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Bill Thayer

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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

The text is in the public domain.

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The Opening of the Des Moines Valley
to Settlement

(Part 3 of 5)

 p518  Dragoon Activities and Fort Des Moines

The duty of preventing eager whites from settling the New Purchase before the stipulated time devolved upon the dragoon force under Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Allen. The government, however, did not forbid persons to travel through and inspect the country, and as a result many homeseekers picked out sites for claims weeks before the end of May. The Des Moines Valley region seemed most magnetic during those anxious times, so much so that the dragoons in several instances  p519 had to expel the trespassing white settlers. It is said "that every imaginable scheme was resorted to for gaining admission": some wished to become attached to the Sac and Fox Agency, and others sought connections with the different trading-houses in order to stake out the choicest spots. Because the agent, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Beach, refused to recognize such applicants for permits, he was thoroughly hated as an officer. Moreover, those who secured permission from the Indian chiefs to mark off claims and build cabins left the forbidden land only after clashes with the dragoons. Indeed, detachments of Captain Allen's troops were kept on patrol duty up and down the Indian boundary, constantly on the look-out for intruders.

So many hundreds of landseekers had moved their families and stock to the boundary line and pitched camp in their anxiety to lose no time in getting to the spots already selected that serious apprehensions were entertained by Agent Beach and Captain Allen lest the people should organize opposition strong enough to overcome the reign of martial law; "but those anxious to settle the new country, on proper reflection, thought it best to submit to these regulations, and abide their time; for it was generally understood that any claim which was marked off before the whites were permitted to settle the country would not be held valid under the claim laws."80

About one month after Captain Allen visited the point at the junction of the Raccoon and the Des Moines, he wrote to the War Department, stating his reasons for selecting that place as the best site for a new fort. First, the locality possessed all necessary building materials, water, and grass; secondly, a fort at that point would protect the Sacs and Foxes against their Sioux enemies and against squatters;  p520 thirdly, it was equidistant from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and would lie on the best route between the two rivers; fourthly, it was about the right distance from the settlements and only two miles above the site chosen for the Indian villages and trading houses; and fifthly, the fort would be at the head of keel-boat navigation. The captain also proposed plans for establishing the post and urged that necessary materials and supplies for the garrison be sent up to the Raccoon on an American Fur Company steamboat which was going to take advantage of the spring rise of water in the river.

On February 20, 1843, orders were issued for the erection of a temporary post on a site to be determined by Captain Allen. Late in April a small detachment of dragoons set out for the new station and soon afterward helped to unload army supplies from the steamboat "Agatha" which came from St. Louis.​81 Leaving his men to guard these stores Allen returned to Fort Sanford and after loading corn and other stores in a keel-boat and wagons for shipment, Allen led the remainder of his company to what he called "Fort Raccoon" and arrived there on the twentieth day of May, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John R. B. Gardenier coming the next day with Company F of the First United States Infantry.

Fort Des Moines, as the authorities at Washington preferred to call it, came to be a considerable establishment, but without pickets or block-houses it never had the appearance of a military post. Captain Allen's command first built a temporary wharf for steamboats and keel-boats, then a public store-house, a hospital, several one-story log cabins for the soldiers, stables and corrals for the horses, and officers' quarters. Gardens were also laid out. Not far  p521 from the flagstaff the post trader, Robert A. Kinzie, set up his store and dwelling; J. M. Thrift and Charles Weatherford became post tailor and blacksmith, respectively; Benj. B. Bryant, John Sturtevant, and Alexander Turner received permits to cultivate tracts of land in the vicinity in order to raise supplies for the garrison; and J. B. Scott opened a farm east of the Des Moines River opposite the officers' quarters under the terms of a contract to furnish forage and beef. North of Scott's farm the Ewing Brothers​82 were allowed to erect a log trading house and about two miles southeast stood the residence of the Phelps Brothers also engaged in the Indian trade. About two miles northeast of the fort stood the Indian agency buildings of the government in charge of John Beach.​83 When the winter of 1843‑1843 set in, all the men above named, besides two other attachés, Dr. T. K. Brooks and James Drake, occupied houses upon this frontier site of the future State capital of Iowa. Including the troops they numbered over one hundred men.84

With the spring of 1844 came the annoyance of the first straggling squatters who hoped to be permitted to remain on the land before the Indians were required to depart. Captain Allen and his dragoons constantly watched "these vagabond speculators". In the winter of 1843‑1844 they were obliged to bring back a small band of Foxes who had returned to their old village on the Iowa River and caused some trouble to the white settlers in that vicinity.​85 Then, setting out with a guide from Fort Des Moines on August 11, 1844, Captain Allen led a cavalcade of over fifty dragoons and some wagonloads of provisions for an exploration  p522 of the northern portion of Iowa Territory. The expedition proceeded up the Des Moines Valley, crossing the trail made by emigrants to far-away Oregon​86 in the summer of the year before, noting the place where a party of Delaware Indians had been wiped out in 1841, and finally reaching the numberless lakes of southern Minnesota. Finding a way out they went on to the headwaters of the Des Moines, to tributaries of the Minnesota River, and westward to the Big Sioux River, killing many buffalos and losing several horses to the thieving Sioux Indians. The troops descended the Big Sioux to its mouth, passing its falls and exploring the present counties of northwestern Iowa, and after an absence of fifty-four days arrived at Fort Des Moines on the third of October, the horses badly worn out by a journey of over seven hundred miles.​87 Another expedition made by Captain Allen and his company of dragoons was despatched the following summer in conjunction with Captain Sumner's company from Fort Atkinson, and the purpose seems to have been to impress the Indians with their "vigor, alertness and appearance", as well as with "the wise and humane admonitions" of their commanders. The two-months' saddle journey of 1845 extended from Fort Des Moines via the St. Peter's or Minnesota River to Devil's Lake, North Dakota, and return.​88 The reports of both expeditions make very interesting reading.

About the middle of September, 1845, the last annuity was distributed among the Sacs and Foxes and, if one may  p523 believe the report of a newspaper correspondent present on that occasion, the officers of the garrison were guilty of the most reprehensible conduct: a large jug of liquor was placed before Indians who were invited to drink. Captain Allen had even sent bottles of liquor with his compliments to Poweshiek and other chiefs and rumor had it that he "had a particular object in view in making the Indians drunk about the time of the payment." It was further alleged that the captain had refused to clear the country of liquor or of whiskey peddlers, though the Indian agent, John Beach, made a re­quisition upon him. It is impossible, however, to vouch for the truth of the reporter's statement "that the location of Fort Des Moines among the Sac and Fox Indians (under its present commander,) for the last two years, has corrupted them more and more and lowered them deeper in the scale of vice and degradation, then all their intercourse with the whites for the ten years previous".89

The duties of the garrison increased as the end of the Indian occupation of the country drew near. Squatters lined the Indian boundary and frequently crossed, only to be driven back. It also became evident that the tribes, especially the Foxes, were strongly disinclined to leave their Iowa hunting-grounds. Captain Allen successfully urged the War Department not to abandon the fort until all the Indians had left the country, to accomplish which the dragoons might yet be necessary. The company of infantrymen, however, marched away to Jefferson Barracks. Although most of the Sacs and Foxes complied with the terms of their treaty of 1842, and departed peacefully for their new reservation west of the Missouri River, about two hundred tribesmen were found at a place thirty miles north of the fort as late as December 10, 1845, and Lieutenant  p524 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert S. Granger "rounded them up" for removal. The military reservation of Fort Des Moines having been ceded to Polk County on January 17, 1846, and orders having been issued in February for the evacuation of the post, the Indians still dwelling in the neighborhood were brought in and under the escort of Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Patrick Noble and twenty-five dragoons were conducted southward. On March 10, 1846, the remaining half of Company I marched out on the route to Fort Leavenworth. Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grier returned to the post later and sold some property at public auction on May 1st, and with that event the government's immediate interest in the region ceased.90

The Immigration of 1843 and 1845

May the first, 1843, and October the seventh, 1845, are memorable days in the history of the conquest of the West: they marked the expiration of Sac and Fox domination in what soon came to be thirty-five prosperous counties in the south-central portion of the Commonwealth of Iowa.

The Indian boundary established in 1837 barred the way of Anglo-Saxons moving westward. The surveyed lands of the Territory of Iowa extending to this line filled up so rapidly that the announcement in 1841 of a proposal to buy more of the Indian wilderness lured a considerable number of expectant home-seekers to the border. The failure of negotiations in the autumn of this year resulted in disappointment for a multitude of people, but the success of United States commissioners in October, 1842, everywhere revived the interest of Americans who were ready and willing to brave the hard knocks of frontier life. Emigrants rushed to the "New Purchase" by the way of the Ohio and the Mississippi or they rolled overland in great, rumbling  p525 wagons. For weeks and months before this wonderful country was opened to settlement alluring prospects brought hundreds of persons to the frontier border and only military force could restrain them from building homes upon the red man's soil.

The loud discharge of fire-arms by those encamped along the extended Indian boundary announced the midnight hour and the coming of the first of May, 1843. Before this horde of men in quest of homes lay stretched the El Dorado of their dreams, prepared to welcome and reward the wielders of axes and holders of ploughs. The flood-gates of immigration being opened wide, hundreds of pioneers burst over the line and pushed the American frontier many miles westward. Their scramble for the choicest spots upon the new public domain presented a scene of the wildest confusion. Within a few brief hours by torch light they staked off all sorts of irregular areas of land for occupation. In haste they blazed trees in the timber, ran lines in all directions, and crossed and recrossed each others' tracks in marking out their claims. When daylight dawned upon the weary fortune hunters and revealed to them conflicting and overlapping interests as well as strips or "gores" of unclaimed territory between their lines, altercations arose in plenty,​91 but be it said to their honor, "compromises were generally effected without serious difficulty or personal violence." Before night fell on that momentous first of May, the hunting-grounds roamed by savages for centuries had passed into the hands of representatives of a new régime: the civilization of ambitious white men was crowding hard upon the heels of the receding red men.92

Of the millions of acres which squatters now seized, to  p526 await the government survey and sale, no portion filled up more rapidly than did the valley of the Des Moines. Accessions to the neighborhood of the Sac and Fox Agency were especially noteworthy: five thousand persons were reported to be living within the confines of Wapello County at the end of the first month.​93 Men brought their families, live stock, and farm implements, and lost no time preparing the virgin soil for the first season's crops. Against the coming winter they also raised log cabins for their homes. Ottumwa and other towns were at once laid out by interested speculators. The press of people who flocked from the East and South by team and wagon continued up the valley into Monroe, Mahaska, and Marion counties. Everywhere little groups of families united by blood ties or by previous acquaintance and friendship wisely formed settlements in the wilderness to combat and overcome the privations of frontier life by mutual dependence and coöperation.94

But if the white population of the Indian country opened to settlement was in the main characterized by the well-known frontier virtues, it is also true that the waves of immigration of 1837 and 1843 deposited upon the very border the scum of the earth. The abandonment of portions of their territory in these years was but the prelude to an immediate pursuit of the Sacs and Foxes by depraved and debased persons whose sole employment consisted of ministering to the Indian's vicious appetite. Upon the Indian frontier congregated a class of people "who willingly suffer every inconvenience, and complain of no discomfort, so long as they have the means of successfully continuing their infamous traffic in whiskey." When the line of 1843 had been surveyed liquor shops became more numerous upon it  p527 than upon the old line of 1837.​95 No wonder, then, that the Sacs and Foxes took little stock in the education, civilization, and religion of the white men with whom they came into contact — "men whose licentious dispositions, love of gain, and propensities for the most sensual indulgences, unchecked by any respect either for their own characters or the opinions of the more virtuous," would always draw the red men to the frontier so long as they had hopes of success in their shameless and abandoned course. Nor were the people dwelling upon the northern Missouri boundary any different. And finally, American citizens of the same type were in 1846 found again upon the outskirts of civilization, high up the River Des Moines, furnishing the young braves of the Yankton Sioux with liquor and cheating them out of their guns, horses, and buffalo robes.96

For two years immigrants pushed up the Des Moines into the empty lands of the Territory of Iowa — only dragoon patrols along the White Breast boundary impeded their seizure of Sac and Fox lands farther west. As the red man's sway over this country approached its end, the history of two years before repeated itself. Prospective settlers first crossed the line and inspected the region "so long as they were unaccompanied by wagon and carried no ax." As the dragoons became less vigilant, occasionally "a wagon slipped in through the brush." Then, as the eleventh of October, 1845, drew near, scores of settlers provided with sharpened stakes and lanterns or blazing torches awaited the signal which should welcome them to better opportunities: the loud cracking of muskets for miles along the border was followed at midnight by the sudden advance of the army of invaders. Completing the occupation of Mahaska  p528 County, the pioneers took possession of the lands around Fort Des Moines and the Indian agency and penetrated the solitude far beyond. A pioneer's reminiscences convey a striking, though flowery, picture of that memorable night:

The moon was slowly sinking in the west, and its beams afforded a feeble and uncertain light, for the measuring of claims, in which so many were engaged. Ere long the landscape was shrouded in darkness, save the wild and fitful glaring of torches, carried by the claim-makers. Before the night had entirely worn away, the rough surveys were finished, and the Indian lands had found new tenants. Throughout the country thousands of acres were laid off in claims before dawn. Settlers rushed in by hundreds, and the region lately so tranquil and silent, felt the impulse of the change, and became vocal with the sounds of industry and enterprise.​97

The Author's Notes:

80 Annals of Iowa (First Series), Vol. III, pp534, 535; Vol. IX, pp475, 476.

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81 Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. IV, pp331, 332, 334. Authorities disagree about the name of the steamboat which made this journey in May, 1843: the "Ione" is mentioned in Turrill's Historical Reminiscences of the City of Des Moines, and in the Annals of Iowa (First Series), Vol. XI, p482.

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82 Fulton's The Red Men of Iowa, p360.

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83 Senate Documents, 1st Session, 28th Congress, No. 1, p381.

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84 Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. IV, pp169‑172.

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85 Senate Documents, 2nd Session, 28th Congress, No. 1, p416.

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86 The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. X, pp425, 427, 429. The "Oregon trail" noted by the dragoons lay just above the mouth of the Raccoon River. Iowa City, Muscatine, and Burlington were then advertised as good starting-points for the journey across the Iowa wilderness to Council Bluffs on the Missouri.

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87 The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XI, pp74‑108.

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88 The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XI, pp259‑267.

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89 The Davenport Gazette, November 13, 1845; The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XII, p195.

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90 Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. IV, pp173‑177; The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. VIII, pp542, 543.

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91 Niles' Register, Vol. LXIV, p272; Annals of Iowa (First Series), Vol. III, p536.

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92 Annals of Iowa, Vol. IX, pp476, 477; Parish's John Chambers, p185.

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93 Barrows' Notes on Iowa, p19; Senate Documents, 1st Session, 28th Congress, No. 1, p381; Niles' Register, Vol. LXIV, p311.

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94 Annals of Iowa (First Series), Vol. II, p294, Vol. III, pp534, 536, Vol. VII, pp37, 254.

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95 Senate Documents, 1st Session, 28th Congress, No. 1, p380.

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96 Senate Documents, 1st Session, 29th Congress, No. 1, pp483, 484, 485; House Executive Documents, 2nd Session, 29th Congress, No. 4, p295.

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97 Turrill's Historical Reminiscences of the City of Des Moines, pp16, 17; The History of Mahaska County, p304.

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