Country Facts and Folklore

By Andy Reddick


"There will be a meetin’ at the comin’ out of the ford, Sabbath Day, next!" That was the word of mouth advertising for the first white religious service held west of the Des Moines River in the Iowa Region of Wisconsin Territory in August, 1837. Pioneer families had arrived steadily that summer within the horse-shoe bend area, which now had more than one hundred residents. Besides Postmaster John Fairman at Port Oro (Des Moines City and/or Van Buren,) the names of Fellows, Purdom, Manning, Dodson, and Duffield were among the new landowners. Everyone knew the location of Pearson Ford near the mouth of Chequest Creek where the tiny village of Troy was emerging on the opposite bank of the river two miles west of Des Moines City.

Under the branches of a giant elm near the ford, the momentous occasion took place after wagonloads of people came from all directions, many fording the river. Within the audience was old Chief Black Hawk and about one hundred of his red people from Iowaville. Although an actual count of the crowd was not taken, the red spectators probably outnumbered the white people.

Ox teams were unhitched and driven into the woods to graze. Then the men and boys gathered in one group while the women, girls, and young children gathered opposite them in another group. Baptist circuit rider Hill walked to the water’s edge, took off his hat and laid it on the ground, then in a monotone slowly began singing a hymn while the men and boys walked forward and sat on the ground bearing their heads. The Indians formed a large semi-circle behind the sitting men. After the hymn, Reverend Hill proceeded to preach fire and brimstone to his listeners for two solid hours. When this agony finally ended, the congregation sang a closing hymn, and several people were baptized in the river following the service. 

The Sac and Fox Indians probably understood very little of what took place, yet they respected the white man’s traditions enough to want to be part of the historic event. Perhaps it was because white people in the area had honored them two years earlier by attending their religious ceremony called "Manitou Korso." 

In 1835, the Sac and Fox had generously invited all of the white traders including Mr. and Mrs. Phelps, proprietors of the trading post at Iowaville from 1830 to 1838. The handful of whites were given seats with the squaw wives of the chiefs who were richly dressed in brown shrouds (valued at $12 each,) glass beads, wampum, and silver jewelry estimated to be worth up to $30. Their cheeks and the part in each one’s hair were painted bright red, and they wore shell bracelets. The white people were astonished at this exhibition of rich finery, seeming to forget that it was a Christian custom to wear "Sunday best" to worship, a habit the red men might also consider to be an exhibition of wealth. 

As the service began, all the members of the tribe paraded around in a disorderly manner. The medicine men presented each other with tanned animal pelts decorated with red strings and small bells in an elaborate, but somber ceremony. While clutching the pelts, some went into a trance and appeared to be dead, as white beans spilled from their mouths. This ritual frightened some of the white people in the audience who thought the devil was coming out of the participants’ bodies. A white lady let out a gasp and was given scowls and shameful frowns from the nearby squaws. 

Hill’s religious service had been anticipated by settlers as a very exciting event, since it was the first chance for many of them in the fledgling communities of Portland, Troy, Van Buren and Des Moines City to attend church since they migrated to the territory. People came from up to fifteen miles around, but unfortunately there is no indication that news of the event reached residents downstream in the far away villages of Meeks Mills or Farmington, the county seat. 

Fifty-one years ago, my first field trip was led by Waneta Gwinnup, teacher at the one-room school in Pittsburg. One day she crammed all of her twenty-four students into the rumble seat, front seat, or onto the running boards of a ‘32 Plymouth Coupe and we took off to see the "Old Church Tree." A half-mile from the school stood this old dead tree in front of which was a historic plaque mounted on a granite boulder that had been placed there to commemorate the 1837 occasion. The tree is gone, but the historic monument remains along the river road, a short distance north of the Chequest Creek Bridge. 

Through the available glimpses into our county’s early history, I have seen a very impressive, friendly communication between the red and white citizens in spite of the continuous oncoming flow of white settlers, that must have saddened and frustrated the native Americans. It became increasingly necessary for the pioneers and the natives to live beside one another peacefully, as they overcame many obstacles. Perhaps tinges of fear may have helped them build the mutual respect for one another that is quite obvious. This harmonious relationship is certainly noteworthy.

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