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This webpage reproduces
part of an item in the
Iowa Journal of History & Politics
Vol. 14 No. 4 (Oct. 1916), pp479‑558

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The Opening of the Des Moines Valley
to Settlement

(Part 5 of 5)

 p551  The Earliest Public Improvements
in the Des Moines Valley

The first settlers in southeastern Iowa obtained what things they needed from St. Louis. Such imports as primitive pioneer conditions called for were landed at Keokuk and then transported by wagon overland or perhaps by simple water craft. Roads became fixed wherever the seasons and "the lay of the land" dictated. During the early years wants were few and long journeys infrequent, and the settlers were under no necessity of exporting their surplus agricultural products because they found ready consumers in the increasing population of their neighborhood, but when this cause no longer afforded a market at their doors, they began to urge the need of better transportation facilities. The Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa authorized commissioners in various parts of the new country  p552 to locate and establish roads. For instance, in 1838, James Sutton, Joseph Robb, and James McMurry were appointed to mark a Territorial road from Keokuk to "the horse tail reach" on the Des Moines and thence up the river to Iowaville, passing through the towns of Farmington, Bentonsport, Columbus, and Philadelphia in Van Buren County.138

One year later the Iowa legislature perceived the great importance of this road both to the Territory and to the federal government: Keokuk was "the natural and most convenient depot for all the extensive Des Moines country". When finished the highway would afford excellent facilities for the transportation of mails through a number of towns and a densely populated country to the Indian border. Inasmuch as the road passed over many tributary streams of the Des Moines and needed to be rendered passable in all seasons of the year, the expense of which was deemed too great to be borne by the Territory, the Legislative Assembly called upon the Iowa Delegate at Washington to use his influence in obtaining an appropriation of $10,000 for the opening of the road. Congress refused to improve this highway and defeated a bill with that end in view, and so the pioneers were obliged to submit as well as they could to the inconveniences of western methods of transportation.139

In the year 1839, however, Congress appropriated $5000 to be spent by the Secretary of War for the construction of a road from Burlington to the new Sac and Fox Agency, and later authorized the expenditure of money for the construction and repair of seven bridges on this "Agency Road", although much more was asked to complete the work in a satisfactory manner. Such highways or military  p553 roads seem to have been laid out by the federal government in the Territories so that troops, cannon, and munitions might, in case of war with the Indians or when needed for other purposes, be quickly moved from one portion of the Territory to another.140

The transportation of goods upon the waters of the Des Moines River appears to have been confined entirely to canoes and keel-boats until the steamboat "Science" landed goods at the town of Keosauqua and ascended as far as Iowaville in September, 1837. Two months later Aaron W. Harlan shipped from St. Louis a consignment of merchandise on the "Pavilion", captained by William Phelps. On board this steamboat were Keokuk and the Sac and Fox chiefs and braves returning to Iowaville from a pleasure and business trip to Washington and other eastern cities.141 Although freighting by keel-boat continued to be the more dependable method of transportation to the pioneer towns upon the Des Moines, the American Fur Company frequently shipped supplies to its trading posts higher up the river in small steamboats. But many difficulties soon became apparent.

The Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa recognized the value of Territorial waterways when it empowered William Meek and Sons, Henry Eno, and others to construct mill dams across the Des Moines River in Van Buren County. These two dams were to be not more than three feet above the common low water mark and were to contain convenient locks, not less than one hundred and thirty feet in length and thirty-five feet in width, for the free and undelayed passage of steam, keel, and flat boats,  p554 rafts, and other water craft of at least two tons burden. Similar legislative action in 1841 and 1843 authorized John Godden, John R. Sparks, Isaac R. Campbell, Robert McKee, Ovid Grennell, and Arthur Thomes to erect dams in Lee and Van Buren counties.142

There were two ras why the pioneer legislators in 1839 brought the Des Moines River to the attention of Congress: first, its position between the Mississippi and the Missouri pointed it out as "the natural channel for imports and exports for the extensive and fertile country in the interior of Iowa and a portion of the State of Missouri"; and secondly, the Des Moines despite its importance afforded "but few facilities for navigation, without that improvement of which it is peculiarly susceptible, being admirably adapted to the building of dams for the purpose of slack water navigation." It was asserted that the channel and banks everywhere afforded suitable stone for the foundation and structure of necessary dams, and hydraulic power of incalculable value could be obtained for the country. Accordingly, the Iowa Delegate to Congress was requested to exert himself to obtain an appropriation for the survey of the Des Moines by a corps of engineers and also $100,000 in money or land for the purpose of improving navigation.143

Congress gave ear to this petition of the territorial legislature by granting $1000 for a survey of the Des Moines and Iowa rivers. With the arrival of favorable weather in the spring of 1841, Captain W. Bowling Guion of the United States Topographical Engineers proceeded from St. Louis to make a general examination of the Des Moines River and thus get a knowledge of its general character and the nature  p555 and extent of the obstructions to navigation. Guion and his party obtained a small, light draught keel-boat at the Chouteau trading post near the Sac and Fox Agency, ascended the stream about seventeen miles above the mouth of Raccoon Fork, and then descended to the Mississippi. The chief characteristics of the Des Moines River were found to be "a great declination in the plane of its bed, causing in time of flood a very swift current, unusual uniformity in the depth of water in its channel, great sinuosity of course, and a lesser amount of obstructions in the upper than in the lower parts."

Besides a small number of snags and trees, there were twelve rapids or "riffles", as the boatmen called them, and two mill dams — one at Keosauqua and another ten miles below. These obstructions effectually prevented the passage of loaded keel-boats as well as steamboats. Guion declared that from the mouth of the river to the American Fur Company's trading house there was nowhere less than two feet of water, or perhaps ten inches in very dry seasons; while higher up the depth would be no less than three feet or one foot and a half in a dry season. Besides, during the three or four month period of high water there would always be from five to fifteen feet of water in the channel. The removal of rocks, snags, logs, and overhanging trees would admit the free passage of boats. Guion did not hesitate to assert the propriety of making such improvements at an estimated expense of $29,000, "for the Des Moines is a beautiful river, . . . whilst its banks present one of the most fertile and lovely countries nature ever presented to the view of man, abounding in immense fields of bituminous coal from Rackoon Fork nearly to its mouth. . . . In fine, such are the temptations which this country affords, that the portion now in the possession of the Indians will no sooner pass into the hands of the United States than it  p556 will be crowded with whites, as that which lies below the Indian country is becoming already."144

On a horseback journey up the Des Moines Valley in June, 1841, Lieutenant John Charles Frémont145 took particular note of the botany and geology of the region through which he rode. Proceeding from Missouri over luxuriant prairie bottoms "covered with a profusion of flowers," he and a small surveying party forded the river at Portland and later reached "the little village of Iowaville, lying on the line which separatess the Indian lands are those to which their title has already been extinguished." "After leaving this place," he continued, "we began to fall in with parties of Indians on horseback, and here and there, scattered along the river bank, under tents of blankets stretched along the boughs, were Indian families; the men lying about smoking, and the women engaged in making baskets and cooking — apparently as much at home as if they had spent their lives on the spot."

From the American Fur Company's upper post Frémont proceeded with instruments and provisions in a canoe propelled by five men, though Frémont himself walked most of the time, examining the topography of the southern bank of the river with its heavy and dense bodies of timber, luxuriant soil, and almost impenetrable undergrowth. The party returned from the Raccoon to the mouth of the river and Frémont made a survey noting the rapids, bends, and sand bars: he felt sure that "steamboats drawing four feet water may run to the mouth of Cedar river [in Marion  p557 County?] from the 1st of April to the middle of June; and keelboats drawing two feet, from the 20th of March to the 1st of July; and those drawing twenty inches, again, from the middle of October to the 20th of November. . . . The removal of loose stones at some points, and the construction of artificial banks at some few others, to destroy the abrupt bends, would be all that is required. The variable nature of the bed and the velocity of the current would keep the channel constantly clear."146

To the pioneer settlers of the Des Moines Valley these investigations must have seemed worthless, because the government did not immediately follow them up with actual improvements. "Pork barrel" appropriations had not attained so much prominence then as now, especially in the Territories of the West. In the absence of railways the hope of westerners naturally lay in the direction of water routes improved at the expense of the federal government. Accordingly, the people of Iowa voiced their wishes in Congress through their Delegate, Augustus Caesar Dodge. This frontier representative declared on June 8, 1846, that the country through which the Des Moines River ran was one of unsurpassed fertility and was then being densely settled. "From the central position of this river, and its other advantages," he told Congress, "there are a very large proportion of the people of Iowa who believe, and desire, their ultimate seat of Government should be upon it."147

Thus championed by their spokesman in his efforts to bring them under the fostering protection of the general government, the infant settlements of the Territory of Iowa were not indifferently nursed when Congress and President Polk in August, 1846, gave them alternate sections of all  p558 unsold and unencumbered public lands for a distance of five miles on either side of the Des Moines to aid in the improvement of the navigation of the river are its mouth to the Raccoon Fork. This grant of thousands of the most fertile and valuable acres in Iowa was accepted by the First General Assembly: nearly one-half of the people of the new State were directly interested in the matter because a system of locks and dams enabling fair-sized steamboats to navigate the river at all seasons of the year would furnish an easy, safe, and cheap mode of transportation for the vast and increasing productions of the valley, and also because such an improvement would greatly add to the population and wealth of the State. It is not possible or necessary to give in detail the history of the nonfulfillment of a project of such large proportions.148

Jacob Van der Zee

The State University of Iowa
Iowa City Iowa

The Author's Notes:

138 Laws of the Territory of Iowa, 1838‑1839, p427.

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139 Laws of the Territory of Iowa, 1839‑1840, pp150, 151; The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. III, p223.

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140 United States Statutes at Large, Vol. V, pp352, 670; The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. III, p222; Iowa Historical Record, Vol. VIII, p253; Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. III, p48.

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141 Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. IV, p331.

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142 Laws of the Territory of Iowa, 1838‑1839, pp338‑340; 1840‑1841, pp103, 107; 1842‑1843, pp47, 59, 68.

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143 Laws of the Territory of Iowa, 1839‑1840, pp148, 149.

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144 House Executive Documents, 3rd Session, 27th Congress, No. 38, pp13‑15.

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145 It is said that Thomas H. Benton of Missouri did not favor Frémont's suit for his daughter's hand and accordingly "obtained through his political influence with the government, what was substantially a decree of banishment, in the form of an order assigning the lieutenant" to the duty of surveying the lower Des Moines River. — Annals of Iowa, Vol. VII, p398; Memoirs of John C. Frémont, p68.

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146 House Executive Documents, 3rd Session, 27th Congress, No. 38, pp16‑20.

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147 Congressional Globe, 1st Session, 29th Congress, p940; Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. III, p600.

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148 Shambaugh's Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa, Vol. I, pp342‑344; Gatch's History of the Des Moines Land Grant in the Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. I.

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