Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Iowa became a separate territory in 1838 and reached statehood in 1846. Van Buren was one of the first sixteen counties. During the early territorial days, Van Buren was the largest in population. By 1846, Van Buren was no longer first in population but was still among the leaders with 9,870 residents. Thatís 27% more population than the 2005 figure of 7,777.

It was said in 1846 that Van Buren County combined a greater variety of geological features than any other county in the territory! Quarries abounded on the bluffs, bituminous coal abounded in excellent quality, and tin, copper, and iron ore could be found in small quantities.

Towns in Iowa were growing rapidly. The largest of these were Dubuque and Burlington with 3,000 each, followed by Bloomington (Muscatine) 1,600; Ft. Madison 1,600; Keokuk 1,100; and Iowa City, the capitol, with 700 residents. Ottumwa was a small village of 200. Of the many villages and place names in Van Buren County, only 3 towns of significance had emerged: Keosauqua, the seat of justice with a population of 500; Farmington, a thriving town with several mills and roughly 450 people; and Bonaparte, with several stores, a good hotel, a six-story mill, and an estimated 250-300 residents.

A pioneer could settle comfortably on 80 acres for an initial outlay of about $400 in cash payments. Eighty acres of prairie land would cost $100, a double log cabin, $50-$70; seed corn for ten acres $5; a saddle $50-$60; a farm wagon $70-$80 and a yoke of oxen, $40-$60. Milk cows sold for $10-$15 each; sheep were $1 to $1.50 per head. A heavy plow would run about $18, but small plows could be purchased for $6 to $8, and a harrow was only $4.

In 1846, sugar was 16 cents/lb.; molasses, 50 cents/gallon; coffee, 16 cents/lb.; rice, 6 cents/lb.; corn meal 31 cents/bushel; butter, 12 cents/lb.; honey 40 cents/gallon; eggs, 10 cents/dozen; potatoes 16 cents/lb.; and fresh meat was 6 cents/lb. Menís boots would cost the pioneer $2.25/pair while womenís shoes were priced between 87 cents and one dollar/pair. Cloth of various fabrics would cost from 10 to 20 cents/yard; menís hats were $2 to $6, and wood could be purchased for $1.50/cord.

It might take a long time to save up $400, however. For those who needed a job, stonecutters and brick layers were paid $2/day; blacksmiths usually made $1.25/day; carriage makers were paid $1.50/day and day laborers made from 75 cents to $1/day. Boarding house rates were $1.50 to $2/week for room and board (usually 2 meals per day.) Restaurants often featured "all you can eat" for a quarter!

(A Glimpse of Iowa in 1846, John B. Newhall. Thurston & Gazette Office: Burlington, 1846. Reprinted by the State Historical Society. Torch Press: Cedar Rapids, 1957.)

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