Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Whereas the early Spanish explorers of America were looters looking for gold, the early French explorers became fish and fur traders. By the late 1700s, French explorers penetrated the wilderness west of the Mississippi River, primarily in search of minerals, but also to trade with Indians. From the French, we get a glimpse of what these Indian people were really like.

At President Thomas Jeffersonís request, American explorer Meriwether Lewis arranged for twelve Osage Indian Chiefs to visit Washington, D.C. and other eastern cities in an effort to form diplomatic relations with the Indian nations in 1804. A French artist named Charles de Saint-Memin made portraits of these chiefs, the earliest known likenesses of the Indians from the Plains. In an effort to proselyte the American Indian, Jesuit priests made many contributions adjunct to exploring. At various locations in the wilderness, the priests set up crude monasteries for work and study. According to one of the earliest legends, Trappist Monks once occupied the region of the horse-shoe bend near the present town of Keosauqua.

The legend would seem to have substance, as the name of the Des Moines River is derived from the French name "Moines de la Trappe" and means "River of the Monks," according to Edgar R. Harlan, A Narrative History of the People of Iowa, (American Historical Society, 1931) Vol. 2, page 373. He places the monks at the site of Keosauqua prior to 1803.

According to William J. Petersen, Iowa the Rivers of Her Valleys, (Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa), 1941, pp. 180-182, the legend is erroneous and not based on fact. His argument is based on an article that appeared in the Dubuque News on June 10, 1837 which links the name "Moines" to a group of Indians living within the area (of the bend.) The name is similar, he says, to one given to the mounds on the American Bottoms opposite St. Louis where some Trappist Monks did reside. This may have led to confusion, and consequently to the legend.

Once again, my old friend Ralph Arnold adds some extra fuel to the fire. He once told me that when the railroad people dug into a hillside near Mt. Zion to build a trestle, well below the surface they discovered what appeared to be a grape arbor. He added that since none of the Indians in the area cultivated grapes, then perhaps the builders had stumbled onto the site where the legendary Trappist Monks had cultivated a vineyard. However, no artifacts were reported that could link this finding to the legend.

Although several French names in the county have survived to the present, their origins bear scrutiny. Until recently I was under the (false) impression that a handful of French people who settled at Meeks Mills named their village Bonaparte. However, it appears that one of the town founders, an Englishman named William Meek, had a special liking for Napoleon Bonaparte, admiring him so much that he wanted to name the village in the Generalís honor. Across the river, Napoleon was laid out, but this name did not stick. A cluster of homes existing there was sometimes called "South Bonaparte," but was never incorporated into a separate village. 

It is therefore unclear if the French name "Des Moines" had its roots with monks occupying a site near Keosauqua. Likewise, Bonaparte may not have had any French settlers. Some of the other names that sound French are actually Indian names. For example, Chequest is the Indian pronunciation of a Half-breed Indianís name, as he was known to white pioneers as Jake West. 

When the Mormons crossed through the region during the 1840s and 1850s, they left behind a distinctive style of architecture, with many buildings surviving to the present. The French left no such traces of influence. Instead, we are left with legends and sagas that lead to fantasy and add a colorful, nostalgic mystery to the region. By names alone, Bonaparte can capitalize on the French touch (which it has done over the years), even if the influence is more by association than by experience.

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