Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Gondoliers on the Bayou

Merchants near the river in Keosauqua moved their goods higher up on the shelves and on counter tops. People said, “It certainly will not get much higher,” and yet the water kept rising. In some instances it kept coming until it reached the tops of the counters; in other cases it stood half way up where it remained for awhile. Floating on the water were outhouses, wire coops with chickens perched atop, dead bloated carcasses of farm animals, corn, people’s furniture--almost any article you can imagine.

As far as anyone knew, the situation along the Des Moines River in 1851 was very unique. The Indians had no knowledge of severe flooding along the river, but there were several reasons for the flood that inundated all of the river towns.

The area had only been populated by white people for a little over a decade. The first pioneers settled in the mid-to-late 1830s. Within a few short years, timber was cleared along the river, many small towns were built, and farming took place with few precautions against erosion. Already, silting of the river had become so widespread that the steamboat industry was being impacted.

An unusual amount of rainfall was dumped on the area over a period of several years. According to the last 150 years of weather records, the average annual rainfall at Keosauqua is 37.75 inches. 1848 had been a dry year with only 26 inches of precipitation received, but rainfall totals for the next three years were heavy: 1849, 69 inches; 1850, 49 inches; and 1851, 74.5 inches. It is easy to see that the ground would have already been saturated from the rainfall of the previous two years, as the community struggled and buckled under six feet of additional moisture!

The river came out of its banks for awhile, receded, came out again, reached the high water mark and continued upward. It receded, came out again, passed that high water mark and once again continued upward. For six long weeks, business activity for the most part was curtailed.

Insurance was hard to come by, limited, and very expensive when available. The impact of the flood on many small businesses and land owners was devastating. But in spite of all of the hardships and losses, many people along the river took the flood in stride and had as much fun with their plight and new experiences, as was possible.

There were reports of “gondoliers” with girls passing by the submerged houses taking in the sights. One eye witness saw a boatload of young people on the lower bayou. They heard a man named Stannard with a fine voice, loudly singing popular melodies, including “A Farmer’s Life is the Life for Me.”

James Shepherd at the Keosauqua House kept his business going during the entire flood. Guests were conveyed back and forth in skiffs. Trestles with planks laid on them extended to the stairway for the hotel guests who came downstairs each day to see for themselves what was going on, and meals were served on the 2nd floor. There were few if any complaints.

Water ranged from 2 to 10 feet deep as people scurried to higher ground. At the Barrett House people seeking homes further west were stranded.

People that did manage to arrive in Keosauqua from elsewhere, often made their appearance splattered or covered with dirt and mud. And of course, Methodist preacher Henry Clay Dean was quite at home, yelling fire and brimstone while wearing (as always) his dirty shirt!

Soon that summer, all traces of the flood were removed and businesses resumed and moved along as though there had never been a flood. There had been inconveniences and losses, but spirits remained high. A business man named Colonel Dare married a lady in Fairfield and brought his bride to Keosauqua during the deluge. Lessons were learned about the river, but the majority of the residents were determined to accept the challenges that river life presented.

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