Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
KEOSAUQUA’S THREE-PRONG BEGINNING
From out of one actual settlement, at least three separate paper towns or villages combined to form Van Buren’s county seat village, with a history as unique as the town’s name itself. Some of the unusual progress in bringing this about is outlined in an article from the Van Buren County Register dated August 15, 1935 that is on display in the lobby of Hotel Manning. This unique name is derived from a Sac and Fox word that actually had at least one more syllable. Pronunciation was somewhere between "key-oh-suh-hock-whuh" and "Key-oh-suh-hock-oh-wuh." The exact meaning is unclear. It either meant "land of the monks" as some have suggested, or it was the Indian name for the river. If so, the name Des Moines, which is French for "Great Bend," has a similar, if not synonymous meaning. Both names were used interchangeably for the original settlement within the horseshoe bend.
Hotel Manning sits on the location of the cabin built on the first claim staked by John Silvers in 1835. Farmington dates itself back to a claim and cabin in 1833, thus by the same criteria, John Silvers’ cabin of 1835 could signal Keosauqua’s beginning. But Keosauqua takes a different approach. Silvers sold his claim to Meschack Sigler for $300 in 1836, and in 1837 the Van Buren Company comprised of Ed and James Manning, James Hull, John Carnes, John Fairman, and Robert Taylor purchased Sigler’s claim and laid out a triangular-shaped town southwest of the cabin, surveyed and registered as Van Buren. By the fall of 1836, Asahel Fellows bought his 700-acre claim across the river from Hotel Manning from an agent named Anson. He returned to Michigan for his family, and they moved onto their claim site on May 7, 1837. According to his wife, Susanna Fellows, they moved to Des Moines City, Wisconsin Territory. "Des Moines City consisted of one double-log cabin occupied by a Mr. Fairman and a Mr. Corns," she said.
Beginning late in 1836, mail was delivered by horseback from St. Francisville, Missouri to Mr. Fairman. Postmaster Fairman operated a post office in a cave along the river and carried mail in his hat band until he ran across settlers to deliver their mail. His post office was named Port Oro, the Spanish name for gold. Because gold had been discovered in the creek beds, the name was promoted to help entice additional settlers, but residents opposed the name as sounding pretentious. The "Mr. Corns" that Susanna refers to was John Carnes, who occupied the double cabin with Fairman and ran a general store from the location. Late in 1837, a sawmill was erected and the Van Buren Company built its first house in the new town they had laid out.
A tailor shop opened in 1838, the Christian Church was organized, and the area had its first physician. The oldest house now standing in Keosauqua, a white-frame house with green shutters named Bonneyview that overlooks the river east of the hospital, was built in 1838. By now there were at least 25 residents in the village, but they were scattered well beyond the confines of the Van Buren triangle. Des Moines City existed by name only, as did Keosauqua. It was not until 1839 that a triangle of land a half-mile north of Van Buren was surveyed and platted as Des Moines City, while the land in between continued to be called Keosauqua.
When the county was first organized in 1836, Farmington was named county seat. But when the Territory of Iowa formed out of Wisconsin in 1838, it was decided that Van Buren needed a centrally located seat of government, thus several settlements and proposed towns came under scrutiny, as Troy and Rising Sun (Pittsburg); Rochester, Lexington, Columbus, Bentonsport, Van Buren, and Des Moines City became contenders.
The territory liked the location of Keosauqua best, but Rochester was approved as the county seat in September, 1838. However, pressure from Governor Dodge convinced legislators to reconsider their vote, and on the following day the proposed village of Keosauqua became the final choice for this distinction, much to the chagrin and also demise of some of the contenders. In January of 1839, the legislature made this act official.
After Keosauqua wrestled away this position of power and government from Farmington and Rochester, efforts proceeded to unite the villages. The triangle of Des Moines City was officially laid out in 1839 where a dam had been erected across the river and a flour mill operated. Soon after, this triangle, the Van Buren triangle, and the land in between merged and were platted as one village. The names of Rapid City, Bend City, Mill City, and even Red Bud were tossed around by the founding fathers, but the old Indian name of Keosauqua prevailed. In 1842, the town was incorporated as a city.
The first woman to live in the horseshoe bend area had been Mrs. Sigler in 1836, but it was 1839 before the first child was born. In 1839, the first school was erected and the first marriage was recorded. Although it had earlier roots, Keosauqua was laid out, platted, and became an official town about one year after being chosen as the county seat.
The centennial (100-year-anniversary celebration) took place in 1939. I’m sure there must have been strong sentiment during the 1930s for choosing an earlier year for the celebration (such as 1935) and if I had been around at that time, I would have opted for an earlier date based on existing history of the community!
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick