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


Chapter VIII
The Political Organization of the County

    No community of people can long exist without the formation of some sort of local government. That "man is by nature a political animal" is as true in our age as it was in the time of Aristotle. The early settlers in various parts of Iowa felt that the territorial or state government was too remote or too inefficient to help them, so they formed "claim clubs" to protect their lands from claim jumpers, and their homes from frontier violence 1  and these clubs were the first law and order organizations in the new country.
    The early settlers of Palo Alto County began to fell the need of a county organization, soon after they had been permanently settled in their new home. That portion of Northwestern Iowa had been a part of the original Fayette County established in 1837 by the Territorial Legislature of Wisconsin, and after Iowa Territory was formed was continued under the name until 1847. 2
     The 3rd General Assembly of the State of Iowa passed an act establishing forty-nine new counties, this act having been approved Jaunary 15, 1851. 3  Palo Alto County was in the list and the boundaries then imposed have since remained unchanged. The events of the Mexican War were still fresh in the minds of the legislators, and they named this county after the memorable battle of Palo Alto. 4
     The northwest part of the state was , however, still unsettled, and so for governmental purposes the county of Palo Alto was attached to Boone County in 1853. 5    In 1855 it was attached to Webster County "for election, judicial and revenue purposes." 6   It thus remained as a part of Webster county until a separate county organization was established in 1858. This was an uncertain and unsatisfactory arrangement for the early settlers of the county, and gave rise to much inconvenience and some litigation. The case over a land title was carried to the Supreme Court, which decided that a conveyance of lands in Palo Alto County made the year 1857 was properly recorded in Webster County, and that such a record was constructive notice to a subsequent purchaser after the organization of Palo Alto County. 7  It is easy to see what a continuing train of difficulties would follow such dual allegiance, as well as the trouble incident to traveling such a distance to the county-seat.
     In 1858 the settlers took definite steps towards organizing a county government. An election was held October 2, 1858, but as the necessary preliminaries had not been taken, it proved illegal. The settlers then threw up a petition and sent it to Fort Dodge. Luther L. Pease, then county judge of Webster County, granted the petition and called an election to be held Dec. 20, 1858. This was the first regular election held in Palo Alto County. James Hickey and James Nolan were the election judges and the voting was done at Thomas Downey's cabin for the northern settlers and at Wm. Carter's cabin for the settlers in the southeast of the county. All the settlers in the county were Democrats, but the campaign was spirited on personal issues and soon developed a factional fight. The Hickeys and Nolans became bitter rivals. Ed Mahan went down to West Bend to work for James Nolan and Elias Downey for James Hickey. The Carter colony people all voted for Hickey, while the McCormicks voted for Nolan. This alignment turned the tide in favor of the "Hickey party" and elected their entire ticket. 8
     The canvass of the election board showed that there were 44 votes cast with the following result:
     County Judge- James Hickey 27, James Nolan 17.
    Clerk District Court- Felix McCosker 27, Martin Coonan 17.
    Treasurer and Recorder- John Mulroney 27, Martin Laughlin 17.
    Drainage Commissioner- John Shea 27, Robert Shippey 17.
    County Surveyor- James McCosker 27, James Shippey 17.
    Coroner- Orrin Sylvester 23, Jerry Crowley 17.
    Sheriff- Thomas H. Tobin 28.
All of these officials were elected for the term of one year. It is noticeable that all the candidates were from the Irish colony or near by and that the south part of the county was not represented among the county officers. The county appears to have been divided into two districts. Palo Alto township and Cylinder township, and as there were two voting places this division was at first evidently for election purposes, as well as for administrative convenience. 10
     In addition to the county officers, the following local officials were elected at the same time:
    Joseph T. Mulroney and John Nolan were elected constables, and Lott Laughlin township clerk for Palo Alto township for one year.
    Samuel McClelland was elected constable and township trustee and Wm. D. Powers clerk for Cylinder township for one year.
    James McCormick and Wm. D. Powers were elected justices of the peace for Cylinder township for two years and Thomas H. Tobin and John Pendergast were elected justices of the peace for Palo Alto township for two years. 11
    Thus the new county was provided with a full set of officers. The county judge was the most important of these, as at that time the county judge was the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the county combined. He performed all the duties that are now discharged by the district court in its probate and county jurisdiction, 12  besides having most of the duties now performed by the county auditor and county attorney. As the local court he had extensive judicial powers, he made all contracts, he levied the taxes and controlled their collection, and he along had the power to expend the county funds. He also had powers as to submitting questions to vote and calling elections. The county judge, in short, controlled absolutely the general policy of the county and was in a position to be an absolute dictator. Such concentration of power in the hands of one man may have been conducive to efficiency, but it was a dangerous tendency. It was an unusual system of local government introduced in Iowa by the Code of 1851 and lasted until 1860 when a board of supervisors was provided to take over the administrative powers. 13
    With such broad and absolute powers we can readily see that much would depend upon the character of the man elected to the office of county judge. If he were extravagant or arbitrary or dishonest, he could do incalculable harm to the county and its people. On the other hand, if honest and able, he would be in a position of authority that would do much to guide and encourage a healthy development of the community.
    James Hickey was the man selected by the settlers of our county as the first county judge. It was a position of honor and power and so well did Judge Hickey perform the duties of the office that he was re-elected and served until  1861. He was a competent official and kept the records in good order and was fair and impartial in dispensing frontier justice. 14
    The other officers were sworn in before Judge Hickey and were ready to perform the duties of their offices. December 29th Judge Hickey ordered the books for county records and Thos. Maher was allowed $15.00 for hauling the books, papers, seals, etc. from Fort Dodge. 15  We can imagine that these frontier officials did not find their duties burdensome, and that each officer found ample room in his own cabin for the records of his office, during these early days.
    The county had no sooner been organized than C.J. McFarland, judge of the 5th Judicial District of Iowa, appointed Cyrus C. Carpenter of Webster County, John C. Straight of Pocahontas County and William P. Pollock of Webster County, to locate the county-seat of Palo Alto County. The instructions to the commissioners were "to situate said county-seat as near the geographical center as may be, having due regard for the present as well as the future population of said county." 16 In accordance with these instructions the commissioners met and on January 3, 1859, they located the county-seat on the north half of section 6, township 95, range 32, on the town plat of Paoli. 17  This was the visionary county-seat whose history has already been recorded in the last chapter.
    On December 29, 1858, James Hickey, county judge, having previously advertised for bids, entered into a contract with Andrew Hood of Webster County, the lowest bidder, by the terms of which Hood was to select and survey the swamp and overflowed lands of the county, and make full maps and plats of same. He was to receive four and one-half cents per acre therefor, payable in bonds of the county on certain terms prescribed in said contract. 18  Accordingly, Mr. Hood proceeded to select, classify and survey the so-called swamp land of the county.
    Under the law of the state at that time, these swamp lands could be sold and the proceeds used by the county for erecting public buildings. In order that the county might have a court house and other public improvements, Judge Hickey entered into a contract with William E. Clark of Baltimore, Md., to build a court house and school house at Paoli and two county bridges across the river, in return for which the county was to deed him the swamp lands. 19
    The contract with regard to the court house called for a brick building, 36x50, two stories in height, of very plain construction, using brick made in the vicinity. It was to be heated by stoves. The building was to be divided by partitions on the first floor into a hall and four offices for the county officers. Above was the court room furnished with "seating made of good planks oiled and varnished."
    The school house was to be a one-story structure, built of brick, 20x24 feet in size, with twelve-light windows. The contract also covered two county bridges over the river, one near section 7-95-32 and the other near section 21-94-31.

    Judge Hickey on December 19, 1859 issued a proclamation calling a special election, in accordance with the provisions of sections 114 and 115 of the code of 1851 and acts subsequent thereto, to determine whether or not the county would approve of deeding the swamp lands to build public improvements. 20 It was the general custom among the counties of the northern part of the state to do this, as it would provide adequate public buildings and other improvements without the necessity of bonding the county or saddling a heavy debt upon the people who were not able in those times to bear any such burden. the vote was therefore favorable and approved the contract. 21 This contract was assigned to John M. Stockdale, who was the real party in interest, but who did not want his name connected with these matters at first.
    The contractor began work, but as labor was scarce there was a considerable delay, and an extension of time was finally granted. 22 The court house was poorly built and when almost completed it fell down, and was rebuilt half as large as the original specifications called for. Court was held in the court house for a year or two, the judge, lawyers, court officers, jurors, and witnesses going two or three miles to the nearby settlers for their meals and night's lodging, as there was nothing but a school house at Paoli besides the court house. But the lone court house with scarcely any furnishings, was bleak and dreary at best, and one cold winter day, when the old cracked stove refused to heat and the clerk said his fingers were too cold to write in his docket, the judge ordered the sheriff to find new accommodations for the court, and thereafter court was held in a more comfortable house wherever convenient and the old brick court house fell into decay.
    It was unfortunate that the site chosen for the county seat did not prove permanent, as the county in fact got little use out of the public buildings, paid for by land which then was of little value, but now is being drained and made into valuable property. It is a curious example of the perversity of fate.
    Before we pass on, the following verbatim copy of specifications for a bridge, which was contracted for in December, 1859, for the road crossing Silver Creek, may perhaps prove of interest to those wishing to know something about pioneer bridge building:
    "Specifications- The bridge is to be 19 feet long, inside of sills, the stingers 4 in number, to be each 23 feet long of good sound logs, dressed on the upper side so as to allow the floor to lay flat upon them. The width of the bridge to be 16 feet and the flooring of the same to be of two sets of split puncheon, each puncheon to be pinned down with 1/2-inch pins on two stringers, the pins to be drove so that their points shall converge. The abutments are to be of height sufficient to bring the floor to the level of pins drove in each end of the bridge. And the ground on each end of the bridge to be filled up so as to bring the roadway to the same level as the bridge."23
    The appointive power of the county judge was called into use several times during the year 1859. The county clerk elect, Felix McCosker, having left the county and failed to qualify, Judge Hickey on January 8, 1859, appointed Thomas Maher in his place. 24 Mr Maher qualified and held office until he resigned shortly before the election of 1859, and Michael O. Hickey was appointed as clerk until the time of the election. 25 On July 1, 1859, Andrew Hood was appointed county surveyor. 26
    On the first Monday in May, 1859, the record shows that Judge Hickey appointed Michael Mahan assessor of "Palo Alto township." 27 This act is of considerable significance as it indicates the development of the local government. The assessor is the first local officer who comes into close touch with all the people of the community. It is the first step in the levying and collecting of taxes, and thus is one of the important elements in self-government.
     On October 11, 1859, occurred the first state election in which the settlers had been privileged  to participate. Forty-seven votes were polled in the county, three more votes than in the previous year. It was the first opportunity for the party affiliation of the settlers to assert itself and the result was decisive. The three new comers since the last election cast the only Republican votes. 28
    The Democratic candidate for governor, Augustus C. Dodge, received 44 votes and Samuel J. Kirkwood, the Republican, three votes. The other state officers received about the same vote. For senator, John F. Duncombe received 45 votes and L.L. Pease 2 votes. For representative , F.M. Corey 32, John E. Blackford, 15. 29
    The result of the vote for county officers was as follows:
                                                                                PALO ALTO   CYLINDER   TOTAL
County Judge-
James Hickey                                                                   12                 14                   26
Martin Coonan                                                                 20                  1                    21
Treasurer and Recorder-
John M. Mulroney                                                            15                 14                   29
Washington Reed                                                             17                   1                   18
Clerk of District Court-
Thos. McCormick                                                           12                  14                   26
Ward B. Whitman                                                           19                                         19
James McCormick                                                          12                   14                   26
James Nolan                                                                   20                    1                    21
R.F. Carter                                                                     11                   14                   25
J. Crowley                                                                      20                     1                   21
Drainage Commissioner-
Joseph T. Mulroney                                                        12                    14                  26
Martin Laughlin                                                               20                      1                  21
County Surveyor-
John L. Davis                                                                  12                    14                  26
John Shippey                                                                   20                      1                  21
Michael Hickey, Acting County Judge; Wm. D. Powers, Justice of the Peace; James McCormick, Justice of the Peace- County Canvassers.
Certified by James Hickey, County Judge. 30     
    The election was in fact very uneventful as far as can be learned, the only diversion appeared to be  the friendly rivalry for local offices. It is to be noticed that the Carters and McCormicks from the south part of the county now appear as strong factors in the result.
    Little of interest transpired in the county during the year following and the records show that there was very little county business. Several vacancies in the county offices were filled by Judge Hickey. December 24, 1859, A.B. Carter was duly appointed sheriff of the county and Michael Hickey was duly appointed county surveyor April 2, 1860.
    As the fall of 1860 rolled around, the county entered upon its first presidential campaign. The bitter fight that was being waged in some parts of the country was not in Palo Alto County. While our settlers were far from the settled parts of the county and thus not in the thick of the great national campaign of that year, yet by visits to Fort Dodge and other points, and from newspapers and new arrivals, they kept posted as to what was transpiring. The fact that our settlers were almost all Democrats and fighting Democrats at that, did not tend to encourage the two or three loyal adherents of Lincoln, nor promote an open campaign of any warmth. But the interest in the election was genuine, and when the votes were counted it was found that Stephen A. Douglas electors had received 29 votes and Abraham Lincoln only 4 votes. The new party members rejoiced in the gain of one vote over the preceding election. The total vote of only 33 was so light as to show that the vote of the county was not out. The following county officers were elected: Lott Laughlin, clerk of the district court; John Mulroney, treasurer and recorder; James Nolan, surveyor; Martin Coonan, sheriff; John Nolan, justice of the peace; Michael Graham, constable.
    The county of Palo Alto by 1861 had established a regular county government that was working smoothly and efficiently. The settlers had become familiar with the duties of the various offices and the elections were conducted in a manner that would do credit to an old established community. Although crude in many ways, the political organization of the county at this time was firmly established on a working basis. But events of another nature were looming up dark on the horizon and we must turn for a time to consideration of other matters.    

1. See the author's "Early Social and Religious Experiments in Iowa," in the January, 1902, number of Iowa Historical Record, and works there cited.
2. Journal Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. See also an excellent series of articles on the establishment and boundaries of the Iowa counties by Prof Frank H.Garver, Iowa Journal of History and Politics, July 1908, January, 1909, and July 1909.
3 Laws of Iowa, 1850-51, p. 27
4. The battle of Palo Alto was the first decisive victory of the Americans in Mexico, May 8, 1846.
5. Acts 3rd General Assembly, Laws of Iowa, 1853.
6. Acts 5th General Assembly, Laws of Iowa, 1855, chap. 142.
7. Meagher vs. Drury, 89 Iowa, 366.
8. These facts as to this first election were given me by James Hickey and A.B. Carter. The memory of each is marvelously clear as to the dates and events of the early county organization in which they took such prominent parts. See also Register of Elections, vol. i, county auditor's office.
9. Register of Elections, vol. i, pp. 8 and 9; office of county auditor, Palo Alto County, Iowa.
10. There is no official record of such division or the boundaries of these two townships, but the Register of Elections, vol. i, p. 4 shows certificate of election of justices of the peace, township clerks and other officers, Dec. 20, 1858, for both "Palo Alto Precinct" and "Cylinder Precinct."
11. Register of Elections, vol. i, pp. 3 and 4, auditor's office.

12 Code, 1851, chap xv.
13 Laws of Iowa, 1860, chap. xivi; 46; Revision 1860, sec. 303
14 In a personal letter to the author under date of July 6, 1906, the late Charles Aldrich, founder of the Historical Department of Iowa, said "In the summer of 1858 Cyrus C Carpenter, afterwards governor of the state, and I journeyed together to Spirit Lake. I was going there on a matter of business, and my young friend Carpenter went with me to show me the way, as the road for the most part was but a dim trail. We were six or eight days on this expedition. In Palo Alto County we stayed all night with Judge Hickey, who lived in a log cabin. I remember that the Irish family were a people of considerable intelligence. They were certainly very hospitable and ministered to us as far as their resources permitted. In those days I traveled considerably through Northwestern Iowa, staying with the settlers whenever night overtook me, but I have today no pleasanter recollections of entertainment than those connected with the home of James Hickey."
15 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p. 5, auditor's office. This record book was thus designated until the Board of Supervisors took charge. Thereafter the same book was used and known as Minute and Supervisors' Record of Palo Alto County, vol. i.
16 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p. 1
17 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p. 2
18 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p. 11. The record is also supplemented by statements of Judge Hickey.
19 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, pp 25-40.

20 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, pp 35-40.
21 See chapter vii.
22 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p58.
23 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p20, auditor's office.
24 Register of elections, vol. i, page 2; statement of Judge Hickey.
25 Register of elections, vol. i, p. 10
26 Register of elections, vol. i, p. 10
27 Register of elections, vol. i, p. 10
28 Judge Hickey states positively that there were none but Democrats in the county at the first election and that the three new settlers cast three Republican votes in 1859. I have found no other settler who disputes this fact. The McCormicks who came the previous fall, are said to have been the first Republicans.
29. Register of elections, vol. i, pp. 11-14
30 Register of elections, vol. i