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Iowa Historical Record Quarterly

Published Quarterly by the State Historical Society, Iowa City, Iowa


VOL. XIV. October, 1898. No. 4


     John Huff, the first white man to enter Jefferson County, Iowa, was lured, like Paul Hover, in Cooper's "Prairie," beyond the advance guard of civilization in search of wild honey. The primeval forests, bordering on Skunk River, Cedar Creek, and smaller streams, were marvelously stored with honey, and in company with five other young men, early in 1835, Huff made his first acquaintance with these undisturbed riches. Returning to his home, near Beardstown, Illinois, he made a second venture into this paradise of the bee hunter, carrying with him a few rude tools with which to make casks for holding the honey as he should gather it. The winds of November warned him to return to Illinois, and loading his venture, which was three barrels of honey, into a canoe, he began a journey down the tortuous Skunk River, to a market in Illinois. Unluckily his canoe capsized at a point on the river where Rome has since been built. His rifle, belt, with ammunition, and two casks of honey sank in water fifteen feet deep, the third cask not being entirely full, floated and was recovered. Several hundred Indians were camped nearby, and Huff hired one of them to dive for his gun and ammunition, promising him a dollar if he succeeded in recovering them. After two or three ineffectual attempts and only succeeding in getting the belt and powder-horn he desisted on account of the coldness of the water. Huff proffered him the dollar, but he said it would not be honest to take pay for what he had failed to do and would only take half a dollar. Huff's intercourse with Indians proves the truthfulness of Cooper's descriptions of their character; when trusted as equals, they never failed in manliness. Having recovered, the cask of honey with a few branches off a tree, Huff started barefooted as he was, to walk to Burlington, fifty miles, to get grappling irons with which to recover his submerged treasure. On the way he overtook a man with an ox team and traveled with him two days; so slow were the oxen, and the nights were so cold that Huff would remain beside the camp-fire until the frost melted before starting.
     At Burlington, Huff got a pair of shoes and other necessary supplies, and grappling irons of Mr. Sullifant Ross, who was engaged in a general merchandise business at that place, since 1833. In a former communication to the HISTORICAL RECORD I referred to Sullifant Ross' coming to Burlington with his father, William Ross, who served in the Royal Army of the Revolutionary War. Let anyone begin a history of a county and he will be struck with the recurrence of certain names, and will be dull indeed if he does not see a resemblance in such a narrative to the life of an individual. Ross knew nothing whatever of Huff, but he at once supplied all his wants. Such manly confidence in the barefooted youth, for he was but twenty years old, was held in grateful remembrance by Huff through all of his long life. Ross was born in Kentucky, and it might have had some weight with him, that Huff too, was from the same State, having been taken from Virginia when a boy. Huff's father was an itinerant wheelwright in Virginia, going from farm to farm to farm repairing carts and wagons, often taking his family with him.
     On one of these journeys he was employed by Daniel Howell, of Montgomery County, where on May 11th, 1811, John Huff was born. Two sons of Daniel Howell found their way to Jefferson County, also, and a large number of their descendants are respected citizens of the county.
     Early in the spring of 1836 John Huff returned to Jefferson County and pitched upon a tract of land for a home, built a cabin and went back to Illinois and was married. Bringing his young wife with him, he found, when he came to where his cabin should have been, that a fire that had probably been kindled by Indians, had consumed it, and a man by the name of Lambrith had built his cabin on the same spot. Huff went on several miles farther and as he still had the whole land before him, he had no trouble in finding a satisfactory home. Summer was here before the rude cabin was completed and all the crop that it was possible to grow was a few vegetables and melons. Huff was compelled to subsist almost wholly on the chase, and his ammunition running short he traded watermelons to Indians for powder, but his chief reliance was upon honey, for which he found a market at Carthage Illinois.
     The writer has often heard Huff tell of one of his adventures in chopping a "bee tree;" as it introduces three other pioneers of the county it may be worth while to relate it. In the summer of 1837, Huff found a colony of bees in a tree, some miles from his home, and at once began to chop it. The ringing blows of his axe were heard by a man who had taken the land for his, on which the tree stood, named Schneringer. Schneringer was of German extraction, but having been conscripted when a mere boy, he served in the French army in Spain, and at the battle of Vittoria was made a prisoner with a great many more of Marshal Jordan's army, and of King Joseph Bonaparte's household, too; Joseph barely escaping, so complete was Wellington's victory. The English did not burden themselves long with guarding Schneringer as a prisoner, but compelled him to enter their ranks as a British soldier, and at the close of the war in Europe he was sent to Halifax, and while there, he succeeded in escaping into Maine, wandering many days almost without food, for several days living on a cat that he was lucky enough to find, and which he often declared to have been the sweetest food he ever ate. However, he reached an American settlement, and his forlorn condition won the pity of a widow named Simmons, whose pity warmed to love and she married him. With one of his step-sons, Nathaniel, he had found his way to Iowa, walking all the distance from St. Louis, and afterwards bringing his wife and other members of his family to the home found for them in Iowa. Schneringer was a small man, of a lively disposition, and of an unusually quick temper. He was accompanied by the above named step-son, Nathaniel, and a boy named George Flanders, for whom Schneringer made a home. As soon as Schneringer came within hearing of Huff, he began assailing him with his broken "Dutch," for that is perhaps the best description of his speech, having forgotten his boyhood German, and not mastered the English. It is said that the 12th Illinois and 81st Ohio, at the battle of Atlanta, were at a critical moment beginning to show signs of running away, when General Mersey, a German, encouraged them so vigorously, that they not only held their ground, but contributed materially to winning the battle; afterwards a member of one of the regiments was asked why they recovered the line, and he said, the men felt that they would much rather face the enemy than hear Old Mersey's broken Dutch oaths. However, Huff was utterly indifferent to Schneringer's angry salute and went on with his chopping as if no one was near. Huff was a powerful man of upwards of six feet three inches in height, and while young Simmons was of equal, if not greater height, he was of much slighter build, and withal of a peaceable disposition. Young Flanders, who still lives at Lockridge, the only one of the four that survives, was always of a quiet, peaceable disposition. Finding that his attack was ineffectual Schneringer began a parley with Huff, and finally gave him a dollar and a half for the tree. It proved to be a very weak colony, the hollow being quite small.
     The writer was well acquainted with all the parties in this episode, and, as above mentioned, George Flanders is the only one left to laugh over it. Schneringer and the good widow, Simmons, who married him, lie in the Lockridge Cemetery. He is no doubt the only man who served under both Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, that found his way to Iowa. A grandson of his (though of a second marriage), Carl Schneringer, is now in the Philippines, a member of a Nebraska regiment. Simmons died a year ago, in Nebraska, having become quite rich. Schneringer went to California, in 1850, accompanied by George Flanders, and he too acquired a large farm before he died.
     After living more than sixty years in Jefferson County, Huff died in Fairfield, in October, 1896, upwards of eighty-four years of age, and lies buried in the Bethesda Cemetery.


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