Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part I

Historical Narrative






The Planting of Quakerism in Iowa


            Hardly had the wigwams of the Indians disappeared(39) from the Black Hawk Purchase on the west bank of the Mississippi River before the first Quaker appeared. In the summer of 1835 a heavy wagon covered with white canvas and laden with all of the necessities for a long journey, might have been seen wending its way out from the lonely pine-clad hills of South Carolina. The ox-goad held in the hand of the driver, Isaac Pidgeon, was pointed towards the distant home of his sister who had earlier married and moved to Rushville, Schuyler County, Illinois. From her he had received many letters telling of the great inrush of settlers into the land across the Mississippi, and, like many others who had risked their fortunes before him, he decided to try life in the western wilds. It was with this in view, therefore, that he sold his small plantation for some four hundred dollars, hitched his oxen to the wagon, and with his family of a wife and seven children left forever the scenes of slavery and embarked for the West.(40)

            Fifty-two long days the faithful oxen trudged onward with their heavy load, arriving at their first destination in the midsummer of 1835. Leaving his wife and children with his sister at Rushville, Isaac Pidgeon crossed the Mississippi, pushed his way about thirty miles into the “back country” of the new purchase, and there put up sufficient prairie hay for the cattle which he intended to bring form the Illinois side. This done he returned to Rushville, and late in the same fall recrossed the Mississippi to Iowa with his family and all his possessions. Proceeding inland to the place where he had put up his winter’s supply of hay, he located a claim on what is now Little Cedar Creek, about a mile and a half to the south of the present town of Salem in Henry County.

            In 1841 the following account appeared in John B. Newhall’s Sketches of Iowa:


            About six years ago, two plainly dressed travelers might have been seen on horseback, slowly wending their way westward from the Fort Madison ferryboat towards the wide and pathless prairies of the “Black Hawk purchase.” The country was then new and uninhabited: they traveled onward from grove to grove, and from prairie to prairie, until the shades of night were closing in upon the long summer’s day…

            When morn at length arrived, while one of our travelers prepared the breakfast, the other perambulated the surrounding country to spy out the beauties of the land…Having, at last, arrived at a beautiful elevation of the prairie, and surveyed on every hand nature clad in her most attractive attire, the bright sun chasing away the vapory mist of the morning, causing the dew-drops to glisten like diamonds on the grass,…Aaron Street returned to his companion and said, “Now have mine eyes beheld a country teeming with every good thing…Hither will I come with my flocks and my herds, with my children and my children’s children, and our city shall be called Salem, for thus was the city of our fathers, even near unto the seacoast.” (41)


                    In view of the accepted history of the community, and the records in the possession of the Pidgeon family, it would seem that Isaac Pidgeon was not the unnamed companion of Aaron Street on the visit above described, but hat he had come alone and was the first to appear. From evidence extant it appears that these two men first met while Aaron Street and his daughter Polly Pugh were casting about in that locality for a place of settlement—though it is possible that this was the expedition an account of which was subsequently related to Mr. Newhall. Thus thrown together in this far western country, both of them Friends from different sections of the East, the two men conceived the idea of founding a Quaker community in the Iowa country; and in order to carry their plan into execution, it was decided that Polly Pugh and her four children were to remain with the Pidgeon family while Aaron Street returned to Indiana to bring hither his family and effects. During his friend’s absence, Isaac Pidgeon raised a log cabin on the banks of the Little Cedar Creek and prepared for the approaching winter; and this, so far as is now known, was the first Quaker home to be founded on Iowa soil.(42)

            Upon the return of Aaron Street with his family, he and Isaac Pidgeon, together with Peter Boyer, a Quaker who had recently arrived, proceeded to carry out their plan for a Quaker settlement by the laying off of a town-site on land staked out as claims by Aaron Street and Peter Boyer. Being poorly prepared for the duties of a surveyor they used a long grape-vine for a measuring rod, it is said, cutting notches in it for the desired widths of the streets and alleys. The streets were laid off at right angles to each other, and in the center of the town there was left a space of about two acres for a public square. The town was named Salem, the fourth by that name founded by the family of Streets.(43)

            The new-born town of Salem was not long in attracting other settlers to its site and its fertile and healthful environs. In the fall of 1836 there came a number of Friends on horseback from Randolph County, Indiana. Upon hearing of the founding of Salem they visited the locality, were much pleased with it, and recrossed the prairies of Illinois with the glad news to those who anxiously awaited their return.

            As soon as the springy prairie sod would bear the weight of their heavy wagons, on the 10th day of May, 1837, a caravan of nine families—all but one members of the Cherry Grove Monthly Meeting—moved out from the neighborhood of Williamsburg, in the northern part of Wayne County, Indiana, bound for the Black Hawk Purchase. In a little sketch written when his life’s toils were well-nigh ended, Henry W. Joy, a member of the party, states that the caravan was made up of Reuben, Henry, and Abram P. Joy, Dr. Gideon, Stephen and Thomas Frazier, Lydia Frazier, Thomas Cook, Levi Commack, and their families. All that can be learned form the account written by the unsteady hand of this aged pioneer is that they had “considerable of stock” to drive, that it was “a long and tedious journey”, and that they “landed in the neighborhood of Salem the “17th of 6th” month, 1837.(44)

                    It would be interesting to know the rest of the story: how the wagons creaked beneath their heavy loads, and how the oxen toiled across the plains; how the families grouped themselves about the cheerful camp-fires in the evening; how the children were lulled to sleep at night in their tired mothers’ arms, sheltered only by the white canopy of the pioneers’ wagons; how the sharp bark of the dogs made answer to the desolate howl of the wolves upon the lonely prairie, while the stars kept their silent watch; how the golden-petaled helianthus faced them all the way, how nature’s guide, the compass plant, stretched its arms to the north and to the south; and how the fern-like rattlesnake-master warned them of the dangers lurking in the greensward. These and a thousand other details we would like to hear, but time has removed every member of that caravan who might have told the tale.

            Since this first memorable arrival but four weeks had passed until a second caravan might have been seen coming slowly over hill and dale and approaching Salem from the eastward. Who were these strangers? The broad brimmed hats of the men and the plain bonnets of the women were sufficient insignia to insure the travelers a hearty welcome in the new community, where they were received with open arms. It was soon known throughout the village that Stephen Hockett, and Harrison Hoggatt, all with their families and all but one members of the Society of Friends, had arrived. Eager questions no doubt were asked on every hand, and good cheer ran free as these newcomers were cared for in the humble dwellings at Salem. As soon as possible they selected desirable lands, and from the native timber erected log cabins. When food ran short, it is said, some one or more would go “75 or 80 miles to Ill. For Provisions” without a murmur.

            During the memorable fall of 1837 other Quakers arrived at Salem. The Fraziers and Joys, the Hocketts and Hammers, together with the Beards, Hoskinses, Johnsons, Osborns, Thomases, Teases, Canadas, Lewellings, Wilsons, Jessops, Hiatts, Emerys, Hinshaws, Mendenhalls, Cooks, Pidgeons, Stantons, and Commons, all found their way to the new settlement beyond the Mississippi.(45) By the middle of August, in the second year of its history, so strong had grown the communal interest at Salem and so keen was the desire for a place where the settlers might regularly come together for worship that the way was made open, and in the hospitable home of Henry W. Joy, every week for over a year these sturdy pioneers came together for worship.

            On account of the continued influx of settlers it soon became apparent that steps must be taken not only for the establishment of a regularly recognized meeting but also for the erection of a meeting-house of adequate capacity. A petition was accordingly sent to the Vermillion Monthly Meeting in eastern Illinois for the setting up of a Preparative Meeting at Salem; but before the request could be granted it was amended with an appeal for the establishment of a Monthly Meeting. The committeemen sent out to investigate the petitions of this remote settlement were well satisfied with what they saw in the “Wisconsin Territory”, and through their report, borne to the Western Quarterly Meeting at Bloomfield, Indiana, the request was granted.

            In the month of October, 1838, Abraham Holaday, Thomas Ruebottom, Jeremiah H. Siler, Henry Pickard, and Achsah Newlin appeared at Salem as members of the committee directed to set up the new meeting, and by their authority and in their presence the meeting was opened under the following minute: “Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, first opened and held in Salem, Henry County, Iowa Territory, on the 8th day of the 10th Month 1838”. Then the meeting proceeded to conduct the first regular business of the Society of Friends west of the Mississippi.(46)

            Interestingly intermingled are matters of spiritual and temporal concern in the records of this pioneer Quaker settlement beyond the Mississippi. At one moment the Monthly Meeting would direct a committee to deal with a member “for getting in a passion and useing  unbecomeing language”,(47) and then proceed to hear the report of a member who had taken up a collection of $17.18 ¾(48) for the purchase of a stove “by direction of friends of this neighborhood…before this meeting was established”.(49) Although religion and the business of the church were the Quaker’s chief concern, it was found, at least on one occasion, absolutely necessary to adjourn the Monthly Meeting owing to the absence of “so many of its members who are in attendance of the land sales at Burling[ton]”,(50) where they had gone to bid in at public auction the lands which they had staked out as claims.

            As has been seen, one of the most pressing needs of the new community was for a proper place for worship. On the very day that the Monthly Meeting was established a committee composed of Henderson Lewelling, Aaron Street, John Hockett, and Enos Mendenhall was entrusted with this matter, and on November 24th they were able to report that “they have attended to the appointment and have rented a house [valued at $350.00], at 7 per cent of cost of said house.”(51) The renting of this property was, however, but a temporary arrangement, for in May, 1839, a lot of five acres was purchased for $25.00, and arrangements were made for the erection of a “hewed log meeting house with two rooms 22 feet square each, a roof fixed with rafters and laths and covered with three feet boards. The house to be finished off on as cheap a plan as can be, to be made tolerably comfortable”.(52) It was of the congregation in this house, erected at a cost of “about $340.00”, that John B. Newhall wrote in 1841:


            Spending the Sabbath, “first day,” there last summer, I attended meeting in company with my venerable friend [Aaron Street]; there were more than 300 in attendance, and it was estimated rather less than over the usual number. We had an excellent discourse, an “old-fashioned Quaker sermon.” There, too, were the venerable and devout old patriarchs, ranged along the “high seats,” some whose whitened locks told of threescore years; and there, too, were the motherly-looking matrons, with plain caps and drab bonnets, sitting in solemn silence, and devoutly waiting upon Him, whom they profess to worship in spirit and in truth.(53)


                    When the aged folk of this interesting community assembled for their first “Old Settlers Meeting” in 1883, and lived over the events of almost fifty years—years full of both joys and hardships—a few facts seemed to stand out conspicuously. William K. Pidgeon had the distinction of being the oldest living settler, having come to Salem with his father, Isaac, in the fall of 1835. Isaac M. Hoggatt was greeted as the first child born in the village. Peter Boyer, it was remembered, kept the first hotel. Aaron Street “was the first to handle Uncle Sam’s mail”. R. Spurrier was praised as being Salem’s pioneer merchant: while Thomas Frazier was reverenced as the first minister in their midst.(54) Thus through the drowsy summer days and the long winter evening the easy-going people of this quaint old Quaker town recount the events of the past, seeming never to tire of the story of the early days; while the outer world all but forgets that there is a Salem or that such were the beginnings not only of Iowa Quakerism, but of the Commonwealth of Iowa as well.


End Notes:


39- Joliet and Marquette were the first white men to have touched Iowa. They landed near the mouth of the Iowa River on June 25, 1673. See Weld’s Joliet and Marquette in Iowa in the Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. I, p. 3.

40- For a brief but excellent sketch of the Black Hawk War, see Pelzer’s Henry Dodge, Ch. V.

41- Newhall’s Sketches of Iowa, or the Emigrant’s Guide, pp. 141, 142.

42- During the four years while the writer has been engaged in this work he has made numerous visits to Salem and has personally interviewed nearly all of the early settlers who were still living in the vicinity. He also very carefully examined what accounts of the founding of the town there were in the hands of Isaac Pidgeon, JR., and others, and he feels satisfied as to the conclusions drawn.

43- “It is somewhat remarkable that the father of the present Aaron Street emigrated form Salem, New Jersey, to Salem, Ohio; form Ohio, father and son came and built up Salem, Indiana; from Salem, Indiana, the subject of this article came and built up Salem, Iowa.”—Newhall’s Sketches of Iowa, p. 142.

44- The sketch by Henry W. Joy here referred to bears no date, but it is apparent from his introductory statement that it was written towards the close of his life. He died at Salem on November 25, 1883, at the age of seventy-five years.

45- At the Monthly Meeting held at Salem on February 23, 1839, that meeting received in lieu of certificates of membership a list of 193 persons from the Vermillion Monthly Meeting who had settled in the neighborhood of Salem. See Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 2 mo. 23rd, 1839, pp. 11-14.

46- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 10 mo., 24th, 1838, p. 5.

47- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 11mo., 24th, 1838, p. 5.

48- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 12 mo., 29th, 1838, p. 6. The fact that there was three-fourths of a cent in the collections made by Henderson Lewelling is explainable by the likelihood that there were three picayunes in the offering taken. The picayune was a small silver coin valued at six and one-fourth cents, which was in circulation before the introduction of the decimal system into the United States coinage in 1857. This coin was known in New England as a “fourpence”, in Pennsylvania and Virginia as the “fip”, and in Louisiana as the “picayune”.

49- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 12 mo., 29th, 1838, p. 6.

50- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 11 mo., 24th, 1838, p. 4.

51- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 10 mo., 8th, 1838, p. 4.

52- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 5 mo., 25th, 1838, pp. 19, 20; 5 mo., 30th, 1840, p. 44.

53- Newhall’s Sketches of Iowa, pp. 143, 144.

54- Salem Weekly News, February 24, 1898.



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