Historical reminiscences of the city of Des Moines, together with a full description of the city and county. H. B. Turrill, 1857 Transcribed by Ralph Leonard


A noble race! but they are gone,
   With their old forests, wide and deep,
And we have built our homes upon
   Fields where their generations sleep.
Their fountains slake our thirst at noon;
   Upon their fields our harvests wave:
Our lovers woo beneath their moon,
   And they have found an early grave. —
W. C. Bryant.


The county of Polk was included in the purchase made by the Commissioners of the United States, of the Sac and Fox Indians, at Agency City, October 11th, 1842. The eastern portion of Iowa had been acquired by the previous treaties of 1832, 1836, and 1837; but the aborigines yet remained, clinging tenaciously to their ancestral domain.

When the western part of the territory was purchased from them, they were allowed to remain upon the lands ceded, and to have exclusive possession of them for the term of three years from the date of the treaty. They immediately


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removed from the vicinity of the Mississippi to the interior of the State, on the new purchase, where they were safe, for a time, from the intrusion of the whites, and could find the wilds and solitudes harmonious with their natures.

In their new location, it was feared that hostilities might arise between them and the Sioux, or Potawatamies, on the north and west; and by desire of the Indians, and for their protection, it was stipulated that a military post should be established at the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, and sufficient force maintained there to afford them security from all hostile incursions of neighboring tribes.

On the 9th of May, 1843, the little steamer Ione arrived at the place where our city now stands, with a detachment of troops on board, who, immediately on their landing, commenced the work of constructing the various buildings, which were denominated the “Fort” The Ione was the first steamboat that had ever ventured to disturb the clear waters of the Des Moines so far from its mouth. Having disembarked the troops, with their accoutrements, baggage, and the military stores, which composed her lading, she departed. Capt. Allen, the commandant of the future Fort, returned with her to make arrangements for bringing on the rest of the troops. In a month or two they arrived to join their comrades, a mere corporal’s guard, which Capt. Allen had left, and all immediately engaged heartily in building their barracks.

While thus employed they encamped along the bank of the river, above what is now Court Avenue. Their labors were severe, and they had many privations to undergo, but a soldier’s disposition grows very facile, and readily accommodates itself to every change of circumstances. Their gay songs, and loud laughter, at evening, mingled with the dashings of the river, and the beating of the morning drum, or the loud bugle-notes awakened to new responses the echoes of the surrounding hills, and gave the western

A relic

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breezes their first lessons in our national melodies. The balmy air was invigorating and healthful, the beauties of summer adorned the forests and prairies, the enchantments of nature inviolate from the despoiling hand of civilization, were profusely spread around them, all combining to render their situation pleasing and attractive, so far as natural charms could do so.

Their number was nearly one hundred—consisting of two companies, one of infantry, the other of cavalry. All were under the command of Capt. James Allen, an officer experienced and determined; of sound judgment and excellent military talent. Lieutenants Greer, King and Potter, served under him;—the first belonged to the cavalry troop, the others, at separate times, commanded in the infantry.

Capt. Allen’s quarters were situated somewhat east of where the Collins House now stands. The building, like the others belonging to the Fort, was of one story, of rough logs, strong and comfortable. Within the last year or two it has been demolished to make room for other edifices.

The buildings which composed the Fort were scattered along the banks of the Des Moines, and at various points through what is now the business part of the town. They consisted of barracks for the men, and stables for the horses, and were some twenty or twenty-five in number, a part of which yet remain, and will serve the curious reader with a sample of what the others were, their appearance and construction being very similar.

As it was a fundamental portion of the treaty, by which the last purchase was made of the Indians, that they should have exclusive possession of the territory ceded, for three years next succeeding the 4th of October, 1842, the Commissioners of the United States were rigorous in enforcing its strict performance. To turn back the tide of pioneer enterprise eagerly sweeping westward to occupy a region of whose surpassing fertility rumor had even then spoken of

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in the most glowing language, was by no means an easy task. Yet so far as possible the white men were excluded, and the Indians allowed to roam unmolested over the prairies and wood-lands, abounding in the choicest game, themselves its only purveyors. But a few whites settled near the Fort, by permission of the government agents, and part of them were so pleased with this region that they have ever since made it their home. Some of them had families, and the Fort and its environs soon assumed the appearance of a regular settlement, and looked quite village-like.

Among the earliest settlers in the vicinity of Des Moines were John B. Scott, W. A. Scott, Wm. Lamb and Alexander Turner, who contracted with the Government to furnish hay, grain, and various other farm products, for the use of the garrison at the Fort. Charles Weatherford, and a man named Baker, were settled as black-smiths. J. M. Thrift was engaged as a tailor for the soldiers. John Sturdevant and James Drake were employed as gun-smiths for the Indians. Benjamin Bryant, among the very first to arrive, was in the employ of W. G. & G. W. Ewings, authorized Indian traders.

W. G. & G. W. Ewings had an establishment for trading purposes east of the Des Moines river, in what is now Scott & Dean’s addition. This company, in 1843, built the first regular dwelling house ever erected in Polk county. It stood near their trading house, and, like the rest, was a rude log cabin, saw-mills being a symbol of civilization at that time unknown in the country.

Robert A. Kinsay, another trader who supplied the settlers and garrison with various descriptions of merchandise, but was not allowed to sell to the Indians, had a store near the fort buildings. Its locality, as defined according to the present condition of the city, was on Vine street, between Second and Third.

The American Fur Company had established a trading post on the east side of the river, on what is now known


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as the "Hazen Farm." Several of their buildings yet remain, greatly dilapidated, on the banks of the Des Moines, a mile below the town. Dr. T. K. Brooks purchased the establishment when the agency at Fort Des Moines was discontinued. A curious and valuable relic of that Company’s transactions is now in the possession of Benjamin Bryant, Esq., of this city. It is an account book kept by the agent with the Indians, containing the polysyllabic names of several hundred of them, the articles which they purchased, the money or furs paid, and the price of each article sold or traded.

The Indian Agent, Major Beach, and the Interpreter, Joseph Smart, resided east of the Fur Company’s buildings, on the hill. Near the Agency House were the smith shops, where Sturdevant and Drake wrought for the Sacs and Foxes.

Peter Newcomer had permission from Capt. Allen to reside on Agency Prairie, on condition that he would build a bridge across Four Mile Creek.

The foregoing enumeration includes very nearly all the residents who settled near the fort in 1843, except the government troops. Their numbers continued about the same until the Indian title expired, when immigrants poured in like a flood. The Indians were quiet and inoffensive, and, save an occasional drunken brawl among them, when slight disturbances occurred, they manifested no dangerous traits. They were continually expecting the Sioux to attack them, and at one time the alarm was given that a war-party of their revengeful enemies was actually approaching. This, for a while, caused great excitement, but it soon subsided. Some of the Sacs were playing cards near the Fort at the time, and strong as was their terror of the Sioux, their passion for gambling was more powerful. They retreated into one of the block-houses, but still intently pursued their absorbing game.

Some renegade white men had penetrated into the re-


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serve, sold whisky to the Indians, and after gaining their acquaintance and friendship, abused it by stealing some fine horses. Incidents of this kind caused Capt. Allen to send out a detachment of dragoons to capture the thieves, and return the stolen horses to their legal owners.

This was a difficult task; the illimitable wilderness around affording an ample retreat for the miscreants; but finally one of them was captured and brought into the fort. This was Jonas Carsner, since notorious in the criminal records of this and other counties, for felonies of every description. He was tried by the officers of the Fort, and although there was not a doubt of his guilt, no direct proof of it could be obtained. Capt. Allen, therefore, thought it not best to sentence him under the civil law; but knowing the culprit was certainly deserving of punishment, he delivered him over to the Indians. They took him out, tied him to a tree, and gave him a most unmerciful whipping. This certainly should have had some beneficial effect, but subsequent events proved otherwise. One of the horses stolen by Carsner had been found. The same night Carsner was rewarded with the cat-o-nine-tails, two horses were stolen from a man by the name of Fish, who was bringing supplies to the Fort, and had encamped for the night a few miles from the settlement. The Indians kindly lent Mr. Fish the horse which they had just reclaimed, and he started to search for his own. But, while following their trail through a lonesome strip of timber, suddenly Jonas Carsner appeared, mounted on one of Fish’s horses, and riding abruptly up, he dexterously cut the saddle girth with a huge knife, hurled Fish to the ground, and bore away, at full speed, the twice captured horse!

The discomfited man now felt “like a Fish out of water.” No resource was left him but to trudge doggedly back to his Indian friends, whose curses, when they fully comprehended Carsner’s last coup-d'etat, may be imagined, but not recorded.

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Keokuk, the head chief of the Sacs, was a man of noble stature, well proportioned, and of handsome features. His village was some five miles south-east of the Fort, and the beautiful prairie on which he and his kindred dwelt, yet bears his name.

Powesheik, chief of the Foxes, lived on Skunk river. He is described as tall, heavily built, of rough cast of features, and a disposition full of exaction and arrogance. Both he and Keokuk were ardent lovers of fire-water. There were few, indeed, of their tribes, who did not follow such illustrious examples.

The inheritance of these brave chieftains has passed from them; strangers tread upon the burial places of their race; their spirits have sought the happy hunting-ground in the spirit-land; only the vestiges of their once powerful tribes exist; but the names of Keokuk and Powesheik are destined to be long remembered, linked, as they are, with the annals of the past, and inscribed upon the political and municipal institutions of the present country. The name of a county perpetuates the memory of the one; both a county and a vast city, full of wealth and enterprise, the other. And when the memory of their rank and deeds shall have eluded the researches of the annalist, their names, at least, posterity will recognize and repeat.

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