Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part I

Historical Narrative






The Quakers in the Back Counties


            In 1836 the population of Iowa numbered 10, 531; while in 1840, only four year later, it had more than quadrupled and stood at 43,112.(55) For a time the eastern counties, like dykes along the Mississippi, received and held this westward-moving mass of humanity, but soon the stream of immigrants broke all barriers and spread rapidly to the westward, building villages and towns as if by magic, and changing the very face of the prairies. Close upon the heels of the surveyor—indeed, more often running before him—went the squatter; while repeatedly the legislature of the new Territory of Iowa was called upon for the creation of new counties and the establishment of county boundaries. (56)

            In this rapid work of settlement, the Quakers bore a prominent part. Somewhat clannish in nature, wherever they located they usually monopolized the land of the region. Owing to the harmony which generally prevailed among the Friends “claim associations”, so common in the West, were unnecessary in Quaker communities and law-suits over land disputes were almost unknown.(57) On an equal footing with other settlers they attended the government land sales, and there bid in their claims at the customary $1.25 per acre.

            Keokuk and Fort Madison were the natural gateways to Iowa for those of the Quakers who came from the East and the South by the river route (i.e., down the Ohio and up the Mississippi); while Burlington was more accessible to hose who crossed the prairies of Illinois by the overland route from Indiana. It will be seen at a glance that the lines from these three points converging at Salem brought the Quakers directly into the fertile lands between the Des Moines and the Skunk rivers—a region of great fertility which extended almost without a break to the northwest for nearly a hundred and fifty miles into the very heart of the State. With that keenness for good agricultural lands which as always characterized the Quakers, those of the order who came here settled in this promising country, building up community after community which they christened with such appropriate names as New Garden, Pleasant Plain, and Richland.

            The first of these new Quaker settlements to spring into being was that of the Lower Settlement on Cedar Creek, about four miles to the northwest of Salem. In the minutes of the Salem Monthly Meeting for March 30, 1839, one finds the first mention of this community in the following statement: “Friends of the lower settlement request the privilege of holding an Indulged Meeting”. A committee was appointed to visit these “friends making the request Judge of the propriety of granting it, and report to next meeting.” In the following month the committee reported to the Monthly Meeting that they had “attended to the appointment to middling good satisfaction though way did not oppen to grant their request”. So close were these Friends to Salem, and so easy of access was that meeting that the request was not granted until January, 1841, when a new Preparative Meeting was directed to be set up—a meeting which has been maintained to this day.(58)

            The second new community of Friends in Iowa chronicled in the records of the Salem Monthly Meeting was that of Pleasant Prairie (or Pleasant Plain as it was soon called), a settlement located about twenty-five miles northwest of Salem. At the October session of the Salem Monthly Meeting a committee composed of Gideon Frazier, Enoch Beard, Eli Cook, Henry Joy, and William Hockett was directed to visit the Friends composing the new settlement “for their help and incouragement”, and “if way should open mak[e] choice of a friend in that settlement to be appointed to the station of overseer”. In making a report of their visit to the Monthly Meeting in November the committee stated that “a part of them attended to the appointment to good satisfaction”, and in consequence an Indulged Meeting was directed to be officially opened at Pleasant Prairie on February 3, 1841.(59)

            While Cedar Creek and Pleasant Plain were thus forming to the north of Salem there were at least three new Quaker communities collecting to the south and east. The first of these to receive mention was New Garden, located about midway between Fort Madison and Salem. For a time New Garden received a remarkable influx of settlers and so grew rapidly; but before long the tide moved on to the northwest, leaving this once prosperous settlement to struggle against destructive forces, and finally to decline and disappear, only a lonely graveyard and desolate grave stones remaining to keep watch over the now forgotten dead. East Grove, about five miles southeast, and Chestnut Hill about the same distance directly south of Salem were also important settlements which flourished during the first generation about this early Quaker center in Iowa; but of these Chestnut Hill alone remains, a mere remnant of its early strength.

            It is but natural that inquiry should be made as to the cause of so marked a disappearance of the Quakers from a land so thoroughly adapted to their needs. Therein lies a unique and interesting story. When the Friends came to Iowa it was primarily for economic reasons. At the same time they clung to their anti-slavery sentiments. In coming west they had deliberately chosen the free soil of Iowa; but to their dismay they soon found themselves annoyed by slave-catchers from the Missouri border. The second factor entering into the abandonment of the early settlements was their close proximity to the Mormons.(60) In the face of these undesirable conditions the Quakers of southeastern Iowa did as their ancestors had always done under such circumstances—they moved into the back counties.(61) And so, out upon the prairies of Jefferson County the second Quaker stronghold in Iowa grew into being. In this fair and fertile land the onward-moving Quakers once again bade their oxen “Whoa”; and upon a prairie now called “Pleasant Plain” they planted homes, and erected church and school.(62) To this new settlement many Quakers moved, peopling the land with their industrious and happy families.

            Rapid, indeed, must have been the growth of the settlement which in less than a single year raised Pleasant Plain from the stage of a Preparative to that of a Monthly Meeting. On the 28th day of December, 1842, the members of the new community assembled, together with a committee composed of Zedediah Bond, Sarah Ann Pickering, and Rachel Reader, properly directed and authorized, to solemnly establish a meeting in accordance with the ancient order of the Society.(63) From the very first, certificates of membership(64) began to pour into this new Monthly Meeting from all parts of the East and South. During the nine years from 1842 to 1850 one hundred and fifty members came from various Quaker centers in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

            Again the movement pressed onward, finding its way into Keokuk County, where P. C. Woodward, with the Bray, Williams, Haworth, Moorman, Hadley, and other Quaker families quickly built up the thriving communities of Richland and Rocky Run.(65) Thence others migrated into Mahaska County where, by February of 1844, Joseph D. Hoag of Salem was to be found at Spring Creek, preaching the Quaker message from the rough-hewn doorstep of Thomas Stafford’s log cabin, by “the light of a pile of burning logs…the house being filled with women, and the yard with men and boys.”(66)

            To the eastward of this advanced Quaker outpost, Spring Creek—a name gateway into Iowa was soon found by this peculiar sect at the growing river town of Muscatine. To the westward, within the brief space of half a decade, in the beautiful region of the “Three Rivers” in Warren County, members of this same sect were chopping and hewing the logs which were to be used in the erection of peaceful Quakers homes.(67) And again, to the northward, as the nineteenth century came half way to its close, the migration which was so soon to dot the counties of Jasper, Marshall, Story, and Hardin with Quaker settlements began with the appearance in that region of a family by the name of Hammer.

            On account of the continuous pressing of the Quakers across the frontier line in Iowa, and the unparalleled increase of their numbers in this western country, the position of Salem had become relatively more and more important as time went on. On coming to Iowa the immigrant Quakers usually passed through and made acquaintances at Salem, and as they occasionally returned from the interior to the river towns for supplies they again partook of the hospitality of its people. With the rise of new settlements in the back counties and the consequent increase of church business to be transacted the need of a Quarterly Meetings of Salem and Pleasant Plain united in a joint request in 1844 to the Western Quarterly Meeting in Indiana that such a meeting be established.(68) Due to the remoteness of the field and the scattered condition of the communities, action was deferred, and it was not until its gathering in October, 1847, that the Indiana Yearly Meeting, held at Whitewater, authorized the granting of the request.(69)

            In the meantime the Friends at Salem had outgrown their little hewed-log meeting-house, so that steps were early taken for the erection of a new place of worship, for which by 1846 the sum of $1,149.00 had been subscribed.(70) Here, from far and near, on May 20, 1848, a large and enthusiastic company assembled to attend the opening of this the first Quarterly Meeting beyond the Mississippi. As was customary, an official committee of both men and women Friends from the Indiana Yearly Meeting was in attendance to render such assistance as might be necessary, and on that day the new meeting was properly established. Concerning this event a member of the attending committee wrote:

            They had built a substantial brick house for the accommodation of the Quarterly Meeting, which, when completed, will perhaps be, if not the best, belonging to Indiana Yearly Meeting…The meetings for worship are Salem, Cedar Creek, Pleasant Plain, Richland, New Garden, East Grove, and Spring River. There are, besides, two or three other places where Friends have settled, who are taking measures to have meetings established. There was some enumeration two years ago, when they numbered about 300 families. There has been a large emigration to that country since, and it will probably be safe now to set them down at four to five hundred families, emigrated from almost all places where there are any Friends.(71)

            Having thus far briefly sketched the beginnings of Quakerism in Iowa, and having traced the rising Quaker settlements in the back counties, it is now possible to follow with interest the travels of two prominent English ministers, Robert Lindsey and Benjamin Seebohm, who viewed at first hand and with wondering eyes in 1850 the building of a great Commonwealth and the planting of one of the foremost Yearly Meetings of their faith.


Notes and References

55- Hull’s Historical and Comparative Census of Iowa, 1880, p. 198.

56- See Garver’s History of the Establishment of Counties in Iowa in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. VI, pp. 375-456.

57- Before proceeding at law against a fellow member, all members of the Society of Friends were expected to obtain the advice and consent of their Monthly Meeting. Every possible encouragement was given for the settlement of all disputes outside of the courts, and (quoting from the Discipline of the Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1854, p. 48), “if any members of our religious society, disregarding the gospel order prescribed by our Discipline, shall arrest or sue at law other members…[they] do depart from the peaceable principles of which we made profession: and if on being treated with by the Monthly meetings to which they belong, they cannot be prevailed with to withdraw the suit, and pay the costs thereof, they shall be disowned.” It is because of this principle that very few members of the Society have followed the profession of law.

58- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 3 mo., 30th, 1839, p. 16; 4 mo., 27th, 1839, p. 17; 1 mo., 30th, 1841, pp. 56, 57.

59- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 10 mo., 26th, 1839, pp. 29, 30; 11 mo., 30th, 1839, p. 31; 1 mo., 30th, 1841, p. 57.

60- For a good account of the Mormon influence in Lee County see Mormonism and Mormon Outrages in The History of Lee County (Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1879), pp. 465-483.

61- A third very important factor in the weakening of Quakerism in this early center was the planting of the Roman Catholic stronghold at Mt. Hamill in the very heart of the Quaker region. In late years these Catholics have bought up nearly all of the available lands in the vicinity, and the Quakers have all but disappeared.

62- William Scearcy, a pioneer settler in both Jefferson and Keokuk counties, writing late in life, says that when he returned in the spring of 1839 from the Illinois side to the site of Pleasant Plain where he had marked out a town and sold lots he found that the Quakers had moved in, “taken advantage of my absence and ‘jumped’ my claim, town and all, and as I could not legally hold it, they would not give it up nor pay me anything for what I had done.”—The History of Keokuk County (Des Moines: union Historical Company, 1880), p. 286.

63- Minutes of Pleasant Plain Monthly Meeting of Friends, 12 mo., 28th, 1842, p. 1.

64- For the purpose of safeguarding the interests of the Society, it has always been the custom among the Friends for members upon moving into the limits of another Monthly Meeting to present a letter or certificate of good standing in their home Monthly Meeting before being allowed to take part in the business of the meeting in their new home. Such certificates of membership, in a general way, indicate the sections from which the Quakers came to Iowa, but on account of the duplication of the names of Monthly Meetings in different States and the frequent commission of the names of the States in the entries on local records, conclusions on this basis are not always reliable.

65- See The History of Keokuk County (Des Moines: Union Historical Company, 1880), pp. 546, 457.

66- The History of Mahaska County (Des Moines: Union Historical Company, 1878), pp. 367, 368.

67- For the first settlement of Friends in Warren County, see The History of Warren County (Des Moines: Union Historical Company, 1879), p. 287.

68-Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 9 mo., 28th, 1844, p. 222.

69- Minutes of Salem Quarterly Meeting of Women Friends, 5 mo., 20th, 1848, p. 1. The first book of minutes for the Salem Quarterly Meeting of [Men] Friends is lost.

70- Minutes of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, 2 mo., 28th, 1846, p. 279.

71- Quoted in the Friends’ Review (1848), Vol. I, pp. 675, 676.



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