Buena Vista County, IA
Buena Vista County may well be called an empire of beauty. From the rugged and wooded valley of the Little Sioux River on the north to the wide blue surface of Storm Lake on the south, and beyond, the contours of level fields, rolling hills, and pleasant valleys delight the eye. The low-lying land has been well drained and the soil is black and rich, almost every acre of it suitable for cultivation. During the growing season the whole area is a vast garden, marred by no stretches of waste land. The very name “Buena Vista”, taken from the Spanish, means “beautiful view” or “good view.”
In the early days this region was a land of marshes and sloughs. We can imagine the hoarse cries of the marsh birds as they were disturbed by the first wagons of the pioneers, the wild ducks flying up from their feeding places among the clumps of slough grass, the honk-honk of wild geese, and the loud complaint of the bittern and heron as they rose from the wild blue iris growing tall and stately at the edges of creeks and bogs. There were not many trees along the shore of Storm Lake then, only a few willows, small bushes, and one grove at the western end. These few trees, however, were taken by the first settlers to build cabins or to build fires and after that there were no more trees for many years, except for a few lone cottonwoods which stood like sentinels above the lonely trails.
William Brooke, who settled in the county in 1857, said that timber in those days was more valuable than land. He could have bought all the land he wanted out on the prairie for even less than the government price of $1.25 an acre, but he did not want it. One reason was that farms were considered worthless if they had no timber with which to build homes and to make warming fires for winter. Another reason was that any sum of cash money, even 15 cents an acre, was hard to get. For a long time land without timber was looked upon as a luxury, a property which could not be used. We must remember that these people came from the timbered regions of Ohio, Indiana, and places farther east. They had no idea that anyone could live without the familiar woodpile, the swing of the ax, and the felled logs to build sturdy walls, roof tops, and fences. Later on, these people learned to build homes out of prairie sod and to make fires out of the prairie hay. They learned to pick red roots out of the new soil after the first breaking and to dry them for fuel. They learned to plant their own groves, and while the trees were getting started they learned to twist flax straw into balls for burning, to build fires with corn cobs or corn, and get along somehow without wood. They learned that with crops from the new land they could buy lumber. It was land that was most valuable.
But all through the earliest days the first question all settlers asked was, "How far is it to timber?" and they settled accordingly. Since most of the timber in Buena Vista County lay along the Little Sioux River they settled there, and Sioux Rapids, located between high hills along the river, soon became the big town of those early days. It was the county seat and the stopping point on the old stage road between Fort Dodge and Sioux City. It was the place where the first lumber mill and the first flour mill were built and the point where Indians and trappers came to trade their pelts and skins for tobacco and supplies.
All these years Storm Lake lay forgotten in the wilderness. Surrounded by swamp land and marshes which made travel difficult, and with scarcely any trees, the place was avoided by the wagon trains of the settlers and the wind blew over the level stretches for miles with no hamlet or grove to break its force. Sometimes during a storm the wind would sweep the shallow lake to the very bottom (it was only about 15 feet deep) and the high-tossed waves would crash with thunderous impact on the lonely shores. An old trapper, sleeping by the lake during one of these storms, was awakened to find his tent blown down over his head. In the morning he told a group of surveyors that he had named the lake Storm Lake because of his experience. They probably laughed a little, but the name went down in their records and the lake has been called that ever since.
This was in the year 1855. The lake was then bordered by a wall of rocks thrown up by the action of the waves and the movement of ice during alternate periods of freezing and thawing. Later many of these rocks were used as building stones.
Buena Vista was originally a part of Fayette and Buchanan counties. These were two large temporary counties named when Iowa was still part of the Wisconsin Territory. The Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, by the act of December 21, 1837, created four large counties -- Benton, Keokuk, Fayette, and Buchanan. Before this there had been only two counties -- Dubuque and Demoine (as Des Moines was then spelled) but these big counties were constantly being changed. Fayette originally included areas that later made 21 counties and parts of nine others, besides reaching into Minnesota, and North and South Dakota.
The act which established the boundaries of Buena Vista County was passed January 15, 1851, but the county was not fully organized with officers of its own until 1858. It was set off in the shape of a square, each side measuring 24 miles, and was divided into 16 congressional townships of 36 sections each, making a total area of 596 square miles. The county was bounded on the north by Clay County, on the east by Pocahontas, on the south by Sac, and on the west by Cherokee; it was the third from the western boundary of the State, and was also the third from the north. Several rivers and creeks flowed through this area, principally the Little Sioux River in the north, the Raccoon River in the east, Maple Creek in the southwest, and Brooke's Creek in the central portion. There were two lakes; [sic] Storm Lake, rated among the large glacial bodies of water in Iowa, and Pickerel Lake, lying half in the northeast corner of Buena Vista, [sic] and half in Clay County. Most counties were established only after the Indian titles had been extinguished but it was not until 1851 that the last of the Sioux Indians agreed to sell their lands in northern Iowa to the government. Thus for a long time parts of Buena Vista County were Indian territory.
The act of 1851 set off 50 Iowa counties, fully one half of the State, so until 1858 and afterward, surveyors were sent out by the United States Government into this vast region and surveying was always in progress somewhere along the frontier.
Surveying was a lonely and dangerous occupation in those days. Wandering Indians were always on the lookout for the little party of surveyors, whom they hated. They feared the stakes and marks. They felt that the numerals and signs on the stakes were bad medicine and would bring evil spirits to the land.
All sections in each township were numbered from one to 36, beginning at the northeast corner of the township and counting from east to west alternately. Thomas Jefferson is said to have been the author of this system of surveying, dividing lands and numbering by ranges, townships, and sections. Surveyors were paid by the Government, a certain price for each mile line surveyed. The surveyor made notes of the type of land in each section in regard to streams, soil, timber, and minerals or any other features, and would mark the section first, second, or third quality so that those who wished to purchase land later would know something of what they were getting. This surveyor's report was often the first definite record of the conditions to be found in certain sections of the county.
The equipment of each surveyor would include a compass and transit, surveyor's chain, wagons to carry tents or other camp equipage, and food enough to last a few weeks or even several months. Horses or oxen were provided to haul the wagons, and often several riding horses or ponies were used by the surveyor and his assistants to cover the long distances which had to be traveled to make the survey. The surveyor had to mark reach corner as soon as he had measured the lines. On the prairie, where there were no trees to blaze, he had to mark the section line or township corner in the long grass. To do this he had to cut a square out of the tough sod with a spade and throw out enough soil to make a small mound. A square stake was driven into the mound with the number of the section marked on the wood. These stakes were set up at each half mile and were called half-mile posts.
Sometimes the surveyors who covered northwest Iowa would find skeletons of cattle, and they wondered how the animals had come to die so far out on the prairie, away from any known settlement. The question remained a mystery for many years but was cleared up in 1931 through the efforts of I. C. Sutherland of Storm Lake and the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune. Correspondence with the State Historical Departments of Iowa and Wisconsin revealed the existence of the Dickson-McKnight trail which had passed southeast from Manitoba, Canada, across Iowa through Dickinson, Clay, Buena Vista, Sac, and Carroll counties to a point a few miles above the present town of Keosauqua on the Des Moines River. Dickson, a Scot living in northern Minnesota in 1812, was an independent trader who sold furs and other articles to markets in Montreal and St. Louis. He began dealing with a party of evicted Highlanders who had left Scotland in 1811 and, led by agents of Lord Selkirk, moved to new homes on the Red River of the North, in Manitoba. They wanted to start raising cattle and sheep, and Dickson agreed to supply the stock from the market at St. Louis. He formed a company of men to drive the animals from the headquarters of his associate, McKnight in Missouri, through Iowa and Minnesota to Canada. Some of the cattle died on the way. It was their remains the surveyors found more than forty years later. An incident during the surveying of Buena Vista County in the summer of 1856 proved the truth of the old adage, "Haste makes waste." A bluff old Indian fighter, "Uncle" Jack Parker, had charge of the work. He divided his surveyors into two groups, leading one himself, with the assistance of J. L. Ingalsbe, and gave the other to W. G. Allen. The parties were to work from opposite ends of a tract 42 miles wide east and west, pushing north to the Minnesota border. Anxious to take advantage of every hour of the sunlight necessary for their instruments, the men pushed ahead for 55 successive days. They averaged 30 miles a day, hardly pausing even for meals. Then the trouble began. In Ingalsbe's own words, told in the Past and Present of Buena Vista County, this is what happened: "One day I closed out to where Allen's work should be. We could find no corner established nor any trail indicating previous travelers. I was engaged in reviewing my notes to find possible errors, when a scouting party brought tidings of a distant trail. I shouldered my instrument and reaching the trail, found it straight and evidently made by a surveying party. Trying the course I found it just ten degrees wrong, viz: north ten degrees east, when it should have been due north."
Ingalsbe knew at once what had happened. Allen had read his instrument wrong in blinding sun, and using this mistake as a basis for figuring, had marked the rest of his territory wrong, losing both time and money by his hurrying. Ingalsbe hated to tell Uncle Jack, but the mistake had to be corrected. Parker was furious. He ordered his men to stop work at once and start “in pursuit” of the other gang. He shouldered Ingalsbe's 16-pound rifle, “and swearing dire vengeance” demanded, “Where shall we find the cuss?” As Ingalsbe said afterward, “The question was not difficult for me to answer, but I thought it best to defer the meeting.” The cooks took his hint and were late with breakfast. Then Ingalsbe continued to delay Uncle Jack as artfully as he could, plying him with questions about his adventures and persuading him to take some time off to shoot elk. Probably Parker saw through the ruse; anyway, some good shots at game restored his humor, and when at sundown the party's ox-teams rumbled into Allen's camp, all he said was: "Onstrap en hopple the critters, h'ist yer tents and jest lay fer a week tew see ef ye can't sort o' git rested.” That was all. The other surveyors had agreed not to mention Allen's mistake; Uncle Jack handled that with tact and the work was completed satisfactorily.
Ingalsbe also wrote of meeting two men traveling with some oxen and a wagon. They said they had come down the Little Sioux and had staked out claims on all patches of timber, marking these by plowing a furrow around each. They wanted to know the number of the section in which they had located but Ingalsbe refused any information, considering that the people were “land sharks” who wished to acquire claims to sell to settlers for high prices.
Early in July the surveyors made camp on a knell near the Little Sioux River overlooking the site of Sioux Rapids. On guard against hostile Indians, they surrounded their wagons and tents with rifle pits. Nevertheless during the night some Sioux led by Inkpaduta killed several of the surveyors' horses and one ox. Ingalsbe went downstream with several men and found timber to make a single yoke for the remaining ox. While there, Ingalsbe says, “We came upon a rude foundation of a cabin with, I think, some name written on or near it. I have recounted all the indications of settlement found in the vicinity and whether this last mentioned was by some genuine occupant or a relic by the parties before mentioned, I have no knowledge, nor the name of any of the parties.” Perhaps the people who had started to build the cabin had been frightened away by the Indians.
Iowa Writers’ Project. Buena Vista County History. Storm Lake, Iowa: Work Projects Administration, 1942. 1-6. Print.