Mills County, Iowa

1881 Mills County History

      The general dip of the county—averaging two feet to the mile, as indeed of the remaining portions of southwestern Iowa, is a little west of south, its surface waters finding their way to the Missouri, the “Big Muddy.” The entire eastern portion of the county is drained by the Nishnabotna, along the valley of which some beautiful scenery is to be found, and which enters the county in section three, Anderson township, and leaves it in section thirty-two, White Cloud township. The central portions of the county are drained by Silver creek, entering it in section six, Ingraham township, and discharging its waters into the Nishnabotna, in section sixteen, White Cloud township. Indian Creek drains the greater portion of the township of that name, entering on section twenty-five, from Montgomery county, its waters being thus tributary to the Nishnabotna.

      There are numerous other small streams, many of them dry the greater portion of the year, in the cast and central parts of the county. West of Silver Creek the most considerable stream in the county is Keg Creek which enters the county on sections three of Ingraham and five of Oak township. It pursues a very sinuous course, sometimes doubling on itself before it passes through the bluffs and reaches the bottom land along the Missouri. It approaches the course of the latter river in section seven of Lyons township, and after a course of six miles in the county, finally leaves it to enter Fremont county on section thirty-two of the same township.

      The most considerable tributary to Keg creek is Pony creek, which rises in section two of 0ak township and empties its waters in section sixteen of Platteville township Its course is nearly a straight one from north to south, Mosquito Creek, in the extreme northwest, is a tributary to the Missouri and drains the greater portion of the small township of St Marys, flowing in a course which is almost circular. There remains but one other stream of any importance, Wahbonsie Creek, which leaves this to enter Fremont county on section thirty-six of Lyons township, having flowed in a southerly course from its place of rising just west of Hillsdale. The name is given it in memory of a celebrated chieftain of the Pottawattamies, an account of whose legal trials may be elsewhere found.

      The drainage of the Missouri consists almost entirely of small creeks and ravines—the latter yearly growing deeper and larger—through which the waters of the upland regions reach its flood plain, and in which they are lost, none of them flowing through the land in the ordinary manner of streams of running water, but reaching the Missouri by percolation through the earth. The heavily wooded sections are on the west third of the county, while the streams of the eastern side are less heavily wooded, and partake more of the true character of prairie streams.

      The surface of the county is uneven, gently undulating with hills and valleys, such as is characteristic of rolling prairie. Here, as in every other part of the world, there is a most intimate connection between the configuration of the surface and the geological structure of any particular district, and it will be shown in the chapter devoted to the geology of this county that every peculiarity in its topography is due to the nature of the underlying strata, modified by those agencies which are to-day operating to change the entire aspect of Nature. Nowhere in this county are there eminences of material height, nor is it true that its several water-sheds are marked by distinct ridges, easily recognized. The county is situated on the western slope of the great divide between the “ Big Muddy ‘‘ and the “ Father of Waters,” and though so near the former, it has still a much higher elevation than the counties along the Mississippi—the difference being two hundred and sixty-three feet above the level of low water in the last named river. A most striking feature in the topography of this county is the region of prairies—a term first applied by the early French settlers, and now almost universally adopted, to designate natural grass lands. The prairie occupies the whole of the higher portion of the county, with here and there the exception of an isolated group of trees, standing like an island in the midst of the ocean.

      In ascending from the level of a river to the high land in its vicinity, we first cross the “bottom land” or “bottom,” the portion of the valley which is level, and being but little elevated above the surface of the stream is usually liable to overflow, especially at the time of the spring freshets. These bottom lands are almost always heavily timbered and with a variety of trees, among which the elm, linden, black walnut, black and burr oak, poplar and ash are the most common. The breadth of the bottom may be variable, in some places from six to eight miles, and in others again with hardly more than room for the stream itself to pass between the bluffs. These latter are usually met with just after leaving the bottom land, and rise on either hand from one hundred to two hundred and fifty feet. The bluffs which border the broad flood-plain or bottom land of the Missouri river along all that part of its course which forms the western boundary of Iowa, are so peculiar in character and appearance, that they cannot fail to attract the attention of every one who sees them for the first time. Their strangely and beautifully rounded summits, occasionally mingled with sharply-cut ridges, smooth and abruptly retreating slopes, and the entire absence of rocky ledges, except in rare instances, where they appear only at their base, cause them to present a marked contrast with those of the Mississippi and other rivers of the eastern part of the state where rocky ledges support and compose the greater part of their bulk. From the mouth of the Big Sioux to the southern boundary of the state, these blluffs present a continuous, serrated and buttressed front to the flood-plain of the great river, from which they rise abruptly to a maximum height in different parts of the line, varying from one hundred to little less than three hundred feet. Although the front they present is so definite and continuous, it is nevertheless frequently and deeply cleft, not only by the tributaries of the great river, but also by small creeks and short ravines that drain the surface—water from the up-lands beyond, in which the bluffy character is soon lost. Sometimes the bluff range, departing a little from the general direct line, presents a full crescentic front to the plain with an arc of several miles in length. At these places their peculiar outlines are shown in an interesting manner, and the form and arrangement of the numerous rounded prominences presents views of impressive beauty as they stretch away in the distance, or form bold curves in the line of hills, while the broad flood p1ain of the Missouri river, level as a floor, stretches miles away to the westward to meet the turbid stream near the line of bluffs which borders the western, as those of Iowa do the eastern side. Trees often fill the sides of the deeper ravines or skirt their bases, but usually their only covering is a growth of wild grasses and annual plants; and, as the mound-like peaks and rounded ridges jut over each other, or diverge in various directions, while they reached upward to the upland the setting sun throws strange and weird shadows across them, producing a scene quite in keeping with that wonderful history of the past of which they form a part.

      The wealth of Mills county is due to the prevalence of the deposit known as the "bluff deposit,” and which covers its entire surface. The origin and nature of this material may be fully learned from the geological history of the county. It forms, however, one of the richest of the rich soils for which Iowa is so famous. Analyses of its composition show it to have a very small percentage of clay, and a very great percentage of purely silicious material. The county is peculiarly adapted to the growth of those cereals and fruits that contribute to the maintenance of man, and well deserves its appellation of “the garden of Iowa.” Its fertility is sufficiently well indicated by the rank, luxuriant growth of prairie grass, and the strength of most of the common wild plants. For centuries the earth has been giving of its substance to the nourishment of plant life – but the return it has gleaned only adds to its powers. The humus – soil containing the remains of vegetation – seems almost endowed, not only with the life-sustaining but a life-producing principle. The broad acres of Mills were not subjected to the wonderful changes which have passed over their face without a purpose, and that purpose is sufficiently clear to need no comment. For ages the earth has brought its increase, and for ages more the process of growth and decay may go on, without destroying the fertility of this wonderful soil.

      The nature of the soils of a given district is sufficiently distinct to admit of a kind of rude classification, which serves the double purpose of nomenclature, and indicates their value. To two of the three classes into which they are usually divided – namely, drift, bluff, and alluvial – the soil of Mills county belongs, and to the last two named. As has been said, the bluff deposit or soil covers the surface of the entire county to a depth varying from five feet to one hundred feet.

      In the “bottom” lands, however, is to be found the so-called “alluvium,” a soil, which, from the nature of its origin, is probably the very richest material known. This latter is the residue or fine sedimentary matter left by the waters of a stream when at its highest flood. Rushing down declivities the waters of both the ancient and modern streams wore away their soft embankments, carrying the material thus derived to the lower lands, depositing them at all points where the waters were comparatively at rest. These constitute the “flat” or “bottom land,” – the present flood plains of the county’s rivers. Beneath this bluff deposit, the probably origin of which will be indicated further on, is found the “drift,” a most fertile material, the discussion of the origin of which also properly belongs to the chapter on geology. Not only will the physical peculiarities of these two formations serve to distinguish them, but the different characters of their vegetations will make an excellent criterion. The flora of the deeply wooded valleys will be found to differ in many essential points from that of the prairies, each of which is characteristic. This feature is a most noticeable one in Mills county, especially on its western side, which is infinitely diversified with hills and valleys strangely and confusedly mingled together in the wildest manner. Riding west from Glenwood toward the Missouri bottom, many valleys are crossed and hills surmounted – valleys and hills that were formed by great streams that raged through these narrow passes ages ago – and the wonderful and rapid changes in vegetation, from a prairie to a woodland flora, is a sufficiently plain indication of the changes in the formations on which they flourish. This remarkable adaptability to certain plants in particular regions, whereas in others their very existence is critical, has induced a vast amount of speculation and experiment as to the adaptability of Iowa soils for the growth of forest trees. What is true of this great state as a whole, is true of the county of Mills.

      Dr. White’s admirable summary of discussions on this much mooted point, has demonstrated that notwithstanding the fact that the distance from the northern to the southern limits of the state is more than three degrees of latitude, in consequence of the slight difference in surface elevation, and the great degree of uniformity in the character of the soil, there is a striking uniformity in the character of the native vegetation; for the same reasons also there is an equal uniformity in the adaptability of the soil and climate to the production of cultivated crops. There are indeed, many species of indigenous plants restricted to certain parts of the state, and of others that are found only in habitats rendered congenial by moisture, dryness, barrenness, unusual fertility, etc., as the case may be; yet these are only exceptions to the general uniformity throughout the state, of all indigenous vegetation, including the forest trees. The subject of the distribution of indigenous vegetation is a very suggestive and interesting one in all its bearings, but especially when applied to the growth of forest trees, it becomes one of unusual practical importance to every citizen Iowa. The great importance which attaches to this part of the subject is apparent from the fact that the wood of forest trees for fuel, no less than for other purposes, is an indispensable element in the prosperity, and even the inhabitation of any country, not to mention the beneficial effects of forests upon the climate, the beautifying and adornment of its landscapes, and the shading and sheltering of its homes. Dr. White continues: “If there is really an unfitness of prairie soil for the growth of forest trees, then at least one-third of our state is worthless indeed. But this is not the case, for personal observation in all parts of the state, extending through a period of thirty years, has established a knowledge of the fact that all varieties of our indigenous forest trees will grow thriftily upon all varieties of our soil; even those whose most congenial habitat is upon the alluvial soil of our river valleys, or upon the rugged slopes of the valley sides.

      As has been previously indicated, this county is remarkably well drained; on the east by the Nishnabotna, and west by the numerous small streams, the waters of which ultimately find their way to the Missouri. The character of these streams is determined by the nature of the surface over which they flow. The clear, sparkling rills and the dancing blue waves of New England streams are all wanting in the waters of Mills. These latter flow throughout their entire courses in this county, in narrow, sinuous, ditch-like depressions in their flood plains, and over the materials previously mentioned as “bluff” and “alluvial.” This is the cause of their excessive muddiness. Notwithstanding the fact that the beds of the Nishnabotnas dip in the direction of the courses at the average rate of 2.68 feet per mile, their sinuosity is so great, and the specific gravity of their waters so largely increased by reason of the finely comminuted material held in suspension, that they are excessively sluggish, and it would seem decidedly inappropriate to dignify them with the title of river. Yet there are times when it would seem that in their rate, during heavy rains or the floods of spring, they defy the power of the very hills to withstand them. Then are they seen in their full force and in all their destructiveness; then, if at all, can be appreciated the mighty eroding power of water, that power which shall ultimately level the mountains, and carry away the lands to be swallowed up in the dark recesses of the sea. Observing one of these streams at high flood, no one will longer wonder how they become such an important factor in earth sculpture, and how the deep valleys and lofty bluffs of Mills county came to be as they are. On the extreme west of the county flows the Missouri, to-day as patiently rolling its earth-laden waters onward to the sea as when it first began the great work of digging its own valley. Grand, silent, majestic, it seeps over onward in its course, as quietly now as hundreds of centuries ago when its waters expanded scores of miles to the east and west, forming a great inland sea, the bottom of which was the surface of Mills county. “The only discussion of this remarkable river that can be given in this report must relate alone to the character of the stream and its valley along that part of its course which goes to form the western boundary of Mills county. We have no information of the amount of water annually flowing past the state of Iowa in this great river, because no detailed hydrographic survey of it has ever been made along our border.

      “It is, however, one of the muddiest streams on the globe, and its waters are known to be very turbid far toward its source. Two collections of its water have been made from its channel at Council Bluffs, and the solid contents determined by Prof. Emery. One parcel was collected at low water, on November 9, 1868, and the other on July 5, 1868, when the river was just bank-full. The amount of sediment filtered out of the water in both instances was as follows: Low water, .462 grains in one liter – 52 grains in one gallon; high water, 5,672 grains in one liter – 404 grains in one gallon, from which it is readily seen that the amount of suspended sediment at times of high water is more than twelve times as great as it is at low water.” – White.

A further discussion of the history of the Missouri is reserved for another page.

      There are within the limits of this county no bodies of water which could be properly designated as lakes. There is, however, a single one popularly called a lake, situated in sections 31 and 35 of Lyons township – Lake Wahbonsie.* This lake – or pond – lies partly in Fremont county, and is at the best not a very conspicuous feature. It differs widely from the clear blue waters of Lakes Ontario or Superior, and can nowhere be easily approached by reason of the dense growth of flags and marsh grass which grow even to the water’s edge. It is properly a fluviatile lake, owing its existence to the change which has occurred in the course of the Missouri, and of the ancient bed of which it is a relict. The broad bottom land of the Missouri has been caused by the vibration of the great stream from side to side during which it alternately occupied and abandoned all portions of it successively. During the last of these recessions to the westward the waters formed a bar or natural dike, and within this was imprisoned the waters, at first forming a “bayou” or pond. Annually overflowing its banks that supply of water was kept up until, in the course of time, from the circumjacent hills in times of flood caused by melting snow or storms the water supply was maintained. Resting, as Lake Wahbonsie does, upon alluvial material, there can be no reasonable doubt but that such has been its history. The time is not far distant when the lake, which has shrunk very largely from its former size, will cease to be; its site will be one vast slough, and perhaps, in some distant day, where now its waters rest will be found fields of waving grain. It marks, today, where once the Missouri ran, and as an index to certain wonderful changes now occurring in the physical aspect of Nature is not without interest and value. The lake has no outlet, its waters being dissipated both by evaporation and by percolation through the soil.

      Climate is one of those most important things about which men inquire least. Few realize the fact that all the changes in wind and storm, rain and drouth take place in obedience to fixed laws. It is important to every resident of the county to know at least their effects, even though they take little interest in the laws themselves. Climatic extremes in this county are few. The winters are not excessively cold, and the summers are not intolerably hot. Heavy falls of snow are of extremely rate occurrence, and the annual fall of rain is somewhat less than that of the eastern portions of the state in the same latitude. The prevailing winds during the winter are from the northwest, and are rarely of that bitterly cold nature which residents in the northern portion of the state denote the “blizzard.” In the spring the character of the winds suddenly changes to that of a healthful and mellow nature. They then change their quarter, blowing from a southernly direction until the late fall months, when again they blow from the north. There never have been made any meteorological observations extending through a sufficient length of time from which may be gathered the statistics of the climatic conditions of the county since its settlement and organization. It differs but immaterially, however, from the conditions at Council Bluffs, where observations have been made through a long series of years, in pursuance of a plan devised by the general government dating back to 1819. The following table of mean temperatures for each season, compiled from data gathered at the last named place, ranging from the year 1820 to 1843 inclusive, will aid in forming a general conclusion on the climate of this county:

      Latitude . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 degrees, 30 minutes

      Longitude . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95 degrees, 48 minutes

      Elevation, in feet . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1350

      Mean spring temperature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49.3

      Mean summer “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74.7

      Mean autumn “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51.4

      Mean winder “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21.7

      This year . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49.3

      From this table it will be seen that the mean temperature for the year is exactly that of the spring.

A series of observations extending over a period of nineteen years, (1850-69), on the direction of the prevailing winds, give the following interesting facts.

DIRECTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . N.N.E. E.S.E. S.S.W. W.N.N.W.

      Spring . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19.0 19.9 22.2 28.8

      Summer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15.3 23.1 53.1 18.0

      Autumn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17.3 19.5 25.1 29.2

      Winter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17.0 14.4 24.1 37.8

      Year . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17.5 19.0 26.2 28.5

From this table it will be seen that for three hundred and sixty days of the year there are perceptible winds blowing in the county. To rightly estimate their value as climatic modifiers, there must be considered many important factors, such as the distribution of heat through their agency, the distribution of moisture, and their force, questions into which it is not the purpose of this sketch to enter. They are of the greatest benefit to the sanitary condition of the county, as they prevent the accumulation of malaria which arises from the decay of the rich masses of vegetation with which the prairies are covered. Another agent, active in preventing the origination and spread of disease by absorbing large quantities of noxious gasses, is the annual fall of rain, which for a period of twenty years (1850-69) gave the following in inches:

      Winter, total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117.29; mean . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5.86

      Spring, “ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 237.11; mean . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11.85

      Summer, “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 278.06; mean . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13.90

      Fall, “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 216.33; mean . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10.83

      From which it will be seen that both total and mean fall in summer exceeds that of either of the other three seasons. The deduction from these statistics, that the climate is a healthful one, is furthered strengthened by the general elevation of the greater part of the surface of the county. In all elevated lands the air is invigorating and bracing at all seasons, under the same conditions that prevail elsewhere. The human race has not only degenerated by dwelling in low, unhealthy places, but it is again and again decimated by the pestilences generated in them. As Dr. Farr well remarks, “it is destroyed now periodically by five pestilences – cholera, remittent fever, yellow fever, glandular plagues and influenza. The origin or chief seat of the first is the Delta of the Ganges. Of the second, the African and other tropical coasts. Of the third, the low west coast around the Gulf of Mexico, or the Delta of the Mississippi, and the West India Islands. Of the fourth, the Delta of the Nile and the low sea-side cities of the Mediterranean. Of the generating field of influenza, nothing certain is known, but * * * * * * * * *

      “The history of the nations on the Mediterranean, on the plains of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Deltas of the Indus and the Ganges, and the rivers of China, exhibit this great fact; the gradual descent of races from the highlands, their establishment on the coasts in cities, sustained and refreshed for a season by immigration from the interior, their degradation in successive generations under the influence of the unhealthy earth, and their final ruin, effacement or subjugation by new races of conquerors. The causes that destroy individual men, lay cities waste, which in their nature, are immortal, and silently undermine eternal empires.

      “On the highlands men feel the loftiest emotions. Every tradition places their origin there. The first nations worshipped there; high on the Indian Caucasus, on Olympus, and on other lofty mountains the Indians and the Greeks imagined the abodes of their highest gods, while they peopled the low, underground regions, the grave-land of mortality, with infernal deities. Their myths have a deep signification. Man feels his immortality in the hills. While this may not be considered as bearing directly on the climate of Mills county, it is nevertheless a cognate theme. These are the things which have no little influence on mental and physical organization, and through them modify all the conditions of national development. Health and intelligence, intelligence and good morals, good morals and excellent government are sisters three without which neither nations nor men may live and prosper; while it is true there are no highlands proper in this county, its whole surface is sufficiently elevated to outgeneral disease and stay the ravages of pestilence.

Transcribed by Roseanna Zehner and Jennifer Miller; Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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