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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




When Congress in 1834 put all of the vast region north of the State of Missouri under the government of Michigan Territory, the part that was known as the Black Hawk Purchase, west of the Mississippi, was divided into two large counties.  The line that separated them ran west from the lower end of Rock Island to the Missouri River.  The land south of the line was called Demoine County and that which was north was named Dubuque County.  In 1836 these two counties became a part of Wisconsin Territory.


The legislature of the Territory of Wisconsin, in 1836, divided Demoine (Des Moines) into seven smaller counties, Lee, Des Moines, Van Buren, Henry, Louisa, Musquitine (Muscatine), and Cook.  The boundaries for these new counties were not clearly marked.  All of them were later changed and Cook County, which was only a little over three miles wide and over fifty miles long, disappeared entirely.

Fourteen new counties were made out of Dubuque County by the legislature of 1837.  The boundaries of most of these were changed later.  When Iowa was admitted to the Union in 1846 only forty-four counties had been organized.  They were all in central, eastern, and southeastern Iowa and covered less than half of the state's area.


A very interesting phase of Iowa history is the struggle of towns in many counties for the location of the county seat.  Groups of men sometimes used guns in an effort to locate the county's capital at their favorite place.  Many things were done that were not in accordance with law or with what is generally considered good citizenship.  The story of the struggle between Rockingham and Davenport for the county seat of Scott County is an interesting example.

The territorial legislature at Burlington had said that an election should be held in Scott County to determine the location of its county seat.

Willard Barrows says of the election:  "Davenport, well knowing her weakness and want of 'material aid,' entered into a contract with a man by the name of Bellows, from De Buque, to furnish voters at so much per head; board, whisky, and lodging to be furnished by the party requiring the service.

"The day of election came, and with it came also the importation of voters by the 'Bellows Express.'  They were from Du Buque and Snake Diggings, eleven sleigh loads of the most wretched looking rowdies and vagabonds that had ever appeared in the streets of Davenport.  There were the dregs of the mining districts of the early day, soaked in whisky and done up in rags.

"There was no use in challenging such a crowd of corruption, for they hardly knew the meaning of the word perjury.  So they were permitted to vote unmolested.  Rockingham,  at this election, whatever she may have done afterwards, observed a strict, honest, and impartial method of voting.  She knew her strength and had it within herself.

"The election being over, the DuBuque delegation of miners returned home, having drunk 10 barrels of whisky and cost the contracting parties over $3,000 in cash."

Davenport won the election but Rockingham protested to Governor Dodge.  Another election was held and this time Rockingham won by stuffing the ballot box, whereupon Davenport protested.  The commissioners who counted the votes threw out most of the Rockingham ballots and declared that Davenport had won.  The legislature then ordered another election.  Davenport now offered to build a courthouse if it were chosen as the county seat, and it won the election.  The courthouse was built and the fight was over.


The first places to be chosen as the location for the county seats in many counties can no longer be found on the map.  "Astoria" was the first capital of Washington County, "Marrietta" of Marshall County, and "Napoleon" of Johnson County.  These, as well as other early county-seat towns, are remembered only as names.

Several counties have changed the county seat.  Creston, following the example of Davenport, gained Union County's capital from Afton by building a courthouse and giving it to the county.  In some counties the first seat was determined by the center of population instead of the geographical center.  When such counties later became more uniformly settled the voters demanded a change in the location of the county seat.

In a few counties the place for the courthouse was not easily settled.  Lee County, for instance, still has county offices at both Fort Madison and Keokuk, while the County Superintendent's office is at Donnellson.  Linn County changed its capital from Marion to Cedar Rapids in recent years.


The early history of some Iowa counties is notorious for the scandals that took place.  Dishonest men went into counties that had few or no people,, for the express purpose of getting control of the local government.  Then they made themselves rich from the taxes that were collected from people who owned land in the county but did not live there.  A notable case is that of O'Brien County.  In 1859 a "band of unscrupulous men" went from Sioux City to that county.  At the time there was but one real settler there.  The "band" secured his signature to a petition, asking that the county be organized.  The election was held and most of the important offices were filled by the "band."

Later, "a gang from Fort Dodge arrived."  "A feud sprang up between the two factions," but "a compromise was made."  Then, "with united power the ring continued to 'organize' the county."  The residents of the "county seat" were officeholders.  One honest German settler said "I am der peoples.  Der rest all be officers.  Don't it?"

When the county was only nineteen months old the supervisors allowed bills totaling $17,500.  The largest sum was $8,000, for bridges that were never built.  One of the organizers said:  "We build a bridge and then made an elaborate report.  Then we drew our county warrant.  Then we tore down the bridge and built the same bridge-excuse me, another bridge-in another prairie slough and drew another warrant.  Why shouldn't we tear it down?  Nobody ever crossed it; no road was there even.  Finally, with due regard to teh comfort, happiness, and welfare of my dear family, I tore down the bridge and built for myself a home, sweet home!"*

* Josephine B. Donovan.  The Palimpsest, January, 1824.

Altogether there was a fraudulent debt of $230,000 incurred by the early officials of O'Brien County.  The last of it was not  paid off until 1908.  This is but one example of several scandals of this sort in the "good old days."


The names of a number of our counties have been changed.  Slaughter County became Washington County, Kishkekosh became Monroe, Yell was changed to Lyon, Wahkaw to Woodbury, Risley to Hamilton, and Fox to Calhoun.  The spelling of such counties as Des Moines, Muscatine, Dubuque, Linn, and others, has been changed since early times.

There have been only minor changes in county boundaries since 1851.  It has been suggested at times that such counties as Lee, Pottawattamie, and Kossuth be divided.  This is not likely to be done now because people are saying that combining smaller counties would lessen the cost of government.


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