Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Bonaparte’s Plan to Become County Seat 

Farmington was chosen as Van Buren County’s first county seat of government in 1836, probably because it was the first actual village to emerge. At the other end of the county, Portland may have contained 50 inhabitants. Otherwise, settlements along the Des Moines River were either in primitive beginning stages, or did not yet exist. Eighteen months later, a myriad of villages that had sprung up across the county were bitter rivals in a competitive effort to become the new seat of power, when officials announced their need for a more centrally located government center. Of the twenty-three that struggled to place bids, several were proposed merely on paper and contained no inhabitants. 

The outcome was chilly when Keosauqua, not yet an official town, managed to wrestle away this distinctive, prestigious honor from nearby Rochester and the other contenders. 

The first triangle laid out in 1837 was called Van Buren. Later, another triangle a half-mile downstream was proposed as Des Moines City. A small section in between contained a few cabins and was known as Keosauqua, an old Indian name for the area. 

After reviewing the sites, the territorial legislature decided in March, 1838 that Keosauqua had the best location for the new county seat. But when the legislature tallied their votes in September, Rochester had received the highest total. On the following day, due to some political pressure, the legislative body rescinded their vote. They granted a special election to be held in October for the people of Van Buren County that would decide where to place the new seat of government. 

Except for that day in September, 1838, when Rochester was chosen as Van Buren County’s official county seat, Farmington remained as the interim government center. From the list of contenders, Keosauqua was chosen by the special election. In October, 1838 it became the county’s unofficial seat with plans drawn to build a new courthouse.

The territorial legislature approved victorious Keosauqua and officially made it the new county seat in January, 1839. Following that decision, the plat of Des Moines City was registered, both Van Buren and Des Moines City merged with the land in between, and the new city was platted, with the old name Keosauqua chosen from several presented. 

In 1896, Bonaparte made a late bid to take control of the seat. By now the town had grown to a population of at least 900. Four large, bustling mills offered employment, huge impressive Victorian homes dotted the landscape, and a superb, dazzling downtown shopping area rivaled that of any village in the county. Bonaparte merchants proposed to build a lavish courthouse and donate it to the county with the stipulation that the seat be moved to their city. 

If engineered as planned, this elaborate edifice would serve as a monument to the success and ingenuity of the entire community. County Supervisor Whitmore was placed in charge of this exciting, bold proposal and he consulted with attorneys in Keokuk who carefully examined all of the legal aspects involved. It was determined that from a legal standpoint the plan was formulated too late for consideration, unless the Board of Supervisors agreed to meet two weeks later than normal to discuss and implement the idea.  Whitmore might have been able to maneuver the Board of Supervisors, but what he did not count on was a spirited public outcry from the citizens of Keosauqua who assembled a large crowd to greet him, eager to retain their town as the prized county seat, even if it meant raising taxes! Bonaparte’s proposal was thwarted and this last ditch effort fell through with before it could materialize.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick