IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
LOUIS HONORE TESSON AND HIS APPLE ORCHARD
In 1799, just eleven years after Julien Dubuque came to the lead mine region, a French-Canadian named Louis Honore Tesson bought a farm in what is now Iowa. At that time all the land west of the Mississippi River was still owned by the King of Spain, and Tesson had to buy his land from the Spanish governor. If you bought a farm in Iowa at the present time, you would probably have to pay from one hundred to three hundred dollars an acre, but Tesson did not have to pay any money at all.
You see, the Spanish governor was afraid some English traders would come into the northern part of the Mississippi Valley and buy up all the furs. So he told Tesson he might have 7056 arpents of land if he would help him keep the English from coming into the Spanish territory. This was about 6073 acres. He was also to buy the furs which the Indians had to sell, to teach them to be Christians, and to show them how to raise wheat, corn, and vegetables. The Indians had plenty of game, such as deer, for meat, but they often did not have any bread, potatoes, corn, beans, or pumpkins, things they liked very much. Tesson also promised to plant some trees, for at that time there were very few trees in Iowa except along the streams.
So Tesson built a house on his farm for himself and his wife and family. We know he had a little boy about ten years old, and there may have been other children in the family.
Then he made some fences to keep out the deer and the ponies of the Indians, and planted his garden. Next he went to St. Charles, Missouri, and brought home some young apple trees for his orchard. There were no roads of any kind, so Tesson put the bundles of tress on the backs of his pack mules. You can imagine that the mules looked like little brush piles walking over the prairie.
Of course it was a number of years before the little trees had any apples, but the Tesson family had plenty to eat. There were fish in the Mississippi River just east of their house. Tesson could go out on the prairie and shoot quail, prairie chickens, turkeys, and deer. To-day these animals are seldom seen, although turkeys have been tamed and are now raised on our farms. In the summer the little boy could walk just a little way form the house and pick wild strawberries. When these were gone, there were blackberries, and still later there were wild grapes.
Some things were not so pleasant, however. There were no towns near-by. Many things needed in the home had to be brought from St. Louis. There were no schools were the children could learn to read and write. There were no other white children in the Iowa country. The only playmates were the Indian children whose fathers came to sell their furs to Tesson.
To pay the Indians for the furs, Tesson brought from St. Louis such things as calico, blankets, guns, powder, traps, knives, and many other things the Indian men and women needed or enjoyed.
But this French trader could not always pay for the goods he bought. The men who sold him the supplies went to the Spanish governor who had given Tesson the land, and asked him to help them get the money. The governor ordered that Teson's land, the house, and the orchard with the young apple trees should be sold to the person who would offer the highest price for them, and that the money should be paid to the men from whom Tesson had bought the goods for his Indian trade.
In May, 1803, Joseph Robidoux, one of the men to whom Tesson owned money, offered to pay $150 for the farm and it was sold to him. The Tesson family lived in the house for several months and were still near the old farm in 1805, when Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike went on his trip up the Mississippi River. you see, the United States had just bought Louisiana from France, to whom Spain had given it, and the President and Congress wanted to know what the land was like. So they sent Lieutenant Pike to see where the Mississippi River started and to learn what he could about the country along the way.
Lieutenant Pike expected to meet many Indians, Tesson wanted to go with the party to interpret, that is, to tell the white men what the Indians said and the Indians what the white men said, for he understood the speech of both. But Lieutenant Pike said he did not have any money to pay an interpreter, so Tesson had to stay at home. By and by the family moved away. We should like to know just where they went; but this was before there were any newspapers to print the news about people. So before long every one had forgotten where the family had gone.
When Mr. Robidoux, who had bought the property from Tesson, died in 1810, the farm had to be sold again. This time it was bought by an American named Thomas F. Reddick. He paid only sixty-three dollars for six hundred and forty acres- a square mile of Iowa land.
In 1821 an American travelling over what is now southern Iowa found an Indian village, under Chief Cut Nose, near the old orchard. The Indians, it is said, never waited for the apples to get ripe, but ate them all while they were still green.
There was no one living in the old Tesson house; so there was no one to take care of the fences or to plow the ground under the trees so that the roots could get air and water. The Indians like the apples, but they were not willing to plant trees of their own or to take care of the Tesson orchard. In 1832 there were only fifteen trees left.
In 1834, just after settlers had begun to come into Iowa, the United States built a fort, called Fort Des Moines, just north of the old apple orchard. This fort was on the bank of the Mississippi River and, of course, was not the Fort Des Moines from which the city of Des Moines got its name. Among the officers who lived at this fort, and perhaps went out to look at the old apple trees which Tesson had planted thirty-five years before, was Albert M. Lea, who named Iowa, and for whom the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota, was named.
When the soldiers left Fort Des Moines in 1837, a man named D. W. Kilbourne started a town on the site of the old fort and named it Montrose. If you look this town up on a map of Lee County or visit it some day, you will know just where the Tesson farm was located. For a long time there were many disputes as to who really owned the land, for the records were not well kept and people had forgotten about Tesson and some of the other men who had owned the apple orchard. Finally, in 1874, George B. Denison, who owned the land at that time, gave the old orchard to the town of Montrose for a park. There were no trees left, however. They had all died or been broken down by the storms.
But even the land on which the first orchard in Iowa had been planted was later lost to sight. How could land disappear? you may ask. In 1912 the United States government permitted a company called the Mississippi River Power Company to build a great dam across the Mississippi River at Keokuk, a few miles below Montrose. When this dam was finished in June, 1913, and the engineers closed the great flood gates, the waters of the Mississippi River above the dam grew higher and higher. Soon the high water reached Montrose and before long the yellow river entirely covered the ground where Louis Honore Tesson had planted the little apple trees in 1799.
Back to Stories of Iowa Index