EARLY IOWA COUNTIES
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.
COUNTY SEAT FIGHTS
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.
COUNTY SEATS CHANGED
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
EARLY COUNTY SCANDALS
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
CHANGES IN THE COUNTIES
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