The Beginning

"Go west young man, go West" was the advice of Horace Greeley, New York editor of note, following the civil war. And go west they did-millions of them. West to California, west to the Rocky Mountain States, and west to Oregon and Washington.

And west many of them went to Iowa-the northwestern corner of the Hawkeye state, which was still unsettled, the prairies unbroken, the rivers uncontaminated, the prospects outstanding.

Lyon county, Iowa, was largely unsettled because of several factors. For one thing it was only in 1851 when treaties were concluded with the Sioux, under which this warlike family of Indian tribes agreed to leave their happy hunting grounds around the Sioux and Rock rivers and move on west.

The United States had acquired Iowa and the Dakotas as a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, from France. The Indians laid claim to the land, and their title was not in dispute. Negotiations with the Indian nations had pushed them farther and farther west.

In 1851 the Congress completed a treaty in which the Yankton and Teton tribes of the Sioux Nation agreed to leave Iowa. This had been their hunting ground for ages. Here in Lyon county lush grasses, crystal-clear streams and abundant game made the area one of the Indians' favorite spots. Throughout the county the Indians had buried their dead in elaborate mounds. These mounds were along the riverbanks near Doon, along the Big Sioux in the West End of the county-and along the state line north of Little Rock, some of them existing even today.

The Yankton and the Tetons were among the more virile and savage of the Sioux Indians and they were loathe to leave their homes, even under the pressure of the white man's march to the west.

The land abounded in prairie chicken, beaver, deer and even buffalo and early day writers mentioned the great piles of animal bones around the Indian village sites as evidence that the take of game must have been very large.

It was 1869 before the last of the Indians left Lyon county-and even after that early settlers frequently saw Indian groups in the area, often begging from the early settlers for food and tobacco.

Another big factor which delayed the settlement of northwest Iowa was the Civil war-which had commanded the services of so many citizens. The war was over, the veterans were back at home-the challenge of land-free land, productive land and new frontiers was swelling east of the Mississippi. And so, on foot, on horseback, in wagon, the trek west resumed.

The Lewis P. Hyde family was the first family to settle in this county on a permanent basis. They came here July 23, 1866 and entered a homestead on lots 1 and 2 Section 19 and lot 5, section 20, township 98 and range 48, lying on the Sioux River, about two miles north of what is now Beloit.

The Hydes set to work and erected a small cabin, which was the first permanent home built by a white man, in the county. That fall the Hydes returned to Minnesota to pass the winter and make preparations to remove their families to Lyon county. They came back the next spring (1867) to develop their homes, plant their crops, and make a new life.

Some years later (1873) the county supervisors hired Mr. S. C. Hyde to write a booklet about the county and its resources. This booklet contains the most authentic material about the county for the period from 1866 to 1870, when settlers began to come in earnest, and when the first newspapers were published in the county

Hyde told of five white men who had lived in the county previous to the time his family came here. His account was undoubtedly correct and it follows:

"The abundance of game and fur-bearing animals soon brought several parties of hunters to the Rock and Sioux rivers, who were joint occupants, with the Sioux, of Lyon County for several years.

"An account, if possible, of the adventures and hairbreadth escapes of these hardy men would form an interesting chapter in the history of Lyon County. Among the most noted of these adventurers was Daniel McLaren. "Uncle Dan" had his cabin at the mouth of a sparkling creek, which now bears his name, on the east bank of the Sioux. He was fortunate enough to keep his scalp from falling into possession of the Yanktons, and always had his storehouse well filled with buffalo, elk, deer and beaver skins. After the county began to settle, he concluded to take a homestead, and there are many now in Lyon County, who have enjoyed his hospitalities. But Uncle Dan soon became restless, so he 'went West" to find "elbow room."

"Old Tom" long had his cabin at the mouth of Tom Creek, near the present town or Rock Rapids. But with the advantage of the implements of the whites and his great skill as a hunter, he could take more beaver than the Sioux. So they shot him through the heart with an arrow, one morning while he was setting his traps.

"But the tale which most excites our sympathy is that of three young men from Massachusetts-Roy McGregor, Thomas Lockhart and George Clark. As they were possessed of education, talent, and noble ambition, the tragic fate of two of this company is sad indeed. It must have been in the summer of 1862 that this party resolved to spend the winter in a hunting tour in this part of the West. Reaching the Rock River valley in October, and being elated with the prospect here for a successful winter's hunt, they built a cabin on an island in the river, at the forks of the Little Rock, West Branch and Rock River. Here they passed the autumn in rare sport, taking an abundance of game. But their happiness was not to continue long unbroken. One morning after snow had covered the ground, while McGregor and Lockhart were attending to their beaver traps, a short distance above the "Lone Cottonwood," on the bank of the Little Rock, opposite the present residence of Jessie Monk, they saw a drove of elk bounding down the valley. Seizing their rifles and firing simultaneously they brought down a large buck. They were preparing to carry the venison to camp, when they were suddenly attacked by a band of Santee Sioux from Minnesota, who had been following the elk.

The Indians first fired upon them with bows and arrows, from which McGregor received a shot in the side, and then charged upon them with unearthly yells. McGregor and Lockhart returned the fire from their rifles, and then retreated a short distance down the river under cover of the overhanging bluffs on the south bank of the stream. Here the superiority of their breechloaders, and the advantage of their position, enabled them to keep the Indians at bay. As soon as possible, Lockhart extracted the arrow from poor McGregor's wound, and inquired if he was much hurt. He answered briskly, "Oh, no," but soon began sinking and died in a few hours. When night came on, Lockhart escaped under cover of darkness and the thick underbrush, and joined Clark at their camp. They feared to move for several days, but finally returned to the scene of their encounter with the Indians, but could find no traces of poor McGregor.

"Notwithstanding the shock produced by the loss of their companion, Lockhart and Clark decided to remain and contest with the savages the right to hunt on these grounds. They were not, however, molested again, and continued their hunting with great success until spring. Their cabin was fitted up with much taste, being lined on the inside with wolf skins, and became a favorite resort for hunters throughout this region. The two companions had barely recovered from the gloom caused by the death of McGregor when another calamity befell them more crushing, if possible, than his tragic death.

The island upon which the cabin stood was very low; but as the river was also low at the time of building it, they had no thought of a flood. Early in March the weather became warm, the snow melted, and as the river began to rise, Lockhart and Clark felt some uneasiness lest the water should come into their cabin. A heavy rain came on, and the river continued to rise until as they had prepared to retire one evening, they found the water up to within a few inches of the door. Yet they concluded to wait until morning before making preparations to move.

"During the night the ice broke up, and the floating timber gorged the river above the head island, almost completely damaging it. Behind this gorge the water continued to rise until it had covered the river bottom to great depth. Lockhart and Clark had arisen and begun to prepare their breakfast when this gorge broke, and the flood came down upon the island and cabin with terrific force. Hearing the rushing of water and breaking of the timber, they ran out of the cabin just as the water came down upon them. Lockhart seized hold of a tree and succeeded in climbing out of the way of the flood. Clark jumped into the river and swam for the east bank. He succeeded in crossing the stream, and grasping some overhanging boughs, turned his head and exclaimed: "Tom, I'm all right," when the flood came upon him, and overwhelmed in the torrent, he sank to rise no more.

"Lockhart remained in the tree for several hours, when, by means of some floating logs, he reached the high bank and made his escape."

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a marker designating the spot Lockhart camped.

A lot of politics entered into the early history of this county. By act of the General Assembly approved January 2, 1853 Buncombe county was established, and with other counties in northwest Iowa, it was attached to Wahkaw County for judicial and revenue purposes. At that same time the General Assembly changed the name of Wahkaw County, to Woodbury County. The county seat of Woodbury County, Sioux City, was a struggling frontier hamlet of only a few homes.

In his historical sketch S. C. Hyde explained the name Buncombe, which was attached to this county. He reported:

"The Legislature which convened in 1851 was composed of a large majority favoring stringent corporation laws, and the liability of individual stockholders for corporate debts. This sentiment in the Legislature, on account of the agitation of railroad enterprises then being, brought a large number of prominent men to the capital. To have an effect on the General Assembly, they organized a lobby legislature, in which these questions were ably discussed. They elected as Governor, Verplank Van Antwerp, who delivered to this self-constituted body a lengthy message, in which he sharply criticized the regular Legislature. Some of the members of the latter body were in the habit of making long and useless speeches, much to the hindrance of business. To these he especially referred, charging them with speaking for Buncombe, and recommended that as their lasting memorial, a county should be called Buncombe. This suggestion was readily seized upon by the regular Legislature, and the county of Buncombe was created with few dissenting votes."

By act of the legislature September 11, 1862, the name of the county was changed from Bumcombe to Lyon. This was to honor General Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed while leading the First Iowa Infantry in the battle of Wilson's Creek, in one of the Border wars between the states, which were a part of the Civil War.

Undoubtedly the Civil War was largely responsible for the late date at which the white man arrived in this area. However there were other obstacles to early settlement. Much of the land had already been claimed.

In the summer of 1866 the Des Moines Valley Railroad Company secured 38,000 acres of the finest bottomland in the county. This was under an indemnity land grand made by Congress, and was to encourage the Railroad Company to build a line in Iowa-even though that line ran nowhere near Lyon County. This grant took that much of the available lands out of reach of the homesteaders when they did arrive. During 1867 Cerro Gordo County located a tract of 30,000 acres of beautiful Lyon County land, this was to indemnify that county for poor "swamp land," in its area, and was a grant by the government. Later this land was transferred to the McGregor and Missouri River Railroad Company, who promised to run a line across northern Iowa to the Missouri River.

The government lines, which bounded Lyon County, were listed as the Big Sioux River on the west, the state of Minnesota on the north; by Sioux County on the south and Osceola County on the east. The county was 37 miles in length and 17 miles in width. In all it was comprised of 368,000 acres-thus the railraod and swampland took almost 20 percent of the available land, land that would otherwise have been available for the homesteaders.

During the winter of 1867-68 the Hyde family and "Uncle Dan" McLaren were the only white inhabitants of the county. "Uncle Dan" had taken up a homestead near "Uncle Dan's Ford" on the East Side of the Sioux River, and north of Beloit.

The next year the settlers started coming to Lyon County in numbers. First of the groups to reach the county was organized and lead by Halvor Nelson, who had visited the county the year before. He set out early in the spring from Clayton County, with a party of Norwegians. There were 30 wagons in the party making the trip and the last 100 miles was across unbroken and unmarked prairie. They found no roads, no bridges, and high water in many of the streams added to the hardships of the trip. The party reached the West End of Lyon County-some settled north of Beloit, some at Beloit and others across the Sioux in Dakota Territory.

Many descendants of that hardy group of Norwegians still live in Lyon County. Among the group making the wagon train trip were an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ole Klongeland. It is said that when they neared Lyon County they met a band of Indians and talked with them. Some of the Indians asked Mr. Klongeland, "Old man, why are you setting out for this wild land at your age?" The reply-these are my family. I have nothing else. I come to be with them for the rest of my life." This elderly couple died not long after they reached Lyon County. They had been born in the eighteenth century in Norway. They are buried in the church cemetery of Our Savior's Church, north and west of Inwood.

In May of 1868 H. D. Rice of Clay County visited this area. He had heard many stories about the beauty of Lyon County and came here to see for himself. He was particularly impressed when he stood on the river bluff near what is now the town of Doon. The beautiful river, the luscious growth of grass, the trees that abounded along the stream all impressed him. He traveled up and down the Rock and Little Rock rivers and decided to make his home at the fork of the rivers. He returned to Clay County, was joined by L. F. Knight and the two returned to the fork of the Rock for a second time and built a cabin.

Rice again returned to Clay County to get his family. While he was gone, Knight stayed at the Fork and sitting by the river and admiring the beauty of the spot, the lines of Robert Burns' immortal poem came to him:

"Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care!"

He decided that the town, which he hoped would be built at the spot would be called Doon-it was and it is.

Before the year was over Mrs. Rice came to join her husband at their new home; being the first white woman to settle on the Rock River. In August Emerick Erwin and H. W. Reeves built a cabin in which they spent the winter, near the forks. J. B. Hartson came in December of that year to settle at Doon. The small group on the Rock, the Nelson group and the Hydes, was the entire white population of Lyon County that winter. The Indians were still around and hunting parties were frequently seen. The red men were peaceful, if not entirely friendly.


The next spring-1869-Charles H. Johnson from Wisconsin reached the county. He explored the valley of the Little Rock, and located a homestead at the Junction of the Little Rock and Otter creek. He was soon joined in the area by T.W. Johnson, A. A. Johnson, Emerick Erwin, and the McGuire brothers-all of whom settled near the junction of these streams.

D. C. Whitehead of Webster County, Matthias Sweesy and Delos Towsley came to the county and on June 22, the party reached the junction of the Rock and Kanaranzi rivers. They were impressed with the beauty of the area and the waterpower connected with the rapids, which was being wasted. Whitehead is said to have been the man who gave the spot its name-Rock Rapids-and the name continued.

The tide was swelling. New settlers were turning up in all parts of the county. Around Beloit the first harvest was being taken. Homes were being built-many with native logs and timber-some with lumber freighted from Sioux City-70 miles away.

Speculators were grabbing off as much of the new land as possible. That fall-1869-the Dubuque and Sioux City Railroad was completed to LeMars-thus bringing transportation 25 miles closer to the new communities in Lyon County.

Mr. Hyde reported that the winter of 1869 found about 100 people in the county.


The winter of 1869-70 was quite mild-although there were a few storms. In January one of the settlers, S. C. Martin, with his daughter Lily and son Clay were caught by a blizzard, while coming from LeMars to Lyon County. They had a bad time of it for the three days the storm raged. By taking sacks of flour and grain off the wagon and putting them in a small circle and then covering that with blankets, the trio managed to survive-and recovered from effects of the terrifying experience.

Two men prominent in county history selected homesteads in February of 1870. H. T. Helgerson selected a site at Beloit and C. H. Moon selected a homestead adjoining the town site of Rock Rapids. During the spring of 1870 many men, whose names were to be prominent in history of the area came to the county. D. C. Whitehead's family came to Rock Rapids. James H. Wagner, William Wagner, Jas. I. Taylor and Robert Parks settled on Burr Oak Creek and J. S. Smith, Christian Larson, Isaac Kester, John Monlux, Abram J. Hamlin and William Hamlin, to Rock Rapids.

Author Hyde commented in his record that the central and west part of the county was quite settled, but that the eastern part of the county was entirely vacant. This area was within the limits of the land claimed by the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad and the even numbered sections were held by the government for actual settlement only, at $2.50 per acre or homesteads of 80 acres.

In June of 1870 the first real drive for settlement of the southeast corner of the county got under way. A. C. Hyde of Wisconsin settled on Otter Creek in the southeast corner of the county. Others who soon sought land in the Otter Creek area were the Messrs. Schultz, John F. Thompson, Eli Baker, John Thompson and William Mead. These men with their families in many cases, came from Wisconsin and Illinois. That fall Jacob Hinshaw, Harmon Cook and Isaac Lawrence made the first selections for the Quaker settlement on Otter Creek.

The summer of 1870 was dry and many of the settlers were discouraged, but the crops, where land had been cultivated, were surprisingly good. More and more people were arriving in the county, Beloit was officially named, its mill and other business enterprises were flourishing.

In the fall of 1870 citizens of Lyon County petitioned the Woodbury County Supervisors for a county organization, but this was denied. However a township organization was approved and the county was divided into two townships. Lyon and Rock. That September the federal census was taken, and the population of the county was placed at 221 persons. Olina Olson was born to Mr. and Mrs. Hans J. Olson on July 14, 1869 in Lyon Township-the first child born in the county. But on December 26 the county had a death, little Lyman A. Wagner, son of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Wagner-four years and 20 days of age.

Mrs. D. C. Whitehead started a school in Rock Rapids late in the winter of 1870-71.


Buncombe Index   |   Home   |   The Beginning - Part 2


Webization by Kermit Kittleson - Aug. 2006