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History of Cherokee County

Early History of Cherokee County, Iowa

by George K. Pettengill

Published by the Cherokee County Historical Society

Cherokee county, Iowa, lies in the northwestern part of the present State of Iowa. It is within the Missouri River Basin and, in terms of topography and climate, lies in the transition zone between the woodland prairies and the high plains. The area was acquired from the Sioux Indiana by treaty in 1850.

In 1851, the Iowa General Assembly created a number of counties in a newly surveyed North West Iowa. The counties created by the legislature were given the names of famous men, Indian tribes, and battles; apparently at the whim of the legislators. Cherokee county was named for the Cherokee Indiana; who actually lived in the southeastern U.S., and later in Oklahoma. At that time, there were no permanent white residents in the county. The county, as created, consisted of 16 congressional townships of 36 sections each - an area of 576 square miles. For governmental purposes, it was attached to Crawford County. In 1853, it was attached to Wahkaw (Woodbury) County and was known as Cherokee Civil Township of Wahkaw County. In 1858, Cherokee County was officially organized as a county, with a single civil township. Today the county has 16 townships, which are as follows: Spring, Cedar, Liberty, Marcus, Amherst, Sheridan, Cherokee Afton, Pitcher, Pilot, Rock, Tilden, Grand Meadow, Willow, Silver and Diamond.

The principal cities and towns are: Cherokee - the county seat, Aurelia, Cleghorn. Larrabee, Marcus, Meriden, Quimby and Washta.

The first-known settler of Cherokee County was Robert Perry, who immigrated to the United States from Ireland. After living for a time in Massachusetts, he immigrated to the Little Sioux Valley in Cherokee County. In the early spring of 1856, Robert Perry came to Cherokee County, in search of land. On his way to the U.S. Land Office in Sioux City, he met Carlton Corbett and Lemuel Parkhurst., advance agents of the Milford Society, and convinced them to establish their proposed colony in the Little Sioux Valley.

In 1855, the Milford Society was formed by residents of Milford, Massachusetts, for the purpose of establishing a colony in the west. The proprietors were primarily shoe makers and professional men of Milford. By looking at a map, they decided to establish a colony at the confluence of the Missouri River and the Big Sioux. Upon arrival the scouts found that the site was already occupied by what is now Sioux City. In their travels to find another site, they met Robert Perry, by happenstance; and after supping out the land, decided to locate in Cherokee County.

In June of 1856, Robert Perry and his wife Catherine arrived to settle upon land he had pre-empted in Pilot township, the first land title issued in the county.

Corbett and Perry broke the sod and planted two acres of corn and potatoes - the first crops planted by white settlers in the county. In May of 1856, the overland party of the Milford Colony arrived and constructed the Cherokee house on land pre-empted by the Milford Society. This log house, 12 by 20 feet - with one room and a loft, was the first white habitation constructed in the county. Before snowfall, the men of the Milford Society had built five additional houses. Until August of that year, Robert Perry and his wife lived in a covered wagon beside the Cherokee House.

In June of 1856, the population of the county consisted of the Robert Perry family, the members of the Milford Colony at Cherokee, the upper settlement in Spring township, and the Banister Colony in Pilot township - in all less than 50 people.

The winter of 1856, Silas Parkhurst and George Lebourveau left for Iowa City to bring back household goods and supplies. They expected to be gone for one month. Instead, they were unable to return until February of 1857.

James Brown and his family moved into the Cherokee House with Mrs. Parkhurst and Mrs. Levourveau. Food in the settlement became depleted; and the settlers were reduced to eating the corn and potatoes, which had been planted by Corbett and Perry the previous spring. The corn and potatoes had been stored in the field. The potatoes had frozen. To retrieve this food supply, the men of the Milford Colony went two miles with an ox team yoked to a bob sled, with the box removed. The corn and potatoes were hauled home in barrels tied to the sled frame. This required a full day's work. The corn was ground into corn meal in coffee grinders.

In December of 1856, a man named Davis arrived at the Cherokee House, looking for a family named Taylor. Despite the shortage of food and space, he was made welcome. Mr. Davis stayed and stayed, creating hardships on the inhabitants of the Cherokee House. On January 3, 1856, he was finally asked to leave, and did so. Although Davis found the cabin of his friends seven miles up the river; they were not home, and he did not enter the cabin. When his friends returned, they found his frozen body a mile up the river. Mr. Davis, thus, became the first recorded white death in Cherokee County. Because of bad weather, the settlers were unable to bury Davis's body until April of 1857.


In February of 1857, a band of outlaw Sioux Indians, led by the renegade Chief Inkpaduta (Scarlet Point), arrived in Cherokee County on their way north from Smithland. At Smithland, the settlers had taken the Indians' guns, which had angered them.

At the Banister Colony in Pilot Township, they killed on of G.W. Banister's oxen - probably for food. In the Pilot community, they caused no more trouble, but proceeded north to the Milford Colony at Cherokee. At this place, they demanded food and, later, entered the houses and took the settlers' guns. The settlers were threatened with death, and some livestock - a pet dog and a kitten - were killed.

The timely arrival of George Lebourveau probably saved the settlement. He was dressed in a poncho made of an army blanket, and the Indians seemed to think he was an advance scout of the Iowa Militia. The Indians struck camp during the night following his arrival. This group of Indians proceeded up the river and committed the well-known Spirit Lake Massacre.

In April of 1857 a rumor, that a band of 400 Sioux were coming down the river on the warpath, caused the settlement to be abandoned. Some of the settlers were to Smithland, and other to Sac City. The settlers returned in the fall; but four times in the next three years the settlement was abandoned, due to Indian scares.

In 1861, the State government created the Iowa Border Brigade to protect the frontier. Cherokee was chosen as the site for a Blockhouse and Fort. In 1862, a Fort was constructed near the present site of the city of Cherokee. Fort Cherokee was garrisoned by a Lieutenant and Ste troops. In 1863, the settlement was again abandoned - only the troops at the Fort and Carlton Corbett, the county treasurer, remaining in the county.

The last Indian battle, in which a participant was killed in Iowa, was fought in Cherokee County, in August of 1862, Sam and Andrew Purcell, scouts for the Border Brigade, shot and killed a Sioux warrior and wounded another during a horse-stealing raid.

Fort Cherokee was abandoned in 1864, and later dismantled.


During the Civil War, Cherokee County was virtually abandoned. Most of the men of the county entered the military, serving either in the west or in frontier regiments, guarding against Indian attack.

Due to the projection of a railroad line through the county, government lands were withdrawn from public offering in 1856. This was to last until the railroad had chosen its grant lands in the county. These grant lands were to include alternate odd numbered sections ten miles on either side of the tracks.

The Civil War delayed the building of the projected railroads, and it was not until 1869 that settlement again progressed.

The railroads were determined where the towns would be by the location of their tracks and station. Speculators rushed to locate towns, in the hope that the coming of the railroads would make them rich. Cherokee Center was incorporated, as was Pilot Rock City. The most ambitious town, however, was Blair City - incorporated by William Van Eps on July 1, 1869. It was located roughly a half mile south of Old Cherokee; which had been laid out by the Milford Colonists, but never incorporated. Doctors, lawyers, land speculators, blacksmiths, dry good stores and other business establishments located in Blair City.

When the railroad arrived, the location of the depot at the newly platted New Cherokee, doomed Blair City. Though located less than a mile from the depot, the merchants uprooted their business and moved them - often buildings and all - to the new town. A newspaper, called the Cherokee Chief, had been started in 1870 by Robert Ford. In November of 1870, it was acquired by Robert Buchanan, had its name changed to the Cherokee Times, and soon moved from the courthouse in Old Cherokee to the New Town. In 1871 the City of Cherokee was officially named the county seat.

From November 1869 to February 1870, the town of Hazard - later the name was changed to Meriden - was the end of the tracks from the west. This is how the town of Meriden was started. In western Cherokee County, a depot was established and named Keefe after one of the construction engineers. Later the town was designated Marcus by John I. Blair, President of the Iowa Falls and Sioux City railroad.

In eastern Cherokee County, a depot was built and named Aurelia by Blair.

Even after the coming of the east west railroad, transportation north and south was accomplished by stagecoach. From 1871 to 1880, a tri-weekly, and then bi-weekly stagecoach operated from Correctionville north through Cherokee to Jackson, Minnesota.

To the south, a community post office named Washta grew up on Willow township. As did a stage depot named Wendell. A community post office named Pilot developed near Roger's Mill in Pilot township.

In 1884, in anticipation of a north-south railroad, a community called Silver Creek, and later DeLeon, developed in Silver township.

In 1887 a spur line, named the Cherokee and Dakota, was built fro Onawa, Iowa, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota; joining the Iowa Fall and Sioux City division of the Illinois Central at Cherokee. As it by-passed DeLeon, the town died, the buildings being moved to the new towns of Washta and Quimby. The village of Washta was relocated south of the river. The new towns of Quimby and Larrabee were founded as shipping points on the railroad.

The last of the towns on Cherokee county to be founded was Cleghorn. It was started by Rev. Adam Cheghorn, who owned land on the site of the present town.

The building of the north-south rail line effectively ended the frontier period of Cherokee County. The period of free, or cheap, land was over. Much of the virgin prairie was under the plow. The period from 1887-1894 was a period of bustling growth. The many country churches built at this time, the new brick buildings in the towns, and substantial homes on the farms. All indicate that civilization was consolidating its gains; and the pioneer period was over.

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