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Source: "Past and Present of O'Brien and Osceola Counties, Iowa" by Peck, Montzheimer, and Miller, 1914


O'Brien county's people came from everywhere. While this is true, it is probably also true that well nigh two-thirds of its people, or their parents, have at some time lived in some other county in Iowa. Iowa, being universally agricultural, the idea of agriculture, even in emigration, moves on farming lines. Its old homesteaders were, many of them, old soldiers in the Civil War. The fact that soldiers were given certain privileges brought them here. These, as a rule, were Americans, but, though largely from Iowa, came at least from one or other of the states. At least they came from no one locality. According to George W. Schee's Book of Army Records, there were about five hundred and seventy-five old soldiers who have at one time or another lived in the county. This would represent about that many families, and would mean that from two thousand to twenty-five hundred soldiers or soldiers' children or grandchildren reside in the county, making due allowance for removals. Decoration Day celebrations and old soldiers' reunions have therefore been a distinctive feature of the public days.

The coming of or building of the Northwestern railroad in 1881 produced a very pronounced result—in fact, the most noticeable in the county— in starting out and heading for O'Brien county one definite division or nationality, the thrifty Germans. The road naturally brought them in from the many German sections in and around Gladbrook, Davenport, Reinbeck, Dubuque and other Iowa places. They represent probably about two-fifths of the total population of the county. While many Germans in the county originally came from Germany itself, and many directly to O'Brien county, the larger portion came from those large German communities named. Caledonia township may be said to be solidly German. For a period of thirty years that township has not averaged more than three votes per year of other nationalities. While there are Germans in every township, yet they will be found in the largest numbers in Caledonia, Union, Liberty, Dale, Highland, Center, Omega and Hartley. In land sale parlance, it is often remarked that whenever a German or Hollander purchases a farm it adds five and ten dollars per acre to the value forthwith.

A few from among the older families came direct from England. At the time that D. Edward Paullin platted Paullina and established and founded its name, it was thought that a large English colony would be established by himself and the Close brothers, who colonized several large English communities in Plymouth and Osceola counties. But those gentlemen finally expended their energies elsewhere, and the large English colony failed to materialize in O'Brien county. The English in the county may be said to consist of single families here and there. The families of John Archer, Thomas Holmes, Thomas Hayes and others in and around Archer would come the nearest to being a definite English colony, with several others in the county of a few families in a community.

Prior to 1880 the Scottish-American Land Company and the Jackson Land Company opened up land offices in Emmettsburg, Palo Alto county, in which county was planted a large Scotch colony and where these two companies held large tracts of land. These companies were organized by William J. Menzies, of Scotland, and Alexander Peddie, a Scotchman, and the manager in this section of the country. These two companies owned several thousand acres of land in and around Paullina, in Union and in Dale townships. This colony of Scotch people came from Roxborough and Selkirk counties, in the south of Scotland. William Aitkin first came in the year 1880. It was his son, Thomas Aitken, who, in later years, was cut and mangled to his death by a runaway team with a reaper. Mr. Aitken was followed, in 1881, by William Cowan, William Redford, Alexander Scott, James M. Christy, Thomas Scott, Hector Cowan, Sr., and James Gifford and their families, all of whom bought large tracts of this Scottish-American Land Company land. These families now reach down into the third and fourth generations, many of them well known in the later years. However, as a Scotch colony, its people have so scattered and removed to the towns that as a colony it is all but disintegrated, but during the years 1880 to 1900 it was one of the most formidable colonies in the county. One of their number, Miss Belle Cowan, was county superintendent for the years 1889-1890, and was also a teacher in the high schools of both Primghar and Paullina.

The Irish settled in largest numbers in and around Sheldon. They were mainly homesteaders, and the foundation families were those of William Gavin, Thomas Burns, Michael Burns, Timothy Donahue (at one time member of the lower house of the Iowa Legislature from O'Brien county), John Dougherty, John McGrath, Pat Kennedy, Pat Kelly, Timothy Donoghue, Pat Carroll (after whom Carroll township was named), John Hart, John R. Deacon. Joseph Berry, Dan McKay and Pat Sullivan. The descendants of this colony of Irish have maintained their residences down through the generations.

Next to the Germans in numbers in this county, the Hollanders, in fixed communities, have the most definitely established themselves. The Hollanders coming direct to O'Brien county are mainly from Sioux county, where they constitute the large majority; The Hollanders in O'Brien county have been characterized by thrift in the purchase of more land for themselves and their sons. The Sioux county Hollanders came mainly from Pella, Iowa, where is one of the largest of the original Holland settlements direct from the Zuyder Zee. The same persistence that pushed back the waters of the sea and made more land in Holland has resulted in success in the Sioux county Hollanders pushing over into O'Brien, and, by the larger price he is willing to pay, he, by cash argument, invites the other owner out. He never loses or lets go a farm once purchased. It is no doubt true that both the German and Hollander have a higher idea of land value than any other class. Their views of things are solid as the earth. Land to them means, as it in fact is, that, with its use, it reaches down to the center of the earth and the air above it, clear to the sky. So definite is the Hollander in his fixedness in the county, that Holland churches are to be found in Sheldon, Sanborn and Hartley. The Hollanders will perhaps number a full tenth or more in the county. The same may be said of the German all over the county. He keeps his own land and buys out his neighbor. These people will be noticed under several other heads.

The Scandinavians have many small settlements, but are more scattered than the Germans or Hollanders. The most noted definite colony perhaps is the Scandinavian Quaker settlement in South Dale and Highland, where they support a Quaker church and school, and hold services Wednesday as well as Sunday. Among the foundation families of this colony are those of Lorenzo Rockwell, Curtis L. Rockwell (for many years a member of the board of supervisors), Loui Rockwell, Archibald Henderson, Christian Thompson, Roy Rockwell, D. J. Peckham, Joseph Henderson, Oman Tow, James Mott, O. P. Tjossem, A. R. Rockwell and Sam Norland.

O'Brien County Iowa Genealogy - The IAGenWeb Project