IAGenWeb Project

Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project


Join the IAGenWeb Team



Iowa Historical Record Quarterly

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


VOL. XV. April, 1899. No. 2


     Any effort to reproduce events "of long ago" meets with great difficulties; either the present generation is unacquainted with conditions that surrounded that former day, or the occurrences are so meager that the coloring is vague and imperfect.
     While Sullifand Ross came in contact with all of the pioneers of Jefferson County, very few of these pioneers remain to this day to tell of their acquaintance with him, and very few of the happenings of those early days were committed to writing or to the "art preservative."
Some mention has been made of the marriage of Dr. Wm. R. Ross, at Burlington in 1833, and of the interest felt by the entire community in that wedding. No less interest was felt by the neighbors of Isaac Blakely and Nellie Lanman, who were the first to wed in Jefferson County, in 1837, at the home of the bride's parents, who lived where Wm. Case, of Round Prairie township, now lives.
     Mrs. W. W. Stewart, of Glasgow, then a young girl, was at the wedding, her father, Alfred Wright, taking his family on a sled, although the ground was bare of snow. An incident in preparing the feast was that there were no preserves or sweetmeats in the community, and it was felt to be a reproach on the housekeepers who had the dinner in charge; and to meet the want, wild crab apples were hastily preserved in a tin coffee pot. So early in the history of the county had the settlers acquired a love of good living.
     Since that day no housekeeper feels contented with her lot if she is unable to place at least two kinds of preserves or sweetmeats before a guest. No doubt a love of a full board was introduced by the Virginians and Kentuckians; and it has been a subject of remark that the original inhabitants of a country give customs and characteristics that subsequent years seldom obliterate.
     The first white inhabitants came to Iowa before the machinery of laws could be set up, and for a while there was absolutely a state of anarchy existing, every man doing that which seemed good in his own eyes. In an address before the Old Settlers' association of Jefferson County, Judge C. D. Leggett eulogized the men who, without laws, were a law unto themselves, so much so that at no subsequent time have life and property been more respected.
     The people who took possession of the lands before the legal authorities were prepared to give titles were called "squatters," and no doubt it was largely due to their comparatively small number that there was so little violence and dishonesty to trouble them. But at Burlington, in 1834, there was already a considerable population, and it was very evident to many persons that anarchy would not do, and Sullifand Ross was asked to draw up a set of provisional laws, or perhaps it would be more correct to call them "by laws," for the orderly conduct of life until a settled state of affairs could take their place. This he did, and Mr. Ross's laws were not only respected as if they had authority, but they met all the needs of a community.
     That this want of settled laws was not a light matter, may be inferred from the trouble that was met by this first couple that was married. Blakely got a license to wed in Des Moines County, but fearing that there was some illegality in it, they were soon after re-married, and even then, lest there were some informality in the marriage, they were married a third time. By this time the first territorial legislature had met at Burlington, and it legalized all marriages preceding its assembling.
     In the second territorial legislature Dr. Wm. R. Ross was a member for Des Moines County. One cannot go far in the history of Iowa without meeting with mention of the ' Black Hawk Purchase." This is the title that was given to a strip of land on the west side of the Mississippi river, fifty miles wide, that was purchased of an Indian chief named Black Hawk. This Indian chief had been much wronged by the white inhabitants of Illinois, and like the worm that is trodden on and turns, so he at length turned on his persecutors and began a war, in which a number of white men were killed. At the time of this Indian outbreak John Huff was chopping cordwood on Spoon river, in Fulton County, Illinois, and rafting it down to the Illinois river; and he saw hundreds of terror-stricken inhabitants of the country from about Rock Island fleeing for safety from the bloody Indians.
     It is safe to say that if men like Mr. Ross had dealt with Black Hawk, there would have been no outbreak, for savage as were the Indians, many of them, particularly their chiefs, were men of honor and of great breadth of character. The white man wanted the lands of the Indian, and it seemed more honest to call it a purchase by which he came into possession of the lands than to call the transaction by any other name.
     To prove how hopeless it was for the Indian to resist the wishes of the white man, Black Hawk and a number of Indians were taken from city to city, by President Van Buren's direction, that they might be able to judge of the overwhelming number of white men there were to contend with.
     The late James A. McKemey, of Fairfield, saw this company of Indians at Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1837.  Mr. McKemey was looking at the stage coach that was coming into the town very heavily laden. There were eleven Indians in the stage, and an interpreter, who was riding by the side of the driver. Mr. McKemey's attention was given to the strange conduct of the driver. In 1837 the brake-lock to wagons had not been invented, and it was necessary to stop and chain a wheel before descending a hill. Stage coaches seldom stopped to chain a wheel, but trusted to the strength of the breast straps of the wheel horses to control the speed in descending a hill. In this instance the strap on one of the horses had broken, and the street being very steep the driver endeavored to control the speed by cramping the wheels, and thus breaking the descent, just the reverse of what a ship does when tacking against the wind. Mr. McKemey saw that the driver would be unable to carry out his intentions and that the coach must upset, and sure enough just as it came opposite him, it lost its balance and emptied its load of Indians, driver and interpreter at Mr. McKemey's feet. One of the Indians leaped to his feet and in an excited manner exclaimed, "This breaks the contract, this breaks the contract." He was Black Hawk.
     In 1839 Mr. McKemey was at the Indian village opposite Iowaville, and the interpreter introduced him to young Black Hawk. The young chief could not converse in English, but when he learned that Mr. McKemey had seen the accident to the stage coach, of which he had heard, he became very friendly and affable. His demeanor was that of a refined and polished gentleman. Black Hawk died in 1838, and his people buried him fully equipped for the warpath, in a sitting posture. A certain Dr. Turner of Keokuk, conceived the detestable scheme of stealing the chief's body and of obtaining money by exhibiting it. After exhuming the body he boxed it and hired Robert Moore, now a well-to-do farmer of Glasgow, but then a young man living at Lexington, on the Des Moines river, to take the box to Keokuk for him. Moore was going with an empty wagon, to procure a load of merchandise for a man named Sinnard, and took the box to Keokuk, entirely ignorant of what it contained. When Turner reached St. Louis with his ghoulish capital, he found himself despised by all classes. The Indians grieved so much over the loss of their great father that the government officials interested themselves in recovering the remains, with the intention of restoring them to the Indians, but they were committed to the keeping of a doctor in Quincy, Ill., who forwarded them to J. C. Hall of Burlington, who placed the box in the care of Dr. Hicox, but they were unfortunately consumed in a fire that burned the office, and of course could not be returned to the Indians.
     This entire transaction is of a piece with much of the dealings of the white man with the Indian.
     It is not an easy task to describe the shifts which the pioneers practiced to supply themselves with sawed boards. To build a house without a solitary piece of its material receiving shape but from the woodman's ax would seem a task for Robinson Crusoe, but it was the first labor that confronted the pioneers. Logs were hewed and joined from the ground to the top of the gable; poles, that served for rafters were built into the gable ends on which were laid the clapboards, that were again held in place by other poles weighing them down, and the floor made of puncheons, that is of planks hewn out of a tree that had been split across, and one side smoothed with the ax. When one takes into account all of this labor, and the very moderate result, in many instances, he cannot but understand what a relief was felt, when the sawmill made it possible to supplement much of this rough workmanship by the use of boards at the gables of the houses, of sawed flooring, doors, and many minor parts of the rude cabins. A house of this improved workmanship, built by Rhodham Burnifield, in 1838, the year that Ross brought the saw-mill to Brush Creek, is still habitable, being the residence of Squire Rizor, of Glendale.



back to History Index