Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part I

Historical Narrative






Westward Migration


            A glance at the history of the Quakers in America reveals the fact that in this country they have been pioneers—a fact which is of immense importance in interpreting their annals. Whether this is due to the mystical nature of their religion or to the spirit of the new world—a spirit of the new world—a spirit which has always been characterized by a craving for greater and greater expansion—is difficult to determine. Both influences have no doubt been at work, and as a result the one hundred thousand Quakers in America are scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

            Before following the westward movement of the Friends it may be well to note the fact that an important change had taken place within the Society before the opening of the nineteenth century. During the early period, when the Friends were face to face with persecution both in England and America, they displayed a most remarkable vitality. They produced powerful ministers in great numbers, who, fired with an intense missionary zeal, traveled far and wide proclaiming their message, and literally tens of thousands were thus brought into the Quaker fold. But within ten years after the death of George Fox, which occurred on the 13th day of November 1690, there was an apparent decline in the vitality of the Society. In America the aggressive spirit of propagandism seems largely to have expended itself on the eastern seaboard. As the fires of missionary zeal burned low, a new movement set in—a movement destined to mould and fashion more than any other force the history of the Quakers on this continent—namely, westward migration.

            The first striking evidence of this migratory tendency made its appearance in the southern colonies. “As the meetings in eastern Virginia are the oldest under consideration,” says one writer, “so they are the first to decline. “Quakers seem to have disappeared form Norfolk County before 1700. They had no doubt ‘gone West.’”(28) The same stirring was to mbe noticed among the North Carolina Friends as they began to shift towards the West and South. Then came a larger movement which has been called “The Replanting of Southern Quakerism.” Large numbers of Quakers from Nantucket, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania now poured into the Southland, settling in Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia. This migration, which threatened to change the very complexion of the southern colonies, stopped it has been said, “almost as suddenly as it began”; and the cause assigned was the shifting of the War of the Revolution to the South.(29)

            After this first impetuous migration of the Quakers into the South they turned their faces westward. It is generally asserted that the westward movement was along the lines of the parallels of the latitude, but in the case of the Quakers the lines of migration crossed and recrossed each other, some of the emigrants from the northern colonies finding homes in the Southland, while others wended their way from the Southland into the Old Northwest.

            It was early in May, 1769, that Daniel Boone threw his long gun across his shoulder and left “his peaceable habitation on the Yadkin river, in quest of the country of Kentucky”.(30) Reared and trained in a Quaker home, the influences of the simple faith of the Friends deeply marked this man of the wilderness.(31) Typical pathfinder and Indian fighter that he was, Boone blazed the path along which a motley mass of humanity was soon to follow in the building of the great Commonwealths of Kentucky and Tennessee. As early as 1768 the general movement from North Carolina had begun; and among those who early took part in the new work of State-building were those who could easily be distinguished as Quakers.

            In 1787, the very year in which the famous Ordinance was drafted for the government of the Northwest Territory, request came to the New Garden Monthly Meeting in North Carolina for the establishment of a Friends meeting west of the mountains at Lost Creek near the Holston River. Although this request came from former members of the New Garden community the petition was refused and complaint was entered by the Monthly Meeting against the petitioners that hey “had settled on lands the title to which was still in dispute with the Indians.”(32) Time after time the home meeting tried to check the westward movement of its embers, but all to no avail. Unable to get the recognition they desired, and imbued with the free spirit of the western wilds, one Quaker settlement after another organized its own meetings without reference to the parent community. By the close of the century there had grown up the monthly meetings of Lost Creek and New Hope; and of the Quaker families which there helped to lay the foundations of the State of Tennessee one reads names which now sound familiar in Iowa—names such as Marshall, Hodgins, Maxwell, Pearce, Stanfield, Phillips, Thornburgh, Macy, Bernard, Mendenhall, Beales, Hayworth, Reece, and Beard.(33)

            The next region into which the Quakers migrated was the Northwest Territory. Hard upon the close of the American Revolution the vast stretch of country acquired by the young nation to the west of the Alleghany Mountains was turned over to the Federal government by the various States. With the rapid settlement of the region to the south of the Great lakes intense pressure was brought to bear upon Congress for the establishment of some form of local government, and the result was that monumental document of July 13, 1787: “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, north-west of the river Ohio.”(34)  It was with the adoption of this Ordinance and the provision which the final article contained, that the interest of southern Quakers in the region really begins.

            The migration of the Quakers into this new land of promise began even before 1787. Stragglers from Virginia and western Pennsylvania early moved across the Ohio and began the formation of the Quaker settlements in the present counties of Columbiana, Jefferson, and Belmont in the eastern part of the State of Ohio. Over the Kanawha, the Kentucky, and the Magadee-Richmond roads the Quakers came in from the South and all but took complete possession of the present counties of Highland, Clinton, and Warren in southwestern Ohio, where they built up numerous and prosperous communities such as Center and Miami. Later they entered into the fertile Whitewater Valley in eastern Indiana, there laying the foundations of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends. To this latter region it is said that no less than six thousand Quakers came from the four States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, between the years 1800 and 1860.(35) It may be asked: Why did the Quakers migrate form the South in such numbers? The answer to this question has a direct bearing upon the history of the Quakers in Iowa.

            For many years there had been forces at work within the Society of Friends which had made the holding of slaves not only incompatible with membership in the order, but had also rendered the institution of slavery extremely repugnant to the Quaker mind.(36) As the slave power seized with a firmer grasp the economic control of the South, the Quakers there, most of whom were agriculturists with small holdings, were thrown into unbearable competition with cheap slave labor, and at the same time were held in contempt, because of their objection to the holding of “property in man”, by those in authority. Numerous Quaker ministers, among them the well-known John Woolman, had traveled throughout the South, pointing out to their brethren the danger of their position. The whole situation came to a climax in 1803 and in the following manner.

            Zachariah Dicks, a prominent minister in the Society of Friends and supposed to have the gift of prophecy, appeared at the Bush River Meeting in South Carolina and began to warn the Friends of a terrible “internecine war”, which was to come upon America because of slavery “within the lives of children then living.” He there raised his voice in prophetic utterance and said: “Oh, Bush River! Bush River! How hath thy beauty faded away and gloomy darkness eclipsed thy day!”(37) He continued southward with his words of warning, going as far as Wrightsborough, Georgia. Everywhere, the Friends took alarm and began their “hegira”. In 1800 the Quakers in South Carolina and Georgia could have been counted by the thousands; in 1809 they were nearly all gone. They “sold their lands, worth from ten to twenty dollars per acre, for from three to six dollars, and departed, never to return.” They poured into western Ohio, and on into the Whitewater Valley in Indiana. They sought a land where, by the Ordinance of 1787, there was to be “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…otherwise than in the punishment of crimes”.

            Thus were the two sides of the Ohio Valley peopled with those who in derision were early called Quakers, and who were now to struggle with the social, economic, and political problems peculiar to the two regions.(38) Moreover, when the sons and daughters of these same pioneers once again loaded their heavy wagons and moved off to the westward they came directly to Iowa. Here upon the soil of the first free State west of the Mississippi River the lines from the North and the South converged; the varied habits of life, traits of character, manners, customs, and beliefs were to be moulded and fashioned together; and out of the combination was to come that which to-day is characterized as “Western Quakerism”.


End Notes:


28- Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery, p. 85.

32- Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery, pp. 96-125.

30- Quoted in Ramsey’s Annals of Tennessee, p. 95.

31- Thwaites’s Daniel Boone, Ch. I.

32-Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery, p. 252.

33- Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery, p. 253.

34-The text of the Ordinance of 1787, together with a list of references, may be found in Shambaugh’s Documentary Material Relating to the History of Iowa, Vol. I, pp. 47-55.

35- For an excellent account of The Quakers in the Old Northwest see Harlow Lindley’s paper under that title in the Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association for 1911-1912, pp. 60-72.

36- Sharpless’s A History of Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, Vol. II, Ch. X.

37- Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery, p. 307. See note, p. 307, taken from O’Neall’s Annals of Newberry.

38- For the striking difference between the settlement of the Northwest Territory and that of Kentucky and Tennessee, see Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West (Prairie Edition, 1903), Vol. V, pp. 5-7.



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