Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
Long before there was a village located where Bonaparte now stands, a cluster of families settled along Reed’s Creek, about a mile east of the present town. Sarah Nossamon, daughter of William Welch, wrote that her family settled along Reed’s Creek in 1835. At the time, her “neighbors” were James Jordan, Samuel and Isaac Reed, and a score of Sac and Fox Indians including Black Hawk and his family. Since William Welch is included in a list of settlers at Bonaparte in 1836, it might be concluded that this core of settlers at Reed’s Creek represents the true beginning of the Van Buren County town known as Bonaparte.
The area where the town now exists was a massive maple sugar grove. At Lexington Creek, about two miles above Reed’s Creek, the village of New Lexington was laid out in 1837. The Welsh family moved to the village and were neighbors to William Turner and his brother, Dr. James Turner, the man who stole Black Hawk’s skull from his grave site in Iowaville. On April 6, 1837 the post office of New Lexington was put into operation and William Fallis was the postmaster.
Meanwhile, the two men who were the proprietors of Bonaparte settled within the area. Robert Coates was the first man to make a settlement at the site in the summer of 1836. He wanted to farm, however, thus he quickly transferred his claim to Robert Moffett, who disposed of what is now the western part of town to William Meek late in 1836. Meek was looking for a suitable place with timber and water facilities. Dr. R. N. Cresap already resided in a cabin he had built along a tiny creek on the east side of the sugar grove, and soon purchased 152 acres along the east side of town. This cabin was located on a small rise overlooking the creek, either on Matt Mitchell’s or Richard Haskin’s property.
Meek built his first home near New Lexington. He began clearing land in Bonaparte along the river, and built a dam, sawmill and grist mill at the site in 1837. Until land was cleared, however, people who worked for Meek lived in New Lexington. According to the village history, the roster of citizens in 1837 were P. R. Rice, Joseph Rabb, Edwin Wilson, David Sewell, Lewis Christian, William Welch, and Joseph Perkins. Most of these citizens actually lived in New Lexington which had a population exceeding 50.
William Welch was recorder, and the first instrument of record was dated Feb. 23, 1837. The settlement, which was planned but not yet in operation, was known as Meek’s Mills, Wisconsin Territory.
In 1838, Meek buried his son Benjamin and the Bonaparte Cemetery had its beginning. In 1839 the town site included the home of Dr. Cresap on one end and buildings built by Meek on the other end. William Meek and his sons were given permission to build a dam across the river.
In 1840, Dr. Cresap built a hotel on the bank of the Des Moines called “the Tavern,” and here a life size portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps stood over a large, dominating stone fireplace. Dr. Cresap always had a great fascination for the little French general. James Caves built a steamboat which was taken to St. Louis and finished. In 1841 it made a trial trip to Bonaparte.
Finally, through the constant efforts of the residents of New Lexington who wished to live near the mills, the land was cleared and on April 8, 1841 the town was laid out consisting of five and one-half blocks in the south part of Township 68 north of Range 8 west. The village named Bonaparte after Napoleon Bonaparte, was surveyed by William McBride, and came into being as lots were quickly sold. Thomas Charlton became postmaster.
Quickly, nearly all of the residents of New Lexington built cabins on new land they had purchased in Bonaparte. In 1842 the New Lexington post office closed and the town was abandoned although reference to it was made on maps until about 1918. The town of Bonaparte thrived, quickly grew, and crowded out two other villages on the opposite bank of the river named Napoleon and Palestine.
Unfortunately, residents preferred to keep the village unincorporated until 1899, thus population figures for the village itself are scanty and sometimes misleading. Writers often confused Bonaparte Township population figures for that of the village and ballooned population estimates to 1,200 or more. At the time the Mormons crossed the river at Bonaparte in 1847 the population was between 200 and 300. Bonaparte reached 689 in 1879 and peaked at 968 in 1905. Today there are about 450 inhabitants.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project
by Andy Reddick