McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto
County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910
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
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. 9
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
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
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
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
Treasurer and Recorder-
John M. Mulroney
Clerk of District Court-
Joseph T. Mulroney
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
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.
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
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
11. Register of Elections, vol. i, pp. 3 and 4, auditor's
12 Code, 1851, chap xv.
13 Laws of Iowa, 1860, chap. xivi; 46; Revision 1860,
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
21 See chapter vii.
22 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p58.
23 Minute Record, Palo Alto County, vol. i, p20, auditor's
24 Register of elections, vol. i, page 2; statement of Judge
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
29. Register of elections, vol. i, pp. 11-14
30 Register of elections, vol. i