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