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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Notes on the Wisconsin Territory

Albert Miller Lea

first published in 1836
and reprinted by
The State Historical Society of Iowa

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p22  Chapter II

Water Courses and Local Divisions

The Mississippi River washes one half of the entire circumference of the District, no part of which, from its peculiar shape, is more than fifty miles from the river. In a country so open as this, where no artificial roads are necessary, this common contiguity to such a river as the Mississippi, places every part of it within convenient reach of the balance of the world.

The Mississippi is continually navigated, except when obcluded by ice, by steam-boats drawing three feet water, as far up as Prairie du Chien; and frequently they run up to the Falls of Saint Anthony, a distance of 800 miles eight hundred miles above Saint Louis. There are only two permanent obstructions to its easy navigation, except at very low water, throughout this whole distance; and they occur opposite to different points in the District. The first is the Des Moines Rapids, beginning a few miles above the outlet of the river of that name, and extending up about 14 miles, to a point nearly opposite the town of Commerce. In this distance there is a fall of 25 feet; but the current is never too rapid for boats to stem it; and there is seldom less than three feet of depth in the channel. When the water becomes very low, it is the practice to unload the steam-boats, pass them light over the Rapids, and take the freight over in keel-boats of less draught. These keel-boats, when ascending, are towed up along the western shores, by horses moving along the natural beach. This rapid is a source of great annoyance, expense and delay; and yet it is susceptible of being so easily improved, as to be matter of surprise that it has not already been done.a

The second obstruction is the Rock-Island Rapids, very  p23 similar in character to those below; but I am not aware that any minute survey has been made of them with a view to their improvement. It is said, that by damming the narrower sluice at Rock-Island, the difficult bar on these shoals may be overcome.

The river is generally from three quarters of a mile to one mile in width, and is filled with islands of every size. From the flatness of the general bed of the river, the channel runs frequently from one shore to the other, rendering the navigation intricate at low water; but there is not perhaps a stream in the world more beautiful, in itself, or naturally more free from dangerous obstructions, than is the Upper Mississippi.

The general character of this part of the river is very different from that below the mouth of the Missouri. Here, the water is limpid, the current is gentle, and the banks are permanent; there, the water is muddy, the current impetuous, and the banks are continually changing. The annual freshets in this part of the river do not usually rise more than ten feet above low water mark; and in this feature, it has greatly the advantage of the Ohio, with which it is often compared. Even in the highest freshets, the colour of its water remains unchanged, and its current easy; and there is about the whole river a calmness, a purity, and a peacefulness of expression, perfectly enchanting.

Rocky cliffs sometimes present themselves along the shore, either surmounted with forest trees, or covered with a rich coating of prairie grass; frequently, low and wet prairies skirt along the river, and stretch far back to the bluffs, over ground from which the water has gradually receded; and sometimes, the highlands slope down to the water's edge, covered with waving grass and clusters of trees, grouped here and there, or set about at intervals, presenting an orchard-like appearance.

From the vicinity of Rock-Island downward, the shores are, with a few exceptions, either very abrupt and rocky, or low and marshy; but thence upward, to the highlands above Prairie du Chien, the beautiful sloping shores, just mentioned, are almost continuous. Those who have seen  p24 this part of the country need no description of it; and those who have not seen it, would think me painting from imagination, were I to describe it true to the life.

The lands bordering on the Mississippi are not generally so productive as those retired from it. The hills are more exposed to have the soil washed from them into the basin of the river; and the low grounds are apt to be too wet or too sandy; yet the lands lying on the river will always be the most valuable, in consequence of their superior advantages of market.

The Des Moines River and its Tributaries afford fine lands, well diversified with wood and prairie, as far up as I am acquainted with them, some fifty miles above the "Upper Forks." There is much that is inviting in the general character of the country bordering on the Des Moines; level meadows, rolling woodlands, and deep forests, present themselves by turns. The soil is usually rich and productive; and when there are no natural springs, there is no difficulty in obtaining water, by digging, at almost any point in the highland-prairies.

Having specially reconnoitred the Des Moines river during the summer of 1835, I can speak of it more confidently than of any of the other smaller rivers watering the District.

From Racoon river to the Cedar, the Des Moines is from 80 to 100 yards in width, shallow, crooked, and filled with rocks, sand-bars, and snags, and is impetuous in current at high water; yet it is certain that keel-boats may navigate this portion of the river, being 96 miles, during a great part of the spring and fall; and it is not impossible that even steam-boats may run there.

But from the Cedar river to the Mississippi, except for a few miles near the mouth, there is no obstruction to the navigation of the Des Moines in a tolerable stage of water. For four months of the year, boats of two and a half feet draught, will perform this distance of 170 miles without difficulty. The width is from 150 to 250 yards except a few miles above the mouth, where it is only from 80 to  p25 100 yards wide; its bed is perfectly smooth and flat; and the bottom is generally a thin coating of sand and gravel over a blue limestone rock, until you descend within the influence of the back water from the Mississippi, where there is much alluvial deposit with many snags. By the removal of a part of these snags and a few loose rocks above, every thing will be done for the navigation that can be done without augmenting the supply of water. The first rapids that occur in the river, above the mouth, are those near the lower ended of the Great Bend. There is a ledge of limestone rock running across the river here; but the chief obstruction is caused by loose rocks lodged upon this ledge. The chief rapids between the Racoon and the mouth, are some 40 miles above Cedar river. Here is considerable fall for several miles, a sudden pitch of several inches, many large loose rocks, and a very sudden bend, altogether making a difficult pass in the river.

The mineral productions of this river are interesting. Sandstone, suitable for building, occurs frequently, as far down as Tollman's, 14 miles from the mouth. Limestone is found along the whole distance, from a point 15 miles above Cedar river, to the Mississippi bottom. Bituminous coal of excellent quality occurs abundantly at many points between Racoon and Cedar rivers, and also near the Missouri line. I also found large masses of the oxide, sulphuret and native sulphate of iron, lignite, and the earths usually found in coal formations.

It is about seventy-five miles from the mouth, by water, to the Indian boundary. The lands, on both sides of the river, throughout the greater part of the distance, are exceedingly fertile, and many of them are covered with forests of the finest walnut, oak, ash, elm, and cherry; and back of these wooded bottoms are extensive prairies, both flat and rolling. The settlements have long since, that is in the fall of 1835, extended along the river entirely up to the line, and are beginning to spread out on either side, especially towards the head waters of Sugar creek. There are already some extensive farms along this river, and others are in rapid progress.

 p26  The Half-Breed Tract, which lies in the angle between the Des Moines and Mississippi, has attracted much attention on account of the speculations which have been made in those lands. Their history has already been given in the remarks upon Land Titles, except that most of these claims have passed from the hands of the original owners into those of speculators. There are about 136,000 acres in this tract, which it was formerly supposed was to be divided amongst about 40 claimants; but recently many others have preferred claims to shares; and it is not yet known with any tolerable certainty how many will ultimately establish them.

This tract contains much good land, and some good timber; but it is not nearly so valuable for agricultural purposes as it has been represented to be. Much of it is occupied by the broken grounds along the rivers; a good deal of it is sandy prairie; and much of it is too low and wet. Still, the larger portion of it is very fine land, especially that bordering on Sugar creek. This creek, though running a great distance in the rainy season, affords little water in the summer and autumn, as is the case with most of the smaller streams of the Des Moines. It affords no mill site.

Manitou creek rises in a most productive section, a little to the north of the Half-Breed Line, and affords fine lands and timber entirely to its mouth. It is said that there is a tolerable site for a mill on this stream. It takes its name of Manitou, or Devil creek, from its impetuosity in freshet, and from its quicksands and rafts which render it frequently difficult of passage. It is very uneven in its supply of water, having almost no current in dry weather.

But few persons have yet settled upon this Half-Breed Tract, owing to the unsettled condition of Titles. Nobody knows yet where his particular share is to lie, and consequently nobody is willing to improve any part.

An attempt has been made to extend the northern boundary of this Tract, so as to make it to include about three or four times as much as at present; but it is a fruitless  p27 attempt: it can never be done without the most unblushing corruption of public men.

The position of this Tract between two navigable rivers, its own fertility, and its excellent landing places, must render it a very valuable section of the country.

Chacagua River is generally swift in current, rises and falls rapidly, seldom overflows the alluvial lands along its borders, and furnishes much excellent timber. There are many fine springs along its bluffs, and along the tributary creeks: and the whole body of its soil may be said to be of excellent quality. Large settlements have already been made upon the river, and its tributaries. In the autumn of 1835, there were about 120 families in the vicinity of Crookshank's Point; and arrangements have been made for as many more to settle on Cedar creek, this spring. The improvements have extended up the river and up Crooked creek to the line. The lands on Richland and Crooked creeks are said to be peculiarly fine.

To what extent this river may be navigated, it is difficult to say. A small keel-boat has frequently ascended it, even at low water, a distance of 60 miles; and it is probable that it may be navigated much further. Steam-boats have not yet been upon it; but there appears to be no reason that they should not perform upon it to advantage.

Owing to the rapidity of its current, it affords great water-power. A large mill, both for sawing and grinding has been established about 10 miles above the mouth. To effect this, a dam has been thrown across the river; thus creating an obstruction to navigation, which must be abated as soon as the settlements above shall call for it. There are also a few snags in the mouth of the river, which will require removal.

Flint Creek is supplied chiefly by springs, and is consequently never very low. As it has great fall near where it passes from the high prairie to the level of the Mississippi bottom, and affords at all times a good supply of water, it is considered a stream well adapted to move machinery.  p28 Two saw-mills are already erected upon it, and more machinery will probably follow. There is some excellent land about the head of this creek, and good timber throughout its length. There is no navigation in it, except where it connects with a slue of the river, one or two miles long. Extensive settlements have been made on this creek, and a town has been laid out near its source. It was one of the first sections in attracting the attention of emigrants.

Iowa River has been usually much less esteemed than its advantages deserve. It is the largest tributary of the Mississippi above the Illinois, and probably affords more water than that river. It takes its rise among the innumerable lakes in the high flat country which divides the waters which run north-west into the Saint Peter's river, from those which run south-east into the Mississippi. This high country is a continuation of that which, being intersected by the action of the current, overhangs the Mississippi below Lake Pepin, and is there called "The Highlands." Having its source in these lakes, the river is perennially supplied with pure and limpid water, and as it meanders its way for 300 miles to the Father of Waters, receiving large tributary streams, as it moves along through rich meadows, deep forests, projecting cliffs, and sloping landscapes, it presents to the imagination the finest picture on earth of a country prepared by Providence for the habitation of man.

There are two principal branches of this river. That marked on the map as "Iowa or Red-Cedar," is by far the largest of the two. It is usually called "Red-Cedar Fork," and is so designated in the treaty of purchase of the District; but as that part of the river below the junction of this fork with the other is universally called Iowa; and as there is some confusion about the name of Red-Cedar, other streams being called by the same name, I have affixed the name of the united stream to the main tributary. The river marked on the map as "Bison R. usually called Iowa River," is sometimes called Horse River, and  p29 sometimes Buffalo River. It is little known, and therefore I can say nothing of that part of it above the District line, except that tourists report the country along it, as well as all that between the Des Moines and Mississippi, as exceedingly beautiful and fertile. Major Gordon, who passed through it in August, 1835, and who has travelled extensively, says that "In point of beauty and fertility it is unsurpassed by any portion of the United States."

About the mouth of the Iowa, the country is flat, and is frequently flooded. It is two miles from the mouth to the bluffs, on one side, and about seven miles on the other side; and for a long way up both forks, far above the line of the District, the river runs through a deep valley which it has gradually hollowed out for itself. From the mouth to the forks, this valley is full a mile in width, and above that, it is divided between the two streams. The river oscillates from side to side of this low ground, presenting alternately flats and bluffs. The high grounds in rear of the bottoms are sometimes precipitous and sometimes sloping, but uniformly about 200 feet high, and are frequently crowned with fine forests of oak and hickory. The current is rapid; sand-bars and snags are frequent; and the channel often changes position. In these respects, it is said much to resemble the Missouri river. It is believed that the main river can be easily navigated, during three or four months of the year, by steam-boats of light draught, as far up as some rapids near Poiskeik's village, a distance of 100 miles. These rapids are caused by the same ledge of rocks which makes the rapids of the Mississippi at Rock-Island: and the same ledge probably affects the Bison River. This obstruction once passed, boats will run with ease about 100 miles further to the mouth of Shell-Rock river, near the Neutral Grounds. By reference to the map, the reader will see where the dragoons crossed it last summer. At the lower crossing on a rocky rapid, it was two and a half feet deep; and at the upper crossing, not far from the lakes where it rises, it was 45 yards wide and four and a half feet deep; but here the current is very sluggish, and the size of the stream here does not indicate  p30 its size below. It is probable that the lower crossing is about the smallest part of the river; and if so, keel-boats may ascend it to its very source.

The Bottoms along the river are usually prairie, and somewhat inclined to be sandy; but they are said to be admirably adapted to the growing of maize. The uplands are rich and dry. Extensive forests skirt the river and all its tributaries; fine springs are abundant; the smaller creeks afford good mill-sites; and there appears to be little left to be desired. The advantages of this region are marked by the fact, that the whole tribe of the Sauks and Foxes was congregated there, until after the sale of this District in 1832, although, as is shown by the map, they had almost a boundless region from which to select the sites for their villages, and their hunting grounds.

The Indian Reserve, designated on the map, contains 400 square miles, and was laid off to include Keokuk's old village. The Indians, finding themselves uncomfortable so near the whites, are all moving over to the Des Moines; and deeming this Reserve of no use to them, they are anxious to sell it. The Government has already taken measures to make the necessary treaty; and the Reserve may now be regarded as subject to settlement; in fact, many have already gone upon it; and every day adds to their number. But this Reserve has heretofore prevented many from settling upon the Iowa, as it was uncertain where the boundaries would be, and it was not known that it would soon be purchased. Now, however, the tide of emigration seems to be running chiefly towards the Iowa country.

The Muscatine Slue is about 80 yards wide, except where it spreads out, here and there, into small lakes; its current is gentle, and it affords a channel of about 10 feet in depth. And as the land around the exterior of the curve is exceedingly fertile, boats will probably run along the slue to carry off its rich productions. The island is a continuous marsh, and of course must give rise to much  p31 malaria; but it is well adapted to the grazing of cattle during the summer and autumn. The point at the head of this sluice may be considered the ultima thule of the sickly region of the Mississippi; above this, the atmosphere is as pure and wholesome as that of any other climate in the world.

Pine River. Instead of a large stream and a great forest of pines, as one would expect from this name, there is only a small creek and about twenty trees to be found. Though the creek be small, being fed by springs, it is constant; and having great fall, it affords good sites for machinery; and it has also good land and good timber upon its borders. The bluff, which is to be found all along the Mississippi, either overhanging the water, or sloping down to the water's edge, here assumes the latter character; and on one side of the Pine is a fine sloping prairie, and on the other an open grove of oak. In this general slope, time has worn a wide and deep ravine, through which Pine River finds its way to the Mississippi. About one mile above the mouth, the Pine meets the back water from the Mississippi, and grows deeper and wider to the mouth; 600 yards above which, it is fifty yards wide, and five and a half feet deep; it affords a most excellent harbour for boats; the banks are sloping, and the landings on either side are convenient.

From the Pine up to the Wabesapinica, there are numerous creeks that empty into the Mississippi; some of them afford good water power; all of them have more or less timber along them; and as they rise far back in the prairie, and interlock with others running into the Iowa and Wabesapinica, there is no part of the large and fertile tract, lying between these three rivers, that is not conveniently supplied with timber. It is from the mouth of Pine river upward, that the beautiful country of the Mississippi begins to show itself.

 p32  Wabesapinica River. Of this stream I can only speak in the most general manner. About 30 miles above its mouth, it is 70 yards wide; and as it is unusually deep for its width, and no obstructions are known in it, it is probable that it will be navigated for many miles. Two men ascended it last summer about 200 miles in a canoe. It is said that there are very fine lands upon it; but that here, the timber begins to grow scarcer than on the Iowa; and that between it and the Great Mequoquetois, the soil is less productive.

Great Mequoquetois. This stream may be considered as the southern boundary of the mineral lands. I have a specimen of the ore of copper from this river, supposed to be valuable; and it is asserted that a very large body of it has been found, some days march up the river. There is a large swamp between this stream and the Wabesapinica; but what may be the particular character of the soil upon the Mequoquetois itself, I know not. It would be difficult, however, to find inferior soil over any large portion of this country. On a branch of this stream, within a short distance of navigable water, there is said to be very great water power, which is yet unoccupied.

Tetes des Morts River. Again the good farming land re-appears upon this stream. The timber also is found in sufficient quantities for agricultural purposes; and there is good water power at various places along it. Lead ore is abundant on both sides of it, though the mining operations have not yet been extended thus far from Du Buque.

Catiche Creek. This is a beautiful little stream, affording fine woods, rich lands, good water-power, and is very desirable for residences, on account of the numerous springs of fine water by which it is supplied.

Catfish Creek. The same remarks will apply to this creek as to the preceding, with the addition, that it is  p33 much larger, and possesses the same advantages in a greater degree.

Little Mequoquetois. This stream has been a favourite among the enterprising people who have settled on the west side of the Mississippi. Its stream is clear and rapid, affording several good sites for machinery, throughout the greater part of its course. It affords a depth of fifteen feet for two and a half miles above the mouth, and is wide enough to admit that far the largest boats that navigate the Upper Mississippi. The fertile lands on its borders are said to be extensive; and it affords large forests, also, composed chiefly of oak, walnut, ash, and cherry.

Penaca or Turkey River. The Turkey river is navigable about thirty miles, for any steam-boat on the Upper Mississippi. The finest soil, the finest timber, and the finest mines are to be found on this river of all that lie within the mining region. For agricultural purposes alone, it is highly desirable; but if the mineral wealth beneath the soil be considered, it is not wonderful that crowds of emigrants should be hastening to it, as they now are.

This stream and its tributaries traverse the north-western part of the region heretofore ascertained to afford galena; but from observations made by myself and others as far north as Wabashaw's Village, I have no doubt that this mineral will be found to extend over a portion of the territory vastly larger than has heretofore be supposed.

Thayer's Note:

a And in fact this improvement of the Des Moines Rapids was made just four years after Lea wrote, by the Army Corps of Engineers under the command of Robert E. Lee. The details are given in Freeman's life of Lee, Vol. I, pp172 and 175‑177.

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