portions of the state well remember how utterly impossible it was at that time to raise money by any ordinary means. Nearly all of the banks in the country had failed, and, as there was then no provision for securing and redeeming the circulation, the bills became worthless. From the crash of 1857 to the breaking out of the war business was at a perfect standstill.


It was with the utmost difficulty that the commonest necessities of life could be secured, and all luxuries, and much of what is now deemed necessary to support existence, had to be wholly dispensed with. Such necessaries as tea, coffee and sugar, and, indeed, groceries of all kinds, were indulged iii by but very few, and by them but sparingly. Corn, wheat or barley was made to answer as .a substitute for coffee, while "prairie tea" was a very common beverage. This "prairie tea" was nothing more nor less than the leaves of the "red-root," that grew so plentifully on the wild prairie, treated or drawn in the same manner as ordinary tea. It was an astringent, and was said to have much the same effect on the human system .as the tea in ordinary use.


In the matter of clothing the same rigid economy had to be observed. Many were the men who wore moccasins made of rawhide, and pants made of grain bags, because they could get nothing better,—not worthless tramps; either, but men of education, energy and intelligence. It was no uncommon experience for families to live for weeks with no breadstuffs, except such as they could grind in a coffee mill, which, together with a little meat, milk, and game or fish, furnished their entire supply of provisions.