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History of Iowa

Volume I



By order of the War Department, May 19, 1834, Lieutenant-Colonel S. W. Kearny was directed to proceed with three companies of the First United States Dragoons to establish a post near the mouth of the Des Moines River.  He took Company B, Captain E. V. Sumner; Company H, Captain Nathan Boone and Company I, Captain J. B. Browne; with 107 men.  On the 26th of September they reached their destination, making their camp where Montrose now stands.  They immediately began the erection of log buildings and the post was named Fort Des Moines by order of the Secretary of War.


Colonel Kearny was ordered in March, 1835, to proceed up the Des Moines River to the Raccoon Fork and select a site for a military post in that vicinity.  He started on the 6th of June with 150 men of Company B, commanded by Lieutenant H. S. Turner; Company H, Captain Nathan Boone, and Company I, Lieutenant Albert M. Lea.  They were well mounted and followed a dividing ridge between the Skunk and Des Moines rivers.  Their line of march led through that section of Iowa now embraced in the counties of Lee, Henry, Jefferson, Keokuk, Mahaska, Jasper and Polk.  They camped at the mouth of the Raccoon River and spent some time exploring the country.  A party was sent out, under Captain Boone, which for two weeks rode over the beautiful prairies in a northwesterly direction, finally coming into the Des Moines Valley in the vicinity of Boone County.  Ascending the valley, on the 22d of June, they came to a river emptying into the Des Moines from a northeasterly direction.  It was named Boone, for the commander of the party.  From here they kept a northeasterly course along the divide between the Boone and Iowa rivers.  The party spent nearly tow months exploring the country, passing through Hamilton, Wright, Hancock, Cerro Gordo, Worth and other counties of northern Iowa.  They had seen few Indians until the 30th of June.  When in camp near the headwaters of the east fork of the Des Moines, they were suddenly attacked by a large part of Sioux warriors.  Being in the heart of the Sioux country, that fierce tribe determined to resist a march through their possessions.  Captain Boone made a successful defense until darkness put an end to the battle.  Knowing that his little company was far beyond the reach of reenforcements, he ordered a retreat and, during the night,  placed many miles between his command and the enemy.


By the 8th of August the expedition had returned to the Raccoon fork of the Des Moines River, where Colonel Kearny had established a camp and spent some time exploring the country north and west.  They visited a portion of the Raccoon Valley, followed down the Des Moines to a village of Sac and Fox Indians, under the chief, Appanoose, located where Ottumwa now stands.  here they found a population of about three hundred and fifty Indians, with fine cornfields under cultivation.


One of the officers of the command was Lieutenant Albert Me. Lea, who was a civil engineer and an accomplished draughtsamn.  He made a map of the region explored and to that added such information as he could collect from other sources.  He prepared and had published a map of the "Iowa District."  To accompany this map he published a little book with the following title:


The Iowa District,


Black Hawk Purchase.


Lieut. Albert M. Lea,

With Accurate Map of the District

Philadelphia, 1836."

This was the first book ever published descriptive of Iowa or the Iowa District, as it appears to have been called, for this trip was made before the Territory of Wisconsin was organized and the entire region was a part of Michigan Territory.  The following extracts are taken from Lieutenant Lea's book:

"The Iowa District lies between 40:  20'  and 43"  30' north latitude, and 18' 10' and 15' 15' west from Washington.  It is bounded by the Neutral Grounds between the Sauk and Sioux Indians on the north; by the lands of the Sauks and Foxes on the west; by Missouri on the south, and the Mississippi on the east.  It is one hundred and ninety miles in length, fifty miles wide near each end, and forty miles wide near the middle opposite Rock Island.  It is equivalent to a parallelogram one hundred and eighty by fifty miles, or nine thousand square miles, for 5,760,000 acres, including Keokuk's Reserve of 400 square miles.  The District is sometimes called the 'Scott purchase,' but more frequently the 'Black Hawk purchase.'

"From the extent and beauty of the Iowa River, which runs centrally through it and gives character to mot of it, the name of that river being both euphonious and appropriate, has been given to the District itself.  The general appearance of the country is one of great beauty.  It may be represented as one grand rolling prairie, along one side of which flows the mightiest river in the world, and through which numerous navigable streams pursue their devious ways toward the ocean.  In every part of the District beautiful rivers and creeks are found, whose transparent waters are perpetually renewed by springs from which they flow.  Many of the streams are connected with lakes, and nearly all are skirted by woods, often several miles in width, affording shelter from heat or cold to the wild animals of the prairies.  The character of the population settling in this beautiful country is such as is rarely found in our new territories.  With very few exceptions there is not a more orderly, industrious, energetic population west of the Alleghenies than is found in this Iowa District.  For intelligence they are not surpassed as a body by any equal number of citizens of any country of the world.


This District being north of Missouri is forever free from the institution of slavery, by compact made upon the admission of that State into the Union.  What would not Missouri now have been if she had never admitted slavery within her borders?  The Mississippi River is, and must continue to be, the main avenue of trade for this country; but there is a reasonable prospect of having a more direct and speedy communication with the markets of the East.  New York is now pushing her railroad from the Hudson to Lake Erie; it will then connect with one that is projected around the southern shore of that lake to cross Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, touching the foot of Lake Michigan in its route to the Mississippi River.  This will place the center of the Iowa District within sixty hours of the city of New York.  It is only a question of time when the business of this region will support such a road.


"Some of the most beautiful country of the world is lying immediately west of this District.  The Indians are now moving over to the Des Moines, finding the country along the Waubisipinicon, Chicaqua (the Skunk) and the Iowa no longer stocked with game, they are ready to sell.  The pressure of settlers along the border has already created a demand for its purchase.  The western boundary will soon be extended, and it is hazarding little to say that this district will have a population that will entitle it to admission among the States of the Union by the time the census of 1840 shall have been completed.  Taking this District all in all, for convenience of navigation, water, fuel and timber, richness of soil, beauty of landscape and climate, it surpasses any portion of the United States with which I am acquainted."


On the map accompanying this little book Lieutenant Lea has shown the territory now embraced in Iowa as it was then, 1835.  Very much of it at that time had never been seen by white men.  The southern boundary of the "Neutral Grounds" began at the Mississippi River nearly opposite Prairie du Chien and ran southwesterly to the Des Moines River near the south line of Webster County and the strip was about forty miles in width.  The Iowa River above the junction of the Red Cedar was called Bison, and the Cedar was laid down as the Iowa.  The Skunk was then the Chicaqua.  The following lakes were shown on the map:  Boyer Lake, Hahawa Lake, Clear Lake and Crane Lake.  The town of Iowa on the Mississippi River, near the mouth of Pine River, was regarded at this time by Lieutenant Lea as the most promising city of the district, and likely to become the Capital of the future State of Iowa.  He writes:


"Should the seat of government of the future State be located on the Mississippi River it will probably be fixed at Iowa, owing to its central position and commercial advantages.  But it located in the interior it must be near the Iowa River, and then the town of Iowa will be the nearest port on the Mississippi to the capital of the State.  There are some of the most beautiful sites for private residence on the river banks between Iowa and Rock Island that can be found anywhere."


This place was situated about ten miles up the river from Muscatine, at the mouth of Pine Creek.  In 1834 Benjamin Nye and a Mr. Farnam had established a trading post at that point, on "Grindstone Bluff," where for several years a large trade was carried on with the Indians.  But the prospective Capital of Iowa is now a farm.


The first record record to be found in which the name IOWA is applied to the section of country which became the State of Iowa, is Lieutenant Albert M. Lea's report and book of 1835-6 descriptive of the "Black Hawk Purchase," as he saw it while accompanying the exploring expedition.  He writes of it as the "Iowa District," as the Iowa River was the principal water course running through it.  The name seemed at once to meet with favor among its inhabitants, for we find, soon after, that a writer in the Dubuque Visitor, alludes to that part of Wisconsin Territory as the future State of Iowa.  In the following year when a convention assembled at Burlington to memorialize Congress on the subject of preemptions, the disputed boundary, and for a division of the territory, that portion of Wisconsin lying west of the Mississippi was called the "Iowa District."


The name of the Dubuque Visitor was soon after changed to the Iowa News.  In the summer of 1837 James Clark, of Burlington, gave his paper the name of the Iowa Territorial Gazette.  William L. Toole, who was a delegate to the Burlington Convention in 1837, says that it was there decided to give the new Territory the name Iowa, after other names had been proposed and discussed.  The name, however, was not used in the memorial asking for the organization of the new Territory, but was applied to it in the one on the subject of preemptions.  But by common consent before the act passed organizing the new Territory, the name Iowa given by Lieutenant Lea was accepted and to him must be accorded the honor of giving our State its beautiful name.


So far as can be ascertained the first time the name Iowa is found in any public records was in 1829.  At a session of the Legislature of the Territory of Michigan held in Detroit that year an act was passed and approved on the 9th of October by which all of the territory lying south of the Wisconsin River, west of Lake Michigan, east of the Mississippi River and north of Illinois, was formed into a new county, called Iowa, and the county-seat was located at Mineral Point.


A petition was sent in by the citizens of Mineral Point to Dr. William Brown, a member of the Council from Wayne County, praying for the establishment of a new county.  He presented it on the 14th of September and it was referred to the Committee on Territorial Affairs.  Henry R. Schoolcraft, the distinguished author of Indian books, who was a member of the Council, reported a bill to organize the county of Iowa, which became a law.  It cannot now be ascertained who drafted this bill, but it lies between Dr. Brown and Mr. Schoolcraft.  One of them undoubtedly suggested the name Iowa; but what the name signified, or from whence it was derived, will probably always remain an unsettled problem.


George Catlin, who became a famous Indian painter and historian, spent several months in Iowa during his tours among the Indians.  He made a trip up the Des Moines Valley about this time and thus describes it:


"The whole country that we passed over was like a garden, wanting only cultivation, being mostly prairie.  Keokuk's village is beautifully situated on a large prairie on the bank of the Des Moines River.  Dubuque is a small town of about two hundred inhabitants, all built within two years.  It is located in the midst of the richest country on the continent.  The soil is very productive, and beneath the surface are the great lead mines, the most valuable in the country.  I left Rock Island about eleven o'clock, and at half-past three I ran my canoe on the pebbly beach of Mas-co-tine Island.  This beautiful island is so called from a band of Indians of that name, who once dwelt upon it, is twenty-five or thirty miles in length, without a habitation on it, or in sight, and throughout its whole extent is one great lonely prairie.  It has high banks fronting on the river, and extending back as far as I could see, covered with a high and luxuriant growth of grass.  The river at this place is nearly a mile wide.  I spent two days strolling over the island, shooting prairie hens and wild fowl for my meals.  I found hundreds of graves of the red men on the island.  Sleep on in peace, ye brave fellows, until the white man comes and with sacrilegious plow-share turns up your bones from their quiet and beautiful resting place!  I returned to Camp Des Moines, musing over the loveliness and solitude of this beautiful prairie land of the West.  Who can contemplate without amazement this mighty river eternally rolling its surging, boiling waters ever onward through the great prairie land for more than four thousand miles!  I have contemplated the never ending transit of steamers plowing along its mighty current in the future, carrying the commerce of a mighty civilization which shall spring up like magic along its banks and tributaries.

"The steady march of our growing population to this vast garden spot will surely come in surging columns and spread farms, houses, orchards, towns and cities over all these remote wild prairies..  Half a century hence the sun is sure to shine upon countless villages, slivered spires and domes, denoting the march of intellect, and wealth's refinements, in this beautiful and far off solitude of the West, and we may perhaps hear the tinkling of the bells from our graves."


These descriptions of the county from 1832 to 1835, when Iowa was beginning to attract the attention of eastern people present a vivid picture of the beautiful prairies, rivers, valleys and groves before its soil was broken for cultivation and before its Indian population had removed from their favorite hunting grounds.


The first settlers upon the public lands found it necessary to establish rules and regulations for taking holding claims.  As the lands had not been surveyed, and were not yet in the market, there were no laws for protection of settlers in holding their claims.  It became necessary therefore for the pioneers to organize associations and establish such regulations as were required to protect their homes in the absence of law.  The claim laws, while not legally enacted, were founded upon the theory that a majority of the people had a right to protect their property by agreeing to such regulations as they deemed necessary to accomplish that object.

They proceeded to adopt certain rules and organized a Court of Claims.  The important features of the claim clubs were as follows:  the officers were usually a president, vice-president, a recorder of claims, seven judges or adjusters of the boundaries of claims, one of whom was an officer authorized to administer oaths, and two marshals.  A record was kept of the acts of all meetings, descriptions of all claims, and all transfers of claims.  It was the duty of the judges to decide all controversies relating to claims, settle all boundaries and make a return in writing of all acts and decisions.  The marshals were required to serve all processes, enforce all decisions of the claim courts and call upon members of the club to aid in the enforcement of its laws and decisions.  No person was permitted to take more than 480 acres of land, and he was required to make improvements on his claim within six months to the value of $50, and $50 worth of improvements each six months thereafter.

The decisions of this court were final, and as satisfactory as those made in modern times after expensive and tedious litigation carried through the various established courts of law.  The expense of adjusting disputed claims was very small, as parties and their witnesses appeared before the courts without legal process; no lawyers were employed, sheriffs were dispensed with and justice has never been so cheaply and equitably administered as in these early adjusted and decisions generally promptly acquiesced in.

Where claims had been staked out before government bounds were established, a record of such claims was kept in the various settlements.  When the land sales were made, each settler was by common consent entitled to secure his claim without competition.  Every bona fide settler was thus protected in his rights.  Where claims did not correspond with the surveyed lines the adjustments were made by the claim committees or courts.  A distinguished citizen who was one of the pioneers of that period said in later years:

"The law never did and never will protect the people in all their rights so fully as the early settlers protected themselves by these claims organizations."

Many of the early traders and trappers who made homes near the mouth of the Des Moines River married Indian wives, and their children usually adopted the habits of their Indian mothers as they grew up.  When the treaty of August 4, 1824, was made by William Clark with the Sac and Fox Indians, the following stipulation was made:

"The small tract of land lying between the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers is intended for the use of the half-breeds belonging to the Sac and Fox nation; they holding it by the same title and in same manner that other Indian titles are held."

This reservation embraced about 113,000 acres of choice lands, lying in the southeast corner of Iowa, in the county of Lee.  On the 13th of June, 1834, Congress passed an act authorizing the half-breeds to individually preempt, acquire title to and sell these lands.  A company was organized under a special act of the Territorial Legislature for the purpose of buying and selling the half-breed lands.  This tract had been divided into one hundred and one pieces, and the company had purchased forty-one of these tracts of land.  The treaty making the reservation was very indefinite in its terms, failing to designate the number of persons or the names of those entitled to the lands.  It was therefore impossible to determine who were the rightful owners, and those who purchased had no means of knowing whether the parties selling could convey good titles.

In order to settle the question of titles, an act was passed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature on the 16th of January, 1838, requiring all persons claiming title to file their respective claims with the clerk of the District Court of Lee County, within one year, showing the nature of their claims to title.  Edward Johnston, Thomas S. Wilson and David Brigham were appointed a commission to take testimony as to titles claimed and report to the court.  The lands not disposed of by the half-breeds were to be sold and the money paid to such half-breeds as could establish a claim to them.

Before any sale of lands took place the Legislature repealed the act under which the commission was preceding with its work.  The repealing act authorized the commissioners to bring suit against the owners of the lands for their compensation for services.  Suits were accordingly brought, judgments rendered in favor of the commissioners and 119,000 acres of land were sold by the sheriff for $5,773.32 to Hugh T. Reid to satisfy these judgments.  The sheriff executed a deed to Reid for the lands thus sold.

The Legislature had enacted  all providing that tenants in common on any lands of which they were in possession might bring suits for a partition thereof.  Under this law suits were brought in the District Court of Lee County by a large number of claimants, and their grantees, for partition of the half-breed lands among the respective owners.  Judgment was rendered for the plaintiffs and it was ordered that a partition of lands be made.  A commission appointed divided the lands into one hundred and one shares, which division was confirmed by the court.  The lands had been purchased of the half-breeds mostly by non-resident speculators, and but few of them were in actual possession.  A large number of settlers had entered upon the lands without title and were occupying them when this partition was made by order of court.

The Legislature of 1839 passed an act for the benefit of these settlers.  The act provided that any person who under color of title had settled upon the half-breed lands and made improvements, before being dispossessed, should be paid full value for such improvements.  The Legislature of 1840 passed a supplemental act, authorizing any settler on the half-breed tract who had an interest in, or title to land, to select not more than a section and hold such land until the title was finally settled.  A receipt for taxes paid on the land should be held as sufficient evidence of title to enable him to hold said land.  At the next session an act was passed to enable the settlers to have a lien upon the land for improvements made.  At the session of 1848 an act was passed permitting the defendant in an action for ejectment to raise a question of fraud in procuring title by plaintiff, whatever the nature of the title claimed might be, and the allegation of fraud should be investigated by the judge.  It was further provided for improvements had been deposited with the clerk for the court.

The Legislature in all of its acts inclined to protect the actual settlers upon the lands against the claims of speculators who were seeking to get possession of them.  But the Supreme Court decided that the act of 1840 could not be interposed against a title confirmed by the judgment of partition; that the act of 1840 became inoperative as soon as the title to the lands was settled by law.  The Supreme Court also decided that nothing in the act of 1845 could be held valid which would impair vested rights.  The court also decided that judgment could not be enforced against the plaintiff for value of improvements in excess of rents and profits for use of the land.  Litigation over the titles to these lands continued for many years, sometimes favoring one class of claimants and again favoring the adverse interest.

In 1845 a decision was made in the case of Reid vs. Webster (a settler) in the Territorial Supreme Court, Charles Mason, Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, judges, which confirmed the title of Reid to the entire half-breed tract of 119,000 acres for which he had paid less than $6,000.  But a judgment so manifestly unjust was not permitted to stand.  When the territory became a state, the Supreme Court was reorganized, John F. Kinney and George Greene having succeeded Mason and Wilson.  The court thus constituted, in another case brought by Reid to dispossess another settler, Wright, decided Reid's title to be invalid.  The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court where the decision was confirmed, setting aside Reid's title.

Judge Mason soon after purchased the New York Company's interest in the lands, and settled with the occupants upon fair terms, putting an end to the long years of litigation and uncertainty over the title to this valuable tract.


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