Fremont County, Iowa

Overall History

Source:"Images of America, Fremont County", Used with Permission of FCHS.
Copyright 2011
ISBN 978-0-7385-8312-9

Before any men left a footprint on the land, forces were shaping what would become Fremont County, Iowa. The prominent land feature in the county is the Loess Hills, located no farther than 15 miles east of the Missouri River channel. These hills are the first rise in land beyond the floodplain, something of "front range" for the county.

According to Wikipedia, during the last ice age, glaciers advanced into the area, grinding underlying rock into dust-like glacial "flour". As temperatures warmed, the glaciers retreated, and vast amounts of melt water and sediment flooded the Missouri River valley. The sediment was deposited on the floodplain, creating huge mudflats. As they dried, the fine-grained silt was picked up by strong prevailing winds. The heavier, coarser silt was deposited close to the Missouri River floodplain, forming vast dune fields. The dune fields (Loess Hills) were eventually stabilized by grass.

The land is affected by a changing climate zone. To the east, abundant precipitation allows forests to grow. To the west, a drier climate results in expanses of grassy plains. Fremont County is part of a band where there is a change from the forests in eastern Iowa to the grasslands in Nebraska. It manifests itself in this county with grass growing on west-facing slopes and areas of trees on the eastern slopes of the hills. Early descriptions describe prairies with timber along the stream banks. Lastly, the drier climate resulted in frequent fires, which favored the growth of grasses.

The first people to use the land are traced to the Glenwood culture. These prehistoric people used the Platte River for navigation and spent summers in the Loess Hills. Today, there are many identified prehistoric burial sites in the hills. Later, the Lakota Sioux, some of whom had married French Canadian trappers, visited the area via the Platte and Missouri Rivers coming in from the Dakotas. But mostly this was an area that did not have Native Americans as permanent residents until Chief Waubonsie brought his followers to this county.

White men entered the area in the early 1800s. Lewis and Clark write about Fremont County in their journals. We know from these journals that they went up the Nishnabotna River for a few miles. The Missouri River allowed early access into this area from St. Louis and points east. By the 1830s and 1840s, settlers were moving into the area. They found rich farmland. There were rivers and streams such as the Nishnabotna that allowed them to travel inland from the river. Located close to St. Joseph, Missouri, the pioneers could expect the arrival of supplies either via overland hauling or being freighted up the Missouri River. Plentiful creeks provided waterpower for mills to produce flour.

Farms were established in clusters by families that had traveled together. This brought about a need for services, usually the first being a post office that was located in a family home. Sometimes the area would pick up enough population to support a school and perhaps one general store. Church services were important and generally held in a building that all could reach.

Only a few of these early settlements went beyond one or two stores. Knox, McPaul, and Barlett were among the exceptions. Communities like Knox generally faded in the early 1900s. The next wave of towns developing in the mid-1850s fared better. The three communities of Tabor, Sidney, and Hamburg started at this time and still maintain an importance in the county. Each of these towns started for a reason, and it was not just a matter of a few people living in an area needing services.

Tabor was a result of early settlers looking for a place that was environmentally more friendly than Civil Bend on the Missouri River. They were searching for a place to worship and to also build a college. These men and women made it a mission to assist John Brown in his efforts to help slaves escape to freedom. One dominating theme in the history of Tabor is strong religious beliefs.

Sidney was at the crossroads of the county. It started in the mid-1800s because of the high number of travelers that ventured through the vicinity. Early hotels entertained a president and many superstars from that era. Eventually it became the county seat and remains vital because of county government.

Hamburg started because of its proximity to the Missouri River. The Hamburg landing was the place where river travelers entered the county. Hamburg went on to develop a thriving business economy that is still functioning today. More large businesses are in Hamburg today than elsewhere in Fremont County.

Lastly, there are six communities that started later in the 19th century and came about because of the railroad or its influence. Percival, Randolph, McPaul, and Farragut were settled because of the railroad. Thurman, while not on the railroad tracks, thrived because of the influence of the rails. Riverton started before the railway arrived, but it was the railroad that kept the town viable for many years. Imogene, while located on the railroad tracks, has a history that was influenced by St. Patrick's Catholic Church and the immigration of the Irish. All of these communities were supported by a thriving agricultural economy. During the early 1900s, Fremont County growers were supplying food products directly to the tables of residents in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Joseph, Missouri. Cattle flourished on the grasslands. Crops, especially on the Missouri River bottomland, produced bountiful harvests. The railroad stations shipped thousands of animals and thousands of bushels of grain.

The county is in the southwest corner of the state of Iowa. It is bordered on the south by the state of Missouri and on the west by the Missouri River. Standing on the highest bluff in Waubonsie State Park and looking southwestward, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and a corner of Kansas can be seen. The county's very location means there was early exploration, and the area was settled before the central part of Iowa.

This place belonged at various times to England, France, and Spain before it was purchased in 1803 by the United States. In their journal, Lewis and Clark wrote about paddling up the two rivers that bisect the county. In the early 1830s, the first community in the county was the French Village, east of what became Hamburg. It was settled by mountain men and fur traders, many of whom had Native American wives. By 1834, Joe Brenard ran a ferry at Hamburg Landing. Augustus Borchers opened a store at the foot of the bluffs, where he served Native Americans and wagon trains. In 1836, Maj. Stephen Cooper, sent as an agriculture agent to the Pawnee Indians, settled at Big Spring. Soon stagecoach lines were running near Cooper's home as passengers and freight were carried between St. Joseph and Kanesville (now Council Bluffs).

In 1840, the McKissick brothers settled in an area east of present day Hamburg. Named after Maj. John C. Fremont - explorer, military expert, and geographical scientist - Fremont county, Iowa, was formed in 1846. For a time, part of the county was in Missouri, then in 1848 surveyors moved the Missouri line south making McKissicks's Grove part of Iowa.

African Americans came into the county via the Underground Railroad. When M. U. Payne arrived in Hamburg in 1859, he brought with him as free people his African American workmen and women. So it was here, in the center of the United States, where people from many cultures and many lands came to add their energy to help build this beautiful place.

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