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Keokuk County History
by Cleo Bohrofen

History tells us that in naming localities and streams of water, discoverers and first settlers of America originated a plan of adopting Indian names. This plan was adhered to when the new county (Keokuk) was named. The Indians who dwelt in this particular locality were the Sac and Fox tribe. Their chief was Chief Keokuk, whose voice, was for peace with the white man. As an honor to this chief our county bears his name.

Until the year 1837 the Indians held undisputed possession of the territory in Keokuk County. It was not till October 1837 that the red man first parted with his title to certain lands now comprised in the limits of Keokuk County, and the white man first obtained the right to gain a permanent foothold. By far the larger part of the county, however, remained in the hands of the Indians. It was not till October 1842, that the original possessors of this soil parted with their right to occupy it, and turned their unwilling steps to the far off and unknown regions west of the Missouri River. May 1, 1843, the whole of Keokuk County was thrown open to white settlement.

Chief Keokuk lived but three years after leaving the Territory of Iowa. It is a concluded fact, by all the early settlers who knew him, that Keokuk possessed, in a prominent degree, the elements of greatness.

Wapello, the contemporary of Keokuk and the inferior chief, died before the Indians were removed from the state and thus escaped the humiliation of the scene. He like his superior chief (Keokuk) was a fast friend of the whites and was an immense influence among the individuals of his tribe. Wapello's death occurred in Keokuk County, in March 1844, on Rock Creek, in Jackson Township. His remains were conveyed to the Indian burial ground, at Agency City, (now Agency). It was Wapello's request to be buried by the side of his honest pale faced friend, General Street.

After the county was organized Richland Township was the principal part of the county. The town of Richland was laid out in 1841, then known as "Frogtown". Soon after another town 5 mi. N.W. of Richland was laid out. The town had two names, Newton and Western City. It and Richland both desired to be recognized as the capital of the county when organized.

During the summer of 1844, S.A. James, who had recently been appointed county clerk, came into the neighborhood, looking for the county seat, which had just been located. He found a stout pole planted in the ground by the commissioners. The stake was in the center of what was to be the public square, which stood about 100 yards to the northwest of where Mr. James built his cabin, which later became the town of Sigourney.

The cabin which Mr. James built in 1844 was a remarkable edifice. It was 12 x 16 feet. Here the county offices and the public records, the judges' room and the jury room, the county's cash hoarded and its criminals jailed. Here also the county officials ate, lodged and slept.

Shortly after this three or four other families located in this same neighborhood of the present county seat. To the east, west and north, the whole county for miles lay unclaimed for sometime.

One of the 3 commissioners appointed to select the county seat of Keokuk County was Dr. George H. Stone of Washington County. Dr. Stone had always been a great admirer of the writings of the poetess, Mrs. Sigourney. It was this lady in whose honor the capital of Keokuk County received its name. Lydia Huntley Sigourney was born in Norwich, Conn., Sept. 1, 1791. She was married to Charles Sigourney. Mrs. Sigourney died June 1865. Mrs. Sigourney showed her appreciation of the compliment of having the capital of Keokuk County, Iowa named in her honor, by providing for the planting of the trees which for years and years adorned the courthouse yard.

The county seat having been located and named, a plat made of the town, the public square laid off, the board ordered that a sale of lots in the town of Sigourney be held, Oct. 1, 1844. This sale resulted in the sale of a single lot, it being lot 3 in block 3, which sold for $12, - $6 to be paid in 3 months and $6 to be paid in 6 months, the purchaser Joel Landreth.

It was now necessary to buy the land upon which the prospective town was located from the government. The commissioners accordingly authorized Mr. S.A. James to borrow the money for this purpose, which he procured from Godfrey Klett and the land was entered in Jan. 1845. In April of 1845 lots in Sigourney were again for sale. Those on the square sold for $50 and others for $5.

In April 1844, it was "Ordered by the board of commissioners that the eagle side of a 10 cent piece, American coin, be adopted as the temporary seal of the board of said county until an official seal shall be provided by said board."

In these early days there were as yet no bridges and it became necessary for the convenience of the settlers that ferries be maintained at certain points along the rivers. The board ordered that a skiff or canoe be kept at a point, to ferry across the North Fork of Skunk River. Ferriage rates charged were 6 1/4 cents for each footman.

Schools and churches in Sigourney were not organized till sometime later, the first church, the Methodist, being organized and a building erected in 1845.

A post office was established in Sigourney and the first mail received on Feb. 7, 1845. The mail was carried on horseback from Washington to Oskaloosa via Sigourney, once every two weeks. Mr. James was the first postmaster. This was the only post office in the whole section of the country, and mail day was a very important occasion. There were no postage stamps used, the amount of postage being marked on the letter which amount could be paid either by the person sending the letter or the one receiving it. Postage on an ordinary letter was 5, 10, 12 1/2, 25 and 37 1/2 cents according to the distance sent. Letters would sometimes be months in reaching their destination and then when they did arrive the person to whom they were directed would have great difficulty sometimes to raise enough money to pay the back postage.

The first ice house was put up in the winter of 1857 and during the following summer, the first ice cream was sold in Keokuk County.

One of the oldest cemeteries in the county is the Hornish or Shockley graveyard in Clear Creek Twp. A log church, the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States was also built near the site. The first burial in this cemetery was Peter Besser, Oct. 1844, just a few days after he had arrived in Keokuk County from Germany.

The first steps taken toward the establishment of a county home was in June 1866. The county board of supervisors consisted of 16 members at that time. The original concept of the "County Poor Farm" no longer exists and is now considered a "County Custodial Home" which provides residential facilities, for mental and retarded and other patients of Keokuk County. The home celebrated its Centennial with open house, Nov. 13, 1966.

May 23, 1873 a most destructive tornado passed through Clear Creek Twp. claiming four lives and injuring many residents.

The present Keokuk County Jail was built in 1875. Prior to that time the prisoners were kept at Washington and Muscatine.

Source: "Our Place in History, 1844 to 1969, 125 years."
This publication includes lots of history and pictures of Keokuk County and is available from the Keokuk County Historical Society for $1.00.
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