The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



In some counties there is great uncertainty as to who was the veritable "First Settler." In Keokuk county no such dispute is likely ever to occur. All accounts agree in attributing this distinction to Mr. Aaron Miller, who, together with his son, John Miller took claims and settled in the immediate vicinity of the present site of Richland. The first habitation erected was a cabin built by Mr. Miller, near the present residence of Mr. Isaac Davis. Mr. Miller is now dead; so is his son, John Miller, but his son-in-law Wm. Scearcy, still lives in an adjoining township.

In the fall of the same year a few others came, and in the spring of 1839 Robert Pringle, James Higginbotham, Wm. Lewis, Wm. Bristow, John Wasson, Mitchell Gill and James M. Smith, came from the same neighborhood in Indiana, and settled near to and east of the present site of Richland. Some of these still live near where they originally settled; some are dead, while others, after remaining a number of years, again fell in with the tide of emigration and have been borne westward.

Mr. Bristow is the oldest settler in the county who still resides on his original claim. He knows all that is comprehended in the meaning of the word "Pioneer," and has experienced all the trials and hardships incident to frontier life. Notwithstanding this, Mr. Bristow is still robust and healthy, and thanks to a more than ordinarily vigorous constitution, has not known a day during the past forty years when he was not able to attend to his affairs of business.

Mr. Smith was prominently identified with the organization of the county, and became a member of the first board of county commissioners.

Prominent among those who came during the years 1839-40 were the following: Joseph Kellum, Joab Bennett, five brothers by the name of Brown, to-wit: Jerry, Bowzier, William, Talton and Monroe; Jerry Kendall, James Roy, Henry Hardin, Peter Perry, James Miller, Wm. Miller, Elijah Searcy, David Myers, Richard Quinton, Horace Bagley, Wm. Lewman, James Lewman, Elias Whetston, Theodore Cox; and three brothers: William, John, and Ross Franklin; and four brothers: Henry, Thomas, Joel, and Pleasant Pringle; S. P. Bristow, Cyrus Jordan, Jacob Wimer, Mr. Troxel, Ed. Fayes, Robert Blacker, J. O. Casterline, and J. J. Franklin.

Mr. Kellum became the first Probate Judge of the county. Mr. Quinton was one of the delegates to the first constitutional convention; and others of the afore-mentioned gentlemen became, in one way and another, prominently associated in the early development and organization of the county.

Prominent among those on the north side of the river were Harvey Stevens and the Hendersons, Dr.Worthington, Dr. Mealy, William Grimsley, Wm. Shockley, John Baker, Wesley Goss, James Junkin, E. B. Holmes, Robert Alexander, John Crill, Sr., Ed. Cooley, and Michael Hornish.

Not many of the settlers of the spring of 1839 came early enough to raise a crop that season. A few, however, with their long team of oxen and wooden mould-board plows, turned the sod and raised some sod corn, which helped them much in getting their stock through the winter. Most of the people, however, had to depend on prairie hay for feed for their stock which they had driven from the States, and which were by the long journey reduced to great poverty. The result was that much of this stock died during the winter, and the teams with which they were compelled to begin the spring work were not in a condition to do the vast amount of work consequent upon the opening of farms. Their bread was made of cornmeal and water. Their meat was such as they were able to procure by the use of their trusty rifles. Flour was scarce and dear, and they had to go to Burlington to procure it.
Two of these early settlers deserve to be especially mentioned: William Scearcy and Jacob Wimer. The former still resides in the county. Although he is now quite aged, and his life one of trial and hardship, yet his step is still elastic and his mind clear and memory reliable. A short sketch of his early life will be interesting to the reader and eminently proper in this place. We will let him tell his own story:

"My father, Robert Scearcy, was born in Virginia in the year 1782, and died and was buried in this township April 18, 1857. My mother's name was Mary Spivey. They were married in North Carolina, and were the parents of thirteen children: ten girls and three boys, I being the fifth child.

I was born in Buncombe county, North Carolina, in the year 1813. When quite young my parents moved to Warren county, Tennessee, where we remained until the fall of 1829, when we started for Indiana, but owing to sickness we did not reach our destination until the spring of 1830; stayed a while in Morgan county, Indiana, and from there to Sangamon county, lllinois, where I was married April 7, 1836, to Sarah Miller (daughter of Aaron Miller, who was the first settler in this county, and died several years ago in this township). The same spring after I was married, myself and wife, in company with two brother-in-laws, John and James Miller and their families, started for Iowa, and being the first emigrants with teams that came west farther than Lockridge, we followed the township line from there by the marks on the trees in the timber, and the stakes and mounds on the prairies, until we reached what is now known as Pleasant Plain, in Jefferson county. The land at that time had not been surveyed out in smaller subdivisions than townships, and was not yet in market. I purchased a claim of 160 acres and adjoining my claim I laid out that town, consisting of 300 lots. The town of Brighton, in Washington county, was located the same fall. I broke about twelve acres of prairie that spring, during which time we lived in a tent. The greater part of the summer we spent in breaking prairie on the north side of Skunk river. A great many emigrants came in without families, would take claims and hired us to break a few acres—just sufficient to hold their claims until they should return in the fall, agreeing to pay us for the work when they returned; but they did not come back, and we found that we had done our work for nothing—lost it all.

"While on the north side of the river we lived in an Indian ''wigwam'' made of bark. Here is where Wapello and his tribe lived at that time. They had quite a town, and some of them had small patches of ground that they cultivated, raising some corn and a few vegetables. It was a great sight to the Indians to see the prairie plow turning the sod over. The little fellows would follow us day after day, watching the plowing process. The Indians, as a general thing, treated us kindly enough, but seemed to look upon us with a kind of jealousy. They were great fellows for whisky at all times, but on special occasions they made whisky a special resort.

On the occasion of the death of one of Wapello's sons, the old chief himself swam across the river, procured a barrel of whisky, floated it across the river, and such a time as they had I never witnessed before or since: Men, women and children beastly drunk for several days, some shouting the war whoop, some crying and wailing, and some sleeping—one continuous uproar as long as the whisky lasted.

"After laying out the town of Pleasant Plain, I made a sale of lots and sold about five hundred dollars worth, some desirable ones going as high as forty dollars. The land not yet being in market, I could make no deeds, but gave bonds for deeds to be made as soon as I should get deeds from the government, taking their notes, to be paid when they received the deeds.

"The only ferries we had to cross the river was our wagons; we had no other means of crossing except by swimming the teams, wagons and all. In the fall we went back to Sangammon county, Ill., expecting to return in the spring, as our provisions were all gone, and no means of securing a supply for the winter, as we had no money and could not have bought supplies if we had money. Owing to sickness in my family, I did not return to Iowa until the spring of 1839. When I came to Pleasant Plain I found the Quakers had taken advantage of my absence and 'jumped' my claim, town and all, and as I could not legally hold it, they would not give it up, nor pay me anything for what I had done. So I came on west and settled in Richland township, where Moses Mendenhall now lives. David Myers took a claim adjoining on the south, and although there was not a solitary house between him and Fairfield, yet he had not room enough. He crowded me out, and I abandoned that claim and settled another, the one which J. C. Johnson now lives on. I lived around in that vicinity until the spring of 1843. On the 30th day of April I moved into Jackson township, although, according to the treaty, we were not allowed to settle on this purchase until the first day of May. I commenced staking out my claim early the next morning. William Brown, who was then living at Blue Point, tried to frighten me away from the claim, threatening to mob me; but having actual possession first, I held the claim, on which I have lived ever since. The first year I fenced forty acres, broke out thirty acres of sod and put it in corn, on which I raised a good crop—plenty to do me and some to sell. I raised as good potatoes and cabbage as I have ever raised since. I planted the corn before I fenced the ground, made the rails and fenced it during the summer. I laid out in my corn many nights with a sod for a pillow, watching the cattle off my crop, and this barefooted; when rattlesnakes were as numerous as the grasshoppers and squirrels—and have actually killed them in the dark. I lived in a tent that summer, and in the fall I built a cabin.

"A great deal of trouble was caused to settlers on account of 'claim jumping;' when the land came into market there were a great many poor men who had not money to pay for their land, and others more able would enter the land at the office, and had it not been for a kind of club law gotten up by the settlers for their own protection, probably much more distress would have been than really was.

"The first church organization in this county was by Andrew P. Tannehill, building on Spainshower's foundation, in the fall of 1843; organized the Baptist church.

"The first school taught in the township was by a man by the name of Brown, in a log cabin near where John Dare now lives.

"I have raised a family of ten children: six boys and four girls, all of whom are still living; and they are all here, except one daughter who lives in Kansas.

"I professed religion in the year 1819 and joined the Baptist church, of which I have been a member ever since.

"Politically, I am a Democrat, alway have been, and always expect to be; my first vote being cast for Martin Van Buren for President.

"In looking over the county now, and contrasting its appearance with thirty-five years ago, what a remarkable change we discover: then a vast ocean of prairie, upon miles and miles of which nothing could be seen but the native grass, interspersed with groves, belts of timber, rivulets and streams, inhabited only by the red skins and wild animals. Now, how different! The white man has made his mark here. All over this country, what was then one vast wild prairie, we see, we might say, one continuous farm, separated only by roads and fences. In looking over those few years past, it seems that such a change could not have taken place in so short a time. Then we had our log cabin school houses, with split logs or fence rails for seats. Then we had preaching in our log cabins, and people were not ashamed to ride in an ox wagon four or five miles to meeting, and if they were not able to wear shoes they did not hesitate to go barefoot and without any coat. They went to meeting for the enjoyment of true religion, and had no fears of being insulted by Mr. Etiquette or Madame Fashion."

Jacob Wimer settled in the vicinity of Richland in the year 1839. He proved to be the most valuable accession which had, up to this time, been made to the little colony. He was a man of the most invincible energy, possessed of other striking traits of character, and, moreover, a practical millwright. No one man did more to advance the interests of the early settlers, and to develop the resources of the county, than he. Soon after arriving, Mr. Wimer set about the work of mill building. The first mill in the county was commenced by him in June, 1842, and located on South Skunk river, near the confluence of the two streams. It was completed in the following February. The mill was built about five rods west of the boundary line of the original Black Hawk purchase. In selecting the site he found that he could not erect the mill to advantage unless he put it on the Indian side of the line. The trespass was but a few steps, and he supposed that it would work no injury to the red man. But the red man came and pointed out to him the line between Che-mo-ke-man and Mus­qua-ke. Mr. Wimer was apparently too dull of comprehension to understand the import of the Indians' protestations, and went on with his mill. The red skins had learned too much of freedom in their own wild forests, to be thns (sic) encroached upon, and regarded in a diplomatic manner a trespass of fifty yards as equal to the inundation of the whites to the very center of their hunting grounds. The consequence was that they appealed to the United States authorities, and a troop of dragoons was dispatched to drive Mr. Weimer off the forbidden ground and burn his buildings. One morning, shortly after the completion of the mill, these epauletted gentlemen bore down upon Mr. Wimer. This gentleman, however, was not altogether taken by surprise, as he had certain intimations of the raid upon his premises. He had, accordingly, prior to the arrival of the dragoons, removed all vestiges of the boundary line, for several miles on either side of the river. When the dragoons arrived they rode up to the side of the stream on the south bank of the river, and there hitched their horses. Thereupon the whole squad crossed upon the ice, each man having girted at his side an immense sword, which trailed on the ground. at his side. The officer, in a very pompous style, started up to Mr. Wimer and said:

"Do you know, sir, where you are?" Mr. Wimer met his gaze firmly, and in a very decided manner replied: "I think I do, sir."

The officer then stated to Mr. Wimer that the mill was on the Indian's land, and his instructions were to destroy it, and his imperative duty was to obey. This was a critical moment for the millwright. He had invested all his means in the mill, and looking at the building and then at the officer, scarcely knew what to say. He could not for a moment entertain the thought that years of toil and labor should be in vain, and that this structure which represented that toil and labor should be demolished merely to satisfy the caprices of a few savages, and that too at a time when it was known that they would, as they did, sell out as soon as a treaty could be concluded. After exhibiting his machinery to the party, and making himself as agreeable as his unsafe condition would permit, he cooly requested the dragoons to accompany him about one hundred yards west of the mill, where, pointing to each side of the river, he called attention to marks and notches on the trees, and turning to the commander remarked:

"You see, sir, I knew where I was, and we need not disturb one another," at the same time he gave him a look which seemed to say: "Do you comprehend my meaning?"

Whether the dragoon captain believed this to be the true line or not, at least he pretended that he did, and venting a few oaths upon the swarthy faces for causing them a cold and needless ride, called off his men and departed, to the great relief of the mill owner.

Soon after this circumstance Mr. Wimer sold the mill to Mr. L. B. Hughes, and removed to a mill site on North Skunk river, where he began the erection of what was afterward known as the "Whisler Mills." After these mills were nearly completed, he sold an interest in them to Mr. J. B. Whisler. Shortly after the mills were completed he sold the remainder of his interest to Mr. Whisler, and removed to Mahaska county, where he commenced the erection of the Union Mills, on North Skunk, finishing them about two years afterward. Some time having elapsed, he sold this mill, and returned to Keokuk county, and built what was known as the Wimer Mill, on South Skunk. A sawing attachment was put up in this mill by Mr. Abrams soon after. Mr. Harvey Ray, of Burlington, who, up to this time, had furnished burrs for most of the mills in southeastern Iowa, said that this mill was the best grist mill in the State.

In 1857 Mr. Wimer moved to Ray county, Missouri, and erected another large grist and sawmill, and also conducted a large farm. In 1859 he again returned to Keokuk county, having sold out in Missouri, and this time purchased the Goodheart mill, on North Skunk, about one mile from Lancaster. After Mr. Wimer bought this mill he repaired it and remodeled its machinery, and then sold it to Mr. Austin Jacobs. He then moved to a farm near Lancaster, declaring his intention of retiring from the milling business, but subsequently removed to Oregon, where he was at last accounts following his old business.

Mr. Wimer was a man of great benevolence, and many still living in the county have reason to remember him with feelings of gratitude. In public enterprises, whether for a charitable object, a church building, a bridge, or any other thing to enhance the general good, Mr. Wimer was always among the most liberal; and yet modest, not taking one-half the alms he gave to keep the other half sounding. Soon after he purchased the last mill there was a great scarcity of breadstuffs; just preceding the harvest many of the best prepared farmers were closely pushed to obtain the staff of life. During this time Mr. Wimer freely distributed to the more necessitous class all the toll and other grain he could control. It is gratifying to know that Mr. Wimer is but one representative of a large class of men who lived in this county at an early day, and who did so much to mould the character of the people and develop the resources of the country.

We have been thus concise and yet explicit in the account of these representative men because we deem it important, and the reader can judge from the history of one of them, so graphically and intelligently given in his own language, what manner of men they were. It will be observed that we have here no rude adventurers, driven out from their fellows by crime or melancholy; nor hunters or fishermen, too indolent to work; but we see intelligent, industrious men, who felt the lack of all those blessings which adhere to older civilization, yet strong enough to break away from them. Men who were ambitious to make their own future, and thus make the future of the country in which they settled. It will be perceived from what has been said of them, that they immediately upon their arrival proceeded to work; that they broke prairie, built mills, erected houses, exterminated noxious animals—in short, they were the forerunners of that thrift and industry and content which have made the county great and populous and wealthy, as well as intelligent and progressive in all the arts of higher civilization. The first settlers of Keokuk county were, therefore, men who were worthy to be among her citizens of today. The forerunners who carried civilization into the wilderness were of such a cast, of such a nature, of such strength and industry, of such ability and such a character, that the best of today might yet follow where they would lead, confident that they would work for the upbuilding of the county, and that nothing of dishonor would come to them through their leaders.

It would be interesting could we but go back, even in fancy, to the condition of affairs when these men first saw this county in 1839. Could we but have seen the sublimity of this great and fertile region, where but few, even of the red men, were then living; could we but imagine what were the thoughts, hopes, ambitions, purposes of these pioneers, as they recalled the rocky hills and mountains of their native States, and compared them with these prairies, waving with naught but the luxuriant growth of wild grasses, the noble forests, of these water courses, all fulfilling the natural conditions of comfort and wealth for man, and only waiting his advent to blossom as the rose with the productions of a civilized race, we might have seen, as they saw, that here, "wild in woods, the noble savage ran," with all that there could be of nobility in his untaught, or rather ill-taught, and treacherous nature, and that suddenly the face of the white man was seen in the forest, surveying its unimproved wealth, and preparing the way for a mightier and greater people. The taciturn, grunting savage heard the unwanted sound of laughter in regious where that melody might not have been heard since the long forgotten days of the mound builders, and he prepared to move further afield, away from his aggressive and more powerful brother. The sound of the ax and the crash of falling timber spoke of new life and animation. For the newcomer in all this wild region there was in every bubbling spring a music sweet as the voices of children. The ripple of the lonely river, flashing against its sides, gave prophecy of towns to spring up amid the sterner sounds of daily toil for a rich reward, in which all natural forces must become tributary to man's well being.

The first white child born in the limits of Keokuk county was probably J. F. Searcy, who was born December 15, 1840. An older son of Mr. Wm. Searcy was but three months old when brought to the county.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!


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