McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto
County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910
"Westward Movement" is one of the most important facts in American
history. Starting with a little fringe of colonies along the Atlantic coast, the
settlements began to spread gradually westward, ever westward, toward the
setting sun. The dangers and hardships of pioneer life on the eastern coast were
met and overcome in each successive stage of the march westward. The same kind
of opportunities and difficulties, colored with local variations, recurred to
make the strong and sturdy growth from frontier simplicity to permanent
development. It is this fact that has given a distinctive quality to American
life-the self-reliance, courage and independence which dominate American
character. 1 A study of the frontier, therefore, will give us
the key to our history.
Moreover, the genesis of any settlement will show the
basis and character of development. Many distinctive characteristics of any
community have grown out of peculiar conditions or incidents in its early
history. It is this frontier life, with its privations, its battles, its
pleasures, its government, and its crude experiments and compromises, together
with the effects of natural conditions and environment, that discloses the very
beginning of social life. We must study these frontier beginnings as well as
later developments if we would appreciate our local history.
Indeed there is a romantic fascination surrounding the
early days of every community. We listen with thrilling interest to the stories
of the first settlers, as they recount the hardships and dangers of home making
on the boundless prairie of a new country. The simple, rugged life of these
early pioneers in itself has a charm that increases with the passing of the
frontier line. We admire the dauntless pioneer with his ax and gun. We admire
his persevering labors in spite of obstacles and discouragement, and we admire
his courage in the face of every danger.
On through forest and over plain, westward and ever
westward pressed the adventurous and hardy pioneers. And still farther westward
pressed the adventurous and hardy pioneers. And still farther westward, on over
the trackless prairie, where the elk, deer and other wild animals roamed at
will, and where occasional bands of roving Indians had camped and hunted, and
departed unmolested. Undaunted by the most severe weather, undismayed by the
perils and hardships of a long journey, they pressed forward through the
wilderness, leaving their own trail in the tall grass of the prairie, crossing
the turbid streams as best they could, exploring the woods and prairies, ever on
the lookout for a good location for their new home. The frontier line was
gradually moving toward the west, and these pioneer settlers were the advance
guard of the westward movement. They were willing to undergo all the hardships
and privations of frontier life in order that they might found a home for
themselves and their families. 2
Midway in this westward march was Iowa- the beautiful
fertile land of Iowa. But at the Mississippi progress was delayed for a time, as
Iowa soil was owned by Indians and title had to be acquired before the territory
could be thrown open to settlement. Prior to this, the mining establishment at
Dubuque had been established 3 and several abortive at
settlement had been made but they were not permanent. During these early times
trappers and Indian traders roamed over the vast prairies, camping, hunting, and
trapping on the banks of streams and in wooded places; but always moving and
always pushing farther westward ahead of the settlers. They were only
skirmishers scouting ahead of the army of progress. The few squatters who tried
to find homes were driven off by the United States soldiers until the Indian
title was extinguished and the country could be opened up for settlement, June
Even then actual title was not given until years later
when the land sales were held, but this fact did not deter actual settlers, who
flocked into Iowa and began to take up most advantageous locations. The first
settlers chose claims along the rivers. Burlington and Fort Madison were settled
in the fall of 1833. Davenport was formally named in 1836, and Keokuk was laid
out in 1837. As settlers increased and pushed westward, other towns were formed.
Iowa City was laid out on the banks of the Iowa River in 1839, and became the
capital of the territory. In the same year the government removed the
Pottawattomie Indians to Southwestern Iowa and erected a fort at Council Bluffs.
Two Catholic missionaries established a mission there, but it was a frontier
outpost for some years before it was reached by actual settlements. In 1843 Fort
Des Moines was built for the United States dragoons for the protection of the
frontier from the Indian depredations.
As settlers increased and the hostile Indians became
more difficult to control, a fort farther north was established in 1849, called
Fort Clarke. The name was changed a few years later to Fort Dodge. In 1853 the
troops were moved to Fort Dodge north to Fort Ridgley, but the vacated site was
purchased and in the beginning of the year 1854 the town of Fort Dodge was laid
out and thereafter became the distributing center for Northwest Iowa.
It was not until 1854-5 that the vanguard of settlement
spread out into Northwestern Iowa. Prior to that time there were only two cabins
north of Fort Dodge, that of the adventurous Henry Lott, near the mouth of
Lott's Creek in Humboldt County and one built by William Miller six miles north
of Fort Dodge, on the east side of the river. These were rival trading posts
which did a flourishing business while the soldiers were at Fort Dodge. Lott was
a desperate character and was continually stirring up trouble with the Indians.
The Indians were inclined to resent the encroachments of the whites, and freely
indulged their natural trickery in attempts at despoiling the settlers. This was
of course resisted and trouble often followed. These frequent clashes, together
with the unscrupulous conduct of such men as Lott, caused a deep-seated
resentment among the redmen. The Indian depredations increased and kept the
settlers, who were coming in, continually alarmed. It was this smoldering
resentment that caused much of the trouble in the years that followed, and
culminated in the Spirit Lake massacre of 1857, and the Indian border troubles
of 1862 and 1863. These periods will be more fully considered in later chapters.
In the face of such conditions as these the early
settlement of Northwest Iowa began. Traders, locaters, surveyors and stray
settlers all carried back to Fort Dodge tales of the marvelous beauty of the
lands along the east and west forks of the Des Moines River. During the summer
of 1854 Ambrose A. Call and Asa C. Call built a pioneer cabin in Kossuth County,
on the east fork of the river, and that summer and fall a colony of energetic
settlers took claims there. 4
At this time the soil of Palo Alto had not been
trod by a permanent settler. History records one incident of the early march
across the prairies. The United States troops, on their removal from Fort Dodge
in 1854, marched north to Fort Ridgely and their course took them along the
river. One evening after a hard day's march, they came to a beautiful little
lake and made their camp in an oak grove upon the shore. A terrible storm raged
that night and the detachment were compelled to stay there several days before
they could continue their northern journey. 5 In spite of the
inclement weather we cannot but believe that those gallant soldiers saw the
beauties around them for they were in Palo Alto County, the first arrival upon
its virgin soil. Its beauties and fertility could not long remain unknown and
the time was soon to arrive for the first settlement of the county.
1 Frederick J. Turner, "Significance of
the Frontier in American History," Annual Report American Historical
Assn., 1893, 200-201. See also McCarty, "Early Social and Religious
Experiments in Iowa," Iowa Historical Record, January, 1902.
McCarty, Territorial Governors of the Old Northwest.
2 See the writer's "Early Social and
Religious Experiments in Iowa," in the January, 1902 number of the Iowa
Historical Record, for a more complete description of the westward
movement in Iowa, and the experiences of early pioneers throughout the state.
3 Julian Dubuque in 1788 purchased a tract of
land from the Sac and Fox Indians and began to work the lead mines. Annals
of Iowa, April, 1896, 330. Salter, Iowa, the First Free State in the
Louisiana Purchase; Gue, History of Iowa, vol i, chap. 10; McCarty,
"Early Social and Religious Experiments in Iowa."
4 Sketches by Ambrose A. Call in Algona
Upper Des Moines, "History of Kossuth County."
5 William D Powers, letter to Semi-Centennial
Committee. Gue, History of Iowa.