Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


According to the History of Lee County, the first mail delivery in this portion of the country was in 1828. Nathan Smith, a settler living at St. Francisville, Missouri carried mail on horseback from Warsaw, Illinois to Rock Island, his route being on the east side of the Mississippi River.

Captain James W. Campbell was a river pilot on the Upper Mississippi River most of his life. He was born in 1825 in Lewis County, Missouri and became a resident of Keokuk in 1830. He and his father were among Lee County’s first settlers and were noted historians and authorities of Lee County. Much of the information that the Iowa State Historical Society has on river pilots came from this man.

Captain Campbell says that in or around 1834, Robert McBride carried the first mail from St. Francisville to Montrose and from Montrose to Keokuk. Afterwards, according to A. W. Harlan, George Harlan carried the mail from Rock Island to Dubuque; Dr. Hearn from Flint Hills (Burlington) to St. Francisville via Ft. Madison; and A. W. Harlan from St. Francisville to Keosauqua. A. W. Harlan was from Croton, about six miles southeast of Farmington.

The government at this particular time in history refused to provide much in the way of facilities. A. W. Harlan established postal offices and appointed postmasters along his route but these were his own responsibility, and was not according to any official acts, therefore they worked without pay.

John Fairman was one of these carriers that Harlan appointed. In a cave somewhere along the riverbank not far from present Hotel Manning, Fairman operated his post office under the name "Port Oro," as there was no village yet established in the Van Buren County river bend area.

At times, Fairman himself carried mail between St. Francisville and Port Oro. By 1837, a mail exchange point was established at the trading post above St. Francisville called Sweet Home. Mr. Fairman traveled by horseback between his post office and both of these locations. At other times, Harlan delivered mail to the bend area. Since there were not very many settlers yet in the area, mail service was infrequent and delivery of mail sometimes took weeks.

In those days postal workers like Fairman were compensated when they collected what we would term "postage due." Letters mailed from other locations were paid for by the receiving party. Fairman would carry letters in his hat band until he came in contact with the settler, and charged a quarter for delivery. Early postal carriers in Bentonsport, New Lexington (including Meeks Mills residents) and Farmington (appointed by Harlan) used the same method.

In 1837, the Van Buren Company bought the Sigler claim, laid out the village of Van Buren and began to build houses. Until that time, there were only two cabins in the vicinity: a large double-cabin on the Sigler claim, and Purdoms’ cabin to the north. The area was sometimes called Keosauqua and was being advertised back east as "Des Moines City, Wisconsin Territory."

The settlement of Keosauqua absorbed Van Buren and became an official village in 1838, but the post office continued to maintain the name of Port Oro and was not changed to Keosauqua until 1846. Residents never liked the "high sounding" name of Port Oro (Oro is Spanish for gold.)

(Some of this information comes from History of Lee County. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1879)

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