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

Incorporation of Fort Des Moines—Committee to Draft Town Charter—Boundaries—Election of first Town Council—Great Flood of 1851—Specimens of Dogberrian Learning—Examples of new forms of pleading, made use of in the cause of Corkeram vs. Davis & Brownlee.

As early as 1850, Fort Des Moines became a place of especial interest on account of the probability of its being the future capital of the State. It was apparent that Iowa City would, in the course of a few years, lose this honor, and the State-house be removed nearer to the center of the State, and in this event Fort Des Moines was the only point likely to be selected.

On the 22d of September, 1851, the citizens of Fort Des Moines voted on the subject of incorporating it as a town. Only one vote was recorded in the negative. Hon. P. M. Cassady, Rev. Thompson Bird and L. P. Sherman, Esq., were elected to draft a town charter.

On Saturday, October 18th, the charter prepared by this committee was adopted by vote of the citizens. The boundaries of the town of Fort Des Moines were established as follows:

Beginning at the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, at the center of the channel thereof, thence up the channel of the Des Moines river, to the point where the half-mile line of section four, township seventy-eight, north, range twenty-four, west, according to the United States survey, crosses said river; thence west along said half-mile line to the north-west corner of the south-west quarter of said section; thence south along the section line, between sections four and five, and eight and nine, to the center of


OF DES MOINES.                                                    43

the Raccoon river; thence down the center of said river, to the place of beginning.

These boundaries were preserved until Fort Des Moines was incorporated as a city.

On the ensuing Monday, the following councilmen were chosen: Thompson Bird, M. T. Marvin, C. D. Reinking, L. P. Sherman, Reuben W. Sypher, Jesse S. Dicks, Hoyt Sherman, and P. M. Cassady. This council chose Thompson Bird, President.

In the latter part of May, 1851, the Des Moines, Raccoon, and all their tributaries, rose to an unprecedented height. The Des Moines was at one time twenty-two and a half feet above low-water mark. For three weeks it rained almost incessantly, pouring down from the clouds, as if the very windows of heaven were opened.

The Iowa Star of that date, says:

"Neither the memory of the oldest inhabitants along the banks of the Des Moines river, nor the memory of the natives, who resided here before it was settled by the whites, nor any traditionary accounts from the Indians, furnishes any evidence of such a flood having occurred here in all past time. The ’Coon and the Des Moines are higher by several feet than they were in the spring of 1849, which was the greatest rise of water ever known here up to that time."

The damage done to the farmers in the river bottoms was immense. Some were stripped utterly of their fences; fields under cultivation were washed into ruts by the violence of the water; all hope of a crop for one season being destroyed, not only by what was carried away, but by the debris which was left by the subsiding of the river. It was almost impossible to estimate the losses. Roads were rendered impassable—bridges swept away—the mails stopped, and traveling by land to any distance utterly vetoed. Houses were carried away, mills damaged, timber floated off, and all manner of mischief done by the flood.

44                                                         HISTORY

Owing to the peculiar means which had been adopted to drain Fort Des Moines, the water was led into the town instead of out of it. The water was conveyed from the lower portions of the town up Second street, and finally through a rising ground into the Des Moines, just below the floating bridge.

To prevent the town from being submerged entirely, the authorities were obliged to stop up this drain, and keep the water out! This kept the element in statu quo. The river could not deluge the streets, which was well enough, but the streets could not discharge the torrents received from the hills, which was not well enough. However, no part of the then town was overflowed. East Des Moines was under water, to the second bank or terrace, and boats passed in all directions over the bottom. In all this destruction of property, it is gratifying to state only one life was lost. Three men, John and Conrad Youngerman, and L. D. Karnes, were engaged with a skiff, in quest of saw-logs, a short distance below the town, when, by an unavoidable accident, the boat was over set, and Conrad Youngerman, was torn away by the swift waters and drowned. He was a member of the Order of Odd Fellows, and highly esteemed in the community. The rest of the party with difficulty escaped a like deplorable fate.

The men who dispensed justice in the inferior tribunals of Polk county, in its primitive days, were not always persons of the highest erudition, either in law or grammar—more particularly, however, did they manifest a want of knowledge of the latter, as the following extracts will show.

They are copied verbatim et literatim from the original docket, therefore no one can doubt their authenticity. It is to be regretted that type can give no idea of the chirography in which they were written.

addison Cave
V. S.

parry ware, in a ple of debt on a note of hand of five

OF DES MOINES.                                                    45

dollars and 17½ Cent. Summons Ishued on the 2 deCember 1847. Summons Returned on the 9 deCember 1847. the 9 day Set for trial and the defendent did not appear, there-fore Judgement is Rendered by default for five dollars and 17½ Cents and Cost of Sute this 9 deCember 1847.

_____ _____ J. P.   

deCember 1847
exeCution on the above Judgement the 24 was ishued. execution Returned on the 15 Januer and no property found whareon to levy.

 _____ _____ J. P.   

Mortain Monahan
V. S.

Adeson MiChel in a ple of debt on an open a Count of twelve dollars and fifty Cents. Summons Ishued on the 21 day of Febary 1849, and Returned on the 1 day of MarCh 1849 and the plantf appeared and the defendent did not appeare and the caus being fully heard and it appeared that the defendent haS been duley Surved with prosess tharefore Judgement is Rendered for the plentifF for twelve dollars and fifty cents and costs taxt at $1. 67£ this first of marCh A D 1849

_____ _____ J. P.   

State of iowa


Charles Myers in this caus the Defendent not put on his trial as it appeared that there would not be eney evidence against him.

       _____ _____ J. P.   

This last case involves a new feature in the law-practice, and as such it deserves particular notice from those who wish to be versed in legal lore.

We now propose to give something of a later date, showing the astonishing advances made in legal knowledge in a few years, and the jocular spirit of some of our lawyers. The history of the case we here insert is briefly this:

46                                                         HISTORY

William Oakes became indebted to various persons, in, small sums, as naturally happens in the course of business, and among others to  Reuben Davis and Wyatt Brownlee. Oakes went to Boone county to attend to a farm he had there, and while he was gone Davis brought suit against him by attachment, before Madison Young, Esq., and obtaining a judgment, an execution was issued, and Mr. Oates’ cow sold by the constable to satisfy the judgment. At this suit Mr. Brownlee was a witness. However, as it happened this cow was the only one Mr. Oakes had, consequently she was exempt from execution; and on his return he applied to Hon. Curtis Bates for counsel, who replevied the cow from the purchaser, Wm. D. Corkeram, and she was placed again in the possession of Oakes. Corkeram had paid sixteen dollars for her, which, of course, he did not wish to lose, and for want of better advice sued Davis and Brownlee (plaintiff and witness in the former suit), on the following bill:

February 21st, 1853.

Reuben Davis and Wyatt Brownlee,

To Wm. D. Corkeram, Dr.

To cash paid for a cow at constable’s sale,                     $16.00

 “  costs of suits before Wm. M’Clelland, Esq.*                   5.00

 “  keeping cow four weeks,                                           4.00

 “  expenses in prosecuting and defending suits,              15.00

Total,                                          $40.00

Davis and Brownlee were not, certainly, responsible because Mr. Corkeram chose to buy and keep a cow illegally seized and sold by the constable, but his attorney, Madison Young, Esq., thought  other-wise, and the parties met for trial.

To plaintiff’s petition, setting forth the grounds of his

*This was the suit in which the writ of replevin was decided against Corkeram, and Oakes obtained his cow. Davis and Brownlee were not parties.

OF DES MOINES.                                                    47

claim the defendants returned the following answers. The reader, if at all versed in law, will perceive they are quite a variation from Chitty, Gould, and all the established authors upon pleading. Mr. Young was for plaintiff; Bates and Jewett for defendants.


Wm. D. Corkeram


Reuben Davis and

Wyatt Brownlee.

Before W. M’Clelland, a Justice of the Peace within and for the township of

Des Moines, Polk county, and State of


        The separate answer of Reuben Davis to a petition filed against him in the above suit. And for answer to the charge in said plaintiff’s account or petition first specified, defendant says:   That the defendant never was a constable nor a deputy, nor did he ever officiate as one, nor did he ever directly or indirectly sell, bargain, or contract to sell, bargain or convey to said plaintiff any cow, bull, calf, steer or any other animal of that species, either as constable, deputy constable, sheriff, deputy sheriff, or in the character of any other officer, either judicial, ministerial or executive, or as a private person, for himself or anybody else, either as principal or agent.

And though said cow might have been sold,

And paid for in American gold;

Yet this defendant never did,

Either sell or take another’s bid.

And as to the second account in said plaintiff’s account or petition specified, this defendant for answer says: That he never was chosen either as plaintiff or defendant, in any suit at law or equity, which was tried before said Justice of the Peace, and if he ever was a party it was bald-faced meanness and transparent folly, not to inform him of it.

48                                                         HISTORY

And that a suit could e’er be tried,
And the parties never notified—

Is clearly wrong—and this Court sees,
That we are not liable for the fees.

And as to the third charge in plaintiff’s account or petition specified, defendant for answer says: That he never employed said plaintiff to keep a cow for him; that he paid him for all the keeping of cows he ever did for this defendant; and lastly, that this defendant never had any cow that plaintiff could have kept.

And why this defendant should be dunned
For keeping of cows he never owned,

Or which he never agreed to pay,

Is all submitted for the Court to say.

And as to the fourth and last charge in plaintiff’s account or petition specified, this defendant for answer says: That he never employed said plaintiff to either defend or prosecute a suit for this defendant; that the last time he did employ him, he managed it so badly that he was not entitled to any fees, and that this defendant has paid him all his services were worth.

And to charge this party with that load
Is not according to the “Code.”

And the only way we think to end it,
Is to render judgment for defendant.

J. E. Jewett, Att’y for Davis.

Brownlee’s answer.

William D. Corkeram


Reuben Davis and

Wyatt Brownlee.

Des Moines Township, Polk county,
Iowa, Feb. 26th, 1853.


OF DES MOINES.                                                    49

Now, as you see,

Comes the defendant, Brownlee,

And on his own hook defends—

Because he seriously contends,

That he is not indebted;

As by said Corkeram stated.


“Persons having adverse interests to plaintiff,

   May, as defendants, bejoined,” says the Code:

And to join those having unity
   Of interest, is the true mode.

But Brownlee doth most seriously declare,

That he never joined with Davis in any affair;

And why he is joined in the suit now pending,

Is far beyond his comprehending.

Plaintiff’s bill charges the defendants, sixteen dollars,

As cash, paid by him for a cow.

Which (as we gather from what follows),

He bought at a constable’s sale, somehow—

When she was offered as the property of the poor man Oakes,
And being his only cow, the sale turned out a hoax.


That Corkeram in good faith, to the constable
   His money paid, isn’t denied;

Nor that the money was to the payment
   Of Davis’ judgment applied.

But what of that? This defendant was but a witness,

   No party to the suit—

Though he fed, for a short time,

   The old, dumb brute.

But neither this,

   Nor the receipt of his fees,

Could make him jointly liable

                  With Davis; —if the Court please.margin-left: 1.0in; 50                                   HISTORY OF DES MOINES.

Nor is he liable to Corkeram,

   In any event;

He therefore for costs

And for judgment!

Wyatt Brownlee, by his Att’y, C. Bates.

We need only add to conclude this amusing affair, that judgment was rendered for defendants; that the "poorman Oakes” kept his cow; that Davis kept the money he received from the sale of her, by the constable; and that Corkeram lost his sixteen dollars, which he paid to the constable; his four dollars for four weeks’ cow-pasture; and his twenty dollars, alledged (sic) in his bill as expenses of sundry law-suits.

Davis and Oakes were the most highly gratified at the result, as one received payment of a just debt; the other, in satisfying the debt, found his property undiminished. To Cockeram, it is yet an inexplicable mystery, why, when he had paid Oakes’ debts, he could obtain no relief at law!

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