From the Iowa City Press Citizen By Sara Langenberg
photo by Deb Barber

Monday, December 24, 2001
format updated 28 Sep 2010

Walker family among
county's first settlers

Today's story about the Walkers of Johnson County is the third in a week-long series celebrating
people who, long ago, came to the area, got married and settled down to raise their families.

Their reasons for coming were many - jobs, adventure, family.
For generations, their descendants have helped shape Johnson County.

You just can't go back further than the Walkers if you are looking for Anglo-Saxon families that have been in Johnson County for several generations.

In 1838, two Walker brothers from Ohio were among the first white settlers to call Johnson County home.

Headed west from Indiana to find prosperity like most other pioneers, some friends of the Walker family - Eli Myers and Philip Clark - met fur trader John Gilbert en-route.

Gilbert had paid the area's Native Americans with whiskey in the 1820s to build a trading post here in 1830. He convinced Myer and Clark that it would be a good place for them to homestead, too.

So Myers and Clark doubled back to Indiana, recruited two of the Walker brothers (from a family of 10) and arrived back in a land inhabited largely by about 600 Indians from the Sac and Fox tribes. Three chiefs ruled the land: Poweshiek, Totokonock and Kishkekosh.

The rest of the Walker family followed in 1840, and in the 161 years since then, literally hundreds of Walkers have called Johnson County home. Though they originated in Scotland, then Ireland, then in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Walker lineage that stretched into Iowa initiated a family history that spans six generations on the banks of the Iowa River.

The family tree is dotted with bankers, teachers, mayors and farmers; mothers fathers, sons and daughters.

Robert Walker, a descendant of Johnson County’s first settler,
John Walker, looks at the grave site of Cloy Walker in rural Johnson County.


And few of the Iowa-born Walkers have strayed from the original stomping grounds, near River Junction and Pleasant Valley. Most of their ancestors are buried in small cemeteries in this area, too.

It's a tricky family tree to trace, however. The Walkers tend to have large families, and to name children after fathers, uncles, brothers and grandparents. There are at least 10 Robert Walkers dating to the original Robert of Glasgow, Scotland, born in 1610.

There are at least as many Henrys, Josephs, Samuels and James in the 11 generations since then, but it was a Robert who brought the lineage to the New World. He arrived in Baltimore, Md., in 1725, and at least one of his grandsons, also named Robert, went on to fight in the Revolutionary War.

The remains of the first Walkers to tread in Johnson County are in an old cemetery, high on a hill about a mile south of 560th Street in south Johnson County. Some stones are so old they have toppled over; the inscriptions eroded with age.

An oral history is alive and kicking, however, in 75-year-old Robert Walker, who lives with his wife near the original Walker homestead. He's the kind of guy who stuffs his overall pockets with film canisters in which the innards represent riddles. And he loves to tell stories.

For instance, legend has it that trees only began to grow in Lone Tree after one of the original Walkers stuck a green stick in the ground while driving cattle. It grew.

Other family legends are not as unbelievable.

The Walkers had been kicked out of Portage County, Ohio, for being poor, Walker said.

"They had about nine kids, and they were poor," he said. "So two brothers came in the spring, and two in the fall, and the four of them built a house. They went over to Davenport to cut wood for the steam ship in the wintertime to make money."

Those first settlers were Robert, Samuel, James and Joseph Walker, who were probably somewhere between 18 and 28 at the time.

The first generation: 1840s

Their parents, James and Mary Sarah "Betsey" Walker, arrived with three more of the family's nine children in 1840. They were 18-year-old Laura, 14-year-old Frances (Fannie) and 11-year-old Henry. Their two oldest daughters had stayed in Ohio or Indiana with their husbands.

Soon after they arrived, James and Mary decided that their children needed a school, Walker said, so they built the first school house in Johnson County, near River Junction north of Highway 22.

It was very near an existing Indian town, Walker said, but the natives were friendly with the Walkers and vice versa (the treaty forcing Iowa's native residents to move to Fort Des Moines in Tama County wasn't signed until 1843).

The children wasted no time starting families of their own.

The second generation is born

Robert married Caroline McCorkle in 1843. Samuel married Elizabeth Stover (of the Russell Stover candy family) in 1839 and had nine children. James married Mary Fountain in 1858 and they had eight kids.

Daughter Laura married Henry Welsh in 1842 and had six kids before moving to Kansas. Fannie married George Walker of New York (no relation) in 1846, and they raised six kids in Solon.

Joseph married Cloy "Jane" Powelson in 1847 in Riverside, and had seven children, including Henry, (Walker's grandfather), who married Lone Tree's first school teacher, Carrie Scott.

Henry, the youngest of James and Mary's children, went on to make perhaps the biggest name for himself.

As he was about 18 when his parents died, young Henry went to to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849.

"There was nothing particular to hold him back," Walker said. "He ran a ferry back and forth across the water out in California somewhere. That's where he made his killing. They say he brought back enough gold to buy a section of land and equipment, and it was so much gold he couldn't carry it all in one wagonload."

Joseph Walker (1819-1893) was also one of the first farmers to feed livestock in Johnson County and "took an honorable part in local affairs," according to a history book published in 1912.

"At the time the fort was constructed for the Indians in Tama County, he and Governor Kirkwood helped to make it," the author wrote. "He was an extensive stocksman, and loved to be among his herds."

His gravestone, in a family plot under an ancient pine tree near 560th Street, says: "Amiable and beloved father, farewell. Truly thy work shall live after thee."

Third generation, 1880s

His son, Joseph Jr., married Cora Adams in 1883 in Solon and they had four children: Fred, Bernice, Myron and Ralph.

Myron, who lived from 1892 to 1953, was once mayor of Iowa City.

Before he died in 1934, Joseph Jr. had been involved in Hills Savings Bank and later, Lone Tree Savings Bank. His wife Cora was one of the first school teachers in Lone Tree, and she worked as an assistant cashier at Hills Bank.

"A lady of true culture and refinement and executive ability, Mrs. Walker is a lady of many accomplishments and traces her lineage of President John Quincy Adams,' the 1912 history book reported.

Joseph Jr., the book noted, "is one of the capitalists of Johnson County, the owner of 1,600 acres of good family lands in the county and in Macon County, Mo."

His gravestone is near the black angel in Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery.

Joseph's brother Henry was known around town as "Applejack," Walker said.

"He always had a bottle of booze under his buggy seat. When he married Carrie Scott, she wouldn't let him have any liquor in the house, period," he said. "She was a school teacher and the liquor wouldn't do."

Henry and Carrie had four children: Scott, Hazel, Evelyn and Willis.

Fourth and fifth generations: 1900s

Henry's son, Scott, was born in 1893. He married Columbia Powelson in 1918 and they had three children: Robert, Scott Jr. and Cara.

Scott died at 71 after working for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington D.C.

Cara Walker Brehm married Harold Brehm 49 years ago. Cara attended Iowa State University and still owns land near Iowa City next to her brother Robert. She has worked with Camp Fire and the American Legion. In 1987, Cara was written up in the Idaho Statesman as “Portrait of a Distinguished Citizen. She also won the Idaho Jefferson Award 1994.

Her husband, Harold, worked for Boeing in Seattle and for Mountain Home Air Force Base as a civil engineer. He died Sunday, June 23, 2002.

Sixth, seventh generations: 1950s

Robert carried on the Walker family tradition when he and his wife, Idabelle, had 15 children. They make up a sixth generation of Walkers born in Johnson County, although only a few of them still live around here.

One of Walkers sons, Phillip, who drowned in Rhode Island in 1987, is buried in the family plot near his grandparents, Scott and Columbia.

Robert's grandfather, Henry, his great-grandfather Joseph, and the other three Walker brothers who first settled Johnson County - Robert, Samuel and James - are buried there, too.

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