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(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Words & Photos - Day 5: Eldon to Ottumwa

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Following the Des Moines River from Eldon to Ottumwa might have limited mileage on Part 1, Day 5, however, I decided early in the planning process on the historical necessity of visiting the sites of Agency and Garrison Rock. So, leaving Eldon, I veered away from the river to the northwest. I wound my way up toward Chief Wapello Road, intent on finding my way to the gravesite of the famed Meskwaki Chief.

Wapello rests in a small, but well marked park on the northwest side of the road bearing his name. Remembered today for a peaceable demeanor toward American settlement, Wapello signed a series of treaties with the United States. First, he signed a treaty at Fort Armstrong in September on September 21, 1822. The Fort Armstrong Treaty ceded Sauk and Meskwaki lands east of the Mississippi River. After, around 1829, Wapello led his people into Iowa settling near the frontier-era town which later developed and was named in his honor. Wapello again signed a treaty with the United States at Prairie du Chien. The 1830 Multinational Treaty of Prairie du Chien, negotiated by William Clark, sought to build on the 1825 Multinational Treaty of Prairie du Chien to segment tribal lands throughout what would become Iowa and Minnesota. Marking the end of the cessation of the Black Hawk War, Wapello again found himself negotiating with the United States government at Fort Armstrong. The 1832 Fort Armstrong Treaty ceded additional Sauk and Meskwaki lands, predominantly in Illinois, and marked a full transition of those tribal groups west of the Mississippi River and finalized what historians commonly call "The Black Hawk Purchase." Following the 1832 treaty, the United States created a Sauk and Meskwaki Agency run by Indian Agent Joseph Street on the site of Chief Wapello Memorial Park. In 1837, Wapello embarked, along with Joseph Street and the Sauk Chief Keokuk, on a tour of the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. During the trip, Wapello made a significant speech at Boston expressing his views on the necessity of peaceable relations between Indigenous peoples and the United States.

Wapello passed away on March 15, 1842, and requested to have his remains buried alongside his friend Joseph Street. Today, the graves of these two significant figures in early Iowa history stand alongside one another behind a chain-link fence at the Chief Wapello Memorial Park. The site also hosts markers commemorating the Sauk and Meskwaki Agency, as well as the 'Sac and Fox Treaty of 1842.' The 1842 Treaty marked the beginning of a transition of the Sauk and Meskwaki further west. First to the 'Red Rock Line,' a transitionary relocation to a point now under the waters of the Red Rock Reservoir, and eventually on to Kansas. The treaty meant to officially end the presence of the tribal groups in Iowa, however, the determination of the Meskwaki eventually led the tribe to return to the state after purchasing lands in Tama County to establish the Meskwaki Settlement in 1857.

After reading through the available interpretation at the Chief Wapello Memorial Park, I headed into the town of Agency. Agency today hosts roughly 700 residents, and the small town continues to recover following a devastating F2 tornado ripped through the town on April 11, 2001, killing two people and seriously injuring several others. I crossed through the town, eventually heading back south toward the Des Moines River on Cemetery Road. The relatively uneventful descent into the river's floodplain led me to a canoe access a few miles to the southwest of Garrison Rock Resource Management Area.

Garrison Rock Resource Management Area caught my attention during my research because the United States Army briefly established Fort Sanford on the site in October 1842. Captain James Allen, 1st United States Dragoons, selected the site due to the commanding view provided of the Des Moines River Valley. Featuring eight cabins and a trading post, Fort Sanford only served the military briefly until 1843.

Today the site hosts rolling stands of oak and hickory in deep cut ravines featuring large stone outcroppings. The sandstone bedrock of the site juts through the surface of the ground to rise and create a large, seemingly u-shaped plateau. Aside from briefly hosting the American military during the 1840s, the site served as a gathering place for various Indigenous peoples in the deeper historical past of what became Iowa. The westernmost part of the plateau features a pioneer cemetery, and Wapello County Conservation continues to work on prairie restoration at the site. In the past Horse Thief Cave offered shelter to Indigenous peoples and early settlers alike, however, large sections of the cave roof collapsed roughly fifty years ago.

The trails within the park are relatively unmarked, difficult to follow, and can prove extremely steep in places. However, the incredible beauty of throughout the site makes the location a hidden gem of Iowa's historical and environmental past.

From Garrison Rock, I pushed on toward the largest city I encountered during Part 1: Ottumwa, Iowa. The town of roughly 25,000 at the 2010 United States Census straddles the Des Moines River and serves as the seat of Wapello County. The Appanoose Rapids claimed the site in 1843, dispossessing several Indigenous groups then living in the area. By 1844, Ottumwa gained status as county seat, and settlement progressed a pace until a flood devestated the community in 1851. Consistent floods of the Des Moines River have challenged town residents consistently throughout the town's history, and today a large hydro-electric dam and levy help to offset the threat posed by the river.

Ottumwa also serves as a gateway to the once prosperous coal mining region of southcentral Iowa. Starting with the discovery of coal roughly four miles west of the town at McCready Bank in 1857, the coal industry developed quickly over the later-half of the 19th century. From 1890 to 1892, Ottumwa celebrated the wealth brought by mineral extraction through the construction of the 'Ottumwa Coal Palace.' Similar to other exposition palaces throughout Iowa (Sioux City Corn Palace, Cresco Bluegrass Palace, etc.), the Coal Palace drew visitors from around the country, including President Benjamin Harrison and Congressman (and eventual President) William McKinley.

Flooding of the Des Moines River continues to plague the residents of the town. The National Weather Service lists ten significant flood crests since 1903, including a record crest of 22.15 feet (Ottumwa flood stage 11.5') on July 12, 1993. Even in recent years, the river reached flood stage at Ottumwa on eight separate occasions since 2010.

In the face of incredible environmental challenges, the people of Ottumwa persist to preserve the city's historic past. Today, the downtown area exhibits many architecturally significant structures, and the city hosts six individual historic districts. Beautiful buildings seem to wait around each corner throughout the area surrounding the river, and I couldn't help but appreciate the incredible efforts necessary from the citizens of the city to maintain and preserve their history despite consistent threat from the Des Moines River.

The city also hosted the 1st Iowa Dragoons on both their outward and return routes of the 1835 Expedition, a reality commemorated through an Dragoon Trail Historical Marker #4. The marker, erected by the Iowa Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938, rests at the intersection on United States Highway 16 and Angle Road somewhat north of the city. The marker approximated the location of the outward march of the Dragoons, as they 1835 Expedition returned via the river itself.

Ottumwa marked the close of Part 1, Day 5 of my walk across Iowa in the footsteps of the 1835 Iowa Dragoons.


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