The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



It was not long after the first settlement of Keokuk county before the necessity of county organization in the interests of good government, good roads and the proper management of other local affairs was fully appreciated and agitated.  Indeed, steps were taken toward organization during the year 1843, but were not carried out for some time thereafter.

With regard to the origin of dividing individual States into county and township organizations, which, in an important measure, should have the power and opportunity of transacting their own business and governing themselves, under the approval of, and subject to, the State and general gevernment [sic] of which they each formed a part, we quote from Elijah M. Haines, who is considered good authority on the subject.

In his "Laws of Illinois, Relative to Township Organizations," he says the county system, originated with Virginia, whose early settlers soon became large landed proprietors, aristocratic in feeling, living apart in almost baronial magnificence on their own estates, and owning the laboring part of the population.  Thus the materials for a town were not at hand, the voters being thinly distributed over a great area.

"The county organization, where a few influential men managed the whole business of the community, retaining their places almost at their pleasure, scarcely responsible at all, except in name, and permitted to conduct the county concerns as their ideas or wishes might direct, was more over consonant with their recollections or traditions of the judicial and social dignities of the landed aristocracy of England, in descent from whom the Virginia gentlemen felt so much pride.  In 1834 eight counties were organized in Virginia, and the system, extending throughout the State, spread into all the Southern States, and some of the Northern States; unless we except the nearly similar division into 'districts' in South Carolina, and that into 'parishes' in Louisiana, from the French laws.

"Illinois, which, with its vast additional territory, became a county of Virginia, on its conquest by Gen. George Rogers Clark, retained the county organization, which was formerly extended over the State by the constitution of 1818, and continued in exclusive use until the constitution of 1848.

"Under this system, as in other States adopting it, most local business was transacted by those commissioners in each county, who constituted a county court, with quarterly sessions.

"During the period ending with the constitution of 1847, a large portion of the State had become filled up with a population of New England birth or character, daily growing more and more compact and dissatisfied with the comparitively [sic] arbitrary and inefficient county system.  It was maintained by the people that the heavily populated districts would always control the election of the commissioners to the disadvantage of the more thinly populated sections—in short that under that system, 'equal and exact justice' to all parts of the county could not be secured.

"The township system had its origin in Massachusetts, and dates back to 1635.

"The first legal enactment concerning this system, provided that, whereas, 'particular townships have many things which concern only themselves, and the ordering of their own affairs, and disposing of business in their own town,' therefore, 'the freeman of every town, or a majority part of them, shall only have power to dispose of their own lands and woods, with all the appurtenances of said town, to grant lots, and to make such orders as may concern the well-ordering of their own towns, not repugnant to the laws and orders established by the General Court.'

"They might also (says Mr. Haines), impose fines of not more than twenty shillings, and ‘choose their own particular officers, as constables, surveyors for the highways, and the like.

"Evidently this enactment relieved the general court of a mass of municipal details, without any danger to the power of that body in controling [sic] general measures of public policy.

"Probably also a demand from the freemen of the towns was felt for the control of their own home concerns.

"The New England Colonies were first governed by a 'general court,' or legislature, composed of a governor and a small council, which court consisted of the most influential inhabitants, and possessed and exercised both legislative and judicial powers, which were limited only by the wisdom of the holders.

"They made laws, ordered their execution by officers, tried and decided civil and criminal causes, enacted all manner of municipal regulations, and, in fact, did all the public business of the colony.

"Similar provisions for the incorporation of towns were made in the first constitution of Connecticut, adopted in 1639; and the plan of township organization, as experience proved its remarkable economy, efficiency and adaptation to the requirements of a free and intelligent people, became universal throughout New England, and went westward with the emigrants from New England into New York, Ohio, and other Western States."

Thus we find that the valuable system of county, township and town organizations had been thoroughly tried and proven long before there was need of adopting it in Iowa, or any of the broad region west of the Mississippi river.  But as the new country soon began to be opened, and as eastern people continued to move westward across the mighty river, and form thick settlements along its western shore, the Territory and State and county and township and town organizations soon followed in quick succession, and those different systems became more or less modified and improved, accordingly as deemed necessary by the experience and judgment and demands of the people, until they have arrived at the present stage of advancement and efficiency.

In the settlement of the Territory of Iowa the legislature began by organizing counties on the Misssissippi [sic].  As each new county was formed it was made to include, under legal jurisdiction, all the country bordering west of it, and required to grant to the occidental settlers electoral privileges and an equal share in the county government with those who properly lived in the geographical limit of the county.  The counties first organized along the eastern border of this State were given, for a short time, jurisdiction over the lands and settlements adjoining each on the west, until these different localities became sufficiently settled to support organizations of their own; and finally, at the first session of the legislature, after the Indians sold out, the newly acquired territory, including all northwestern Iowa, was laid off into counties, provisions were made for their respective organizations when the proper time should arrive, and these were severally named.

Thus Keokuk and Mahaska counties were originally attached to Washington county for judicial, revenue and election purposes.

On the 17th day of February, 1843, an act was passed by the legislature of the Territory of Iowa defining the boundaries of certain counties, and designating each by name; among these were Keokuk and Mahaska counties. The writer is unable to designate the man or the committee who gave the name to this county, but it is quite evident that a generous disposition to perpetuate the memory of the Indian chief of the land existed among the members of the legislature as no less than seven other counties were established at the same time bearing aboriginal titles.  

With a single exception, these counties all bear their original names, and it was probably on account of a lack of euphony that afterward induced the legislature to change the name of Kish-ke-kosh county to that of Monroe county.

On the 5th day of February, 1844, an act was passed by the Territorial legislature which provided for the organization of the two counties, Keokuk and Mahaska.

The Hon. Thomas Baker, afterward of California, was then representative from Washington county, and upon him properly devolved all matters pertaining to the interests of this county. Several efforts were made to induce him to draft a bill locating the seat of justice at certain points in the county, the points, however, all being within the southeastern part of the county.

The following extract of a letter to Mr. Baker from Mr. Lawson B. Hughes, may serve to show some of the interest and anxiety manifested at that time:

"BRIGHTON, Jan. 2, 1844.
" Hon. Thomas Baker:

“Dear Sir:—The citizens of Keokuk county wish to have a law enacted authorizing them to vote for some particular point or place whereby the county-seat may be located.   I believe, sir, that there will be at least eight out of every ten in the county go for such a law, and are anxious that you will do all you can in effecting such a law.  The Rock Creek country, the Blue Point country, and north of the main river, together with the inhabitants in the forks and north of the north fork to at least twelve miles from the Washington line west, will go for it.  The place or point that is contemplated to make the location is exactly in the northwest corner of the southeast township, making it six miles from the south part of the county and six miles from the east line.   I will be glad if you will go in for the law; and in organizing the county, have it organized and the election to take place in April, and then if this law is enacted, giving the location of the county-seat to the people, let that election be the 1st of May. If any one point does not get a majority of the entire vote on the first ballot, let there be a second election between the two highest points."

It is quite probable that, had such a law been passed, the location would have been voted to Richland, then more generally designated "Frogtown.”

Said act providing for the organization of the county, appointed three commissioners, whose duty it was to select the county-seat.  They were John Stewart and Dr. George H. Stone, of Washington county, and Samuel Shuffleton, of Jefferson county.  Of these men, Mr. Stewart was an unassuming farmer living on English river, in the north part of the county, but a man of rather more than ordinary energy and good sense, and scrupulously honest and correct in all his transactions with his neighbors.

Mr. Shuffleton resided in Fairfield, was a practicing lawyer of very fair ability and might have been a star in his profession but for the wreck to which strong drink was evidently hastening him.  He was called "Shuf" for short and was regarded as a good, clever fellow, with whom might generally be found on his jaunt from one court to another the requisite to "wood up."  Even while making the tour of the county for the location, a pocket-flask was his constant companion.  He has long since fallen a victim to the cup.

With Dr. Stone the early settlers were more intimately acquainted than with either of the other two commissioners.  He lived in Washington and practiced medicine.  He was a thoroughly educated physician and surgeon, and for a number of years acted in the latter capacity on board a vessel of the United States navy.  Whether natural or acquired, his gait and appearance bore marks of youthful training at the military academy of West Point.  He was rather reserved in conversation unless to his friends, and possessed a keen sense of honor and integrity and heartily despised baseness or dishonesty in the smallest measure.  Perhaps once in twelve months, or it might not be so frequently, or yet it might be more frequently, the Doctor indulged in a "spree." This would usually last about a week, and during such time all business was suspended and for most part he was shut up in his dwelling with his family.

It may be said that the location of Sigourney was made by Dr. Stone; for although Mr. Stewart fully concurred with him, yet the former actually suggested and made the location.  Mr. Shuffleton did not concur in the location, but dissented in writing.

The name also was the choice of the Doctor.  He had always been a great admirer of the writings of Mrs. Sigourney, and no doubt observed their moral influence and salutary effects in his young family, although he, himself, might sometimes feel rebuked when with her pen she spared not the sin of profanity.

After examination of full five days, said commissioners on the 10th day of May, 1844, fixed the location of Sigourney.

In the same legislative act organizing the county, the late Harvey Stevens, Sr., was commissioned as sheriff, and shortly after, the Hon. S. A. James was appointed clerk of the District Court, by the judge thereof.

Upon the latter officer devolved the duty of organizing the county, by fixing the places of election for county officers, the number of justices and constables to be elected, etc.

There were six places appointed for holding this election. These places, with the names of the judges appointed to conduct the election, were as follows:

At the house of L. J. Smith, in the town of Richland; judges, Joseph R. Edwards, William Lewis, Jeremiah Brown.

At the house of John W. Snelson; judges, Amos Holloway, J. W. Snelson, Joseph Kellum.

At the house of John Crill; judges, John Crill, Sr., Thomas Hicklin, John Hasty.

At the house of William Hutton; judges, William Hutton, William Stinson, Richard Dickerson.

At the house of John Troxel; judges, John Troxel, Joseph B. Casterline, James Lewman.

At the house of Wesley Goss; judges, William Grimsley, Thomas Henderson, John Shockley.

At the house of William Martin; judges, Joseph Hillery, George Hathhorn, Joab Bennett.

The following are the names of the county officers elected at this election:

County Commissioners—Jeremiah Hollingsworth, James M. Smith, Enos Darnell.   Judge of Probate—John M. Waters.   County Treasurer—William H. Brown.   County Surveyor—Samuel E. McCracken.   County Assessor—Andrew Ogden.   County Sheriff—Geo. W. Hayes.   County Recorder—A. P. Tannahill.   Clerk of Board of County Commissioners—Edom Shugart.

This election, it is hardly necessary to say, had nothing of the nature of a political contest. The object was simply to organize the county, and political differences had not yet appeared in the county.  But very soon there came a change.

The citizens were then generally quiet, industrious and peaceable with one another. Occasional differences and disputes arose, which, in the main, were soon overlooked, or forgotten on account of their necessary and mutual dependence for aid and convenience, as well as for common defense in their pioneer homes.

Dissensions and enmities, however began to creep in gradually, as the settlement progressed, and continued to increase in working mischief very much in proportion as the settlement became more independently situated and more exclusive in their devotion to self-interest and advancement.

This unwelcome spirit of dissension began to manifest itself to the public most clearly, perhaps, about the time the proclamation of the organizing sheriff announced the organization of the county, which would create numerous offices to be filled from the ranks of first voters.

These offices, during the first term, of course, presented no great inducement for being very eagerly sought after so far as salary was concerned; but then they afforded positions of influence and preference, and they might, in the near future, prove very convenient stepping-stones to more lucrative and influential positions; beside, it was no mean thing to be elected to fill the first offices created in the new county.  In this regard they afforded considerable inducement for being sought after by those who were at all inclined toward official distinction, and they called forth numerous aspirants.

At that time as well as now, doubtless, there was a good per cent of worthy, influential citizens who, so far as their own desire for official position were concerned, were entirely disinterested in the political canvass.  These persons sought no such positions for themselves, and would not accept one if offered.  Public applause and criticism were not at all coveted by them.  Nevertheless they were as deeply interested in the welfare of the county as any other citizens, and had a decided preference for those who should receive their votes.  They desired to entrust the county government to efficient trustworthy men, who were willing to assume the responsibility, and capable of conducting it in an efficient and capable manner, while they themselves were content to engage in some other department of the county's progress, more congenial to their tastes and dispositions.  On the other hand, there were always enough of those who would accept these official positions—more or less reluctantly or cheerfully—if duly elected, or urged a little to fill them; so that it was soon found the various offices were not sufficient to give each of the aspirants a position.  Evidently some of these must gain the honored distinction, while others must be left but, part of whom, doubtless, would be disappointed not a little over their defeat.

Who, then, of these various aspirants, were the best qualified to fill these several positions?  Who had the most deserved claim on the public support?  Who were the shrewdest political tricksters and wire-pullers?  Who, of all the number, could wield the most extended and effective influence, either by honorable or, it may be, by unfair means in securing the majority vote.  These, and many other questions of similar character, would quite naturally arise, even in the minds of early settlers, as the memorable first election day drew near, when they must each receive a decisive answer at the ballot-box.

This was the first, or what was called the organizing election.  It was held in April, 1844, and some of the officers then elected, held their offices only until the regular election, which occurred the following August.

About the 1st of March, 1844, S. A. James, the county clerk, set about organizing the county as required by law; and until a county-seat should be located, fixed his place of business at a point called Western City, or Newton.  This was about three miles north of Richland, and consisted of a log school-house, a tenant cabin, and a number of stakes driven into the ground. The proprietor, Mr. Joseph R. Edwards, resided on his farm in the immediate vicinity of the village.  At his house the clerk was fed and lodged, and it may be recorded for the benefit of epicureans and others, that his landlady was an excellent woman of Scotch descent, claiming the blood of Sir William Wallace, and who could present a meal to the complete satisfaction of a hungry traveler or a sojourning invalid.

A general law of the territory required clerks' offices to be held at the county-seat, so that soon after the filing of the location in the clerk's office, Mr. James, gathering the county papers and the statutes of Iowa in one hand, and a bundle of old clothes and his cane in the other, took up his line of march for Sigourney.

The county commissioners learning that the seat of justice was located upon a spot where no court-house stood, hastened to convene at Richland, and on the 15th day of May, 1844, passed the following orders:

"Ordered by the Board that in consequence of receiving the petition of eighty citizens of Keokuk county, asking the Board to defer any proceedings with regard to the location of the seat of justice of Keokuk county; they, therefore, in compliance with said petition, defer any proceedings with regard to the county-seat at this time."

“Ordered by the Board that suitable rooms be provided in the town of Richland for holding the first term of the District Court in, and for Keokuk county."

The "suitable rooms," if any, which were provided in accordance with the order of the county commissioners, were not honored by the presence of the judge, the place where the first District Court was held being the cabin erected in Sigourney by Mr. James; Judge Williams presided.  The court was not in session over three hours.  No jury was impaneled and no cases tried.  Four aliens were naturalized and two law students were admitted to the bar, one of these being S. Harned, afterward most intimately identified with the interests of the county and now everywhere in the county known as Judge Harned.  This was on the 1st day of July, 1844.  After transacting the business just referred to, the court adjourned into the country for dinner.

In the latter part of the same month in which the first session of the District Court was held, the county commissioners, finding that Judge Williams ignored their "orders" and did not avail himself of their "suitable rooms" in Richland, met, and very properly ordered their own official removal to Sigourney.

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!


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