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

Article on Iowa: “The Opening of the Des Moines Valley to Settlement (Part 5 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/5*.html

Notes on Iowa will focus article summaries for this week on a five-part series by a Jacob 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 fifth and final installment of Jacob Van der Zee’s lengthy account of the Des Moines Valley during early settlement, the author focused primarily on early improvements related to transportation, as well as the 1841 expedition on John C. Fremont.


Much of the information related to improvement on the Des Moines River find similar representation in the Annals of Iowa article summarized last week focused on that specific topic. Van der Zee’s account departed from the other article in that it also described the roads that preceded the railroads in the area. The earliest road moving up the Des Moines ran from Keokuk through Van Buren County and up to Iowaville near modern-day Ottumwa. The Iowa Legislature proposed funding for further improvements to the road in 1839, however, priority of funding went to a road from Burlington to the Sauk and Meskwaki Agency.


The second-portion of the article focused on John Charles Fremont and his work for the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to survey the lower Des Moines River in the summer of 1841. Fremont, who later gained greater fame for his role in California’s development, took careful geological and ecological notes on the area surveyed. Fremont specifically provided the government with exacting information on the river above modern-day Ottumwa, noting potential obstructions to be cleared. His report did not lead to immediate improvements to the watercourse, and local residents grew frustrated.


Van der Zee’s account of the Des Moines River Valley stands as an important compilation of a variety of information related to the earliest decades of American settlement along the watercourse. Through examining political, economic, social, and environmental challenges for Indigenous peoples Van der Zee provided nuance to the typical frontier story.


“The first settlers in southeastern Iowa obtained what things they needed from St. Louis. Such imports as primitive pioneer conditions called for were landed at Keokuk and then transported by wagon overland or perhaps by simple water craft. Roads became fixed wherever the seasons and "the lay of the land" dictated. During the early years wants were few and long journeys infrequent, and the settlers were under no necessity of exporting their surplus agricultural products because they found ready consumers in the increasing population of their neighborhood, but when this cause no longer afforded a market at their doors, they began to urge the need of better transportation facilities. The Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa authorized commissioners in various parts of the new country to locate and establish roads. For instance, in 1838, James Sutton, Joseph Robb, and James McMurry were appointed to mark a Territorial road from Keokuk to "the horse tail reach" on the Des Moines and thence up the river to Iowaville, passing through the towns of Farmington, Bentonsport, Columbus, and Philadelphia in Van Buren County.” (552)


“One year later the Iowa legislature perceived the great importance of this road both to the Territory and to the federal government: Keokuk was "the natural and most convenient depot for all the extensive Des Moines country". When finished the highway would afford excellent facilities for the transportation of mails through a number of towns and a densely populated country to the Indian border. Inasmuch as the road passed over many tributary streams of the Des Moines and needed to be rendered passable in all seasons of the year, the expense of which was deemed too great to be borne by the Territory, the Legislative Assembly called upon the Iowa Delegate at Washington to use his influence in obtaining an appropriation of $10,000 for the opening of the road. Congress refused to improve this highway and defeated a bill with that end in view, and so the pioneers were obliged to submit as well as they could to the inconveniences of western methods of transportation.” (552)


“In the year 1839, however, Congress appropriated $5000 to be spent by the Secretary of War for the construction of a road from Burlington to the new Sac and Fox Agency, and later authorized the expenditure of money for the construction and repair of seven bridges on this "Agency Road", although much more was asked to complete the work in a satisfactory manner.” (553)


“There were two ras why the pioneer legislators in 1839 brought the Des Moines River to the attention of Congress: first, its position between the Mississippi and the Missouri pointed it out as "the natural channel for imports and exports for the extensive and fertile country in the interior of Iowa and a portion of the State of Missouri"; and secondly, the Des Moines despite its importance afforded "but few facilities for navigation, without that improvement of which it is peculiarly susceptible, being admirably adapted to the building of dams for the purpose of slack water navigation." It was asserted that the channel and banks everywhere afforded suitable stone for the foundation and structure of necessary dams, and hydraulic power of incalculable value could be obtained for the country. Accordingly, the Iowa Delegate to Congress was requested to exert himself to obtain an appropriation for the survey of the Des Moines by a corps of engineers and also $100,000 in money or land for the purpose of improving navigation.” (554)


“Congress gave ear to this petition of the territorial legislature by granting $1000 for a survey of the Des Moines and Iowa rivers. With the arrival of favorable weather in the spring of 1841, Captain W. Bowling Guion of the United States Topographical Engineers proceeded from St. Louis to make a general examination of the Des Moines River and thus get a knowledge of its general character and the nature and extent of the obstructions to navigation.” (555)


“Besides a small number of snags and trees, there were twelve rapids or "riffles", as the boatmen called them, and two mill dams — one at Keosauqua and another ten miles below. These obstructions effectually prevented the passage of loaded keel-boats as well as steamboats. Guion declared that from the mouth of the river to the American Fur Company's trading house there was nowhere less than two feet of water, or perhaps ten inches in very dry seasons; while higher up the depth would be no less than three feet or one foot and a half in a dry season. Besides, during the three or four month period of high water there would always be from five to fifteen feet of water in the channel. The removal of rocks, snags, logs, and overhanging trees would admit the free passage of boats. Guion did not hesitate to assert the propriety of making such improvements at an estimated expense of $29,000, "for the Des Moines is a beautiful river, . . . whilst its banks present one of the most fertile and lovely countries nature ever presented to the view of man, abounding in immense fields of bituminous coal from Rackoon Fork nearly to its mouth. . . . In fine, such are the temptations which this country affords, that the portion now in the possession of the Indians will no sooner pass into the hands of the United States than it will be crowded with whites, as that which lies below the Indian country is becoming already." (556)


“On a horseback journey up the Des Moines Valley in June, 1841, Lieutenant John Charles Frémont took particular note of the botany and geology of the region through which he rode. Proceeding from Missouri over luxuriant prairie bottoms "covered with a profusion of flowers," he and a small surveying party forded the river at Portland and later reached "the little village of Iowaville, lying on the line which separatess the Indian lands are those to which their title has already been extinguished." "After leaving this place," he continued, "we began to fall in with parties of Indians on horseback, and here and there, scattered along the river bank, under tents of blankets stretched along the boughs, were Indian families; the men lying about smoking, and the women engaged in making baskets and cooking — apparently as much at home as if they had spent their lives on the spot." (556)


“From the American Fur Company's upper post Frémont proceeded with instruments and provisions in a canoe propelled by five men, though Frémont himself walked most of the time, examining the topography of the southern bank of the river with its heavy and dense bodies of timber, luxuriant soil, and almost impenetrable undergrowth. The party returned from the Raccoon to the mouth of the river and Frémont made a survey noting the rapids, bends, and sand bars: he felt sure that "steamboats drawing four feet water may run to the mouth of Cedar river [in Marion County?] from the 1st of April to the middle of June; and keelboats drawing two feet, from the 20th of March to the 1st of July; and those drawing twenty inches, again, from the middle of October to the 20th of November. . . . The removal of loose stones at some points, and the construction of artificial banks at some few others, to destroy the abrupt bends, would be all that is required. The variable nature of the bed and the velocity of the current would keep the channel constantly clear." (557)


“To the pioneer settlers of the Des Moines Valley these investigations must have seemed worthless, because the government did not immediately follow them up with actual improvements. "Pork barrel" appropriations had not attained so much prominence then as now, especially in the Territories of the West. In the absence of railways the hope of westerners naturally lay in the direction of water routes improved at the expense of the federal government. Accordingly, the people of Iowa voiced their wishes in Congress through their Delegate, Augustus Caesar Dodge. This frontier representative declared on June 8, 1846, that the country through which the Des Moines River ran was one of unsurpassed fertility and was then being densely settled.” (557)


“Thus championed by their spokesman in his efforts to bring them under the fostering protection of the general government, the infant settlements of the Territory of Iowa were not indifferently nursed when Congress and President Polk in August, 1846, gave them alternate sections of all unsold and unencumbered public lands for a distance of five miles on either side of the Des Moines to aid in the improvement of the navigation of the river are its mouth to the Raccoon Fork. This grant of thousands of the most fertile and valuable acres in Iowa was accepted by the First General Assembly: nearly one-half of the people of the new State were directly interested in the matter because a system of locks and dams enabling fair-sized steamboats to navigate the river at all seasons of the year would furnish an easy, safe, and cheap mode of transportation for the vast and increasing productions of the valley, and also because such an improvement would greatly add to the population and wealth of the State. It is not possible or necessary to give in detail the history of the nonfulfillment of a project of such large proportions.” (558)


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