Henry County, IAGenWeb

Early Settlements

Portrait and Biographical Album of Henry County, Iowa
Chicago: Acme  Publishing Company, 1888.


Much has been written of the pioneers of the West, and many words of praise spoken, but too much cannot be said commendatory of the brave men and women who left homes in the East, where they were surrounded by every evidence of civilized life, together with friends and kindred, and came into a new and almost unknown country, redeeming it from the wily red man, and preparing it for their children and children's children that should come after. Little more than a half century ago that portion of Iowa, "the beautiful land," now comprising the wealthy county of Henry, was an unbroken wilderness, inhabited by wild beasts, wild fowls, and no less wily red men. Its forest had not resounded with the woodman's ax, nor its prairie been upturned with the plow. All was then as it came from the hand of the Creator.

All has now been changed. The trail of the red men is now laid with iron bands, over with speeds the locomotive with its train of palace cars, and in which daily are found representatives of almost every nation on the face of the earth. The wigwams and logs cabins have given place to palatial residences, find school-houses and elegant churches. The howl of the wild beast no more is heard, but in its place is heard the bleating of the sheep, the lowing of cattle, and the neighing of horses.

The pioneers of the country are but John the Baptist harbingers of a coming civilization. Like John, they go into the wilderness and prepare for others; smoothing the rough places, filling up the valleys, cutting down the mountains and straightening the paths. The work necessarily must be a laborious one, requiring strong arms and brave hearts for its accomplishment. Toil and privations must be endured of which those coming after them could have no real or just conception.

When the pioneers of Henry County first made settlement within its borders, there was no railroad west of Chicago, nor was there one reaching even to that city. Travel was made alone by ox or horse teams, most generally by the former, especially is long distances were to be traversed. To remove for the East required long and extensive preparations, and the journey was one of continued toil and anxiety, and even danger. The route lay through a wild and rough country; swamps and marshes were crossed with great exertion and fatigue; rivers were forded with difficulty and danger; nights were passed in the dense forests, with the earth for a couch and the trees and foliage for a shelter. Long, weary days and weeks of travel were endured, but finally their eyes were gladdened, and their hearts beat faster, when a vision of their future home burst upon them.

The firs thing upon arrival was to set about building a cabin. While this was being done the family slept in the wagons or upon the grass. Trees of a suitable and uniform size were selected, felled and prepared for their places. The day for the raising was announced, and from far and near came other pioneers to assist in the labor. The structure went up a log at a time, those engaged in the labor stopping now and then to "wet their whistles," and soon it was ready for the clapboard roof, which was held on by huge weight poles. A door and a window were cut where the good wife directed, a chimney built, and building was ready for its occupants. The space between the logs was filled with split sticks of wood called "chinks," and daubed over, both inside and out, with mortar made of clay. The floor was sometimes nothing more than earth tramped hard and smooth, but was commonly made of puncheons or split logs, with the split side turned upward. The roof was made by gradually drawing in the top to the ridge pole, and on cross pieces laying the clapboards which being several feet long, were held in place by weight poles, reaching the entire length of the cabin. For a fireplace a space was cut out of the wall on one side of the room, usually about six feet in length, and three side were built of logs, making an offset in the wall. These were lined with stone, if convenient, if not, then earth was used. The flue, or upper part of the chimney, was built of small split sticks, two and a half to three feet in length, carried a little above the roof and plastered over with clay, and when finished was called "cob and clay" chimney. The door space was also made by cutting an aperture of the required size in one side of the room, the door itself being made of clapboards secured by wooden pins to the cross pieces. The hinges were also of wood, while the fastening consisted of a wooden latch catching on a hook of the same material. To open the door from the outside, a strip of buckskin was tied to the latch and drawn through a hole a few inches above the latch-bar, so that on pulling the string the latch was lifted from the catch or hook, and door was opened without any further trouble. To lock the door it was only necessary to pull the string through the hole to the inside. Here the family lived, and here the guest was wayfarer were made welcome. The living room was of good size, but to a large extent it was also kitchen, bedroom, parlor and arsenal, with flitches of bacon and rings of dried pumpkins suspended from the rafters. These simple cabins were inhabited by a kind and true-hearted people. They were strangers to mock modesty, and the travelers seeking lodging for the night, or desirous of spending a few days in the neighborhood, willing to accept the rude offerings, were always welcome, although how they were disposed of at night can scarcely be imagined.

The pioneers of Henry County were from many of the States of the Union. Before leaving their Eastern or Southern homes some of them had heard of what was in store for them in this "beautiful land." Others struck out with the determination to go until they came to a section of country that would suit their varied tastes. A better country they could not have found, a country where Nature has scattered her choicest blessings with a liberal hand. With a plentiful supply of timber, with a prairie soil that "need only be tickled with a hoe to laugh with the harvest," the pioneers of Henry County made their claims, commenced their improvements, and prosperity attended them.

By the treaty with Black Hawk in 1832, at the close of the Black Hawk War, a portion of the territory now comprising the State of Iowa was thrown open for settlement. The county of Henry was a part of the territory acquired by that treaty. The treaty was made in September, 1832, but did not go into operation until June 1, 1833. A few venturesome spirits crossed the river near Burlington prior to that time, but were driving away by soldiers of the General Government from Rock Island. Scarcely had the last hour passed when many who had been anxiously waiting the time crossed over the Mississippi River and began to make their claims in what is now Des Moines County. Being permitted to claim as much as they could pay for, it was not long before all the choice land of that county was taken up, and those who came later were required to push on farther West, and in due time Henry County secured its first settler. To James Dawson the honor is given of making the first permanent location in this county. He staked out a claim one and a half miles west of the site of Mt. Pleasant, in the spring of 1834. He was followed during that year by several other persons, among whom were Presley Saunders, Z. Wilbourne, W. B. Lusk and others. Mr. Saunders and Mr. Lusk are yet honored citizens of Henry County, have not only lived to see the changes that have been made, but have been active participants in almost every enterprise that has been for the advancement or improvement of the county. At the time of the first settlement, Iowa formed a portion of Michigan Territory. Two years afterward the Territory of Wisconsin was organized and it then became a part of Wisconsin. Two years later Iowa Territory was formed, and in 1846 it was admitted into the union of States. The first settlers of Henry County were thus citizens of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Presley Saunders relates that he had one child born in Michigan Territory, one in Wisconsin Territory, one in the Territory of Iowa, and one in the State of Iowa, all being born on the same quarter-section of land.

Henry County during the first few years settled up quite rapidly. Farms were opened, schoolhouses and churches were erected, mills were built, marriages solemnized, and births and deaths occurred. The first birth is supposed to have been that of T. S. Box, born near the site of Lowell, in Baltimore Township, in December, 1835. The first death was probably the result of an accident. In 1835 a man named Pullman was found dead near the site of the Hospital for the Insane, with his rifle by his side. He was from Indiana, and had been in this section but two or three months. The first marriage license was that granted to Presley Saunders and Huldah Bowen. The license was granted Dec. 17, 1936.

Transcribed by Conni McDaniel Hall for Henry County IAGenWeb, November 2014.


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