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History of Downsville

Entrance to Downsville Cemetery
Entrance to Downsville Cemetery

Perhaps the most important aspect of Mormon Winter Quarters settlements was the centrality of tough families with an enduring presence. Many settlements began as simple family camps intended to provide for their members for a temporary period. Other settlements were founded entirely as a means of gathering family members in one place, as was the case in Studyville/Plum Hollow of Fremont County. Ideological or religious differences were naturally a part of some of these settlements, but the dominant factors driving family settlements were probably grounded more in familial relationships and ties of blood. Family was of primary importance to Mormon pioneers and to American frontier society in general. Almost all Mormon settlements in Iowa between 1846 and 1853 include in their histories the tragedies and triumphs of families facing difficult circumstances. Though some of these stories have certainly been lost, it behooves historians of the Winter Quarters era to pay attention to the voices of the past that have survived. Family experiences and changes had an incredible impact on the settlement of southwestern Iowa.

In the case of Downsville, the difficulties faced by the Downs family divided them. This division in the community’s leading family sapped the energy of young settlement and eventually contributed to the disintegration of Downsville. The troubled early family history of Downsville played an important role among other factors leading to its eventual fate. Moreover, the example of Downsville provides an important look at the centrality new Mormon settlements placed on strong founding families.


Downsville was located northeast of Council Bluffs along Mosquito Creek. The site today is located in Norwalk Township of Pottawattamie County. Sections 29, 30, 31, and 32 contained the whole of the settlement. The Downsville Cemetery, the only surviving evidence of the community, can be found northeast of Council Bluffs just off of I-80 on Juniper road. The town nearest to Downsville is Underwood, Iowa. Underwood was built in 1869 to accommodate railroads which had bypassed Downsville.

Between 1845 and 1850, various settlers began building on what today is the southwest corner of Norwalk Township. In 1847 Ezekiel Downs and A. Smith built a flouring mill and saw mill along Mosquito Creek about ten miles northeast of Council Bluffs. This is the first record of any permanent residence or land improvements in the area. The mill was a boon to growth, attracting incoming Mormon settlers as a means of refining wheat so that it might be sold as grain in Council Bluffs. Soon there were many Mormon and non-Mormon settlers concentrated around a village they called Downsville.

The flour mill built by Ezekiel Downs and A. Smith was destroyed by high water and flooding in 1852. Though the saw mill survived, Ezekiel and his son Asa, who had bought Mr. A. Smith’s rights to the mills, sold to William Garner. Garner operated the saw mill for years afterwards, but never rebuilt the flouring mill. Downsville was without its central economic advantage until much later when a new flouring mill was built by Joseph Subuary and James Golden. Moreover, as the Mormon settlers moved away from Downsville and continued their trek to the Salt Lake Valley, fewer and fewer permanent settlers took their place. Downsville experienced a sharp drop in population after the Mormon exodus. The loss of the mills only worsened the future prospects of the small settlement.

Nevertheless, in 1863 a schoolhouse was built on Section 32 near the saw mill. Taught by Miss Jane Davis, the school helped retain some of Downsville’s citizens for another two decades. Downsville’s proximity to Council Bluffs also prompted the construction of a post office. These improvements, however, could not outweigh the business plans of railroad companies seeking a route to Council Bluffs. In 1882, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company entered a contract to build a station in Section 16 of Norwalk Township, 2.5 miles northeast of Downsville. The contract was engineered by a Mr. Fischer and a Mr. Graybill who owned the land on Section 16. They persuaded the railroad company to bypass Downsville in favor of using the station to help found a new settlement called Underwood. Mr. Fischer and Mr. Graybill of course made a nice profit dividing their land plots for sale to farmers eager to be close to railroad access. Unfortunately their decision consigned Downsville to anonymity despite its mills, school and post office. These improvements remained, of course, but as the population center of Norwalk Township shifted to Underwood the attraction of Downsville declined. Today only the Downsville Cemetery marks the site of Norwalk Township’s earliest settlement.

Family Difficulty

Ezekiel Downs and his family are usually credited with the majority of settlement at Downsville. The Downs were the first Mormon family to build a permanent residence in the area. Ezekiel and his wife Charlotte originally came into contact with Church members in 1838, when the Mormons were exiled from Missouri. Many destitute families moved to nearby Quincy, Illinois seeking aid and support. Ezekiel Downs and his family took pity on five families that came to their farm. Between 1840 and 1844, the Downs were baptized into the Church and had moved to Knowlton’s Settlement twelve miles south of Nauvoo, Illinois. After the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. at Carthage Jail, Ezekiel exclaimed to his family, “Well this is the last, my best friend is gone, surely there is nothing to this after all. I am through.” He later dreamed of seeing Joseph Smith, Jr. at the top of a hill beckoning to him. Ezekiel followed until he was exhausted. The dream ended as soon as he stopped following the Prophet. His son, James Downs, also had a dream containing a vision of the Saints crossing the Mississippi, mob violence in Nauvoo, and their stopping at a great body of water to raise crops and give thanks. The contrast between Ezekiel’s dream and that of his son foreshadowed what would befall the family in Iowa.

The Downs family moved across Iowa to the Missouri River in 1846, travelling with the main body of Saints led by Brigham Young. They reached Council Bluffs in June of the same year. James was apparently persuaded to join the Mormon Battalion. His mother, however, had become ill and was afraid of never seeing her son again if he left with the army. James remained to care for his mother and family. But instead of following Brigham Young to the Salt Lake, they moved away from Council Bluffs. It was at this point that Ezekiel Downs and A. Smith built the mills on Mosquito Creek.

During the trek to the Missouri River Ezekiel Downs grew displeased with the leadership of Brigham Young. Moving his family away from Winter Quarters and Council Bluffs was essentially his vote of no confidence in Young’s leadership. He later defied outright the leadership of the Church by marrying Frances F. Graham. A Frontier Guardian notice dates the marriage to June 15, 1851. The newspaper’s notice also adds that Ezekiel Downs was excommunicated from the Church “for banishing his wife from him, and for bearing false testimony to obtain a marriage license between himself and another woman.” The specifics of the turmoil in the Downs family are unknown, but it eventually caused a separation. Ezekiel remained in Iowa with his youngest son, Sidney, and Charlotte left with the rest of the family for the Salt Lake Valley. Another son, Asa Downs, eventually returned to Iowa and settled near his father. Ezekiel passed away on January 20, 1860.
Family and Settlement

The fracturing of the Downs family had an important impact on the survival of Downsville. The family’s difficulties ruptured strong ties outside of the small community and perhaps socially isolated the small community. Ezekiel Downs’s disassociation with the Church and its members may have separated them from possible business contacts and land improvement enterprises. As a result, land improvements, including new mills, were built elsewhere, attracting incoming settlers to other places. Downsville slowly lost favor as a place to grind wheat as newer mills closer to Council Bluffs were built. This explains why William Garner repaired the saw mill on Mosquito Creek after 1852 but never re-built the Downs flour mill. Nearby settlers could bring their crops to closer flour mills, thus Downs Mill became unnecessary.

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