Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
COURTHOUSE COSTS OVERRAN THE BUDGET
After their bid of $6,500 was accepted and approved, John Fairman and James Hall began building the courthouse in Keosauqua on June 1, 1842. Completed in September 1843 with an overrun of $212, Ed Manning accepted the note from the county commissioners for $1,712 at 15% interest, and $5,000 in bonds and mortgages, which he and other citizens had donated in order to retain the county seat.
Farmington was the original county seat. In 1837 it was decided that Van Buren needed a more centrally located position of government. Through an act of the Territorial Legislature, Jefferson County’s Ben Chastain, Michael Walker of Lee County, and Stephen Gearheart of Des Moines County were chosen as a commission to examine various sites and re-locate the county seat. Having reference to the geographical center and welfare of the entire county, the commission chose Keosauqua as the best location.
Keosauqua was not yet an official village in 1837. Usually called Des Moines City, one small triangle had been laid out and named Van Buren. John Fairman was the area’s postmaster under the somewhat pretentious name of Port Oro, (Spanish for "Land of Gold.") There were only a few cabins to mark the spot, although these early settlers were obviously people of considerable influence.
Some of the other contenders looked more promising, if only on paper. Pittsburg, then called Troy, set aside a square to build a courthouse should that village be chosen. With a resident judge, Columbus actually held court once in a log cabin under a change of venue. And Rochester was the closest contending village to the county’s geographical center.
A flier containing a brief courthouse history distributed by the Villages of Van Buren reports that the Territorial Legislature passed an act on December 16, 1837 removing the county seat from Farmington and placing it at Rochester, but the territorial governor did not sign the bill and it did not become law.
According to other (more detailed) accounts, the commission presented their findings to the Legislature in March 1838 with the recommendation that Keosauqua be named the new county seat. The official map of the counties and county seats of Iowa Territory made in August, 1838 shows Van Buren with two seats: Farmington, and Keosauqua.
A vote by the Legislature around the first of September 1838 reveals Rochester winning by a narrow margin. On the following day, the governor asked the Legislature to rescind their vote in favor of allowing an election by the people to decide the location of their seat of government.
For several months officials in Van Buren County had promoted a special election to determine the issue, and in October 1838 this election was held. Petitions failed to get enough signatures to place other names on the ballot, thus the contenders had been narrowed down to only Bentonsport and Keosauqua, and the latter one easily prevailed.
It has long been maintained that Ed Manning used his influence to persuade the governor in favor of Keosauqua. Ed Manning and Robert Lucas were old acquaintances, and on the night before the governor asked his legislators to rescind their vote, it has been said that he was visited by Manning, or by a messenger from Keosauqua.
What matters is that on January 25, 1839 the Territorial Legislature accepted the results of the people’s vote and passed a provisional act allowing Keosauqua to remain the county seat of Van Buren County, with a wise stipulation that residents contribute $5,000 in lots and material for the construction of new county buildings. Keosauqua willingly accepted this requirement and within a year the commissioners adopted a plan of construction.
Center of three public buildings, the new courthouse was the pride of early settlers. With walls almost two feet thick and a ten-foot square tower rising sixteen feet above the rooftop, the edifice atop Courthouse Hill stood tall and proud as a symbol of progress and an example of either Greek Revival or Federal Style architecture. When completed, it was one of the largest buildings west of the Mississippi River, with a large enough courtroom to contain "Iowa’s largest auditorium unbroken by columns." It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977 with tours available through the Villages of Van Buren.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick