Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

The Importance of the Military Tract in our Settlement

As a young nation, the United States began rewarding soldiers for their services in the Revolutionary War, with warrants or grants of land on the newest available frontier, which enticed and attracted young men to serve in the army and navy.

A 5-million acre tract of flat, prairie land surveyed in 1815-1816, was found to be more than 70% tillable, and was laid aside for issuing grants to veterans of the War of 1812. The triangular piece of land extends south of Rock Island County, and covers all the territory between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers in the large western bulge of Illinois. Fourteen counties with 207 townships six miles square are located in this region, along with 61 fractional townships that are parts of four other counties.

When the government began issuing 160-acre grants to veterans in October, 1817 this frontier land was not necessarily desirable. There were still frontiers of choice land closer to civilization, and the Military Tract was occupied by hundreds of Indians. Many veterans sold their grants to land speculators.

Speculators that could hold out made a great deal of money, but some in their greed went “belly up,” as they couldn’t sell the land fast enough and were stuck with paying taxes. One speculator had 900,000 acres to disperse. The government did not ask the Indians to leave until 1828, and did not force them out until the end of the Black Hawk War in 1832.

Squatters moved onto the land ignoring titles and rights, and pioneer courts were tied up with land feuds for years. Nevertheless, this was frontier land at the same time that land across the river first opened for settlement. The difference was, this land had already been surveyed. Not all choice land had been taken and there were still bargains available.

In Hancock County, a group of Indians gave up their village called Quashquema (peaceful place) to settlers who bought the land from them for 200 sacks of corn in 1824. The village was named Commerce. In 1830, the government established a post office here under the name Venus. Meanwhile, the Mormons called the town Nauvoo (Hebrew for beautiful place.)

Latterday Saints headed by Joseph Smith were unwelcome in Ohio and Missouri, and flocked to the Military Tract by the thousands. But many of the original settlers were veterans who held government land titles.

Hancock County was created January 13, 1825 and named for John Hancock, who signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1829, ferry service across the Mississippi was established at Montebello (Hamilton) and the first court house was built. This served as county seat until it was moved to Carthage in 1833. The county has a rich history.

In 1715 a French fort was established on the site of the town of La Harpe, first called Franklin. Future President Zachary Taylor built a fort at Warsaw (about 5 miles south of Hamilton) in 1814. This is where the doctor was located that Black Hawk sent for in 1838 when he was dying of fever.

A steady flow of settlers in covered wagons moved across the Military Tract in the direction of Iowa for three decades, from the 1830s continuing up to the Civil War. After the Indians were removed, the only thing to halt their progress was the availability of land in the tract itself. In some cases, pioneers decided to occupy this land. Sometimes the main family stayed here, while younger members ventured across the river into the frontier that had recently opened.

Thousands of settlers of the Military Tract were relatives of settlers in Wisconsin Territory, later known as Iowa Territory, that included Van Buren County. Yet it established its history separate from and unique to the region, usually one step ahead of counties across the river.

The tract became known as “Western Illinois,” and postal routes were established before they penetrated the Iowa wilderness. Likewise rail lines served this country in the 1850s, a few years before crossing the river.  Southeast Iowa settlers depended on the civilization and social ties established with these people for decades.

Thanks to the tradition of offering veterans land as a reward for military service, Van Buren County was one of the first sixteen counties carved out of the Black Hawk Strip, and one of the earliest settled by those who traveled across the prairies of Illinois to reach the rich Des Moines River valley.

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