Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Bonaparte’s exaggerated demographics come from writers who were not from the area and did not understand Iowa’s system of area division. Because it was an unincorporated village until 1897, the city of Bonaparte was rarely listed in county population statistics. Bonaparte Township was not one of Van Buren's original townships. It was carved out of Farmington Township in 1863. The population of the entire 18 square mile tract of Bonaparte Township was incorrectly applied to the city of Bonaparte in the History of Van Buren County, Chicago: Western Historical Company, in 1878.   

Although other writers drew on this false conclusion, a careful examination of population data quickly reveals this error. The town or city of Bonaparte never reached the population of 1,200 as was described in the late 1870s when one prominent writer said that “the buzzing activity of Bonaparte’s mills could be heard by its 1,200 citizens.” Instead, the township recorded 1,349 people in 1875 and 1,252 in 1880. The 1880 Federal Census lists the town of Bonaparte separately at 689.

Likewise, Bentonsport’s one-time population of 1,500 does not add up, although it is more difficult to determine how an error resulted in stretching the truth to such great lengths as the statistics suggest. The largest demographic figures that exist for the village of Bentonsport show the population to be 445 in 1863; 469 in 1865; 515 in 1867; 454 in 1869; 432 in 1870 and 371 in 1873.

For decades promoters have made an empty claim that in the year 1857 Bentonsport’s population swelled to 1,500 without any tangible shred of evidence!  1857 was the biggest year for the steamboat industry in Bentonsport’s history, but it was not until 1858 that the railroad was completed in Bonaparte and came through the community of Bentonsport.

Between 1850 and 1875, the State of Iowa conducted a special census every two to four years and these records provide some official evidence of a jump in population for the community at the precise time in history that the surge in population is claimed.  But the increase is considerably smaller than promoters visualize.

Washington Township increased from 1190 in 1852 to 1397 in 1856, then dropped back to 1196 in 1860. This represents a short duration addition of only 200. Although 1857 itself was not a census year, there is nothing to suggest a giant surge of population during this one year of the town's history beyond the extra 200. 

A possible explanation for the forward thrust of approximately 200 in population comes from a study of the railroad industry as it expanded into Van Buren County. The railroad employed local people while it was being built, but also carried with it up to two hundred migrant workers that followed the industry.

In June, 1857 the Des Moines branch of the Rock Island Railroad called the Keokuk, Ft. Des Moines and Minnesota Railroad passed through Farmington. In 1858 it was completed through Bonaparte, and later the same year stretched beyond Bentonsport to a point at Rock Creek in Washington Township. This point later called Rock Port was near where the abandoned town of Lexington had once existed in the 1830s.

If most of the 200 traveling railroad laborers decided to take up temporary residence in Washington Township, this would explain the small surge in population. A logical assumption is that most of the laborers would take up their residence in Bentonsport, because it was the only substantial village. This assumption is a stretch, however, as it further suggests that the workers would sometimes travel ten miles or more daily to reach their work site.

Although Van Buren County’s total population jumped by 6,000 during the 1850s, the villages remained small and simply became more numerous. In 1850, only Keosauqua had reached a population of 700. By far the largest hubs in population in 1860, Farmington had reached 725 and Keosauqua posted 849. It was not until the 1890s, well after the railroads were established throughout the county, that a few of the villages approached or passed the 1,000 mark (viz: Farmington, 1342; Keosauqua, 1293; Milton 1107; and Bonaparte 968.)

Remarkable evidence left in Bentonsport supports the idea that the population once approached 700, approximately 36% above the highest official statistic of 515 in 1867. Conservative estimates of 600 to 700 would place it about ten to fifteen times greater than the current population, in keeping with existing demographics and population trends, and would support the very questionable, mysterious, temporary jump of approximately 200 people for a tiny period during the town’s history.

The little community would have struggled greatly to support two hundred additional temporary people, which possibly explains why the apparent surge was only of short duration.  Since Washington Township itself never reached a population of 1,500, it is impossible for Bentonsport to have achieved that mark, thus the claim of a one-time population of 1,500 residents fails to fit any existing data and is somewhat absurd.

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