people, happily, were either Americans, or belonged to those desirable classes of
foreigners who readily amalgamated with and forthwith
Happily, indeed, that we have had no foreign population which has become clannish to
any such extent that feuds are created or
friction caused. The
very fact that for ten years last past the district court
county has only averaged two to three jury trials per term of court
The government having passed the homestead law just about the time of the organization of the county, naturally, in its earliest years, brought a class of people seeking free lands. Embodied in that homestead law has been the idea that first possession gave right, or first title, which soon developed the "squatter" as a part and portion of homesteading and induced people to come who were seeking land on the government domain. The old soldier was given sundry special privileges and rights peculiar to the idea of a pension or recognition of his services as applied to government lands. As a consequence of this, some five hundred and seventy-five old soldiers have settled in the county during the years. Later the word "squatter" was more distinctly applied to those taking possession of the overlapping or railroad lands, as will be seen under that head. However, the words or phrases, homesteader, old soldier, squatter, settler and hay twister, became to a large extent intermingled terms, applied somewhat promiscuously. In thus writing these early historic items we are unable to draw boundary lines, and in many cases apply them as the early settlers used them in common parlance. The term, "squatter," as understood in O'Brien county, does not mean or have the meaning of a squatter as might be applied to a party squatting down on some sand bar in the Missouri river, not caring whether it ever belonged to the government or not or even whether he ever got title or not. The squatter in O'Brien county developed into a full-grown homesteader and won out, becoming a permanent citizen of the county, contesting for his rights for title and home, alongside the settler and soldier, contending that (5)
66 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
of right he should become the owner of the lands the railroads had failed to earn, and won out in the highest tribunal in the land, the supreme court of the United States. In these capacities we shall deal with these several classes of early settlers.
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 67
the time that D. Edward Paullin
platted Paullina and established and founded its
name, it was thought that a large English colony would be established
by himself and the Close brothers, who colonized several large English communities in Plymouth and Osceola counties. But those gentlemen finally expended their energies elsewhere, and the large English colony failed to materialize in O'Brien
county. The English in the county may be said to
single families here and there. The families of John Archer,
Thomas Holmes, Thomas Hayes and others in and around Archer would
come the nearest to being a definite English colony, with several others in
county of a few families in a community.
Prior to 1880 the Scottish-American Land Company and the Jackson Land Company opened up land offices in Emmettsburg, Palo Alto county, in which county was planted a large Scotch colony and where these two companies held large tracts of land. These companies were organized by William J. Menzies, of Scotland, and Alexander Peddie, a Scotchman, and the manager in this section of the country. These two companies owned several thousand acres of land in and around Paullina, in Union and in Dale townships. This colony of Scotch people came from Roxborough and Selkirk counties, in the south of Scotland. William Aitkin first came in the year 1880. It was his son, Thomas Aitken, who, in later years, was cut and mangled to his death by a runaway team with a reaper. Mr. Aitken was followed, in 1881, by William Cowan, William Redford, Alexander Scott, James M. Christy, Thomas Scott, Hector Cowan, Sr., and James Gifford and their families, all of whom bought large tracts of this Scottish-American Land Company land. These families now reach down into the third and fourth generations, many of them well known in the later years. However, as a Scotch colony, its people have so scattered and removed to the towns that as a colony it is all but disintegrated, but during the years 1880 to 1900 it was one of the most formidable colonies in the county. One of their lumber, Miss Belle Cowan, was county superintendent for the years 1889- 1890, and was also a teacher in the high schools of both Primghar and Paullina.
The Irish settled in largest numbers in and around Sheldon. They were mainly homesteaders, and the foundation families were those of William Gavin, Thomas Burns, Michael Burns, Timothy Donahue (at one time member of the lower house of the Iowa Legislature from O'Brien county), John Dougherty, John McGrath, Pat Kennedy, Pat Kelly, Timothy Donoghue, Pat Carroll (after whom Carroll township was named), John Hart, John R. Deacon. Joseph Berry, Dan McKay and Pat Sullivan. The de-
68 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
scendants of this colony of Irish have maintained their residences down
through the generations.
Next to the Germans in numbers in this county, the Hollanders, in fixed communities, have the most definitely established themselves. The Hollanders coming direct to O'Brien county are mainly from Sioux county, where they constitute the large majority. The Hollanders in O'Brien county have been characterized by thrift in the purchase of more land for themselves and their sons. The Sioux county Hollanders came mainly from Pella, Iowa, where is one of the largest of the original Holland settlements direct from the Zuyder Zee. The same persistence that pushed back the waters of the sea and made more land in Holland has resulted in success in the Sioux county Hollanders pushing over into O'Brien, and, by the larger price he is willing to pay, he, by cash argument, invites the other owner out. He never loses or lets go a farm once purchased. It is no doubt true that both the German and Hollander have a higher idea of land value than any other class. Their views of things are solid as the earth. Land to them means, as it in fact is, that, with its use, it reaches down to the center of the earth and the air above it. clear to the sky. So definite is the Hollander in his fixedness in the county, that Holland churches are to be found in Sheldon, Sanborn and Hartley. The Hollanders will perhaps number a full tenth or more in the county. The same may be said of the German all over the county. He keeps his own land and buys out his neighbor. These people will be noticed under several other heads.
The Scandinavians have many small settlements, but are more scattered than the Germans or Hollanders. The most noted definite colony perhaps is the Scandinavian Quaker settlement in South Dale and Highland, where they support a Quaker church and school, and hold services Wednesday as well as Sunday. Among the foundation families of this colony are those of Lorenzo Rockwell, Curtis L. Rockwell (for many years a member of the board of supervisors), Loui Rockwell, Archibald Henderson, Christian Thompson, Roy Rockwell. D.J. Peckham, Joseph Henderson, Oman Tow, James Mott, O.P. Tjossem, A.R. Rockwell and Sam Norland.
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 69
they had been accustomed, and with what resignation they dispensed
with such as could not he had.
If correctly told, it would he a tale of intense interest; but it would require a master hand to draw a picture that would show the scene in all its details‐ personal experience alone could untold the tale. When a newcomer arrived he first selected a location where he could make his future home, and the question arises, of whom did he get permission to occupy it? The answer might be given in the language usually used in defining political or civil rights‐every one was free to do as he pleased so he did not interfere with his neighbor. When the government had extinguished the Indian title the land was subject to settlement either before or after the government had surveyed it. The settler had no deed or paper title to start with, but simply the right of possession, which he got by moving onto and occupying it; this gave him a right to hold it against all others till some one came with a better title, which better title could only be obtained by purchasing the fee of the government when surveyed and brought into market. The right of possession thus obtained constituted what was called a "claim." These were regarded as valid titles by the settlers, and were often sold for quite a sum. This was a little dangerous, however, as the federal law was that the government would not recognize a sale. In fact it left the homesteader open to having his rights contested, as the law in reality intended and the affidavits he had to make said that it was bona fide and for his own express benefit. They did it by signing what was called a "Relinquishment" to the United States. This the government recognized. But we can see that when once filed, the first man who next filed got it, and if the purchaser was not immediately on the spot he was left out in the cold and lost his money. These sales would usually run from about two hundred and fifty dollars to as high as seven hundred dollars for good improvements. Pre-emption laws were also on the statute books as passed by Congress, giving to claimants who had conformed to certain specified improvements the exclusive right to purchase the land at the government price. Beside certain buildings and improvements they were required to plant and keep in thrifty condition about fourteen acres of trees, which accounts for some of the larger groves on some of the farms.
When the settler had selected his location or made his claim, his first attention was directed to procuring a shelter for his family. So anxious were the people for settlers that often in the first years two and even three families were known to actually live in and occupy a settler's cabin twelve by sixteen in size, more or less. But if he located far from a neighbor, for
70 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
year many occupied the covered wagon in which they came to the
country, sleeping in or under it, and cooking or eating in the open air or in
some rude contrivance, perhaps covered with prairie grass, or a tent made of
the bed blankets he had
brought with him, if the family was too large or a
shelter could be
provided. This was usually, when finished, a dug-out or sod
One little incident known to the writer was a settler who sent his
boy to a neighbor two miles away before breakfast to inform him of the
latest news that
they were to have a new neighbor who had just located six
away. Far-away neighbors were then near neighbors.
The prairie region offered advantages far superior to a timbered country; in the latter an immense amount of labor had to be done to remove the timber and for years afterward the stumps prevented free cultivation, while on the prairie the sod only had to be turned and the crop put in. Still, this sod had to go through the process of rotting or being subdued, which often took several years, especially when broken up too late in the summer. It was a curious fact even in O'Brien county, however, that the very earliest settlers huddled close in around the little fringes of timber on the Waterman and Little Sioux, the rougher land of the county.
The homesteaders would combine with their oxen and often make up a team of several, even five and six yoke, and turn up a big, wide furrow two feet or more in width. The broad, black furrow thus turned up was a sight worth seeing. The nice adjustment of the coulter and broad share required a practiced hand, and the tip of the share or even the wrong filing of the coulter would throw the plow on the twist and require a strong man in a tough sod to hold the plow in place, but if nicely done the plow would run a long distance without support. A good blacksmith then had a good job. Many of these first plows were clumsy and found too large, and later it was found that a smaller plow and even fewer animals did better work. It was found that the best time to break the sod was when the grass was rapidly growing, and it would decay quickly and the soil be mellow and kind; but if broken too late in the season it would require two or three years to become as mellow as it would be in three months when broken at the right time. It was found often that shallower breaking required less teams, and would often mellow up sooner than the deeper breaking. But many of the settlers arrived late in the season and had to break whenever they could, even late in the fall, and do with it as best they could.
The first sod crop was mostly corn, planted by cutting a gash into the inverted sod, dropping the corn and closing it by another blow alongside the first, or perhaps planting into the lucky mellow soil thrown up by a gopher.
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 71
Or sometimes it was dropped in every third furrow and the next furrow turned on. If the corn was so dropped as to find the space between the furrows it would find daylight; if not, it was doubtful. This sod corn crop would be laughed at now as a crop, but the early settler had to make the most of it. At least corn so planted would make a partial crop, sometimes, when favorable all the season, quite a full crop. Prairie sod thus turned in June would be in condition to put in to oats or corn the spring following. Melons and vines seemed to do even better on these tough sods than later in the years. This subduing of this tough sod with deep roots was a problem with which the later farmers are not familiar. We can thus see some of the reasons why it was early discussed whether this would ever be a corn country or not. But after the first crops the soil got better and better. But while his crops were growing, the settler was not freed from other cares and worry. His few chickens and pigs had to be sheltered and housed at night as a protection against owls and prairie wolves. Even his cattle had to have a good corral, as even the calves or younger cattle were not safe against a hungry wolf. The problem of getting the cattle home at night was a serious one; as, with such free, wide range, cattle would often roam five and ten miles, and nearly always had to be searched for, at least every few days, and every day receive attention as a regular item. As there were then no trees, this question of shelter was serious in view of the blasts of winter. The primitive shack sheds, with grass tops and illy constructed sides, did the protective act badly. The grimly humorous remark or question of sundry of the Easterners who would visit this county in those years, "Why don't you have barns and houses and other conveniences like we do in the East?" certainly would arouse mirth. He should have been answered, "You are enjoying the fruits of the labor of several generations of your ancestors, while we have to create all we have. We have necessarily made rude and cheap shelters for ourselves and our animals, have fenced our farms, dug our wells, have to make our roads, bridge our streams, build our school houses, churches, court houses and jails, and when one improvement is complete another want stares us in the face." All this taxed the energies of the new settler to the extent of human endurance, and many fell by the way, unable to meet the demands upon their energies. The only wonder is that so much has been accomplished; that so many comforts and conveniences have crowned our efforts; that we have reached a point for which a century of effort might have been allowed. Political and financial theorists have tauntingly told the farmers of Iowa that they knew nothing of finance, except what wiser heads have told them; that they have made nothing by farming,
72 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
and would be
poor except for the advance in the price of their farms. These
sages should be told that the toil of those farmers has made the farms increase in
prices; made those improvements, planted orchards and fruit gardens, made roads and bridges, converted a wild country into a land of
beauty, and made it the happy abode of intelligent men. All this had to be
done to make these farms advance in
price, and those who have done this,
and raised and educated their families, have done well; and if the advance
price of their farms has given them a competence, it is what they anticipated, and nothing but the most persevering industry and frugality would
have accomplished it.
In addition to the labor and a multitude of cares that beset the newcomer, he had it all to accomplish under disadvantages and in the face of dangers that of themselves were sufficient to discourage men not of stern resolve. Traveling unworked roads and crossing streams without bridges was often a perilous adventure. Crossing the wide prairie at night, with not even the stars to guide, was both uncertain and dangerous, and often the wayfarer traveled until exhausted and had to camp until the morning light should guide him on his way. In warm weather, although an unpleasant exposure, this was not a dangerous one; and, although the sensation of being lost is an irksome one and the lonely silence in the middle of the prairie, broken only by the howl of wolves, is more unpleasant than one inexperienced would imagine, with perhaps hunger added to the discomfort, yet all this would pass with the night and a brighter view and happier feelings would come with the dawn of the morning. But crossing the trackless prairie when covered with a dreary expanse of snow, with the fierce, unbroken wintry blast sweeping over its glistening surface, penetrating to the very marrow, was sometimes a fearful and dangerous experience. No condition could inspire a more perfect idea of lonely desolation, of entire discomfort, of helplessness, and of dismal forebodings, than to find one's self lost on the snow-covered prairie, with no object in sight in any direction but the cold undulating snow wreaths, and a dark and tempestuous winter night closing fast around his chilled and exhausted frame. His sagacious horse, by spasmodic efforts and continuous neighing, shows that, with his master, he appreciates the dangers and shares his fearful anticipations. With what longing the lost one reflects on the cozy fireside of his warm shanty, surrounded by his family, which he fears he may never see, and when the dark shadow of night is closed around and has shut in the landscape, and chance alone can bring relief, a joyous neigh and powerful spring from his noble horse calls his eye in the direction he has taken; he sees over the bleak
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 73
expanse a faint light in the distance, toward which his horse is bounding
speed, equally with his master cheered and exhilarated by
light which the hand of affection has placed at the window to
lead the lost one home. Nearly every early settler can remember such an
experience, while some never found the home they sought, but, chilled to a
painless slumber, they found the sleep that knows no waking. Crossing the
prairie on a cloudy night, or on a snowy or foggy day, was
very liable to have an uncertain outcome. In a clear night the stars were a
very reliable guide, and, like the Eastern Magi on the desert, the settlers
came to have a close acquaintance with the constellations. A steady wind
was also a
very reliable guide: the traveler would get his bearing, then notice
how the wind struck his horse, right or left ear, etc., and then keep that same
direction, regardless of any other guide, and he would generally come out
right. But if the wind changed, of course he went with it. Without these
guides, it would be a mere accident if a person succeeded in a still atmosphere, on a cloudy night, or snowy or foggy day, in crossing a prairie of any
The yearly burning of the heavy annual growth of grass on the
prairie, which had occurred from time immemorial, either from natural
cause or from
being set by human hands, was continued after the white
settlers came in, and was a source of much annoyance, apprehension and,
frequently, of severe loss. From the time the grass would burn, which was
soon after the first frost, usually about the first of October, till the surrounding prairie was all burned over, or if not all burnt, till the green grass in the
spring had grown sufficiently to prevent the rapid progress of the fire, the
settlers were continually on the watch, and, as they usually expressed the
idea, "sleeping with one eye open." When the ground was covered with
snow, or during rainy weather, the apprehension was quieted and both eyes
A statute law forbade setting the prairie on fire, and one doing so was subject to a penalty and liable to an action of trespass for the damages accruing. But men did not like to prosecute their neighbors and convictions were seldom effected, though fires were often set. Fires set to the leeward side of an improvement, while very dangerous to improvements to the leeward, were not so to the windward, as fire progressing against the wind is easily extinguished.
Imagine the feeling of the man who, alone in a strange land, after building a verv modest homestead shanty or home has raised his corn, wheat and oats, and fodder for stock, and has his premises surrounded by a sea of standing grass, dry as tinder, stretching away for miles in every
74 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
direction, over which the wild prairie wind howls a dismal requiem, and
knowing that a spark or match applied in all that distance will send a sea of
fire wherever the wind
may waft it; and conscious of the fact that there are
men who would embrace the first
opportunity to send the fire from outside
their own fields, regardless of whom it might consume, only so it protects
their own. Various means was resorted to for
protection. A common one
was to plow several furrows around a strip several rods wide, outside the
improvements, and then burn out the strip; or wait till the prairie was on
fire and then set fire outside, reserving the strip for a late burn, that is, till
following summer, and in July burn both old grass and new.
But all this took time and labor, and the crowd of business on the hands of a new settler, of which a novice has no conception, would prevent him doing what would now seem a small matter; and all such efforts were often futile. A prairie fire, driven by a high wind, would often leap all barriers and seem to put human efforts at defiance. When a fire had passed through the prairie, leaving the long lines of side fires, like two armies facing each other, the sight at night was grand; if one's premises were securely protected, he could enjoy such a fine exhibition hugely, but if the property was exposed, the sublimity of the scene was lost in the apprehension of danger.
In the year 1881 a colony of French people settled in Grant township, with several scattering families in other townships. A few of them came direct from France, but in the main they came from in and around Cliffton, Iroquois county, Illinois, a part of Illinois where many French settled long ago. The very name of that county in Illinois denotes French. Henry C. Colby had settled in Hartley several years prior in the land and banking business, and in fact was one of the most enterprising men in the county in inducing people to come to O'Brien county, and was a very successful man. It was Mr. Colby who induced these people to come to O'Brien and establish this colony, and sold many of them their lands. He was not a Frenchman himself, but his judgment as to the future of the county was accepted by them. The following families are among the number: Theodore Richard, Anton Guyett, Eli Frankers, Frankie Frankers, Samuel DeMars, Napoleon Renville, Calvin Mayhew, Louis Guyett, Edward Morrow, Fred Cota, Pearly Morrow, Albert Mayhew, Oliver Marcotte, Thomas Marcotte, Isaac DeTour and John DeTour and others. A few other families settled in Clay county, just across the line. The following table gives the number of people, by nations, in O'Brien county where both parents are foreigners:
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 75