Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Iowa Territory near the Missouri border was still wild and very primitive in 1840. There were no roads, just narrow Indian paths or trails that usually led from point to point over land resisted least by hills and streams. Rivers were usually forded, but some creeks were small enough to have logs placed across them, sometimes with a crude hand rail attached.

Indians still roamed the region in droves, and were largely responsible for originating the trails, which looked as though they had been trodden for many generations. Often, large formations of Indians moved about in single-line procession. When fifty to one hundred people walked silently, close together in single file, it gave the appearance of one long object crawling almost snakelike. Winding across the small prairies, grass-lined narrow paths continued through the forest, beaten down several inches deep to form hard, pavement-like surfaces.

Plentiful forests abounded in Van Buren County, providing an ample source of material for make-shift cabins and crude fences. Hand split boards and heavy poles were used to roof the one- or two-room homes, and floors were made from split puncheon. Glass was rare, and most people employed oil cloth or oil paper as a substitute for windows. Snake fences were made of split rails laid in zig-zag fashion.

In 1840, John Phillips of Ohio purchased a farm in the Mt. Sterling area. He first brought his family to Keokuk in Iowa Territory by canal boat and riverboat, then ventured overland into Van Buren County. His daughter recalled their early pioneer days. She was somewhat awed as she watched a colony of Indians slowly march across her fatherís land. Her writing also provides an eye-witness account of the Mormon crossing, but according to her story, the Mormons were not always welcome visitors.

Unlike the peaceful Indian caravans that posed no threat to the settlers, the sight of these newcomers on the trail brought a dreadful feeling of uncertainty. In a single line, two hundred vehicles with teams and burdens threaded their way across the Phillips farm. Accompanying the vehicles were hordes of white people, a mixture of shrewd adventurers combined with many ignorant, hoodwinked foreigners who followed a pack leader without question. Amidst the procession was a private car for one of the leading Mormon apostles, a spring wagon containing a wide bed or platform, surrounded by a padded seat, drawn by six large mules. Within this vehicle, Brigham Young and his eight wives rode in comparative luxury.

Camping time was dreadful! Bosses were loud, brutal, fault-finding and abusive. Instead of helping the tired, weary sojourners make camp, they lashed out at them and their poor defenseless animals, with a violent display of yelling and cursing.

These roving people had been expelled from Nauvoo and other parts of Illinois, and a precarious reputation that included pilfering and theft traveled fast ahead of them. Thus the long line of ill-equipped crude vehicles were an awesome but unwanted sight, perhaps comparable to the bands of gypsies that roamed across America decades later.

Ambassadors were stationed at intervals to provide help and hospice for their brethren. But at stops in between these friendly abodes, the intruders sometimes demanded assistance or attention. More often, they visited the homes of settlers within the vicinity of their camp and overzealously tried to make converts to their religion.

A violent argument once took place at her fatherís door. With arm raised high and eyes gleaming with excited zeal, the Mormon "prophet" exclaimed, "Madam, you may disregard and sneer at my talk now, but Iíll come back with the chosen of God in great force, and then these rivers will run red with the blood of such stubborn gentiles as you! Mark my words!"

Like the Phillips family, many Van Buren County residents considered the Mormons to be unwanted intruders. One consolation with regard to the roving invaders, was that they were on a mission and therefore would not usually stay long in one place. Settlers saw to it that the idea was implanted strongly and constantly for them to move on. Once the area was free of the Mormons, local people breathed a collective sigh of relief.

(From an article in The Keosauqua Republican, published March 16, 1916 contributed by Hal Hotle of Bentonsport)

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