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Iowa Article: “The Opening of the Des Moines Valley to Settlement (Part 3 of 5)"

Van der Zee. “The Opening of the Des Moines Valley to Settlement (Part 3 of 5),” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct 1916), 497-558.*.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.

In the third installment of Van der Zee’s history of Des Moines Valley settlement, the author shifted focus from Indigenous peoples to the American settler-colonizers following the tide of dispossession westward. The federal government struggled to keep back eager pioneers hoping to plow under the prairies, and both the Dragoons and Indian Agency sought to maintain martial law throughout the eastern portion of what soon became Iowa. The Dragoons, especially the unit under Captain Allen, consistently found occupation through the removal of squatters hoping to settle up lands not yet open for occupation by American citizens. Indian Agent Beach executed the unfavorable task of approving and denying permits for those seeking to settle throughout the area early to work in trade with Indigenous peoples, and he quickly became notorious for rapidly denying permit requests. Although limited, these instances show both Captain Allen and Agent Beach seeking to uphold treaty provisions and limiting the encroachment of settlers hoping to enter lands not open for settlement.

Van der Zee also discussed the location, initial planning, and construction of Second Fort Des Moines near the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. After completion of the Fort, Captain Allen led the Dragoon Expedition of 1844 through the northern portion of the territory. Their path followed the west-fork of the Des Moines into southern Minnesota before venturing west to descend the Big Sioux River.

The final portion of the article details the landrush and resultant settlement of 1843 and 1845. Van der Zee related both instances of shotgun starts leading to eager pioneers settling upon newly opened lands throughout the Des Moines River Valley.

“The duty of preventing eager whites from settling the New Purchase before the stipulated time devolved upon the dragoon force under Captain Allen. The government, however, did not forbid persons to travel through and inspect the county, and as a result many homeseekers picked out sites for claims weeks before the end of may.” (518)

“The Des Moines Valley region seemed most magnetic during those anxious times, so much so that the dragoons in several instances 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, 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.” (519)

“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.’” (519)

“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 protest the Sacs and Foxes against their Sioux enemies and against squatters; 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.” (520)

“On February 23, 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. 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.” (520)

“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 puit 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 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…” (520)

“About two miles northeast of the fort stood the Indian agency buildings of the government in charge of John Beach. When the winter of 1843-44 set in, all the men above named...occupied houses upon this frontier site of the future State capital of Iowa. Including the troops they numbered over one hundred men.” (521)

“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 Indains were required to depart. Captain Allen and his dragoons constantly watched ‘these vagabond speculators.’ In the winter of 1843-44 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.” (521)

“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 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 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 buffaloes 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.” (522)

“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.” (522)

“About the middle of September, 1845, the last annuity was distributed among the Sacs and Foxes and, if one may 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 the 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 prior.” (523)

“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.” (523)

“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 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.” (524)

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.” (524)

“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 the 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 Mississippi or they rolled overland in great, rumbling 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.” (525)

“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 ElDorado 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.” (525)

“Of the millions of acres which squatters now seized, to await the government survey and sale, no portion filled up more rapidly than did the valley of the Des Moines.” (526)

“Five thousand persons were reported to be living within the confines of Wapello County at the end of the first month.” (526)

“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.” (526)

“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. 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 the 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.’” (528)


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