Iowa Article: “The Opening of the Des Moines Valley to Settlement (Part 1 of 5),” Van der Zee

“The Opening of the Des Moines Valley to Settlement (Part 1 of 5),” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct 1916), 497-558. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/America/United_States/Iowa/_Texts/journals/IaJHP/14/4/The_Opening_of_the_Des_Moines_Valley_to_Settlement/1*.html


Notes on Iowa will focus article summaries for this week on a five-part series by a Mr. Van der Zee in the July 1916 Iowa Journal of History and Politics. The series contains a wide-ranging assessment of the Des Moines River Valley, the land transfers taking place from French occupation through the 19th century, and the general series of population movements taking place during the time period.


Van der Zee consistently refers to the area as ‘wilderness’ throughout the article, undercutting the claims of Indignous people in the region. For instance, on page 488, Van der Zee wrote: “Lieutenant Colonel Kearny obeyed, and setting out from Fort Des Moines on June 7th the three companies proceeded up the Des Moines Valley through an uninhabited country. On their way to find the mouth of the Raccoon River they passed two Sac and Fox villages.” The tendency of historians and others in the past to alleviate the historical agency of Indigenous peoples through downplaying their specific contributions to maintaining and manipulating the natural environment proved critical to doctrines of dispossession during the time-period.


Aside from limiting the significance of Indigenous peoples, Van der Zee’s extensive account provides a wealth of information related to the land transfer taking place during the earliest western-recorded history of what became Iowa. Starting with the French and Spanish, and moving through the establishment and decommissioning of First Fort Des Moines, the author provides a wealth of historical information that contributed significantly to summarizing the historical record related to the area.


In part 1, the establishment of First Fort Des Moines, the 1835 Expedition of the Dragoons, the disposition of the Sauk and Meskwaki, and the resultant settlement of the river valley all find description in detail.


“The wilderness tract just above the mouth of the Des MOines River was a region which was early frequented by fur traders.” (479)


Near the Sac Indian village Louis Tesson (nicknamed Honore) had received a land grant from the Spanish government, and there he had set up a little frontier establishment. How long he stayed and who lived upon his land afterwards can not be ascertained, but about the year 1806 Tesson transferred his land to Joseph Robidoux of St. Louis in satisfaction of a debt.” (479)


“During the years of the War of 1812 Americans were driven from the neighborhood by the Indian allies of the British and not until after peace was restored in 1816 could American subjects feel safe in this region.” (479)


“John C. Sullivan was engaged in 1816 to locate the northern boundary of the Osage Indian land cession in the Territory of Missouri. He was the first surveyor in this part of the public domain, and he ran a line which thirty-four years later definitely became the Iowa-Missouri boundary. Running east and west the line stopped at the middle of the channel of the Des Moines River and if extended to what have long been called the Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi would have deprived the State of Iowa of its tongue-shaped southeastern corner. This area, however, was then in possession of the Sac Indians and therefore was not within the power of the Osage Indians to cede. It was a tract, too, that was destined to attain unusual historical significance within the next two or three decades. (480)


“In the summer of 1824 ten Sac and Fox chiefs, accompanied by their trader, B. Vasquez, as interpreter, Maurice Blondeau, Louis Tesson, and John W. Johnson, formerly government factor at old Fort Madison, journeyed eastward to consult the President of the United States at Washington. On the fourth day of August they signed a treaty relinquishing all the claims of their tribes to the lands within the limits of the new State of Missouri on condition ‘that the small tract of land lying between the rivers Desmoin and the Mississippi, and the section of the above line between the Mississippi and the Desmoin, is intended for the use of the half-breeds belonging to the Sac and Fox nations.’ One may be sure that the Indians themselves were not so desirous of this grant as were the fathers of children born by Indian mothers. In fact the men who witnessed the treaty were inhabitants or sometimes residents of the country established for the Sac and Fox half-breeds.” (482)


“On the morning of July 4, 1829, amid the booming of cannon, men and women bound for points north in Illinois and Wisconsin disembarked at what certain gentlemen on the steamboat at the suggestion of George Davenport had agreed to call ‘Keeokuk’, the capital of the Half-breed Tract and a village containing about twenty Indian families, an American Fur Company store, and a tavern.” (483)

“The American Fur Company had erected as business headquarters at Keokuk a row of hewed log buildings which afterwards went by the undignified name of ‘Rat Row.’ In the year 1830 Russell Farnham was the Company’s manager here; Joshua Palen, Mark Aldridge, and Edward Brishnell were clerks…” (484)


“The beginning of the present town of Galland date from the year 1829 when Dr. Isaac Galland selected and settled upon a spot seven miles north of Keokuk or about one mile north of Maurice Blondeau’s farm. Believing that this place was destined to become a great commercial city on account of its position near the rapids, he did everything in his power to promote its growth and prosperity...Here also the first school teacher in the Iowa wilderness saw sercie - Berryman Jennings, later an Oregon millionaire.” (484)


“The number of settlers or squatters upon the Half-breed Tract about this time is unknown, but that the Sac and Fox Indians, and especially the half-breeds, viewed the trespassing whites with alarm is evident from the fact that they petitioned the President of the United States in 1829 and again in 1830 to survey and divide the reservation for the half-breeds living at the time of the treaty in 1824.” (484)


“The pioneer historian of the first permanent settlement in Iowa country recorded the death of Dr. Samuel C. Muir, due to an epidemic of cholera which raged throughout the Mississippi Valley in 1832.” (485)


“In 1833, in accordance with the terms of the treaty which closed the Black Hawk War in September, 1832, the occupants of the Sac village removed, leaving the few whites upon the half-breed lands tenants by sufferance.” (486)


“Alive to the future danger from Indians west of the Mississippi and mindful of the expense of life and money incurred by the Black Hawk War of 1832, Congress in 1833 made provision for the better defense of the frontier by authorizing the establishment of a regiment of dragoons, with headquarters at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Congress thus appears to have given ear to the words of Secretary of War Lewis Cass when he said: ‘We owe protection to the emigrants, and it has been solemnly promised to them; and this duty can only be fulfilled by repressing and punishing every attempt to disturb the general tranquility. Policy and humanity equally dictate this course; and there is reason to hope that the display of this force will itself render unnecessary its hostile employment.” (486)


“On the nineteenth day of May, 1834, scarcely a year after emigrants began to pour into the eastern Iowa wilderness, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Kearny was ordered to take up winter quarters near the mouth of the Des Moines River with the dragoon companies of Captains Summer, Boone, and Browne.” (486)


“Setting out from the vicinity of Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River on the third day of September, Lieutenant Colonel Kearny, three captains, and one hundred and seven non-commissioned officers, musicians, and privates completed the long overland journey to the Des Moines River in three weeks, with horses none the worse for wear. Having undergone severe privations on an expedition to the plains of the far West during the winter and summer just past, and expecting to find their new quarters in a state of readiness, comfortable and convenient, the dragoons were not a little disappointed when called upon to help complete the buildings before winter weather set in. Such was the beginning of ‘Camp Des MOines, Michigan Territory’, later called Fort Des Moines.” (487)


“In the spring of 1835 the arrival of recruits increased the garrison to one hundred and fifty-seven men, and about the same time came orders for work to be done.” (487)


“Lieutenant Colonel Kearny obeyed, and setting out from Fort Des Moines on June 7th the three companies proceeded up the Des Moines Valley through an uninhabited country. On their way to find the mouth of the Raccoon River they passed two Sac and Fox villages, and then directing their course northeastward, they came to the mouth of the Boone River, many miles north to the point which they expected to visit. The dragoons then marched northeastward to Wabasha’s Sioux village on the Mississippi, encountering buffalos on their way through a picturesque wilderness of hills, valleys, and stretches of prairie.” (488)


“After a week’s encampment in the Minnesota country the expedition preceded in a westward direction and then southward to the East Fork of the Des MOines. Fording this stream they descended to the Raccoon River, where Kearny examined the country for a suitable site for a fort and reported no spot especially desirable, although the point of land at the junction of the rivers answered the purpose best of all.” (488)


“Kearny expressed the opinion that if a new military post were needed to protect the Missouri frontiers, a fort at the Raccoon Fork would be too far away; and if it were needed to preserve peace between the Sac and Fox tribes and Sioux, a better site could be found in the Neutral Ground on the upper Des Moines. Moreover, Kearny reported that, whatever the War Department saw fit to do, another military establishment in the Sac and Fox country was decidedly opposed by the Indians because ‘the Whites would drive off the little game that is left in their country.’” (488)


“Kearny despatched Lieutenant Albert M. Lea, one private, and one Indian to descend the Des Moines in a cotton-wood ‘dug-out’ for the purpose of ascertaining the practicability of navigation with keel-boats. Lea sounded all shoals, took courses with a pocket compass, estimated distances from bend to bend by the time and rate of motion, sketched every notable thing, and landed occasionally to examine the geology of the rocks. The little party reached Keokuk without accident and arrived at Fort Des Moines many days before the main body of dragoons, who returned on August 19th after a march of 1100 miles.” (489)


“Two members of the expeditionary force left records of the long journey: one kept a brief daily journal of events and another, Lieutenant Lea, availed himself of his experience on the expedition and of information gathered from surveyors, traders, explorers, and residents to compile and publish a booklet on the ‘Iowa District’...” (489)

“Nothing further of importance can be added to the history of Fort Des Moines No. 1 besides the evils of an unhealthful situation the fort experienced more dissertations, it is said, than any other military post in the United States. In the autumn of 1836 a town had been laid out on the mile square on which the fort then stood; lots had been sold; and buildings began to appear.” (490)


“Waiting until ‘the grass might be sufficiently high to afford grazing for the horses, as corn cannot be had on some parts of the route,’ the dragoons evacuated Fort Des Moines on the first day of June, 1837, and proceeded to Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River.” (490)


“The Indian title to the Black Hawk Purchase became extinct on the first of June, 1833, and the fee simple then became vested in the government of the United States. Many persons at once crossed the Mississippi and others moved northward from the State of Missouri to squat upon the new public domain.” (491)


“In the spring of 1835 home-seekers began to come in larger numbers - some by wagon, others by boat - from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Steamboats upon the Ohio and Mississippi brought passengers and household and farm utensils, while ferry boats plied ceaselessly between the Iowa and the Illinois shores transporting the horses and wagons and livestock of incoming settlers.” (492)


“By that time (1835), naturally enough, the best locations for farms and towns had been picked out upon or near the Mississippi, the Des Moines, and other rivers, because these avenues of nature afforded the only ready means of travel and transportation, matters of prime importance in the life of wilderness inhabitants.” (492)


“So many persons had flocked to the Black Hawk Purchase or, as it now came to be called, the Iowa District of Wisconsin Territory, that two more notable additions to the public domain of the United States were soon made by outright purchases of Indian territory: the Sacs and Foxes gave up their claims to Keokuk’s Reserve in the autumn of 1836 and to a million and quarter acres of land situated west of the Black Hawk Purchase of 1837.” (494)


“Sometime before surrendering all their rights in the territory which bordered on the Mississippi the Scas and Foxes set up two villages in the Des Moines Valley, beyond the pale of the white settlements. On the present site of South Ottumwa, Chief Appanoose established himself and his band in the spring of 1834 and calle dthe village Ah-taum-way-e-nauk (Perseverance Town). Ten or fifteen miles below, just west of the Indian boundary line, in the region that is now northeastern Davis County, Keokuk chose a spot for this tribesmen. Here the bands were dwelling in the summer of 1835, when the dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Kearny visited them. Appanoose’s town, according to an eye-witenss, stood upon ‘a handsome Prairie & for an Indian town is very handsome & appears to be increasing in wealth and population.’ Keokuk’s village made a good impression upon a dragoon by reason of its neatness and the apparent comfort of its population, who were ‘the most decent in their manner of living of any Indians I have seen.’” (494)

“...In the autumn of 1835 went their government Indian agent, General Joseph M. Street, accompanied by the famous painter of Indian portraits, George Catlin, and a corporal’s command of eight dragoons furnished by Lieutenant Colonel Kearny. Catlin wrote as follows of this unique experience:


The whole country that we passed over was like a garden, wanting only cultivation, being mostly prairie, on the bank of the Des Moines River. They seemed to be well supplied with the necessaries of life, and with some of its luxuries. I found Ke‑o‑kuk to be a chief of fine and portly figure, with a good countenance, and great dignity and grace in his manners.


General Street had some documents from Washington, to read to him, which he and his chiefs listened to with great patience; after which he placed before us good brandy and good wine, and invited us to drink, and to lodge with him; he then called up five of his runners or criers, communicated to them in a low, but emphatic tone, the substance of the talk from the agent, and of the letters read to him, and they started at full gallop — one of them proclaiming it through his village, and the others sent express to the other villages, comprising the whole nation. Ke‑o‑kuck came in with us, with about twenty of his principal men — he brought in all his costly wardrobe, that I might select for his portrait such as suited me best; but at once named (of his own accord) the one that was purely Indian. In that he paraded for several days, and in it I painted him at full length. He is a man of a great deal of pride, and makes truly a splendid appearance on his black horse. He owns the finest horse in the country, and is excessively vain of his appearance when mounted, and arrayed, himself and horse, in all their gear and trappings. He expressed a wish to see himself represented on horseback, and I painted him in that plight. He rode and nettled his prancing steed in front of my door, until its sides were in a gore of blood. I succeeded to his satisfaction, and his vanity is increased, no doubt, by seeing himself immortalized in that way. After finishing him, I painted his favourite wife (the favoured one of seven), his favourite boy, and eight or ten of his principal men and women; after which, he and all his men shook hands with me, wishing me well, and leaving, as tokens of regard, the most valued article of his dress, and a beautiful string of wampum, which he took from his wife's neck.


They then departed for their village in good spirits, to prepare for their fall hunt.” (495)


“Chief Keokuk's Reserve upon the Iowa River practically divided the Iowa District into two parts. Owing to the rush of emigration to the West negotiations were soon opened for the purchase of this tract. By virtue of a treaty concluded on September 28, 1836, and ratified by the United States Senate in February, 1837, the Sacs and Foxes gave up their title to the land and agreed not to return for fishing, hunting, or planting after the first of November, 1836. It is reported that when Henry Dodge, Governor of Wisconsin Territory, requested the chiefs and braves to remove their families and property from the cession to make room for the whites, the Indians became excited and then burst into hearty laughter. This behavior one of them explained as follows:34


My father, we have to laugh — we require no time to move — we have all left the lands already, and sold our wigwams to Chemokemons (white men) — some for one hundred, and some for two hundred dollars, before we came to this Treaty. There are already four hundred Chemokemons on the land, and several hundred more on their way moving in; and three days before we came away, one Chemokemon sold his wigwam to another Chemokemon for two thousand dollars, to build a great town.” (496)


“From their (Sauk and Meskwaki) sale of the Iowa River lands they realized a cash payment of $30,000, the sum of $10,000 annually in specie for ten years, and $48,458.87½ with which p497 to satisfy the claims of traders against them for goods sold and delivered. Sac and Fox debts had accumulated since 1832 and numerous "just creditors" presented their bills for settlement, among them Pratte, Chouteau & Co. of St. Louis, John Campbell, S. S. Phelps & Co., George Davenport, Antoine Le Claire, and Francis Labachiere. It was agreed that one half of the amount ascertained to be due should be paid at once, while the other half should be paid later out of the Sac and Fox annuities, for which purpose $5000 was set aside each year beginning in 1838. The United States, furthermore, undertook to supply the Indians with two hundred horses in June, 1837. In all of this there is manifested the government's desire to confer benefit upon the tribesmen and to present new opportunities to home-seekers, but most of all there is evidence of the successful dictation of treaties by Indian traders who had their own selfish interests at heart. They exploited the natives by a system of bartering goods for cash and furs and also by giving unlimited credit in the hope of a government payment later on. They also found it to their best interests to have the Indians removed from the temptations of civilized life to the open western country where the skins of game animals could still be secured for a most lucrative trade in the fur markets of the world. And so, the traders p498 had nothing to lose and everything to gain when they urged and supported Indian treaties such as the one of 1836.” (498)


“In the autumn of the year 1837 about thirty Sac and Fox chiefs and delegates left their villages upon the Des Moines River and journeyed by water to the East, conducted by their Indian agent, Joseph M. Street, and the portly half-breed interpreter, Antoine Le Claire. Besides visiting New York and Boston, where they are said to have given a war dance on the Common,37 they met the government's commissioner at Washington and concluded a treaty on October 21st. This time they sold 1,250,000 acres of land lying west of the previous cessions upon the Mississippi River — a narrow strip of territory along the whole western border of the Black Hawk cession of 1832. The reasons for the sale are not clear, unless it be that the Indians and their traders again wanted relief: certain it is that the whites had not filled all the best vacant lands of the "Iowa District".” (499)


“n return for the fertile lands the United States agreed to survey the new tract and pay all Sac and Fox debts up to $100,000: if these debts amounted to a larger sum, the creditors were to be paid pro rata, and if the debts aggregated less, the Indians were to receive the surplus. The government gave further evidence of its generosity by promising to give the Indians $28,500 worth of goods suited to their wants; to build two grist mills and furnish two millers for five years at a cost of $10,000; to break and fence certain Sac and Fox lands and provide "for other beneficial objects" at a cost of $24,000; to pay $2000 a year for five years for the services of laborers and other objects to aid p499 the Indians in agriculture; and also deliver $4500 worth of horses and presents to the chiefs and delegates on their arrival at St. Louis. The government further agreed to invest $200,000 in safe State stocks and pay the Indians a five percent income each year in money or goods as the tribes might direct, although the President of the United States might order some of the income to be spent on education or other improvements, if the Indians so desired. The treaty also stipulated that two blacksmith establishments and one gunsmith shop should be removed from the lands sold to the new location of the tribe; while the Indians themselves should depart westward within eight months after the Senate's ratification of the treaty — the only important exception being that Chief Keokuk might retain possession of his village for two years.” (499)


“After the Indian deputation returned to the West, James Jordan, William Phelps, and John Tolman are said to have paid $3000 for the rights of Keokuk and his tribesmen to remain upon the lands which they had sold. The Indians accordingly vacated their village in 1838 and crossed the new Indian boundary to establish themselves on lands a few miles farther up the Des Moines River near the present site of Ottumwa. In the spring of 1838 Keokuk's old village site was laid off by its speculating owners and called Iowaville. Just across the Des Moines the aged Black Hawk maintained his residence until the time of his death a few months later. Here, too, William and Peter Avery are reported to have served the American Fur Company until 1842, building a blockhouse for their protection. The first steamboat reaching the new frontier town was the American Fur Company's boat "Pavilion". (500)




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