The History of Keokuk County, Iowa


No doubt the desire for "gold" has been a main-spring of all progress and exertion in Keokuk county, from the beginning until the present time, and will so continue unto ages remote. But usually this desire has been made manifest only in the usual avenues of thrift, industry and enterprise.

On two occasions, however, it has passed the bounds of reason, and assumed the character of a mania or delusion, which produced nothing but evil effects. The desire for riches is a benefit only when it comes like a gentle and steady rain, sinking into the ground and refreshing the earth; but when like a wild storm, it leaves only wreck and disaster in its path. Such is the moral easily drawn from the experience of Keokuk county.

The first gold mania here dates back to the fall of 1849, when stories first began to spread of the wondrous richness of the placer mines of California. The excitement grew daily, feeding on the marvelous reports that came from the Eldorado of the West, until at last nothing was talked of but the adventures and achievements of the Argonauts of '49.

Instead of dying out, the fever mounted higher and higher. It was too late that season to attempt to cross the plains, but many of the Keokuk county people began their preparations for starting early in the coming spring. The one great subject of discussion about the firesides of the log-cabins of Keokuk county that winter was the gold of California. At one time nearly every man in the county was unsettled in mind, and seriously considering the project of starting for California. The more hardy and adventurous impatiently awaited the time when they should abandon the little property and comfortable homes already gained by honest thrift, and join the wild rush for California as soon as the weather and grass would permit. Even the most thoughtful and sober-minded men found it difficult to resist the infection.

Wonderful sights were seen when this great emigration passed through—sights that may never be again seen in the county, perhaps. Some of the wagons were drawn by cows; other gold-hunters went on foot, and hauled their worldly goods in hand-carts. The gold-hunters generally had left the moralities of life behind them, and were infested with a spirit of dis- order and demoralization. The settlers breathed easier when they had passed.

Early in the spring of 1850 the rush began, one line of the California trail passing directly through this county. It must have been a scene to beggar all description. There was one continuous line of wagons from east to west as far as the eye could reach, moving steadily westward, and, like a cyclone, drawing into its course on the right and left many of those along its pathway. The gold-hunters from Keokuk county crowded eagerly into the gaps in the wagon-trains, bidding farewell to their nearest and dearest friends, and many of them never to be seen again on earth. Sadder farewells were never spoken. Many of the gold-hunters left their quiet, peaceful homes only to find in the "Far West” utter disappointment and death. Very, very few of them ever gained anything, and the great majority lost everything, including even "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."The persons who really gained by the gold excitement were those who remained on their farms and sold their produce to the gold-crazy emigrants. The rush continued until about the first of June, 1850, when the great tide began to abate, although belated gold-hunters kept passing through for some time. But the excitement began to die away, and those citizens who had judgment enough to resist the contagion now settled down in quiet to pursue the even tenor of their way.

The scene along this line, through this vicinity, in thus described by one who was an eye-witness:

"It seemed that Bedlam itself had been let loose. A continuous line of wagons, stretching away to the west as far as the eye could see. If a wagon was detained by being broken down, or by reason of a sick horse or ox, it was dropped out of line and the gap closed up immediately. If a poor mortal should sicken and die, the corpse was buried hurriedly by the wayside, without coffin or burial service. When night came on, the line of wagons was turned aside, and their proprietors would go into camp. Very soon the sound of revelry would begin around the camp-fires thickly set on every hand, first to bottle and then to cards, to the echo of the most horrid oaths and imprecations that were ever conceived or uttered since the fall of man. These poor deluded votaries of Mammon scattered that dreadful scourge, small-pox, everywhere that they came in contact with the settlers on the way. Game cards were strewn all along the line of travel. Glass bottles, after being emptied of their nefarious contents down the throats of the men, were dashed against wagon wheels, pieces of which were thickly strewn all along the road, as if to mock the madness of the advancing column of these fervent janizaries of the golden calf.

"At the time of the treaty of Gaudalupe Hidalgo, the population of California did not exceed thirty thousand, while at the time of which we are writing (1850) there were more than one hundred and fifty thousand people that had found their way thither, of which number at least one hundred thousand were ‘gold-hunters' from the States. There had been taken from the auriferous beds of California, up to January, 1850, over $40,000,000 in gold.

"The evil effects of this gold mania upon the moral status of the people of the United States is still seen and felt everywhere, and among all classes of society, and no man can see the end. It has popularized the worship of Mammon to an alarming extent throughout the country, and to this worship may be imputed, to a great extent, the moral declension of to-day."

Years after, this county had another gold excitement, which, happily, was not so serious as the first, and did not produce the same evil effects. But it is an equally good illustration to show how quickly men will lose their senses when they hope to gain wealth more rapidly than by honest work and thrift.

The excitement of the discovery of gold at Pike's Peak, in 1859, drew off a large number of the citizens of the county, many of whom returned poorer than they went, and glad and anxious to get home again from that land of high prices and small profits from mining. We have not been able to discover that any of the gold-seekers from the county ever became “bonanza kings."

When the leading men of the nation were bending all their energies toward the perfecting of arrangements whereby the one-hundredth anniversary of the nation might be creditably celebrated, and hundreds of people all over the western country were looking forward to the great "Centennial,"when they should visit the home of their childhood, and, as they expressed it, "take in the Centennial,"there were hundreds of others whose eyes were turned in the other direction.

The Custer expedition which, by order of the government, had made an examination of the rich hunting grounds of the Sioux Indians returned, and the official report of the expedition confirmed the former rumors with regard to the rich gold deposits of that region. The whole West was immediately ablaze with excitement, and although the government had not authorized the opening of that country for immigration, and although the savages were known to be numerous and hostile, yet from every quarter came the cry, "to the Black Hills!"

The leading lines of railway leading across the State were taxed to furnish transportation for the thousands who sought to throng the trains, and upon every wagon route leading west and northwest might be seen mule teams, ox teams, and teams of horses with their steps leading toward the Black Hills. From the West, too, came the gold-hunters. Hundreds of men who, in forty-nine and fifty, had crossed the plains to the Pacific in quest of the yellow treasure, now retraced their steps in search of the god which was supposed to be enshrined in the dominions of "Sitting Bull."This ruler of the dusky race did not invite into his dominions these worshipers of the golden god, but on the contrary most emphatically objected to this violation of sacred treaties; moreover he gave some very decided exhibitions of his displeasure, and from the belts of warriors soon dangled many a pale-face scalp; yet the multitude surged on, and the watch-word was, "to the Black Hills! Sitting Bull or no Sitting Bull. "The opening of several rich mines, and the founding of the city of Deadwood, was the result. While some made their fortunes, many thousands lost their all, and those who did not lose their lives on the plains returned poor, disheartened and many broken down in health. Keokuk county furnished its full quota to the Black Hills army, and the Black Hills army furnished to Keokuk county its full quota of paupers, and thus was equilibrium again restored.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!

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