[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Ioway to Iowa

Irving Berdine Richman

published by
The State Historical Society of Iowa

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p31  The Setting

New Yet Old
The Bison

[image ALT: Against a sunset sky, the silhouette of a man (on the left) plowing behind his two horses, which occupy the center and the bulk of the picture.]

Whose Dwelling is the Light of Setting Suns

Reproduced from E. A. Verpilleux's Masters of the Colour Print where it appears under the title of The Last Furrow

 p33  New Yet Old

Ioway in 1673 was new — new topographically — all but a fraction of an eighth of it. This fraction lay wholly in the northeast and was old: old by hundreds of thousands of years — pre-glacial in fact. So old was it that its face like many old faces was wrinkled and seamed, scarred and gashed. The gashes, some of them, drove deep — six or seven hundred feet. They broke the region into shapes fantastic and picturesque — escarpments, buttresses, columns, towers, castles.

Old as Ioway was in the northeast, in the west it was new again. Here the Missouri (Pekitanoui or Muddy Water) writhed through a wide floodplain; and here Nature had reared structures in Beauty's counterfeit — 'peaks and knobs of wind-drift'.

But the glory of Ioway lay neither in its east nor in its west: it lay in the Great Between, in its Mesopotamia, its Prairies.

To the north, from basin and bowl, flamed lake and lakelet: Spirit Lake and the Okobojis; Clear Lake; Swan Lake; Twin Lakes; Silver Lake; Storm Lake; Wall Lake; what lake not? Deer stole to these lakes; and into them swept migrating fowl — wild swans, wild geese, wild ducks.

 p34  Then there were Ioway's three watersheds. Eastward into the Mississippi flowed the streams Des Moines, Skunk, Iowa, Wapsipinicon, Upper Iowa, and Turkey; while westward into the Missouri, or into the Big Sioux, flooded the Nishnabotna, Boyer River, the Little Sioux, Floyd River, and Rock River. As for the third watershed, it lay to the south and southwest, and gave rise to the rivers Chariton, Grand River, little Platte, and Nodaway.

A compelling feature of the new Ioway was grasses, flowers, and birds. Everywhere grasses! Everywhere flowers! Everywhere birds! Birds golden and in whirlwinds; or lone and in mid-air balanced; or unseen, yet making the welkin ring from up amid the sunshine. Midsummer stilled the birds, but the grasses and the flowers it flung in riot to the horizon's rim. The prairies knew beauty. They knew also mystery and terror. The mirage they knew; and fire; and the whirl-storm; and the cold. Loneliness stalked upon them as it stalks upon the desert and the sea.

Of the streams of Ioway the chief were the Iowa and the Des Moines. Loitering for long stretches at the prairie level, they sought on a sudden canyon depths. Matted and tangled on their edges, their uplands were as open to the sunlight as a park — uplands that bore oaks lordly enough to have sheltered Robin Hood.

 p35  The Bison

The prairies confessed a monarch — the Bison. Before him other wild life — deer, elk, bear, cat — curtsied and withdrew. Bulk, shagginess, horns — these served the bison's state; these joined to render him redoubted.

Beyond dispute the bison or buffalo roamed Ioway. But was Ioway a land of the bison? 'They are scattered about the prairie in herds', wrote Father Marquette. 'I have seen one of 400'. When attacked, 'they catch a man on their Horns, if they can, toss Him in the air, and then throw him on the ground, after which they trample him underfoot, and kill him'.

About the year 1700 the prospector Pierre Charles le Sueur pictures the country westward of the Mississippi, above the mouth of the Rivière de Moingona (Des Moines), as 'open prairie extending inland for more than ten leagues. The grass', he says, 'is like sainfoin and does not quite reach up to the knee. There are all kinds of animals upon these prairies'. The bison must be included in 'all kinds'; for, Father Charlevoix writes in 1721, 'the river Moingona issues from the midst of an immense meadow, which swarms with Buffaloes and other wild beasts'. Moreover, by  p36 1728, or before, the Iowa River had come to bear the name Rivière aux Boeufs (Bison or Buffalo River).8

A vast cloud-drift were the bison in the north Mississippi Valley. At first enfolding deeply the prairies of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the drift by the end of the eighteenth century had so far receded, as, except in Illinois, to disclose great patches of light. Then, by 1809, so far had the recession gone that not only were Indiana and Wisconsin exposed, but large parts of Illinois as well. Indeed, with respect to Illinois, above the latitude of the Illinois River, the bison recession by 1814 may be said to have passed to the westward of the Mississippi.

The recession was ever west and north, and, having transcended the Mississippi, rapidly gained the Missouri. So rapidly did it gain in that direction that by 1820 there were virtually no bison left eastward of Council Bluffs — eastward of the Bluffs, that is to say, in the area below the south line of the present Minnesota. Here the recession halted for a long period — far into the eighteen fifties, sixties, and seventies.9

Now in this great recession where had Ioway stood? In 1673 Jolliet and Marquette encountered buffalo in Ioway. In 1721 Charlevoix makes mention of the Des Moines Valley as swarming with buffalo and other wild beasts. Aside from the foregoing nowhere seemingly is there to be found mention of the buffalo as in  p37 numbers exceeding a few score at any one time or place. In 1835 a leader of the United States Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, crossed Ioway from the Des Moines River into southeastern Minnesota; but he saw buffalo only once, and of these his troopers killed but five or six.

On this expedition Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Albert Miller Lea served as lieutenant. He notes: 'we encountered [near the site of the present Oskaloosa] a small herd of buffalo, to which many of us gave chase. It was the first and only time I have seen the lordly beast in his home, and probably the last time he appeared in that region'.

Then, in 1844, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James Allen, crossing western Iowa into Minnesota, met buffalo only in Minnesota and this at a point 'twenty-five miles west of the source of the Des Moines'. Here, he writes, 'we struck the range of the buffalo, and continued in it to the Big Sioux river, and down that river about 86 miles. Below that we could not see any recent sign of them'.

It is true that in 1820 Stephen W. Kearny crossed northwestern Iowa and in so doing 'discovered a large drove of Buffaloe . . . probably 5 thousand'. But this was on the Blue Earth River near the Minnesota line. Likewise, in 1820 Major Stephen H. Long, and his party crossing southwestern Iowa, found 'remains of bisons, as bones, horns, hoofs, and the like' and 'in one  p38 instance, in a low swamp surrounded by forests, we discovered the recent track of a bull'. But, he writes, 'all the herds of these animals have deserted the country on this [the eastern] side of Council Bluff'.10

In short, it was not uncommon in frontier Iowa to find elk; deer were well-nigh universal; bear, panther, and the lynx might be met; but nowhere were there to be found to any extent bison.


Ioway like Wisconsin and Illinois was a prairie land. Unlike western Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Nebraska, it was not a plains land. It differed from the latter in its grasses. The prime grass for the buffalo, the grass of the plains, was the 'buffalo grass', which in some slight measure grew also in Iowa's northwest. This grass (buchloe dactyloides), when obtainable, formed 'the pièce de résistance of the bison's bill of fare'. It was 'good all the year round'. It was unexcelled for fat-producing, and 'enabled the bison to exist in such absolutely countless numbers as characterized his occupancy of the great Plains'.

But whatever in the way of resistance to cold may have been true of the 'buffalo grass' of Iowa's northwest (the little there was of it) the other and far more abundant grasses of that region could not endure frost: indeed, they became practically worthless upon  p39 its advent. 'My horses', notes Captain Allen in September, 1844, when crossing what are now Lyon and Plymouth counties, 'are much worn, and the grass and prairie are killed by the frost, and it is incumbent to hurry home'. Again, the same month he notes that 'the grass has been so much deadened by the many frosts, that it no longer gives the horses a good subsistence; the horses and mules have failed wonderfully since we left the Little Sioux, though we have walked (on foot) most of the way'.11

Buffalo on the plains? Buffalo by the tens of thousands! Buffalo in mad and charging armies! Buffalo in furious individual combats! Lusty bulls each at other, heads down, tails on high, pawing up the ground and tossing it on their horns! All amid a bellowing, a roaring, that rocked the land!

But in Ioway?

Threading the tall green grass they go,

To and fro, to and fro.

And painted Indians in a row,

With arrow and bow, arrow and bow,

Truly they made a gallant show

Across the prairie's bright green flow,

Warriors painted indigo,

black buffalo

Long ago.

The Author's Notes:

8 The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XIV, p99, note.

On the first map of Ioway, after it was opened to settlement, the lower Iowa River is called Rivière aux Boeufs or Bison River. — Albert M. Lea's Notes on Wisconsin Territory.

According to Galland's Iowa Emigrant, 1840, Bison River as a name for the Iowa (lower Iowa) River was given it by the Sauk tribe of Indians, the Sauk phrase being 'Nah-a-to-seek-a-way' — 'a yearling buffalo bull'. — Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. XII, p494.

[decorative delimiter]

9 Joel Asaph Allen's History of the American Bison in the Ninth Annual Report, United States Geographical and Geological Survey for the year 1875, Part III.

[decorative delimiter]

10 Account of Long's expedition in Thwaites's Early Western Travels, Vol. XV, p186.

In 1907 Robert I. Garden asserted that no person 'did ever see running wild at large on the prairies of Iowa any buffalo that had not been domesticated and brought into the State, or [see] any skeletons, bones, or horns, that had been picked up in this State and  p411 not imported from some other State'. So sure was Mr. Garden of his 'facts' that he deposited fifty dollars in a bank to go to 'any responsible person' who could prove the contrary of what he said. — Garden's History of Scott Township, Mahaska County, Iowa, pp224, 232.

An extended discussion of the buffalo in Iowa may be found in the Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. XVII, pp403 et seq.

[decorative delimiter]

11 In this connection Garden says: 'The buffalo could not have existed and lived on the prairie grasses of Iowa after frost'. On account of the season being so short there were only three or four months in the year at best that pasture was good. After the first frost all the grass was killed and there was no nutrition in it. 'Then it was no better for feed than wood shavings'. There was no blue grass in those days. — Garden's History of Scott Township, Mahaska County, Iowa, pp231, 250; see also The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XI, pp103, 107.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 11 Jan 12