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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Iowa As It Is in 1856

N. Howe Parker

Chicago and Philadelphia, 1856

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 20

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 p163  Chapter XIX

Description of Counties — continued

Polk County

Was opened for settlement in May, 1846. The garrison was removed in July of that year, and in the same month and year the town of Fort Des Moines was laid out.

The population of Polk County is upwards of 6000; that of Fort Des Moines, 1100.

In the county are Episcopal, Presbyterian (Old and New School), Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic churches — the latter but recently established.

But one newspaper in the county — the "Fort Des Moines Star."

Two private schools and one public school in Fort Des Moines; the former in good condition, affording a respectable academic course for young ladies and gentlemen. A  p164 large District school-house, on the "Union" plan, is in course of erection, to be completed this fall, costing some $6000.

The Des Moines River passes diagonally through Polk County, entering at the north-west and passing out at the south-east corner. Raccoon River empties into this river at Fort Des Moines. Both of these streams afford numerous sites for manufactories and mills. There are several grist and saw-mills in the county, but not a tithe of the number that are needed. Our correspond writes: "We need more shops of all descriptions, and, above all, manufactories. We want flouring-mills and saw-mills — more of them, and on a larger scale. We want brick-makers, carpenters, cabin-makers, brick and stone masons, plasterers, and, in short, mechanics of all kinds. We want more wheels and steam-engines, farmers, machinists, and day laborers."

Polk County, as well as those adjoining, and those farther north and west, is high, rolling prairie, with a due proportion of timber, and is well watered with rivers and creeks, the banks of which abound in coal. Lime, sandstone, and gypsum in great quantities.

The last session of the Legislature located the Capital of the State at Fort Des Moines, since which time that place has been almost besieged by lawyers, doctors, agents, and land speculators.

Fort Des Moines is destined to be one of, if not the, largest interior city in the State.

Of other towns and villages in the county, we would  p165 mention Polk City, Corydon, Taylorsville, West Liberty, Circleville, Union, Adelphi, Harvey, Rising Sun, and Jericho.

Scott County

Is situated on the Mississippi (which bounds it on the east and south), and is the lower one of the trio which occupy a front and central rank among the counties bordering on the river. The first permanent settlement in the county was made by Antoine Le Claire, in the spring of 1833. During the next year several families and companies of whites crossed over as "squatters," settling upon such "claims" as might suit their fancy. Mr. Le Claire was for many years intimately and responsibly identified with our government in its intercourse with the Indians of the north-west, being in government service, as interpreter and Indian agent, from 1813 to 1843 — 30 years; and in some ten or twelve important treaties, he was the principal or only interpreter, and as such attended the government officers on the occasion. His familiarity with some fourteen Indian dialects, as well as with the English and French languages, and his being the great-grandson of a chief, and his wife the descendant of another, gave him an influence with, and a knowledge of the Indian tribes, such as no other individual of his day possessed.

[image ALT: An engraving of a low rectangular wooden house, single-story although with three small gables suggesting an attic. It is Antoine Le Claire's house in Scott County, Iowa, one of the earliest Euro-American structures in the State.]

L'Eclaire's Homestead.

The marquee of Gen. Scott, in which was held the treaty with the Sac and Fox Indians, was erected upon the identical spot, which has, since 1833, been occupied by Mr. Le Claire as a residence. On the preceding page is  p166 presented a view of the Le Claire Homestead, which was occupied as a residence by Mr. Le Claire from 1813 to 1854. In the spring of 1854 it was given up to the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company, as a location for their passenger depôt.

At the period of the treaty made by Gen. Scott, the cholera was prevailing among the soldiers in the Fort, and the meeting, instead of being held on the Island, was, from prudential considerations, transferred to the main shore, though not outside of the range of the guns of the Fort. It was in this marquee that the chief of the Sacs made a present of a mile square of land to Mrs. Le Claire, and, striking his foot upon the turf, told Mr. Le Claire that the only condition he asked was that he should build his house upon that spot — a condition that was speedily complied with.

The treaty was held in the fall of 1832, and ratified by Congress the following winter. In the spring of 1833, Mr. Le Claire erected a small building, or "shanty," in the then Fox village, "Morgan," which had occupied this ground for years previous. Of the tribe having this as their head-quarters, Maquopom was the head warrior, and Powesheik head chief. In the fall of 1834, the Sac and Fox Indians left here for the Cedar River. In the spring of 1836 the town of Davenport was laid out.

Of the climate and scenery of Scott County, Mr. Newhall, in his Glimpse of Iowa, thus speaks:— "Ever since the earliest settlement of Iowa, this portion has been justly esteemed among the most desirable and fascinating regions of the boundless West. Being entirely free from low  p167 bottom-lands, (the usual cause of disease), it was early selected by the sagacious pioneers, as one of the favored spots of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Perhaps no country in the world presents so happy a combination of picturesque beauties, blended with excellence of soil, and salubrity of climate, as the vicinity of Rock Island. All who have ever visited this charming region, concur in expressing their admiration of the surpassing beauties of Nature's inimitable works."

For some ten miles on the river, above and below Davenport, the bluffs are very wide, varying from one to two miles, leaving a large amount of bottom land for cultivation. By the word bluff, we do not mean here an abrupt, perpendicular precipice of rocks; the bluffs of the Mississippi at this point, and for twenty miles up and down the river, are generally a gentle slope from the top to the banks of the river, and their elevation is about 100 feet above low-water-mark. From the top of these bluffs, one beholds Davenport spread out upon a gently sloping plain nearly two miles long, and one-half to three-fourths of a mile wide, fronting on the river, which runs, at this point, nearly west; and the streets range parallel to the four cardinal points of the compass. For miles below, the mighty Mississippi rolls on its placid waters, curling amid its many islands in picturesque grandeur, until lost in the distance; while to the east, for ten miles, a most beautiful panoramic view is presented of the river, its islands and bluffs. In the distance are the towns of Hampton and Moline, upon the Illinois shore; in front of you, and  p168 beyond the town of Rock Island, away in the distance, are seen the windings of Rock River, one of the most beautiful streams in the west. The tower of Black Hawk is also in full view, over­looking the great valley at the junction of Rock River with the Mississippi. It was in this valley — at the forks of Rock River and the Mississippi — that the village of Black Hawk was situated. Here, it was said, he lived in peace and plenty, with his immense fields of corn, and supplied with game and fish, that abounded in his neighbourhood. It is said to have been one of the greatest trials of Black Hawk's life to give up this country, and not only leave the graves of his people to the ruthless encroachments of the white man, but to part with his favorite fishing and hunting-grounds. Is it a wonder, then, that, after a treaty had been signed by Keokuk, the civil chief of the tribe, contrary to the wishes and design of Black Hawk, he refused to leave this lovely spot, the scenes of his childhood, the sports of his manhood, and the last resting-place of his ancestors?

Rock Island is about three miles in length, with an average width of half a mile, and contains therefore nearly one thousand acres. The rapids commence some twelve miles above it and terminate at its foot. Moline and the city of Rock Island, on the Illinois shore, are opposite its extreme endings, and the city of Davenport and East Davenport occupy nearly the same relation to it on the Iowa side. At the foot of the Island stands old Fort Armstrong, built in 1816 by Col. Mason, U. S. A. Half a mile distant, on the north side of the Island, is the residence of the late Col.  p169 Davenport, who was for more than 30 years a partner in the American Fur Company, and an Indian trader. On the 4th of July, 1845, a band of robbers entered his beautiful residence in the middle of the day, in the absence of his family, and in robbing him accidentally shot him; he died the same night. After having lived a frontier life for so many years, and having passed through a long and bloody Indian war, he was doomed to die by the hands of desperadoes. All the murderers were taken; three were hung at Rock Island, the same year — but two escaped, and are yet at large.​a From 1837 to '40, and up to '45, Iowa and northern Illinois were infested by the most daring set of outlaws that have ever visited the western world. But the supremacy of the laws has banished them from our midst, and Iowa is again comparatively free from crime.

The Island is now covered with a dense growth of young timber, of every variety, that flourishes in this climate. Forty years ago, Mr. Le Claire states, this ground was covered by a very dense forest, but the soldiers stationed in the Fort and the early settlers of the country, destroyed much of it for fuel and other purposes, and finally fire was communicated to the bed of leaves which had accumulated there for ages, and swept the Island of its crowning glory. The present growth of timber dates its origin subsequent to this fire.

"The Island, with the exception of a fractional quarter section of about one hundred and fifty-five acres, which was given to Col. Davenport, belongs to the government. The motives which led to withholding it from sale, so long as  p170 Fort Armstrong was occupied, and there remained a necessity of keeping an armed force in this vicinity, are evident enough. But the Fort was really abandoned in 1835, and the policy which has induced the government to retain its hold upon the Island since that period, is not so apparent. Numerous efforts have been made to obtain an order for its sale, and it is to be feared, in too many instances, with the view of securing the possession of it to a few favored individuals. Twice have such orders been issued by the proper departments, but on both occasions the sale was not permitted to proceed. Under the circumstance it was well that it did not. This magnificent body of land, lying here in the midst of so much beauty, and surrounded by towns which bid fair to become the seat of an immense commerce, should not be permitted to fall into the hands of mere speculators. But the Island should unquestionably pass from public to private owner­ship. As it is, it answers no useful end to the government or to individuals, and its being retained by the former retards in many ways the prosperity of the neighboring towns and country."

The city of Davenport, since the completion of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, has moved forward with rapid strides. The present population of the city is about 8000. The following from the correspondence of the St. Louis Republican gives a concise and correct statement:—

"We have two flouring-mills, six saw-mills, two planing-mills, one plow factory, two sash and blind factories, and two foundries, all operated by steam-engines, and doing a thriving business.

 p171  "The stores, numbering over one hundred, have passed through the transition state, from general country groceries to distinct and well appointed establishments, representing separately each prominent branch of commercial enterprise. The various churches and public edifices have emerged from their temporary chrysalis to large, commodious buildings. Farms of unsurpassed fertility, stretch their broad acres from our suburbs many miles into the interior, over the prairies, are creditable to the enterprise of our agriculturists, and supplying our city with every luxury, and a commerce commensurate with the importance of our locality. Our streets swarm with immigrants, our hotels, six in number, are insufficient for the accommodation of strangers. Our banking-houses, of which there are three, are sound and healthy. Our real estate offices, which are too numerous to enumerate, are converting money into property, and property into money, daily, at prices which, although comparatively high, make both buyer and seller rich. All kinds of business, and classes of business men, thrive and prosper. Two abutments, and three piers of the great Mississippi bridge are completed.

"Preparations for gas light on an extensive scale, form a new feature in the city's privileges. Our suburbs spring up with distinctive appellations, and North, West, and East Davenport, and Hamburg, would pass for respectable villages, apart from the nucleus.

"Davenport is becoming an important lumber depôt. Besides the six saw-mills in operation here, cutting some fifteen or twenty millions of feet per annum, it is supplied  p172 by rafts from the pineries, which, on account of the spacious eddy at East Davenport, are induced to touch here before seeking another market.

"East Davenport contains 300 inhabitants, and has one flour and one saw-mill. It presents inducements for the extension of the lumber business beyond any other point on the Mississippi river above St. Louis. The main avenues penetrating the interior of the State, concentrate at this point, and the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad depôt is contiguous to the village between it and Davenport proper, and doubtless a branch railroad will be extended to the eddy next season. Here, also, the supplies of lime and building-stone are derived, and brick manufacture is extensively carried on."

Five large new churches, dedicated last fall, rear their turrets towards heaven; a new collegiate building, an extensive building for a female school, two market houses, and several stores, of architectural proportions, are among the edifices of last year's growth.

Local Manufactures. — Five saw-mills have turned out 7,000,000 feet of lumber; two planing-mills and sash factories have worked 2,000,000 feet of lumber; one plow factory manufactured 1500 plows; two foundries and machine shops; two flouring-mills manufactured 50,000 barrels of flour; four cooper shops manufactured 30,000 flour barrels, and 1000 pork barrels. Population of Davenport 8000; increase 2200 over 1853. Scott County, 17,000.

From the returns of the Assessor, in 1854, we see that the total amount of property assessed the past year was  p173 valued at $4,560,459, showing an increase over 1853, of $2,728,546. By comparing the returns of the several counties, it will be seen that Scott is the third county in the State, in point of wealth.

We have devoted more space to the description of Scott County, the Island, &c., than to any other county in the State, but probably no more than they deserve. At no point in the whole Mississippi Valley is presented a more beautiful location for a city than here, and nowhere else in the West can be found two cities of the size of Rock Island and Davenport, opposite each other, together concentrating a population of nearly 15,000 inhabitants; — individually cities of great importance to the West — together, forming one of the most attractive points on the Upper Mississippi.

The purlieus of these two cities have also been scenes of a number of incidents, which tend to imbue with a deep and thrilling interest, the early history of Iowa. A relation of these would occupy a greater space than it is in our power at present to devote to them; but we shall endeavor to compile them together with an accurate and compendious history of the primitive days of the entire State, for publication at an early period.

Since our chapter on Geology was completed, and in print, an extensive bed of Cannel coal has been penetrated, in Scott County, which promises to be of great value to its possessors. The area underlaid by this bank, embraces several acres. Specimens of this coal which have been furnished us, burn well, are very light and brittle, and susceptible of a polish, though inferior to the Cannel coal of  p174 Pennsylvania. It is thought by colliers that the better qualities are farther in the banks. In our next edition we shall be able to give a chemical analysis of the properties of this coal.

Thayer's Note:

a A partly conflicting account of Davenport's death is given in I. B. Richman, Ioway to Iowa, pp309‑310; a historical sketch of the house and a photo are found in John Drury, Old Illinois Houses, pp126‑127; a contemporary report of Fox Indian ceremonies at his grave is given in The Palimpsest, 2:379‑381.

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Page updated: 6 Jul 13