McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910


Chapter VI
New Settlers-1856-1862

      The spring of 1857 was late in coming but in May the settlers had begun to return to their abandoned homes. New settlers were picking out desirable locations and bringing new vigor and courage into the prairie settlements. As the spring progressed and the pleasant summer weather came, their hope revived and with the prospect of a good crop the settlement again resumed its normal life.
     In order to understand the situation in the country at that time, it may e well to go back about a year and describe more fully some of the settlers and their families, who had begun to select locations soon after the first settlements were made. In a prior chapter the origin of the settlement at West Bend in May, 1855, and the experiences of the Carter and Evans families have been recorded. Samuel McClelland, who had come out with the Carters and Evanses on their first trip, had gone back east but returned in the spring of 1856 with his family. He was a son-in-law of Wm. Carter and so located his home on the west branch of the Des Moines River about three miles north of where Mr. Carter had built his cabin. In July, 1856, John McCormick, Sr., and his son Robert came to this county. As they came west they traveled along the old military road until they came to Mr. Carter's, where they stopped, as it was the only house at that time along the old military road. They spent some time looking at the surrounding country with a view to taking up government land and soon after pre-empted seven quarter sections on both sides of the river, in what is now Fern Valley township. 1
An incident is told of these days that illustrates some of the difficulties of pioneer life. John McCormick, Jr., who lived back in New Jersey, wrote to his brother Robert, saying that he would like to have a letter every week. Robert replied from Palo Alto, "The frost has busted my ink bottle and it is fifty miles before I can get another." 2
     Soon after this, R.M.J. McFarland, Sr., and a friend of his named Jason Simmons came to the county from Wisconsin and settled near Mr. Carter. They stayed there that fall and winter, but as the winter was very severe and the conveniences few, they decided that the Palo Alto climate was too rigorous and returned to Wisconsin. There may have been other reasons for Mr. McFarland's not staying in the county, as he was single at the time but was married not long after his return to Wisconsin. Mr. McFarland had pre-empted, in the spring of 1858, the northeast quarter of 28, West Bend township, but a year or so later sold it to Chas. Coyle (father of Judge Daniel F. Coyle of Humboldt) for a yoke of oxen. In 1864 his recollections of the beauties of Palo Alto prompted him to return and he bought back the old place for a span of horses. The difference between the yoke of oxen and the span of horses represents the rise in value of the land during that period. The records do not show this transfer, as Mr. Coyle did not think it worth while to record his deed and when Mr. McFarland re-purchased the land he was simply handed back his unrecorded paper. 3
     This shows an interesting way the simple methods of transacting business and the slight value attached to the land in those days.
     James Linn came to the county and settled as a member of the West Bend colony in 1856. In the same year he married Elizabeth Carter, daughter of William Carter and Wm. D. Powers married Ann Carter, the other daughter. These were the first two marriages that took place in Palo Alto County. 4 The members of this settlement had thus became very closely bound together and mutually interested in its success and prosperity. Dan Howe lived at this settlement in 1856 and also had a claim further north. It was about this time that Thos. Campbell settled in this county not far from West Bend.
     In the fall of 1856, Mrs. John McCormick, Sr., and her son James, and daughter Isabel, started from Newark, N.J., on their long trip to join the rest of the family at West Bend. Mrs. Isabel McCormick Stone, in describing this journey says: "We reached Iowa City on the 17th of November, 1856. My brother Robert came there a week later with an ox team to convey us to our home near Rodman. While traveling by these slow stages, we were unable to reach our destination on account of streams and the big snow. Added to this, my brother James froze his feet and had to have a portion of his right foot amputated by Dr. Olney of Fort Dodge, when we got there. We were then forced to stop until March with an old lady and her son, named Schaffer, who lived near what is now the Glenn farm, south of Dakota City, near the forks of the river. This was some time in December, 1856. In March, 1857, we left there and by dint of great struggle reached our home, where John McCormick now lives, on March 9, being on Monday the day after the Indian massacre at Spirit Lake." 5
In the spring of 1858, John McCormick, Jr., left New Jersey to join the rest of the family at West Bend. After reaching Fort Dodge he started out on foot across the prairie. He describes his experience as follows: " I only carried a satchel on my shoulders. Left my other stuff at Iowa City. Like the wise virgins, I took oil in my vessel. I had several pair of shoes, carpenter tools, etc., but left them at Iowa City where the railroad ended. When I got to this side of the river, before coming to Billy Miller's, there was Badger Creek, with the water running very swiftly over a stony bottom. It was all I could do to keep my feet. If I had not done so I would have been in Des Moines. They used to keep a ferry there, 'Bull's Ferry' they called it. The bull would swim the river with the people. When I came to Dakotah they said there were still some white settlers up the river. One man's name was Miller, a little on this side of Rutland, Humboldt County. I stopped with this Miller, this side of Dakotah on the edge of the river. He asked me if I had anything  to eat. It was then getting dark. I said, 'No.' Says he, ' I will fix you something.' He baked some buckwheat cakes. I think they got the buckwheat along with the dirt and ground all up together. I thought, ' you don't need doctors in this country, you are pretty gritty.' I came from there on up to West Bend. The house was built when I got there. Thee was a little storm-shed around the door. No floor in the house. Poles reached across for joists and small poles across them so they could lay sods over to make the house warm There was no lumber in the county then. The grass was so high we had to stake out our two cows. If we had not and had let them go, we would never have found them again. Father and my brother cooked the meat on two forked sticks. That was before the house was built. My brother and I batched. Father got a homestead near by. My brother and I lived in this first house, batched it eight years without a floor in the house, and baked our bread and ate our meals off a shingle block and got fat. We kept hotel and had plenty of custom. Never charged them anything and never paid any license. Some of my customers wondered how I baked such good bread. We had plenty of good cream, plenty of eggs, made it as rich as we could, and baked it in a Dutch oven." 6
     In September of 1858, Tom, Charles and Joe McCormick joined the rest of the family in the new home. 7  The McCormicks were very hospitable people and their cabin was the stopping place for all travelers along the road. They were willing to share what little they had with all who chanced that way. A very good description of the McCormick's hospitality in the early days is given by J.N. Prouty as follows: "In the winter of 1868 and 1869, I undertook to make the trip around the circuit with the then circuit judge, J.M. Snyder, who was an old acquaintance and had studied law in the same office as me. We reached the old McCormick place about sunset. The place looked rather forbidding to me. The house was two log houses set end to end and half buried in a gravel knoll. I think the roof was also of earth or sod, so that there was just enough space between the two earths for little windows with 7x9 panes. I objected to stopping there (I was wearing a silk hat at that time but haven't been guilty of it since), but the Judge said it was the best place available. We drove up in front of the house. The Judge got out of the sleigh, went down a sort of hatchway, opened the door and they greeted each other very cordially and then the Judge asked if we could stay over night there. She said, "O, yes we can keep you, but you will have to take care of your horses yourselves, as he men folks are all gone.' We then drove to the barn which was about ten rods away and built by setting forked posts or crotches, as they were called, in the ground, laying poles across, throwing a lot of willow brush on top and standing up other and smaller poles on the sides, and then covering the whole with the desired thickness of prairie hay, leaving a large portion of the cattle to go in and out at will. The west end had been enclosed and  partitioned off for a horse stable. We unhitched our horses and let them into the stable. It happened that there was a hen's nest in the fed box to which I led one of the horses and in the nest were five eggs. I said to the Judge, ' I don't believe I can eat a mouthful of food in that house tonight. I am hungry. I can suck an egg and I propose that we suck these eggs.' 'All right,' said the Judge. I handed him one and took one myself, broke the shell on the manger and swallowed the contents. The Judge did likewise. We repeated the performance, but when I handed him the fifth egg, he said, 'No, you take that; I can eat in the house.' I took it. We then went out and viewed the stock. There was quite a large herd and among them two tame elk that had been caught when calves and reared with the cattle. The Judge kept saying, ' Let's go in,' but I put if off as long as we could, though the weather was cold. As soon as we got into the house Mrs. McCormick went out and I had a good opportunity to look over the premises. In the middle of the room stood a pine board table covered with as nice a clean, white, linen table cloth as I ever beheld. On the center of the table sat a large plate of buns, baked to a nice brown. On one side of the buns sat a plate of potatoes, cooked with their jackets on, and on the other side was a platter of fried ham. There was also two kinds of fruit, which turned out to be preserved wild crabapples and preserved wild plums. On the stove sat the tea kettle and the teapot and the skillet on which the ham was fried with the grease still in it. In one corner of the room was a bed (in which we slept that night), with curtains extending from the ceiling to the floor. Presently Mrs. McCormick returned, took the skillet off the stove, turned the grease on to the platter of ham, then took the teapot and began pouring the tea. As she did so, she said, ' Sit up. It's ready. I intended to have some eggs for you to eat with your ham, but something has taken them.' I liked nothing better than fried ham and eggs in those day, but I had stolen my supper and eaten it raw." 8

    Another early settler in what is now Fern Valley township was William Shippey, who built a cabin on the east side of the river, a few miles below where the old trail crossed Cylinder Creek. He came to the county in the spring of 1856, and his cabin was the half-way house between McCormick's and the Irish settlement. For quite a number of years his house stood alone without any neighbors near at hand. Thos. Cahill and Orrin Sylvester were two other settlers who settled across the river a few miles west from Shippey's. In the spring of 1857 the Hickeys, who had spent the winter with the Irish colony, moved across the river to section 35, Emmetsburg township. The Hickey cabin stood on the bank of the river, just across northwest from what is now known as the Burns bridge where Mrs. Gibbs now lives. In those early days the Hickeys kept a small skiff by means of which they ferried people across the river. Somewhat later there was a bridge, but that washed out during the spring and the ferry boat continued to be the only means of transportation across the river at this point until about 1875 or 1876, when the county bridge was built. When Mr. Hickey was elected county judge he took a prominent part in the organization of the county. 9
     In the spring of 1857 Myles Mahan and his wife Mary Ann, five sons, Miles E., James, John, Patrick, William and four daughters, Mary, Anna, Maggie and Esther, came to Palo Alto County and selected a location on the southwest quarter of section 22-97-33, in the edge of the timber near the river. They built a log cabin about 16x24, which was a large house for those days, and as many as sixty persons have stayed all night there. 10  They had wagon box beds piled one above the other and these could accommodate a large number. There was no floor in the house and one little window of one small pane of glass not over 10x12. The cellar went down under the bed so as to keep anyone from falling in. There was a root house outside for larger storage, as the inside one was small. The cabin was in the edge of the timber and right where the bluff slopes off to the east rather abruptly. The cabin was then about twenty-five rods from the corner stake of section 22. One night Miles Mahan was taking stock of his provisions and found that all he had was one sack of corn meal. He went to bed with a heavy heart, as it was all he had in the world and no money. He had not yet gone to sleep when a knock was heard and there stood Captain Martin and forty soldiers who were out scouting. The Mahans worked all night feeding and caring for the company and the next morning the meal was gone, but they had $40 in money and felt that they could begin again with new energy the pioneer fight for life. At a later time Captain Martin and a squad of soldiers brought Imposhota and one other Indian on the way to Fort Dodge and then to Des Moines where they were to be hung for having participated in the Spirit Lake massacre. Mrs. Mahan drew a revolver and was for shooting the Indians on the spot, but the captain begged her not to fire and finally she put up the weapon. That night the Indians, pretending to be sick, went out and started off down the bluffs. The soldiers shot after them, but Mrs. Mahan said to stop shooting and she would get them, and taking the dog with her to track them, started out in full chase. The dog got in a fight with the Indian dog, lost the trail, and the Indians made good their escape. Mrs. Mahan was the type of fearless frontier woman, who knew no danger and no fear. 11 The Mahan cabin was thirty-five miles from Spirit Lake and the only house this side of Spirit Lake. So all the travel from Spirit Lake to Fort Dodge stopped at Mahan's and it was the refuge for weary sojourners for many years. For twelve years they kept a sort of tavern. J.P. Dolliver stayed there many a night, rolled up his blanket and slept on the floor, and always had his dollar to pay for his lodging and breakfast. 12  Myles Mahan was a courageous old man and refused to leave ever when the Indian scare was at its height. Once when the Indians were reported coming, Ned Mahan, who had gone to the McLaughlins for safety with the other settlers, started out alone with his gun to meet the Indians so as to have a good shot at them. He was also a fearless man. In the sixties Myles built a new house 16x24, 12 feet high. This was shingled with oak shingles, and was a better house than the old one. It was considered one of the best in Northwestern Iowa. The logs were all scored down to six inches thick and carefully laid. In 1858, Myles Mahan lined up a road from his house north to Spirit Lake. He sharpened willow sticks and set them along in a line to mark the trail. Before that the trail was dim and travelers got lost and couldn't find their way over the vast prairie, every one making a track of his own around the sloughs and ponds.

     Trapping was the salvation of the early settlers. Uncle Ned Mahan made $75 trapping in one day. The sale of furs, etc., was what kept the people supplied with money.
     In the fall of 1857, Myles Mahan went up to Mankato, Minn., for groceries and supplies and on the return the oxen, which were dusty and warm from the long trip, saw Spirit Lake and ran away to get in the water and cool off. They were all well trained or they would have dumped all that precious load of provisions into the water. As it was they stood until cooled off and then he started them off on the trip home and arrived safely.
     Prairie fires were a great menace in those days. The fires traveled over the prairie faster than a horse could run and would jump the river where it was from seventy to one hundred feet wide. Many settlers here lost all their property and barely escaped with their lives in the path of those terrific prairie fires. The grasshoppers were a fearful pest in 1873 and later years. M.E. Mahan remembers rowing down the river to Emmetsburg when the hoppers were a foot thick on the water and more coming over the banks just like a waterfall. 13
     Patrick Nolan was another who settled in the timber along the river not far from the Irish colony in 1857. He was jocularly called "Paddy in the Bush" by the settlers, to distinguish him from two other Patrick Nolans who soon after settled in the county.
     William Murphy came to the county in October, 1857, and pre-empted the southwest quarter of 30-96-32 and lived there until he proved up. His log shanty was built near what is known as the John Doran place. Mr. Murphy was a single man and did teaming and other work at Fort Dodge. After helping lay out the ill-fated county seat on the bank of Medium Lake in 1858, he that fall returned to Fort Dodge and as times were hard went back east to look for work, and did not return to Palo Alto County and settled permanently until May, 1871. 14
    Michael Jackman and family built a cabin on the bank of Medium Lake and their hospitable home was well known among the early travelers from the east who passed that way. They became prominent in the later affairs of the county. That old cabin still stands as one of the remaining landmarks of those early days.
     John L. Davis was another early settler who came here in 1858 and lived across the river in Great Oak township, where the McCoy farm now is. He had oxen enough so he could run a large riding breaking plow. This was one of the first riding plows in the county. He would let his wife ride and he would drop corn. He was one of the judges of election in 1859 and it is said that there was some difficulty in that election on account of several people who tried to vote, although they had practically left the county and simply come back for some of their goods. Mr. Davis as judge of election made them swear in their vote before he would allow them to participate in the election. He only stayed in this county until 1860, when he left and did not return. 15 It was rumored shortly after he had left that this man Davis was a horse thief and was part of the gang that was working this whole part of the country. One of the vigilance committee from this county who was down at Iowa Falls when they rounded up this gang there, reported that Davis was among the number, but they could not prove anything against him and had to let him go. Years later a cave for horses was discovered in the bank of the river near his place. This band of horse thieves was a notorious affair in 1856 and 1857. They were well organized and had various rendezvous and stations along the frontier. They became so bold in their depredations and such a menace to he communities that the settlers organized and fully cleaned the band out in 1858. They were rounded up by the sheriff and his posse in Grundy County, and several of them were hung. A number of underground stables were later found and evidences were abundant as to the large territory covered by these transactions. Several of the citizens of Palo Alto County remember this band and their operations very well. They did not molest the settlers here so much, but they were a continual menace to the peace and safety of the people and the early settlers were very glad when these desperadoes were finally rounded up. 16
     William Reed and family lived near the Davis place. He had two sons, and one winter they got lost and were out all night and one of the boys froze his foot so badly that it had to be taken off. A trapper by the name of Ward Whitman stayed with them one winter and made quite a large catch.
     Martin Coonan and Catherine his wife, and five boys, bought a farm on the bank of the river half a mile south of the Irish colony. They moved on to their land in 1858, built a cabin and began the work of clearing up the timber and preparing for a permanent home. This land is now known as "Riverdale" farm. The important events that transpired at this historic spot will be more fully treated in a later chapter. 17
     Another new settler was James McCosker, who was elected the first county surveyor in 1858. He did not, however, remain long in the county. John L. Davis was the second surveyor to be elected as he was chosen at the election the following year.
     "Tom Tobin and his father, mother and sister Alice, and Joe and Kern Mulroney came in the year 1857 and old Mrs. Mulroney and Maggie came one year later. The Sheas, Coonans, Pendergasts, I think, came in the spring of 1858." 18
     Among the other settlers who came to this part of the county about this time were : Thomas Maher, William Maher, Daniel Kane, Thomas Downey, Thomas Dawson and Patrick Lynch. All the these settlers had settled in the county by 1860.
     In the first few years of settlement in the county the task of threshing grain was a difficult one. One of the ways devised by Martin Coonan was quite generally used. The bundles of grain would be laid on the ground in a large circle and then a horse would be led around on the circle of bundles and would grind up the straw much as a modern threshing machine. They would then gather the grain and holding it up in the air let it fall on to a sheet on a windy day when the breeze would blow the shaff and dirt out of the grain. It was hard work, but the wheat and oats and small crops of other grains were very precious in those days with the market so far away and grain and feed of all kinds so very scarce. 18
     "Palo Alto got its first mail service in 1858. The first trip from Algona to Spirit Lake started July 1st that year. The first postoffice was at Jack Nolan's, Mr. Nolan being the postmaster. It was called Emmetsburg. When routes were established from Fort Dodge to Spirit Lake and Fort Dodge to Jackson, a postoffice was established at Mulroney's, called Soda Bar, with Mulroney as Nasby, and one at McCormick's on the east side, called Fern Valley, Thomas McCormick postmaster, and Nolan's office was moved over on the river and Martin Coonan made postmaster. There never was a postoffice in the county called Paoli." 19 When the postoffice was first established at Nolan's, the mail which came once a week was put in a big milk pan and the settlers would come over on Sunday afternoons and pick out their own mail from the pan. 20 This practice also served as as social feature, as the various families thus came together at a common center to visit and talk over events transpiring in the local community as well as the news from the outside world.
     The settlers in the county very early began to inaugurate some needed improvements. Schools were organized, religious services were held, better houses were being built, and social intercourse encouraged.
     In the summer of 1861, J.P. White taught school in a cabin in Walnut township. This was the first school taught in the county. M.H. Crowley still has in his possession a McGuffey's speller with his name and the date showing that it is the book that he used at that first term of school. School books were procured from Fort Dodge and the old settlers say the books they used in those days were the same recognized authorities and that there was no trouble about different kinds of books or new editions. They were always the same; and reading, writing, and arithmetic, with some geography, was the invariable course of study. 21
     A little later in the year a log school house was built at West Bend, Mr. Carter hauling the finishing lumber from Boone. Mary E. Matthews of Irvington, Kossuth County, was the teacher. 22
     "The first religious service held in the county was by Father Marsh of the Catholic church, in the year 1859 or 1860. Father McComb, a Presbyterian minister, held the first Protestant service in the summer of 1860. This service was held in my father's cabin in Fern Valley township. A Presbyterian church was organized and held at my father's house. Services were also held at Carter's, at old West Bend, at McKnight's Point, and at Powhattan in Pocahontas County. The Struthers, Henderson, Frazers and others joined this little body of church-going people, among whom were Seth Sharp, Percy Nowhan, James and John Jolliffe, and Abel Hais, and they all did their best to sustain this little Presbyterian church. The church survived, though at times it wsa nip and tuck, but in the end all came out right." 23
     In the early sixties a postoffice was established at Tobin's called "Soda Bar." This was on the route of the weekly mail service from the south and was very convenient for the settlers there. Tom Tobin was the first postmaster, but his sister Alice (who later married Thomas Kirby) was the real postmistress for several years.
     About the same time a postoffice was established at Hickey's across the river called "Great Oak." There were several large oak trees standing in the Hickey yard and this gave the name to the postoffice, and later the same name was given to the township when it was organized.
     A lull in settlement occurred in 1861 and 1862. The difficulty in getting land titles and the distractions of the war prevented further growth of the county for a time. This period of growth came to an end, but it was only a short time before a new line of development opened up for the county enlarged opportunities for progress.


1 Letter of Mrs. Ira D. Stone. Mrs. Stone is a daughter of John McCormick, Sr.
2 Recollections of John McCormick, Jr.
3 Letter of B.F. McFarland of West Bend.
4 "Some Reminiscences of a Pioneer," Chas. McCormick in Palo Alto Reporter, August, 1906. Statement of A.B. Carter. Letters of Mrs. Ira D. Stone.
5 Letters of Mrs. Ira D. Stone of West Bend.
6 Interview with John McCormick.
7 "Some Reminiscences of a Pioneer," Chas. McCormick.
8 Letter of J.N. Prouty, Humboldt.
9 Those events will be more fully treated in a later chapter.
10 Interview with M.E. Mahan.
11 Interview with M.E. Mahan. "Early Days on the West Fork," by Ambrose A. Call, in Upper Des Moines Republican, August 15, 1906.
12 Interview with M.E. Mahan.
13 Interview with M.E. Mahan, Graettinger.
14 Interview with William Murphy.
15 Statement of M.H. Crowley
16 Statements by A.B. Carter, M.H. Crowley, M.E. Mahan and others. For evidence that the gang operated over a wide territory in Iowa, see "Chronological History of Cedar Rapids," Cedar Rapids Republican, June, 1906. Gue's History of Iowa, vol i, chap. xxvii.
17 Chapter xi.
18 "Some Reminiscences of a Pioneer," by Chas. McCormick, Reporter, August 2, 1906. See also same article, Semi-Centennial Record, pp. 389-90.
19 Recollections of Martin Coonan, Jr.
20 "Early Days on the West Fork," by Ambrose A. Call, in the Algona Upper Des Moines Republican, August 15, 1906. The above facts are verified by statements of M.H. Crowley, Chas. Nolan, Lott Laughlin, and others.
21 Statement of Chas. Nolan.
22 Statement of M.H. Crowley, supplemented by the recollections of many others.
23 Statement of A.B. Carter. Mr. Carter was the school director who hired this teacher and he remembers distinctly that this school started a short time after the school in Walnut township.
24 "Some Reminiscences of a Pioneer," by Chas. McCormick.