Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part I

Historical Narrative






The Iowa Field in 1850


            Robert Lindsey and his companion, having at various times visited together nearly every Quaker community in America (including the Yearly Meetings of North Carolina, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Ohio, Indiana, and the settlements in Canada),(72) in the opening of the year 1850 turned their faces toward distant Iowa.

            From some unnamed point in the State of Michigan (probably near Adrian), these two travelers in the ministry journeyed across the frozen prairies of Illinois in a two-horse carriage. They were on their way to the far-famed Quaker town of Salem. On the 19th day of January, 1850, Robert Lindsey records in his journal: “we reached the Mississippi River this morning about 11 o’clock [opposite Burlington], and on enquiry it appeared as if it might be safe to cross over on the ice.” Fearing, however, that they might break through, the two men crossed on foot, while a practiced ferry-man drove their team and carriage to the Iowa side.

            After dining at the “busy and thriving” town of Burlington, they pressed on westward. As the shades of evening settled down upon the prairie the weary and travel-worn Friends approached the little Quaker settlement of East Grove, which was within five miles of Salem. Looking wistfully across the undulating plain at each rise and fall they could now and then catch a glimpse of the flickering candles through cabin windows in the distance.(73) With that impatience which one feels as a long journey comes to its close they urged their horses on. Thirteen long and weary days they had steadily pushed westward, covering a distance of nearly four hundred miles. In all this distance, says Lindsey, “we had not fallen in with a single member of our Society, or any in profession with us”.

            Then came the joy of the end as the heavy carriage pulled up to the door of their friend Joseph D. Hoag.(74) Tired and weary, they were pleased with the hospitable welcome which they received under his roof. Here they stayed for four days, resting and preparing for the onward journey—spending much of the time in “writing, reading, walking out for exercise, and in social conversation”. They made but one brief trip to Salem to attend the First-day (Sunday) morning meeting.        

            On the morning of the 23rd, the weather being “very pleasant”, the visitors together with their host, Joseph D. Hoag, as guide and Amos Hoag as driver, left East Grove on their way to the new and rapidly growing Quaker settlement of Oakley in Cedar County, which was located some eighty miles to the northward. About noon they reached Mt. Pleasant where they dined. Leaving there soon after dinner they “entered upon a prairie, nearly 20 miles over without a single house or inhabitant upon it.” About sunset they came to an impassable stream, and “were under the necessity of going back to the last house we had passed, which was at least 10 miles distant”, and which was reached about eight o’clock in the evening.

            In the early days it was the unwritten law of the plains that stranded strangers should at least be sheltered for the night, but here the customary hospitality of the West failed. Refused at the first house, they were compelled to push on to the second, some “2 or 3 miles further”, where they were again refused. On a third attempt, however, they “succeeded in getting a shelter”, where Lindsey and Seebohm “were privileged with a bed” while their two companions “had to lie on the floor covered with their buffalo robes.” Fro this entertainment they paid the sum of one “dollar & a half” and departed early in the morning without breakfast.

            Having picked their toilsome way over the hills and dales and intervening plains of Henry ad Washington counties and the southern part of Johnson County, the group of Quaker travelers crossed the Iowa River on the morning of the 25th and entered Iowa City, the capital of Iowa. Passing almost directly to the eastward, in the afternoon as they were “within 5 miles of the end” of their journey they suffered the misfortune of a broken axletree of the carriage and “had to leave it in the midst of the prairie”. Thus discomfited, the two English Quakers were given “Joseph D. Hoag’s 1 horse buggy”, while he and Amos mounted their friends’ horses and so came on to the home of Laurie Tatum. There they were “cordially received & kindly welcomed into their humble dwelling by him & his wife, an agreeable & interesting young woman, who has recently ventured out into this new country to share in the toils of her husband in providing a home on these western prairies.”

            Two very pleasant and profitable days were spent in the Oakley settlement visiting with the Friends. Of Sunday the 27th, Lindsey records:


            A fine bright winter’s morning. The thermometer at 10° above zero. At 10 o’clock attended the usual first day morning meeting at Oakley held at he house of Laurie Tatum. Nearly all their members, & some of their neighbors were present, & it was a satisfactory meeting. At 6 in the evening we had an appointed meeting(75) in a schoolhouse 3 miles from here, which was very crowded, & the forepart of it in consequence thereof a good deal unsettled; but thro’ patient waiting a precious calm was mercifully vouchsafed, & dear Benjamin was strengthened to labor among them in right authority, & the meeting concluded to good satisfaction.


            Feeling that their work in this community was finished the visitors again turned to the westward on the 28th. Driving to Iowa City they had their carriage repaired, and while waiting, observed something of the town concerning which they wrote: “It has a handsome State House, several places of worship, some good stores, & probably about 1000 inhabitants.”

            From Iowa City they pursued in a general direction the route now taken by the Chicago, Rock Island and pacific Railway, passing through Marengo, then “containing 8 houses & a log Court House”—a poor place”, they thought, for there they “could not get even a feed of corn” for their horses. Steadily they moved onward across the rolling prairie, now through “scattered timber”, and now where “neither tree nor shrub [was] to be seen as far as the eye could reach”; and at the close of the third day out of Oakley they “reached the Hammer’s Settlement [near Newton in Jasper County], removed up here from East Tennessee 2 or 3 years ago.” “We took up our quarters”, says Lindsey, “at the widow Hammer’s, whose husband was a minister in our Society, and deceased since they came out here.” That night a strong “northwester” blew across the plains, and the house “being far from tight, the wind had free access through many openings, both in the walls and roof”, so that the strangers found it difficult to keep warm.

            Having held a religious meeting in the Hammer home for the members of the settlement, on the following day, February 1st, with the thermometer registering “10° below zero”, the four faithful friends again took up their journey, bound for the settlements of “Friends on the Three Rivers”. By way of Parker’s Mill on the Des Moines River and the village of Dudley they reached their destination on the morning of the following day. With that deep satisfaction which comes to one who has achieved the object of his hopes, Lindsey was able to write that he had now reached the “most distant & most westerly meeting of Friends on this Continent, being more than 1500 miles west from New York. We understand it is not more than 4 years since this part of the country was occupied by tribes of Indians…[which] have now been located beyond the Missouri. We may indeed be said to be almost arrived at the bound of civilized life”. Here, too, the wind blew cold and the thermometer recorded “20° below zero”.

            In spite of the hostility of nature, from the Middle River settlement the persevering group drove eight miles to Lower River, where they held a meeting in a schoolhouse; and to those accustomed to the balmy climate of England it was hard indeed to “sit the meeting”. That night, February 3rd, they lodged with Joseph Carey, a late arrival from Indiana. In the new log cabin, which consisted of a single room, Lindsey says, “12 individuals were accommodated; our company, consisting of 4 men, were privileged to occupy the 2 beds: & the family consisting of the friend, his wife & 5 children, & a young man who was also there, were arranged on the floor, & on a trundle bedstead which was drawn out from beneath one of the other beds.” Of such accommodations Lindsey remarks: “we were more warm & comfortable than we had been for several nights past: & I may say that under this humble roof we were treated with genuine hospitality”.

            Having now reached the western limit of their journey and finished their labors there, the guide, Joseph D. Hoag, turned to  the homeward course. On the 5th of February they passed through Pella, where they observed marks of the “industry & management” of the Dutch in their new American home;(76) and, without mishap, they finally reached the hospitable home of Thomas Stafford at Spring Creek. Here on the following day they attended the Spring Creek Preparative Meeting, where, much to their “inconvenience”, the men and women were compelled to transact their business “in the same apartment”, due to the absence of the usual partition between them.

            From Spring Creek the little company again pressed on to Richland, and then to Pleasant Plain, attending the Monthly Meeting at the latter place on February 9th. In speaking of this meeting Lindsey observes: “The business was conducted in a solid & weighty manner, there appearing to be amongst them a number of well concerned Friends who are endeavoring in faithfulness & simplicity to uphold our religious testimonies in this far western land.” From Pleasant Plain they returned to Richland for the Sunday morning meeting, which was “filled to overflowing”; and after taking dinner with Stephen Woodward they pushed on some four miles for an evening meeting at the new Quaker settlement of Rocky Run.

            With that devotion which marked the old-time Quaker ministry, Robert Lindsey and Benjamin Seebohm had sacrificed the joys of home, traveled thousands of miles, and endured the hardships of this western country, as they would have said, for the sake of “truth” and the encouragement of their brethren. Once arrived at Salem, they were welcomed to “comfortable quarters” in the home of Peter Collins, where they found letters from their dear ones in the homeland. It is not a matter for surprise, therefore, that Lindsey recorded in his journal for February 12th that they “much enjoyed the quiet & convenience of a small bedroom with a fire in it which we were privileged to occupy to ourselves: which we felt to be quite a treat after the rough fare & scanty accommodations we have had for the last 3 weeks.”

            On the second day after their arrival at Salem the Monthly Meeting convened. This, the second Monthly Meeting which they had attended in Iowa, “was long & interesting, not concluding until ½ past 4 o’clock.” Of this session Lindsey remarks:


            There was a great variety of business before the meeting, & it was entered upon, & disposed of in a weighty manner. Certificates of removal were read & accepted for 4 individuals, amongst which was one for Walter Crew & his wife and 14 children from Cedar Creek in Virginia, whence they removed a few months ago, having traveled the whole distance of 1500 miles in 2 waggons, & been upwards of 2 months on the road.


            On the following day, February 14th, came the East Grove Monthly Meeting which was likewise attended by the visitors. Her again they found that the men and women were compelled to hold their business meetings in a meeting-house of a single room “with only a wagon cover hung up between them… nevertheless it was an interesting and satisfactory time”.

            On the 15th, 16th, and 17th of February came the sessions of the Salem Quarterly Meeting to which all of the subordinate meetings of Friends in Iowa reported. Here again the English visitors were brought into contact with a typical pioneer Quaker gathering. For long distances the Friends came in their heavy wagons, braving the severities of winter, and bringing their families to the quarterly religious and social gathering which played so large a part in the life of the Quakers in the earlier days. The business session being over, at the Sunday meeting for worship the crowd “was very large, the house being filled to overflowing”. Though there is no specific record, it is reasonable to suppose that on this occasion, Benjamin Seebohm, the chief spokesman of the traveling pair, preached form the rich store of his religious experience that spiritual admonition and testimony for which he was so widely known.

            Having touched the settlement at East Grove upon their arrival in Iowa, there still remained three communities of Friends in the vicinity of Salem for the travelers to visit before the tour of the meetings in Iowa could be said to be complete. The first of these, Cedar Creek, to the north of Salem, they visited on the 18th of February, where they had “an appointed meeting” that proved a relieving opportunity”. Here they found that the settlers had “lately built themselves a good frame meeting house”. “Most of the seats”, so Lindsey said, “are nothing more than rough boards supported at each end by blocks of wood. Indeed this is the way in which all of the meeting houses in this State that we have yet seen, are fitted up”.

            On the following day, February 19th, they visited the Chestnut Hill community where they held another appointed meeting and found an “interesting company of Friends, most of them young & middle aged”. On the 29th they completed their mission with an appointed meeting at New Garden. Here the house “which was small, was very much crowded, some being unable to get in at all”—a fitting close to so extensive a visit.

            At the break of dawn on February 21st, the home of Joseph D. Hoag was all astir. Lonely indeed had been these English Friends far out in this western country; but now their thoughts were on the homeward journey. Then came the “solid parting” and the long remembered “farewell”(77) between those who through days of toil and hardship had learned to know and love each other. Long, it is said, were moistened eyes turned towards the eastward from the little cabin window, as the quaint old carriage moved across the prairie.

            Lodged in the quiet of the evening in a little tavern some five miles to the east of the Mississippi, Lindsey turned to his journal and wrote: “Now that we have left Iowa, I may say that we have felt much & deeply interested about the dear Friends who are settled there, to many of whom we have felt nearly united in bonds of Christian fellowship.” As they turned to the eastward the nearest meeting, for which they were bound, was some three hundred miles away on the border of Illinois.(78)

            Such was the Iowa field at the beginning of the last half of the nineteenth century. Undeveloped and abounding in possibilities, the great West lay open to such religious forces as might come in and possess the land. Herein was a golden opportunity—an opportunity such as seldom comes to any people of any sect. Here in a new and all but unfettered environment, touched and jostled on every hand be men and creeds from every clime, Quakerism as a religious force was to have a final testing as to its inherent power of future growth and its ability to assimilate that not of its own fold. The “holy experiment”, not in government, but rather in practical religion, has indeed been on trial in the West. For the Society of Friends nowhere are the lessons of this State where Quakerism first took root in the land beyond the Mississippi.


Notes and References


72- The movements of the two English Friends, Robert Lindsey and Benjamin Seebohm, among the American Yearly Meetings in 1848 are noted in the Friends’ Review, Vol. I, p. 377; Vol. II, p. 227.

73- Rachel Kellum, an aged resident of Salem (now deceased), some years ago related to the writer that in the early days her father kept a candle burning at night in his window looking to the eastward, to guide incoming travelers through the darkness to his door. To make the candles burn slowly a thin coating of salt was sprinkled around the wick, and one candle would usually burn through most of the night.

74- Joseph D. Hoag was one of the three commissioners appointed by the General Assembly of Iowa in 1847 “to locate the permanent Seat of Government of this State, and to select the lands granted by Congress to aid in erecting public buildings.”—Laws of Iowa, 1847, p. 85. The quotations in the text are taken from a copy of Robert Lindsey’s Journal.

75-“Appointed Meetings” were such as the name itself indicates. The minister in traveling from place to place among the Friends in the early days would usually have it announced as he came into a community that there would be a meeting for worship either at the meeting-house or at some Friend’s home, to which all would be welcomed. At these meetings there usually was preaching by the visiting minister, although many times they were held in silence. Protracted or revival meetings were almost unknown among the Friends before the last half of the nineteenth century. See Lindsey’s Journal.

76- The Hollanders made their first settlements in Iowa in the summer of 1847. Pella was laid out in September of that year. See Vander Zee’s The Hollanders of Iowa, Ch. IX.

77- Among the Friends such salutations as “good morning” or “goodbye” were seldom used, it being considered that all things in the providence of God were good. In place of these expressions, “is thee well”, or “farewell”, were generally, and are still, used.

78- The manuscript from which the body of this chapter is taken is a copy of that part of Robert Lindsey’s Journal for 1850 which covers his travels in Iowa. The copy mentioned was made from the original by Elizabeth Lindsey Galleway of Yorkshire, England, the daughter of the late Robert Lindsey, for Professor Rayner W. Kelsey of Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania. Professor Kelsey very kindly loaned the manuscript to the writer. A transcript was made and is now in the possession of The State Historical Society of Iowa.