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Shelby County


1889 History Index

Biographical History of Shelby and Audubon Counties
History of Shelby County, Iowa


Each year, as it rolls its resistless way along the mighty pathway of time, is fast thinning the ranks of the hardy pioneers, who, in their adventurous way, first made the broad pathway of emigration into the bright valley and beautifully rolling prairie land of what is now Shelby County. The relentless hand of death, pursuing his remorseless and unceasing avocation, is cutting down, one by one, the hardy and brave men and women who first dared, into this western wilderness, to cope with the untried realities of a domain unknown to civilization, and uninhabited, save by the savage, roaming tribes of Indians, who for an unknown period enjoyed their sort of life, even as we do ours now. Within the memory of many now living in this county, the Indian chieftain, with his dusky maiden, was inspired by the scenes of nature on every hand. This to them was doubtless a sacred spot; here they had hunted and fished; here they had worshiped the Great Spirit; here they had lived and died, passing away to give place to a truer, better type of human creatures.

No tongue can tell, no pen portray, the hardships and cruel vicissitudes of fortune endured in those early days by the little band of "apostate" Mormons, who, for the conscience within themselves, deserted Brigham Young and his polygamous devotees, upon reaching the Missouri River. The historian of to-day looks into the bedimmed eye of the Latter-Day Saints, observing their weather-beaten form, the furrowed brow, the prematurely hoary locks, and takes them all as evidence that these people have passed through "great tribulation."

Besides these Mormons (who formed the majority of Shelby County's first settlers), there were some others among the earliest settlement, who left the comforts of beautiful homes in the far-away East and volunteered here to plow the first fields and reap the first grain. These, too, often endured penury and want while trying to subdue and fully conquer Dame Nature and establish for their families comfortable homes in what, at that date, was a boundless wilderness.

Let us hasten, then, to put down the words as they fall from their quivering lips, of the grandly heroic deeds done in those pioneer times, that their actions may find the niche in history which they justly deserve. Let their words and deeds build for them a monument that shall long outlast the stone or bronze which shall ere long mark their last resting place. Let there an epitaph be inscribed, "THEY HAVE BUILDED BETTER THAN THEY KNEW." But before we take up the history of true, modern historic times, let us record a few of the facts concerning this county as it existed "down through the dim and misty vista of time before man was," and see what foundations were here builded by an all-wise Creator, in the geological formation, the soil, the forests and the streams.



Shelby County is situated on the Missouri slope, in the fourth tier of counties from the southern boundary line of the State, and is the second east from the Missouri River. It is twenty-four miles square, and has an area of 576 square miles. It is bounded on the north by Crawford County, on the east by Audubon County, on the south by Cass and Pottawattamie counties, and on the west by Harrison County.

The general surface of the land within the borders of this county is very rolling, and in portions it is quite hilly prairie land, with a few good-sized native groves, of which Galland's is the largest. It may be said of the topography of nearly all this portion of Iowa, that its surface reminds one of an irregular checker-board of ridges and intervening valleys, furrowed out by the great plow of Nature. It is a prairie country, but does not have the usual characteristics of prairie land, as occasional groves and beautiful streamlets relieve the ordinary monotony of a stretch of prairie. Let one, to illustrate, imagine for a moment that at one time in its formation the whole county was in a liquid state, and by a violent wind had been thrown into billowy commotion, resembling the angry ocean when storm-driven. Imagine the whole to be cut up into great wave-furrowed sections, and then by some sudden process to be frozen, and this will show about the broken condition of the land in Shelby County. It is excellent for agriculture, as the hillsides have fine rich soil and are especially adapted to the growing of the various fruits cultivated in this latitude. The bottom lands generally slope toward the streams, and along the West Nishnabotna River is one of the finest valleys in all the broad domain of Iowa. All the various valleys in the county possess the richest of soil, which is known as "bluff deposit," washed from the hillsides, throughout the centuries long since passed. Unlike the northern and eastern portion of Iowa, this county has no subsoil of clay to hold the water; hence it is that after a heavy rain storm one may resume the work of farming, never being bothered with plows not clearing, or with muddy, impassable wagon-roads. In short, there is no finer soil to work in or travel upon than is found in southwestern Iowa. The principal crops grown are Indian corn and the common grains, all of which spring up quickly, grow rapidly and mature into profitable harvests.

The county is exceptionally well watered, for an Iowa county. The West Nishnabotna River flows nearly southwest, through the middle of the territory, receiving from the east the waters of the Middle Nishnabotna River, Whittede and Indian creeks, while the western part is drained by branches of the Missouri and Boyer rivers, including Silver, Mosquito, Pigeon and Picayune creeks. Mill Creek is a small stream in the northwest portion of the county, which flows into the Boyer River in Harrison County, and upon which is located one of Iowa's most charminbg tracts of woodland, known as Galland's Grove -- named from one of the first white men who settled in than vicinity. It contains about 1,000 acres. There are other beautiful groves throughout the county, along the banks of the numerous streams, too small to call rivers and too large to term creeks, in the common understanding of the name. These natural groves, planted by Mother Nature, are made up, for the most part, of the different species of oak, elm, ash, hickory, black walnut and bass wood. There are also many thickets of sumach, hazel, thorn-apple, blackberry, gooseberry and kindred shrubs.

The entire county is supposed, by geological experts, to be underlaid with a coal deposit, to a greater or less extent, but is concealed by the post-tertiary deposit, not less than 20 feet beneath the surface. The only stone fit for building purposes is the boulder of the drift formation. Future prospecting and delving into the geological strata are quite likely to present a mineral wealth of great financial value.

One of the finest features of the natural resources of Shelby County is the excellent quality, as well as quantity, of pure, wholesome water found in its numerous water courses and at easy depth for wells, affording an abundance of living water for stock and domestic purposes.

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Transcribed by Cheryl Siebrass February, 2015 from "Biographical History of Shelby and Audubon Counties", Chicago: W. S. Dunbar & Co., 1889, pg. 229-231.

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