Fremont County, Iowa

"The Earliest Days"
by Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of 20 October 2008

Over 65,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred, the first mammoths, that roamed through southwest Iowa, made a path along the western side of the bluffs. Their footsteps formed the start of what eventually became called, at various times, the Bluff Road, the Corridor Trail and, currently, the Loess Hills Scenic Byways.

We know those huge animals were in southwest Iowa, because their bones and tusks have been unearthed, at the rock quarry in the bluffs near Thurman, Iowa. Some of those bones and tusks are in the Fremont County Historical Museum in Sidney.

Over 13,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred, prehistoric humans lived in this area, for a Folsom point was found west of Sidney to indicate their presence. We learned that the Earth Lodge People lived here when 14 of their dwellings were unearthed during work on Horse Creek Road, west of Knox, not far from Jerry Birkby’s farm located on the Bluff Road. Remains of lodges have also been found in Waubonsie State Park. Those prehistoric people came up from the southwestern plains first to Fremont County and then into Mills County. Excavations done in some of their villages near Glenwood gave the people their name “Glenwood Culture.”

In 1714, the French explored the Missouri River for their government as far north as the Platte River. Explorers were going also up and down the Mississippi River. The east and west borders of Iowa were being mapped at the same time.

In 1803, Lewis and Clark stopped in Fremont County to canoe up both Nishnabotna Rivers and look around. Big Springs, near what later became Knox, was recorded by a number of explorers so some of them certainly walked what became the Bluff Road.

Native Americans walked the trail at the foot of the Loess Hills including those from the Ioways, Sioux, Otoe, Omaha, Sac, Fox, Winnebago, Chippawa, Ottawa and Pottawattamie tribes. Rings of soil blackened by their campfires, cold now for hundreds of years and more, dot the bluffs. Here and there folds in the wooded hillside shelter their burial grounds.

The French trappers and Mountain Men came into southwest Iowa in the early 1830s to form the first settlement known as the French Village. These men, and their Native American wives, lived just east of present day Hamburg.

Chief Waubonsie and his Pottawattamie followers settled near the Mills County-Fremont County line. The Mormon Battalion marched along the base of the hills, in 1846, on their way to San Diego and the Mexican War, pioneers traveled west, slaves scurried through in the dark on the Underground Railway, and John Brown and the immigrants headed for Kansas to help it become a free state. All added their footprints as they moved along or across the well-traveled trail.

The next time you drive along this Scenic Loess Hills Byways, think back to the animals and all those people who have, through the years, used this trail. What a history it has.

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Page updated on November 1, 2020 by Karyn Techau