Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


This was a year of distress across the growing nation of 26 states, which had now reached a population of 15 million. During Martin Van Buren’s administration money was scarce due to the depression (the Panic of 1837,) but the west presented marvelous opportunities. To encourage interior migration, the government began building a National Road. Because of the slavery issue people opposed statehood for the Republic of Texas, and the Underground Railroad was developing in Massachusetts. A gift from an Englishman that established the Smithsonian Institute helped promote reforms in education.

It was likewise a momentous year for Wisconsin Territory. Indians roamed 90% of the region and military posts dotted the landscape, but rapid growth of 23,000 new settlers in the Black Hawk Strip made it necessary to divide Wisconsin. On July 4, 1838 Congress created the new Territory of Iowa. In addition to the usual Independence Day festivities, speeches and toasts celebrated the day of Iowa’s birth throughout Hawkeye land.

Forests and wildlife abounded along Iowa rivers, large herds of buffalo and deer roamed the prairies, and resources were unlimited. Lead, copper and iron lay in the north while massive amounts of coal and gypsum remained untouched in southern counties. Iowa Territory’s rich soil presented another treasure.

Burlington continued as temporary capital until state houses were completed in Iowa City. In December, 1837 the seven southern counties were given new boundaries, a new county named Slaughter was formed north of Henry County and the original county of Dubuque was divided into 14 counties.

Location of some of the county seats was controversial. For example, district court had been held in Van Buren’s chosen seat of Farmington in 1837. While the new bill was being appropriated that would change the shape of the counties, four petitions were presented to the legislature from Van Buren citizens.

One petition with 72 signatures wanted the seat of justice moved to Rochester; a request by 196 people wanted a site selection by vote; another group of 173 petitioned to have a commission make the site choice; and 186 citizens asked the legislature to change the seat to Bentonsport.

Despite protests and the four petitions, a bill passed both houses naming Rochester as the new seat of power. Due to pressure from the governor, the vote was never ratified and was rescinded the following day. On January 18, 1838 a new act of legislation gave Van Buren County its present boundaries and provisions were made for voters to choose a seat from several contenders selected by a commission of three neutral men. The commission’s choice of location was Keosauqua but two contenders, Keosauqua and Bentonsport, were placed on the ballot for the choice of voters.

Boundaries presented much confusion causing turmoil in other counties. Cook County was absorbed into Muscatine along with an area between Cedar and Cook that had been left outside any organized county in 1837. The seat of justice was established at Bloomington (later called Muscatine.) Louisa Co. became much smaller, and the town of Lower Wapello became the center of power. Astoria was designated to be the seat of Slaughter Co., but the town of Astoria never developed as only one house (used as a temporary courthouse) was erected, and today the settlement’s exact location is a mystery. The boundaries were altered and Slaughter became Washington County.

While the issue of Van Buren’s center of government was at stake in 1838, Farmington remained the interim seat, and both Farmington and Keosauqua were shown on maps as seats of Van Buren. The choice of Keosauqua by the people in October, 1838 was approved by the legislature on January 23, 1839 with the stipulation that residents immediately provide land and money for a courthouse.

A settlement called Keosauqua grew alongside the little plat of Van Buren that John Carnes, James Hall, James Manning, Edwin Manning, John Fairman and Robert Taylor laid out in 1837. The two combined in 1838 under the name Keosauqua, with John Fairman as postmaster, although the post office was known as Port Oro. In 1839 adjacent Des Moines City also joined the new town, which was resurveyed and officially platted as Keosauqua. Unified as the new county seat, construction began on the new courthouse.

The southern boundary of the territory was also a hotbed of controversy. The Old Sullivan Line marking the northern boundary of Missouri in 1816 was known to be in error, as it was 4 miles further north than it should have been when it reached the Des Moines River. Missouri commissioned a surveyor named Brown to draw the correct line. He misinterpreted the Des Moines Rapids to be the ripples in the river at Van Buren, and drew a line straight west from the great bend. In 1837 Missouri accepted his findings and attempted to collect taxes north of the traditional border.

Citizens were enraged, and delegates from this settled portion gathered in Burlington to address the issue on November 6, 1837. The territorial congress asked to have the boundary resurveyed. The controversy stood until June 12, 1838 when the governor asked the President to determine the southern boundary. President Van Buren appointed Albert Lea as commissioner for the US and Governor Lucas selected Dr. Davis for Iowa. Missouri refused to appoint a commissioner, holding onto Brown’s survey as accurate.

Lea pointed out that there were small rapids in the Des Moines River in several locations south of Brown’s line. Also similar ripples existed about 19 miles further north at Iowaville. In addition, Brown reported the latitude of the center of the rapids at 40 deg. 44 min. 6 sec. North, but Lea fixed the point twenty feet further south. Consequently, Brown’s line was also found to be in error. After ably and fairly presenting arguments for all the proposed lines, and after Davis reviewed the historical evidence bearing on the dispute, the two suggested that Congress constitute the boundary and end the argument.

The new Territory of Iowa was therefore embroiled in an altercation with the State of Missouri in 1838 that nearly resulted in bloodshed. Although it was not decided by the Supreme Court until 1848, the “Honey War,” (as it was called) did little to discourage settlers in the region. Van Buren County’s population grew by leaps and bounds.

The Wisconsin legislature in December 1837, ordered the second census of the territory to be taken in May, 1838. Results showed that Van Buren County was second largest, posting 1,812 white males; 1,355 white females; 4 colored males; and 3 colored females for a grand total of 3,174 people. The total population of Iowa Territory was 23,242. Town populations were: Dubuque, 832 and Ft. Madison, 429. Burlington was largest. It counted 1,200 inhabitants in a separate special city census conducted by town newspapers.

Van Buren county was almost totally rural. A handful of fifty or fewer people lived at Keosauqua, Portland, Benton’s Port, Rochester, Rising Sun, Lexington, Columbus and New Lexington. Farmington was the largest village with a population nearing 200.

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