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

Establishment of U. S. Land Office at Fort Des Moines—Incident at Land-Sales—Incorporation of Fort Des Moines—Efforts to make it the Capital of Iowa—Their Success—Erection of Capital Building—Incorporation of the City of Des Moines—Its Boundaries—Kidnapping scheme of Meacham—War at Fort Dodge and consequent excitement at Des Moines.

A United States Land Office was established at Fort Des Moines in 1852. At the first land-sales the usual difficulties occurred about claims, and those possessing them had taken the precaution, which experience had taught was highly necessary, to organize themselves together, and uphold and defend each other in their rights, if they should be assailed. One man, by the name of Bates, had repeatedly made his boasts that no clique or clan should deter him from buying whatever land he chose. He had some money, he said, and as far as it would go, he meant to invest it in claims, just to teach the settlers that their combinations could not scare everybody from doing what was allowed by law. Language failed to express his utter contempt of claims, and claim-holders deserving special protection and regard. Government offered the land to the highest bidder; he should buy, therefore, where and at what price he pleased.

Such intentions met with such success as they deserved. As soon as the sales were commenced, (in front of where Sherman’s Block now stands,) and a crowd had collected around the Land Office, and just as Mr. Bates was on the qui vive to bid off the claim of some honest settler, a party of men gathered around him, and partly by forcing him to walk and partly by carrying him upon two rails, conveyed


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him down to the “Point,” near the steamboat landing, where they kept him a prisoner the entire day, merely by standing around him, so that he could not get away; and only finally released him on his solemn pledge never to interfere between rightful settlers and their claims. On making this promise he was set at liberty. Thus, without bloodshed, or even violence, but by a mere piece of pleasantry, his selfish plans were utterly thwarted, and protection guaranteed to the proper claimants.

       In 1853 Fort Des Moines was incorporated by act of the Legislature. It had increased since 1851 in wealth, inhabitants, and commercial importance, to such a degree that it was deemed highly essential that its municipal regulations should be based upon a special and not a general law.

Great hopes were all this time entertained that Fort Des Moines would finally become the capital of Iowa. For this those of its citizens most interested in the advancement of the town continually labored. The views of the people of the whole State, except those on or near the Mississippi river, were strongly in favor of the proposed change, Accordingly, in 1854, a bill was introduced and passed the State Legislature locating the capital at Fort Des Moines. This bill was strongly opposed by the members from the eastern portion of the State, but notwithstanding their efforts it became a law.

It provided, however, for permitting the capital to remain two years longer at Iowa City, this proviso giving the representatives from the eastern portion of the State, and particularly from Johnson county, whose constituents were very desirous of allowing the capital to remain where it had first been located, the forlorn and vain hope of repealing at the next session a law which, however just and appropriate, was slightly contrary to their interests.

At the session of 1856, two years after, members from Johnson, and other counties opposed to the removal of the capital, arrayed their numbers and vigilantly watched for a

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favorable opportunity to introduce a bill annulling all previous legislation on the subject. No auspicious moment came, and the session wore away without any changes being made or openly attempted. From that time the vexed “capital question” which had caused so much uneasiness, excitement, and debate, was considered immutably settled.

       However, a subsequent feeble attempt was made, in the late Constitutional Convention, to submit the question to popular vote, outside of the Constitution, but was speedily defeated and abandoned.

In the meantime the citizens of Des Moines were not idle. A beautiful and commanding site, on the east side of the river, was selected for the capital building, and an edifice costing some $65,000 erected, and, with an adjoining tract of ground, donated to the State. This was accomplished through an association of wealthy citizens of Fort Des Moines, who combined together in the expensive work. A particular description of the capital building is given in a subsequent portion of this book, and needs no further remark here than that it is an edifice worthy of the good taste and liberality of the citizens of Des Moines, and well adapted to its intended use. J. B. Stewart, W. A. Williamson, Jonathan Lyon, and various others of our most energetic citizens, were foremost in the project.

Some contention arose between the property holders on the west and those on the east side of the Des Moines river, in respect to the location of the capitol, the residents of each portion of the town being clamorous in their demands, and for a while it appeared probable that nothing less than two capitols, one on the east and the other on the west side of the river, would calm the excited property holders. But when the east side gained the much coveted prize and the subject was conclusively settled, it was gratifying, if not amusing, to hear the residents west of the river exclaim: “Well, we never wanted it, and never tried to get it on our side.”

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On the 3d of February, Fort Des Moines was incorporated by the Legislature, as a city. Its name was changed to the more euphonious one of Des Moines. Its boundaries were much enlarged, and now embrace the following limits: Beginning at the north-east corner of section two, (2,) township seventy-eight, (78,) range twenty-four, (24,) west fifth P. M., Iowa; thence west to the north-west corner of section five, (5.) township and range aforesaid; thence south to the south-west corner of section eight, (8,) in said township; thence east to the south-east corner of section eleven, (11,) in said township, thence north to the place of beginning.

In the winter of 1856-7 an incident occurred which proves that the spirit of insubordination to the law, once so prevalent here, is not yet wholly extinct. A most horrible murder had been committed in Powsheik (sic) county, and some individuals living in the southern part of Polk county were suspected of being accessory, if not principals, to the murder. A heavy reward having been offered for the apprehension of the real murderers, every one upon whom the faintest shadow of suspicion rested was vigilantly watched and every circumstance betraying the guilty parties carefully noted.

At length Mr. W. H. Meacham, of this city, whose name in days of yore, was a spell of terror to the horse-thieves of this region, and who has grown old, and even distinguished in the profession, if such it be, of capturing felons, determined upon their arrest. Accompanied by several other persons, he made a descent upon the suspected parties, and by dint of curses, threats, and brandishing of deadly weapons, succeeded in capturing a man by the name of Van Schoick, whom he fastened with a chain and forcibly took to Poweshiek county. Mr. Meacham was not an officer commissioned to make arrests, nor had he any warrant or other authority to justify him in his inexcusable course. He acted wholly on his own responsibility. In

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Poweshiek county Van Schoick was pronounced not to be the man whom circumstances had identified as the murderer. Mr. Meacham had therefore kidnapped an innocent man, and after he had been detained in illegal custody for nearly a week he was released and told to get home as he best could, which was certainly very consoling.

But other evidence, or at least what was suppposed (sic) to be evidence, having been obtained, again this bevy of men, who were officers ad libitum, burst upon the unexpecting settlers, this time capturing Van Schoick once more, together with his father-in-law, Mr. Ridgway, and barely allowing them time to get their coats, they were put into a sleigh, threatened with death if they attempted to resist or escape, and borne away towards Montezuma. But from the intense cold, and the difficulty of reaching Montezuma on account of the state of the roads, after reaching Jasper county Mr. Meacham brought his prisoners to Des Moines, where he surrendered them into the hands of the Sheriff, and filed an information against them for murder. A trial followed, but the proof against them was of the most trifling nature and they were speedily and honorably acquitted.

Fear of falling again into the hands of the merciless Meacham induced Ridgway and Van Schoick to commence an action against their late illegal custodian for kidnapping, but it appearing to the Court that Mr. Meacham was a monomaniac on the subject of taking horse-thieves, and various other felonious characters, he was on this and similar facts acquitted.

From this time nothing of interest transpired until the siege of Fort Dodge, by the Sioux Indians. Many horrible outrages had been committed by roving bands of Indians, in the neighborhood of Spirit Lake, in the north of Iowa, and the heart-rending accounts of the massacres there had but just reached this city in an authentic form. While the stories of their barbarity were yet sounding upon every tongue, and commiseration for the miserable captives was

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yet delineated upon every face, a messenger arrived, post haste, from Fort Dodge, bringing the alarming news that the Indians were approaching that place in force, and desiring a supply of powder to be forwarded to them immediately. Before the ammunition could be dispatched intelligence arrived that a large body of Indians, some two thousand in number, had completely surrounded Fort Dodge; that they had plundered the adjacent country, and were preparing for an immediate assault upon that place, and if help was not immediately rendered not an inhabitant of that town would escape the tomahawk or the scalping knife. Many doubted the truth of this last report, as it was not official, but every hour kept bringing proof after proof, till none but the most incredulous and unreasonable could deny that Fort Dodge was in danger. Settlers from the north, in utter consternation, gathered their families and a few most valuable articles together in a wagon, and fleeing for their lives, poured into Des Moines, and, as if doubtful of being safe even here, hurried on southward.

The pulse of Des Moines beat feverishly with excitement, and war seemed at her very doors. A few days might see the savages, reeking with blood and waving the gory scalps of the massacred inhabitants of Fort Dodge, ranging around the outskirts of Des Moines, and roaring their horrid and appaling (sic) war-whoop in the ears of our own valorous citizens. Or if this by no means improbable event did not occur, were not the suffering citizens of a sister village, anxiously turning their despairing eyes towards Des Moines for succor, and should they look in vain? Should the dauntless and adventurous spirit that burned strongly in the breasts of the people of Des Moines see their neighbors wantonly robbed, made captive, and murdered, with arms impassively folded instead, which should grasp the sword or point the rifle? Should the redskins longer pursue their accursed devastations with impunity? No! God forbid.

So thought all our most patriotic citizens. So thought

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the worthy Mayor, and he began measures with commendable energy. A meeting was held at the Court House, the extremities of Fort Dodge detailed, the number of the invading savages stated, and the necessity, the extreme necessity, of immediate and vigorous action enjoined. Volunteers for the relief of Fort Dodge were called for, and a corps of men, ready to do and dare any and everything, speedily enlisted. Preceded by a drum and fife, and gathering accessions at every step, they marched up and down the town, halting now and then to listen to an inspiring speech or some scrap of intelligence, just arrived, which rendered the case still more urgent, and left no possible foundation for an unpardonable doubt.

       Noon at length arrived, and the new recruits, nearly a hundred in number, were ordered home to dinner, with instructions to assemble early in the afternoon, for the election of their officers.

But all this while there were some who, in spite of all the accumulated evidence that could be offered, in the face of universal enthusiasm, and in the presence of impetuous and heroic chivalry, doubted not only the danger of Fort Dodge, but the existence of a hostile Indian in the State. Such doubting characters always exist. They have always been ready to doubt anything uncommon. Such doubters Columbus, Galileo, Faust, Fulton and Morse, had to combat. But they triumphed over these unbelieving wiseacres and won for themselves immortal renown; and so, thought the heroic sons of Des Moines, will we rise superior to the scoffs and sneers of these impassive, unsympathizing (sic) clods. Acting from generous and noble impulses, they undoubtedly thought,

“Grasp the shield, and draw the sword,

Lead us to this Indian horde,

   Let us conquer them or die.”

Returning in the afternoon, they were divided into three companies, and proceeded to elect their officers. W. H.

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McHenry, mayor of Des Moines, was chosen captain of one, which was composed of those who were willing to march to the scene of slaughter, on foot. The reorganized Des Moines Guards, who made preparations to serve as cavalry, constituted a second. These were both enlisted mainly from the west side of the river. On the east side a third company was formed, and in all, the volunteers numbered one hundred and fifty men.

       In order to learn more definitely the extent of the danger three scouts, Messrs. Scott, Polk and Thomas, were sent out, and in the mean time the various companies made every preparation to be ready to march to the scene of action on their return. Arms, of a miscellaneous description, ammunition, baggage, horses, wagons, tents, and all the paraphernalia of glorious war, were collected. An elegant stand of colors, painted by W. R. Wheeler, was presented by him to the Des Moines Guards, who vowed to carry it into the thickest strife of battle, defend it with their lives, and return with it decked with the insignia of victory, torn with battle-marks, and soiled only with the life-blood of the marauding savages.

But the enthusiasm and excitement had reached its hight (sic) and was already declining. Counter reports began to be whispered around, and the ranks of the doubters received rapid accessions. First it was promulgated that the people of Fort Dodge were amply competent to defend themselves against any danger that should assail them; next that the savages there assembled were but a mere handful; and lastly, that it had never been attacked by Indians at all, or by any hostile force, and that the alarm from beginning to end was totally unfounded. As these rumors were circulated, their effect was speedily observed. Ardor cooled, chivalry evaporated, hopes of distinction on the battle-field trembled at first, then fled; and “all the pomp and circumstance of war” was speedily dispelled. Ere the next morning, it was authentically known, that the news first re-

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ceived was wholly untrue, and proceeded solely from the excited imaginations of a few frightened settlers in the north. Thereupon the volunteers were disbanded and the sounds of peaceful industry, for one day suspended, were again resumed.

       But the promptness and energy with which Des Moines responded to the fictitious news, and the ample preparations her citizens made to fly to the relief of a beleaguered town, eighty miles distant, abundantly prove the courageous soul and sympathizing heart which must ever animate her. What though from the circumstances of the case no drain was made upon her treasury, no martial service desired from her citizens, no sacrifice of life demanded on the battle-field? All these would have been cheerfully, enthusiastically rendered, if need had been, and will again be offered when the safety of the frontier is threatened by a savage foe. “Better be ready too soon than too late” is her motto, and for its adoption she deserves honor.

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