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

Expiration of Indian Title—Eagerness of Settlers to make claims—Organization of Polk County— Its Boundaries—Commissioners to locate County Seat—First County Election—Officers Elected—First District Court—Names of first Grand Jury—Anecdote of Judge Williams—Laying out of the Town of Ft. Des Moines—Sale of Lots—Prices of Lots then and now—First Groceries—Post-Office—First Wedding in Polk County—Early Church History.

The Indian title to the lands of this portion of Iowa, expired at midnight, of October 11th, 1845. This period was impatiently awaited by those who were already here, for after that time each was at liberty to make a claim of three hundred and twenty acres, which could be held until Government brought the lands into market, and then purchased under such regulations as are now in force. Long before the expiration of the Indian title, the settlers around the Fort had made arrangements with each other, and the most valuable tracts were already considered claims. Some claims were even measured and staked off, but this was of no validity, and done only for convenience, or to facilitate such subsequent survey as was absolutely necessary to establish and identify it.

So eager were the settlers, who had previously remained only at the sufferance of the General Government, to have permanent homes near the Fort, that during the forepart of the night preceding October 11th, men were stationed in all directions around, with instructions to immediately begin the measurement of claims, as soon as midnight arrived.

Precisely at twelve o’clock, the loud report of a musket fired from the Agency House, announced that the empire of the red-man had ended here forever, and that of his master race begun. Answering reports rang sharply on the night-air,


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in quick succession, from every hill-top, and in every valley, till the signal was conveyed for miles around, and all understood that civilization had now commenced her reign in Central Iowa. The moon was slowly sinking in the west, and its beams afforded a feeble and uncertain light, for the measuring of claims, in which so many were engaged. Ere long the landscape was shrouded in darkness, save the wild and fitful glaring of torches, carried by the claim-makers. Before the night had entirely worn away, the rough surveys were finished, and the Indian lands had found new tenants. Throughout the country thousands of acres were laid off in claims before dawn. Settlers rushed in by hundreds, and the region lately so tranquil and silent, felt the impulse of the change, and became vocal with the sounds of industry and enterprise.

A reserve of a square mile around the Fort, was maintained so long as Fort Des Moines continued a military post. Part of the troops were removed in the autumn of 1845; the remainder continued until June, of the ensuing year. One hundred and sixty acres of this reserve, including all the buildings belonging to the Fort, were afterwards ceded by Congress to Polk county, and for several years these buildings furnished the county with various public offices.

The law organizing Polk county was passed by the legislature of Iowa, January 17th, 1846. Its boundaries were then as follows: Beginning at the north-east corner of township 81, north of range 22 west; thence west to the north-west corner of township 81, north of range 25 west; thence south to the south-west corner of township 77, north of range 25 west; thence east to the south-east corner of township 77, north of range 22 west; thence north to the place of beginning. Subsequent legislation, however, has robbed it of four Congressional townships, along its southern border, and annexed them to Warren county.

The Commissioners appointed to locate the county-seat,

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were Thomas Hughes, of Johnson, M. T. Williams, of Mahaska, and Giles M. Pinneo, of Scott county. Fort Des Moines being the most central and accessible point, presented advantages impossible to be overlooked, and was fixed upon the county seat.

The first election ever held in Polk county occurred on the first Monday in April, 1846. In Fort Des Moines the polls were opened in one of the dragoon houses, near what is now called the “Point.” There were three places of voting in the county: at Thomas Mitchell’s, in Camp Creek precinct; at J. D. Parmelee’s, near Allen’s mills; and at the Fort. The number of votes polled at each, was as follows:

Fort Des Moines, 70
Camp Creek, 42
Allen’s Mills, 63
Total, 175


The whole number of inhabitants at that time in Polk county, exclusive of the troops, was between two and three hundred.

The following county officers were chosen at this election:

County Surveyor—A. D. Jones.

    “      Recorder—Thomas McMullen.

    “      Treasurer—Wm. F. Ayres.

    “      Assessor—G. B. Clark

    “      Collector—Addison Michael.

           “      Commissioners—Benj. Saylor, Wm. H. Meacham and E. W. Fouts.

Probate Judge—John Saylor.

Sheriff—Thomas Mitchell.

Coroner—James Phillips.

Of Des Moines precinct, G. B. Clark, W. H. Meacham, and T. K. Brooks, were judges of election; J. T. Meldrum and Lewis Whitten, clerks.

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Polk county, at its organization, was included in the second Judicial District, of which the Hon. Joseph Williams was Judge. He presided at the first Court held in the county, which convened on the second of April, 1846. One of the log shanties of the garrison, near where the “Great Western” may now be seen, was appropriated as the temporary abode of Justice. Here Court was opened in due form, and with as much dignity as the unpropitious circumstances would allow. John B. Larsh, U. S. Marshal; Thomas Baker, District Attorney; and Perry L. Crossman, District Clerk, were present. It appearing that no grand jury had been summoned, the Court adjourned till the next day, when the Sheriff returned his venire, with the names of the following grand jurors, twenty-two* “good men and true.”

William Lamb, John B. Scott, Samuel Dilley, John Baird, George B. Warden, J. M. Thrift, Samuel Deford, Samuel Shafer, W. W. Clapp, Benjamin Saylor, Peter Newcomer, Newton Lamb, T. McMullen,  Jeremiah Church, Thaddeus Willman, A. Brannon, G. B. Clark, Wm. F. Ayres, J. D. Parmalee, James Davis, J. J. Meldrum, Thomas Leonard.

The grand jury being impanneled, sworn and charged, were given in custody to Lewis Whitten, bailiff, and went out as usual to consider on such matters and things as might perchance be brought to their notice. Happily crimes had been but few, and they found nothing demanding their attention, consequently they brought in no “true bills,” except for their fees. They soon returned to Court, were discharged, and the Court adjourned till the next term.

Jeremiah Church, one of the jury, says in his journal; they were an uncouth and barbarous looking set; that he felt constrained to apologize to the Judge for their rough appearance—but Mr. Church does not state whether his habiliments were altogether up to the dignity of a grand

*The court docket says twenty-three, but only twenty-two names are given. Perhaps by error of the clerk, one of them is omitted.

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juror or not. Judge Williams jocosely told him that men might have clean hearts under dirty shirts; and that in a new country every allowance was to be made for personal attire and appearance.

       Judge Williams, afterwards Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Iowa, possessed valuable and extensive legal acquirements, which his  long judicial career in this State has abundantly proven. He was, withal, an inveterate joker, and never so happy as when he had an opportunity to give his mirthful proclivities full exercise. Many stories illustrating his ready wit and appetite for fun, are related. The only person, however, who ever beat him with the tongue, was a woman, Mary Hays. The feminine Charon of the Des Moines rather checked his loquacity, when one day he attempted to play off one of his jokes upon her. The Judge was boarding on the east side of the river—ridges existed only in the imaginations of the most enterprising—and in attending Court he crossed to and fro in a skiff. Sometimes one, sometimes another ferried him over, but once there was no man at hand. Miss Hays, a young, and in all probability, a very good-looking lady, was washing near the river bank.

“Mary,” said the Judge, "how am I to get across this river?”

Why, in a skiff, I suppose,” Mary quietly replied.

“But there is no one to bring back the boat, and I am a very poor rower. Now, Mary, really, don’t you think you could take pity on a man in such a troublesome predicament, leave your interesting work and volunteer to row me over? I’ll pay you in any number of—kisses you ask, sweeter and heartier ones than you ever received in your life.”

“Certainly, I’ll take you over; but as to kisses, Mr. Judge, I don't want any thing of that sort, particularly from such an old scrub as you.”

"O, I suppose you have had rather a surfeit of that article lately. Has Jim _____”

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“Now, Judge, if you want to go across, just get in and sit still, and be still!"

Judge Williams waited until they had got fairly out in the current of the river. Mary plied the oars as if she had seen sea-service.



“Suppose I just turn this boat down stream, carry you off and marry you; would it not be a delightful plan. You would just suit me, and I would you. Certainly destiny always intended us for mates, and I suppose a little scheming would be excusable to gain such a lovely prize as you. Here we go now, down the river to New Orleans, or elsewhere.”

At this Mary’s provoked spirit fairly glittered in her eyes. With intensity of emphasis, she exclaimed:

"You carry me off! You marry me! I would not have such an old dried-up cracklin’. I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth, and a woman couldn’t get to heaven without a husband; and if you don't stop your nonsense and behave yourself, I’ll pitch you head first into the river, and you may make as long a voyage as you please, but one thing is certain, you don’t take me with you!”

The Judge, of course, stopped teasing her at this, laughing heartily at her Amazonian threats; and rumor does not say whether he paid his fare in exchange in Cupid’s bank or not.

In July the County Commissioners proceeded to lay off the town of Fort Des Moines in lots, and to make sale of them at public auction. From their books we make the following extract:

June 1st, 1846.

The Board of Commissioners met pursuant to adjournment. Present, W. H. Meacham and Benj. Saylor.

ORDERED, That A. D. Jones, County Surveyor, proceed as

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soon as practicable to lay off a town, at the site selected for the county seat of Polk county.

ORDERED, That a notice of a sale of lots in Fort Des Moines, on the 15th day of July, 1846, be published for three successive weeks, in the Iowa Capital Reporter, at Iowa City; the Burlington Hawkeye, and the Iowa Democrat, at Keosauqua, Iowa.

Terms of sale of town lots—One-sixth cash in hand, the balance in three equal instalments, one in six months, one in twelve months, the other in eighteen months.

W. H. Meacham, 

B. Saylor


The prices of lots at that time were somewhat below the present valuation. We give the terms at which several lots were sold, and their present prices, that the reader may judge of the advance in real property within ten years, although it must be borne in mind that the proportionate rise has been greater within the last two or three years than previously:

#Lot. #Block. Location. Orig. Price. Present Price.



Cor. Walnut & Court Av.


$5,000 00



Cor. Walnut and Third.


5, 000 00



Cor. Court Av. & P. Sq.


4, 500 00



Cor. Court and Second.


5, 000 00



Cor. Vine and Water.


4, 000 00



Sec., bet. Vine and Court.


5, 200 00



Cor. Sec. and Market sts.


4, 000 00


The first groceries opened in Fort Des Moines were kept by W. W. Clapp and Addison Michael, who were licensed by the County Commissioners for the term of three months. The cost of obtaining a license for that length of time was six dollars and twenty-five cents, or twenty-five dollars per annum. Addison Michael built, in 1847, the first frame house ever erected in the limits of the town. It may yet be seen, somewhat weather-worn, on the east side of Second street, just above Market.

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After the sale of lots buildings began to be rapidly erected, and the incipient town transferred itself from paper plats to an actual terraqueous existence. The dense growth of hazel-bushes which covered large portions of the town site was attacked on all sides, and soon disappeared. No finer position could have been selected for a town. The Des Moines, navigable to the “Fort” for a large portion of the season, here united with the Raccoon branch, a stream of considerable depth and volume, and on the peninsular plain formed by their junction, nature seemed to have provided special advantages for an accessible and healthy town. The heavy timber lands which skirted the rivers, and the immense supplies of coal and stone, in adjoining hills, which, though then not fully explored, were known to exist, designated it not only as the appropriate locality for the county seat, but inspired bright hopes of its future growth and importance, which the present has not failed to realize.

A Post Office was established at Fort Des Moines in 1846. Joseph Smart, the Indian Interpreter, was appointed Post Master, during the early part of that year, but he soon resigned, and Dr. T. K. Brooks took his place. The office was kept at the Agency House, at first. Afterwards it was removed to the Fur Company’s buildings, near the river, and about a mile south of the present town. It is related of the Hon. P. M. Cassady, who was one of the earliest Post Masters, that it was a common occurrence for him to bring up all the “mail” for the “Fort” in his hat, so little correspondence did the pioneers of this region have with the world they had left behind them. Mail facilities were then very limited and hazardous. Mails were generally transported on horseback, and this through an hundred miles of country almost uninhabited, and were subject to peril from storm and stream. As a matter of course delays and losses often occurred. They could not possibly be avoided. At the present time, although the facilities for transporting the mails are far greater, they have not reached the perfection of regularity.

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We now turn to the record of a more interesting event: the first duly solemnized marriage that ever occurred in the limits of Polk county, and perhaps in the Indian Purchase which includes it. On the 11th of June, 1846, Benjamin Bryant was married to Miss Elvira B. Burge. The ceremony was performed by Aaron D. Stark, Esq. It was also Esq. Stark’s first essay at performing the marriage rite, and he is said to have introduced some variations from the ordinary ritual. The parties married are still resident in Des Moines, and Esq. Bryant often boasts of the worthy example he set for others to follow.

The first sermon ever delivered in Des Moines was by Rev. Ezra Rathbun, a Methodist minister, on occasion of a funeral, in 1845. In the same year a Methodist Society was organized in Des Moines, by the Rev. Mr. Russel. Mr. Russel was then traveling in what was called Fort Des Moines Mission, including the whole of Polk, Madison, Warren, the north half of Marion, and the south half of Jasper, Boone, and Dallas counties. About the same territory is now embraced in the Des Moines District. The Society, when first organized, consisted of the following persons: Joseph Solenbarger, Sarah Solenbarger, Rev. Abner Rathbun, Betsy Rathbun, Sen., Rev. Ezra Rathbun, Jonathan Rathbun, Benjamin T. Hoxie, and Mr. Meachem and wife. Mr. Solenbarger was appointed class-leader.

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