Winnebago County, IA
USGenWeb Project






Before proceeding to notice the manner in which Winnebago County was organized, let us consider briefly some of the events preceding its organization.  When President Jefferson, on March 1, 1804, approved the act of Congress providing for the exercise of sovereignty over Louisiana, the territory now comprising the County of Winnebago came for the first time under the jurisdiction of the United States.  That act provided that from and after October 1, 1804, all that part of the Province of Louisiana lying south of the thirty-first parallel of north latitude should be known as the Territory of Orleans, and the portion north of that parallel as the District of Louisiana.  In the latter was included the present State of Iowa.  The District of Louisiana was placed under the jurisdiction of the Territory of Indiana, of which Gen. William H. Harrison was then governor.

On July 4, 1805, the District of Louisiana was organized as a separate territory and given a government of its own.  When the Territory of Orleans was admitted into the Union in 1812 as the State of Louisiana, the name of the northern district was changed to the Territory of Missouri.  In 1821 Missouri was admitted into the Union with its present boundaries, and all north of that state was left without any form of civil government whatever.  No one seems to have given the matter any thought at the time, probably for the reason that the only white people in that region were a few wandering hunters and trappers, or the agents of the different fur companies, all of whom were more interested in the profits of their occupations than they were in establishing permanent settlements and paying taxes to support a government.

On June 28, 1834, President Jackson approved an act of Congress attaching the present State of Iowa to the Territory of Michigan, which then included all the country from Lake Huron westward to the Missouri River.  By this act Iowa came under the jurisdiction of Michigan and the legislature of that territory divided Iowa into two counties, as stated in the preceding chapter.

Iowa continued as a part of Michigan for less than two years.  On April 20, 1836, President Jackson approved the act creating the Territory of Wisconsin, to take effect on July 4, 1836.  Gen. Henry Dodge was appointed governor of the new territory, which embraced the present State of Wisconsin and all the territory west of the Mississippi River formerly included in or attached to Michigan.  Pursuant to Governor Dodge's proclamation, the first election ever held on Iowa soil was held on October 3, 1836, for members of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature.


A census of Wisconsin, taken in 1836, showed that there were then 10,531 white people living in what is now the State of Iowa.  During the twelve months following the taking of that census there was a rapid increase in the population, and early in the fall of 1837 the question of dividing the territory and establishing a new one west of the Mississippi became a subject of engrossing interest to the people living west of the great river.  The sentiment in favor of a new territory found definite expression in a convention held at Burlington on November 3, 1837, which adopted a memorial to Congress asking for the erection of a new territory west of the Mississippi.  In response to this expression of the popular sentiment, Congress passed an act dividing Wisconsin and establishing the Territory of Iowa.  The act was approved by President Van Buren on June 12, 1838, and it became effective on the 3d of July following.  The boundaries of Iowa as fixed by the act included “All that part of the Territory of Wisconsin which lies west of the Mississippi River and west of a line drawn due north from the headwater or sources of the Mississippi to the northern boundary of the territory of the United States.”

President Van Buren appointed Robert Lucas, of Ohio, as the first territorial governor of Iowa; William B. Conway, of Pennsylvania, secretary; Charles Mason, of Burlington, chief justice; Thomas S. Wilson, of Dubuque, and Joseph Williams, of Pennsylvania, associate justices; Isaac Van Allen, of New York, district attorney; Francis Gehon, of Dubuque, United States marshal.  The white people living west of the Mississippi now had a government of their own, though by far the greater part of the new territory was still in the hands of the Indians.


On February 12, 1844, more than thirteen years before Winnebago County was organized, the Iowa Legislature, acting under the authority of and with the consent of the Federal Government, passed an act providing for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention.  The convention met at Iowa City on October 7, 1844, and finished its work on the first day of November.  The constitution framed by this convention was rejected by the people at an election held on August 4, 1845, by a vote of 7,656 to 7,235.

A second constitutional convention assembled at Iowa City on May 4, 1846, and remained in session for two weeks.  The constitution adopted by this convention was submitted to the voters of the territory at the general election on August 3, 1846, and was ratified by a vote of 9,492 to 9,036.  It was also approved by Congress and on December 28, 1846, President Polk affixed his signature to the bill admitting Iowa into the Union as a state.  At that time all the northwestern part of the state was unorganized territory, or was included in the old County of Fayette, which had been established by the Territorial Legislature of Wisconsin in December, 1837.  Fayette was probably the largest county ever established in the United States.  It extended from the Mississippi River west to the White Earth River and north to the British Possessions, embracing all the present State of Minnesota, Northwestern Iowa and all of North and South Dakota east of the White Earth and Missouri rivers, with a total area of 140,000 square miles.  Winnebago County was included in the County of Fayette.


On January 15, 1851, Gov. Stephen Hempstead approved an act of the Iowa Legislature creating fifty new counties out of the unorganized territory in the western portion of the state.  One section of that act provided:

“That the following shall be the boundaries of a new county to be called Winnebago, to wit:  Beginning at the southeast corner of township 98 north, range 23, west; thence north on the line dividing ranges 22 and 23 to the north boundary line of the state; thence west on said boundary line to the northwest corner of section 7, township 100 north, range 26 west: thence south on the line dividing ranges 26 and 27 to the southwest corner of township 98 north, range 26 west; thence east to the place of beginning.”

The boundaries as thus defined are identical with the county boundaries at the present time.  In the winter of 1856-57 Alexander Long was commissioned by the settlers of the county to go to Iowa City and use his influence with the General Assembly to have the north tier of townships in Hancock County attached to Winnebago.  In company with a young man named George Meyers, he started on December 2, 1856, with a two-horse team and sleigh for Iowa City.  That afternoon they encountered a blizzard, lost their way and were both frozen to death near ''Upper Grove," Hancock County.  The horses were also frozen.  The bodies of Long and Meyers were not found until the following April, when they were taken to Mason City for burial.  Another effort was made in the fall of 1863 to annex part of Hancock County to Winnebago, but it came to naught and the original boundaries still remain.

None of the counties created by the act of 1851 was organized for some time afterward.  Scattered over the vast territory was a solitary settler here and there, but in none of the counties was the population sufficient to justify a county organization.  For judicial and election purposes the new counties were attached to some of the older and regularly organized ones, Winnebago being attached to the County of Polk.  By the act of January 22, 1853, it was attached to Boone, where it remained until July 1, 1855, when it was attached to Webster.  Meantime a tide of immigration was pouring into Iowa and as early as January 12, 1853, Governor Hempstead approved an act for the organization of counties, which act contained the following provisions:

“Whenever the citizens of any unorganized county desire to have the same organized, they may make application by petition in writing, signed by a majority of the legal voters of said county, to the county judge of the county to which such unorganized county is attached, whereupon the said county judge shall order an election for county officers in such unorganized county.

“A majority of the citizens of any county, after becoming so organized, may petition the district judge in whose judicial district the same is situated, during the vacation of the General Assembly, whose duty it shall be to appoint three commissioners from three different adjoining counties, who shall proceed to locate the county seat for such county, according to the provisions of this act,” etc.

Pursuant to the above provisions, the voters of Winnebago County presented a petition to the county judge of Webster County in the fall of 1857, and that official issued the order for an election of county officers.  The date of the election is lost, but it is known that Robert Clark was elected county judge; Charles H. Day, treasurer and recorder; B. F. Denslow, clerk of the courts; John S. Blowers, sheriff; C. W. Scott, surveyor and superintendent of schools; Darius Bray, drainage commissioner.

The next step was to locate the county seat.  Application was accordingly made to Judge Asahel W. Hubbard, judge of the Fourth Judicial District, in which Winnebago County was at that time located, to appoint commissioners for that purpose.  He appointed T. E. Brown, of Polk County; Dr. William Church, of Webster County; and Dr. William Farmer, of Boone County.  These gentlemen visited Winnebago in the summer of 1858, and after looking at the proposed sites for a county seat, reported in favor of the east half of the northeast quarter of section 35, township 98, range 24, where in March, 1856, Robert Clark laid out the town of Forest City.”


Winnebago County was now organized, had a full set of county officers and a seat of justice, but the officers had no place to transact business.  Temporary quarters were found in a small building and a petition was circulated asking the county judge to take the necessary steps to erect a court-house to cost $20,000.  The petition was signed by every legal voter in the county, except one, and armed with this authority Judge Clark entered into a contract with Martin Bumgardner to erect the court-house.  Bonds to the amount of $20,000 were issued and Judge Clark, accompanied by M . Bumgardner, went to New York, where the bonds were sold.  Mr. Bumgardner brought back a stock of goods and opened a store, postponing the erection of the court-house “to a more convenient season.”  After a delay of some time the authorities notified him that the court-house must be built at once.  Plans were selected and Mr. Bumgardner began work on the foundation.  Then came a change.  The office of county judge was abolished by act of the Legislature and a board of supervisors established in its place.

The first board of supervisors in Winnebago was composed of E. D. Stockton, A. K. Curtis and John Anderson.  Mr. Curtis was clerk of the courts and member of the board ex-officio.  The new board decided that $20,000 was too much for the county to pay for a courthouse and passed a resolution to annul the bonds issued by Judge Clark.  Mr. Bumgardner was also enjoined from the further prosecution of the work.  The action of the board involved the county in a lawsuit and the courts finally decided that Judge Clark's action in issuing and selling the bonds was legal, and that the county was liable for their redemption.

After some delay, Mr. Bumgardner went to work on a smaller and less costly court-house, which in due time was completed.  By what authority this building was erected is not certain.  When it was finished, Mr. Bumgardner demanded his pay and appointed W. C. Stanberry, of Mason City, as his agent to settle with the supervisors.  The records of the meeting of November 3, 1863, contain a copy of the following


“I have this day sold to Winnebago County, Iowa, the brick court-house erected by Martin Bumgardner on the public square in Forest City, Iowa.

“'Also—a certain contract entered into, by and between Robert Clark, county judge, and Martin Bumgardner, wherein the said Bumgardner, for the sum of $20,000, agreed to build a court-house in said Forest City on or before the 9th day of June, 1864, said contract having been by said Robert Clark, county judge, extended to the 9th day of June, 1869.  Therefore the court-house still remaining unbuilt [sic] and the money unpaid, I agree to relinquish all claim or claims upon said contract and the same to be entirely null and void.

"Also—The forced contract by which the first named court-house was built.

"Also—The sum of $4,800 in bonds and coupons and interest thereon, which the said Stanberry relinquishes to said Winnebago county.  The said W. C. Stanberry, for himself, the firm of Card & Stanberry, of which he is a member, and for Martin Bumgardner, doth covenant that he is the owner in fee simple of all the property named and that he has a good right and lawful authority to sell the same, and does by these presents sell the same to the County of Winnebago, Iowa.
“W. C. Stanberry.”

“We, the undersigned, supervisors of Winnebago County, State of Iowa, accept the above proposition of W. C. Stanberry, and order the clerk to issue county warrants to the said Stanberry, when the said Stanberry complies with the above proposition, to the amount of $3,500; two thousand dollars of which is in full payment for the above described court-house and fifteen hundred dollars of which is in full payment for the bonds and coupon bonds and contract as therein set forth.

"Witness our hands this 3d day of November, 1863.

“Charles D. Smith, Chairman.
“William Lackore,
“B. F. Wellman.”

Thus after several years of litigation, in which some ill feeling was engendered, Winnebago County became the possessor of a court-house sufficient for the county's needs. The building erected by Martin Bumgardner was two stories in height, with rooms for the county offices on the first floor and court and jury rooms on the second.  A frame addition was built in 1877, and with this improvement the court-house served the county until the erection of the


On June 17, 1896, the board of supervisors took up the consideration of a petition to remove the county seat to Lake Mills.  The petition had been generally circulated over the county, and at the time it was presented to the board it bore the signatures of 1,154 legal voters.  Those opposed to the removal of the county seat had been busily engaged in getting up a remonstrance, which was presented to the board on the same day and was found to have been signed by 1,645 legal voters.  In addition to this remonstrance, certain citizens of Forest City came forward with the following proposition:

“To the honorable board of supervisors of Winnebago County, Iowa:  You are hereby formally notified that a fund has been subscribed to be used in the erection of a courthouse in Forest City, Iowa, provided the county seat is not removed from said Forest City, and that a written guarantee of such fund to the amount of $20,000 is now on file in the office of the auditor of said county.  The fund so guaranteed is hereby formally tendered to Winnebago County, Iowa, subject only to the condition contained in the said subscription and guaranty.”

The census of 1895 showed that there were 2,346 voters in the county.  As the petition to submit the question of removing the county seat to the voters at the next general election was signed by less than one-half, and the remonstrance was signed by a majority of the legal voters of the county, the board of supervisors took the following action:

“Whereas, a fund has been subscribed to be used in the erection of a new courthouse in Forest City, Iowa, provided the county seat of Winnebago County be not removed from Forest City, and “Whereas, a written guarantee of such fund to the amount of $20,000 is now on file in the office of the county auditor of said county, which said guarantee is good and sufficient, and “Whereas, a formal written notification of the above facts was filed in the office of the citizens' committee of Forest City on the 8th day of June, 1896, therefore be it

"Resolved, that such fund so guaranteed be, and the same is hereby formally accepted by the board of supervisors in behalf of Winnebago County, Iowa, in accordance with the conditions thereof, and be it further

“Resolved, that this board proceed to take the necessary steps to cause such courthouse to be erected as soon as possible.”

The next day (June 18, 1896) a public meeting was held at the office of the county auditor at 3:30 P. M.  Michael Evenson, one of the supervisors, called the meeting to order and stated the action taken by the board the day before.  He also stated that the meeting had been called for the purpose of appointing, or selecting, a committee of citizens to act in an advisory capacity with the board of supervisors in the erection of a new courthouse.  After some general discussion of the matter, the following were selected as members of the committee: Gilbert S. Gilbertson, Thomas Jacobs and Eugene Secor, of Forest City; N. I. Nelson, Lake Mills; L. M. Staba, Buffalo Center; James Ellickson, Thompson; M. O. Skuttle, Norman; and Charles Isaacs, Leland.

On June 30, 1896, the board of supervisors and citizens' committee met to select plans.  Eight architects submitted designs, those of Kinney & Orth, architects of Minneapolis, Minnesota, being chosen.  Bids were then advertised for and on July 21, 1896, the contract was awarded to H. A. Gross, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, for $20,496.  The contractor lost no time in carrying out his part of the agreement, and on January 6, 1897, the building committee certified that the court-house was complete.  It was then accepted by the board of supervisors.


Those who break away from an old community and go out upon the frontier to develop the resources of a new country, and incidentally to better their own fortunes, are never weaklings.  As a rule the pioneers are men and women of strength and courage, blessed with good health, full of energy, well endowed with fortitude, and capable of contending with the difficulties that the first settlers in every new country have to meet and overcome.  It was so in Winnebago County.  Among such persons there is little need of established charities.  If some settler met with misfortune and needed assistance the neighbors were always willing to lend a helping hand, hence it was many years before the county authorities found it necessary to establish a home for the unfortunate poor.  The first mention of such an institution in the county records is found in the minutes of the supervisors' meeting on January 1, 1883, when the following action was taken by the board:

“The board of supervisors of Winnebago County, Iowa, deem it for the public interest to establish a poor farm and whereas Winnebago County is a small county it has been thought best to negotiate with Worth and Hancock Counties and ascertain if they are willing to unite with Winnebago County in said proposed project.”

Knut Johnson was appointed by the board to visit Worth and Hancock Counties and consult with the supervisors with regard to a poor farm, to be located somewhere near the junction of the three counties and maintained by them jointly, in proportion to the number of inmates in the institution from each county.  If Mr. Johnson ever made a report it cannot be found, but the project evidently did not meet with the approbation of the authorities of Worth and Hancock, as such a farm was never established.

On April 5, 1904, the board of supervisors of Winnebago County, then composed of J. J. Holland, W. H. Combs and C. 0. Thompson, adopted the following resolution:  “That a farm to be used as a poor farm, to consist of not more than 160 acres, be purchased, and that county bonds to the amount of $20,000 be issued and sold to pay for said farm and the necessary buildings and improvements thereon,” etc.  The board then advertised that bids offering tracts of land to the county for such farm would be received until May 16, 1904.  Several sites were offered, at prices ranging from forty to sixty dollars an acre, and the board decided to visit and examine each before making any purchase.  Before this part of the proceedings could be carried out a question arose regarding the legality of the bonds, which investment companies refused to take.  The question was referred to the county attorney for his opinion and he advised the board that the question of issuing the bonds should have been submitted to the voters of the county for their approval or rejection.  On September 5, 1901, the board ordered that the proposition should be submitted to the electors at the general election on November 8, 1904, when the bond issue was endorsed by a vote of 1,530 to 597.  The bonds were then issued and sold without difficulty.

On June 5, 1905, the board purchased of Amanda Severs, administratrix, a tract of ninety acres in the eastern part of King Township.  The farm consists of the southwest quarter of the northeast quarter and strip of forty acres across the east side of the northwest quarter of section 25, and ten acres in the south side of section 24, upon which the poor house stands.  The land was purchased for $5,000 and the remainder of the proceeds of the bond sale were used in making the necessary improvements.  The bonds have since been paid and the county owns unencumbered a poor farm that is adequate to all the requirements of an institution of that nature for years to come.

In the chapter on Township History will be found many interesting facts relating to the early settlement and organization of the townships, and in the Statistical Review will be found a complete list of the county officials since it was organized in 1857.

A History of Winnebago County and Hancock County, Iowa. Vol. 2.  Chicago:  Pioneer Publishing Company, 1917.  98-106. Print.

Transcribed by Paul Nagy