Jefferson County Online
A part of the IAGenWeb and USGenWeb Projects
Morals of the Pioneers -
The First Jail

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 404-405, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.



The first settlers of many of the counties in Illinois and Iowa, and, in fact, of nearly every other State in the great Northwest, were annoyed by a class of disreputable and outlawed characters, who preyed upon the property of the honest, industrious pioneer with reckless and daring impunity. In Ogle County, Ill., this class of human vultures was so numerous as to control the affairs of that county for many years. They laughed at jails and mocked the courts. The gang -- for their was a well-organized gang -- was under the direction of keen, shrewd, far-seeing fellows, who so managed their affairs as to secure the election of some of their number to the offices of Justices of the Peace and Constables in nearly all the different townships; and by some sort of manipulation that no honest man could find out, they always secured the presence of more or less of their number on the grand juries. If any of them happened to fall into the clutches of the law and were brought to trial, a jury was demanded; and such juries were almost invariably corrupted with the presence of some of the defendant's friends. If this did not happen to be the case, and sufficient evidence was found to hold the prisoner to the higher courts, bail was always ready to secure his freedom from imprisonment. Some of the members of the ugly fraternity, many of them, in truth, were wealthy, and as they were sworn to stand by and defend each other, their oaths were always kept.

In Ogle County, Ill., they carried things so far as to burn the first Court House erected there, just as it was completed and ready for a session of court. At last, they became so bold that the honest settlers banded themselves together as vigilantes and commenced a war of extermination.

The gang that reigned in terror over the people of the Rock River Valley for so many years, followed the settlers to Cedar and Linn Counties, In Iowa Territory. The became almost as bold and daring in those counties as in Illinois; and, for a number of years, the settlers lived in a constate state of dread and fear. And it was not until the people rose in their might and scourged the villains from the country that there was safety for valuable property of any kind.

Jefferson County appears to have been always remarkably free from the blighting influence of such lawless characters; and, if the court records are to be taken in evidence, it may be stated as a fact that the moral character of the people, from the date of the first settlement, in 1836, to the present time, is unsurpassed by any other county in the State. There have been crimes, but, as a rule, they have been of the minor grades. So generally law-abiding were the people, that two years passed after the county was organized before any steps were taken to secure the erection of a jail. Nor do the record show any expenditures for keeping prisoners in other county prisons, nor for guarding prisoners at home. One of two facts is apparent: either there were no lawless characters within the county, or else they were so shrewd and cunning as to be past finding out.

January 7, 1841, "plans and specifications were received from sundry persons for the building of a jail, agreeable to advertisements by the Clerk, whereupon it wa ordered that a jail be built, of the following description, and the same be let at public outcry to the lowest bidder, and that the Clerk give notice thereof.

"Description.--To be built of logs, twenty-four by eighteen feet, double wall; first story with a space between said double walls of seven inches; eighteen feet high; two lower floors to be of square timbers one foot thick; flooring-plank of top of lower floor to be spiked in such manner as to prevent boring through the ceiling for upper story."

On the 13th of February, the contract was let at "public outcry." Different parts of the work were let to different individuals, who were required to give bonds for a faithful performance of the work.

On the 25th of March, it was "Ordered, that the Jail be built on Lot No. 4 in Block No. 23." The lot is now occupied by the residence of D. B. Wilson. That old log Jail continued to serve the purposes of a county prison until the erection of the present brick structure, in 1858. When the new Jail was completed, the old log structure was sold to Daniel Mendenhall, who tore it down, hauled the logs away, and such of them as could be sawed, were made into different kinds of stuff, and some of them were cut into fire-wood.

This page was created on 2 November 2014 and is copyrighted. This page and/or its linked data may be copied and used for personal purposes but can not be republished nor used for commercial purposes without the author's written permission.

I am the County Coordinator and the Webmaster, the one who is responsible for the IAGenWeb project for Jefferson County, Iowa. Please contact me if you would like to contribute to this database or if you note any problems with these pages.

Return to the 1879 History of Jefferson County Contents Page

Return to the Jefferson County Main Page