Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


In theory, anyone residing in Iowa before 1839 or 1840 was a "squatter;" a term coined in the 19th century that inferred a somewhat illegal status to occupancy of land. When the Black Hawk War ended in 1832, the Sac and Fox ceded to the U.S. government a large territory extending inland some fifty miles from the Mississippi River, including most of what was later Van Buren County. This tract became public domain on June 1, 1833, except that federal law prohibits settlement of a region until the land is surveyed. Enforcement of the law was impossible as people poured across the Mississippi into the Iowa section known as the Black Hawk Strip. Although a land office was established in Burlington to handle sales, delays prevented public sale of land until 1839 and 1840. By 1840, the population of the county was over six thousand.

First people venturing into the area settled along the Des Moines River and its tributaries, but there is some dispute regarding who was the first permanent settler. Abel Galland staked a claim at Farmington in 1833 giving rise to the popular notion that Farmington is the oldest village in the county. Some sources suggest that Peter Avery spent the previous winter at the mouth of Lick Creek near what was later Kilbourne, where he had a small trading post (George W. Wright, "Address to the Pioneer Association," The Keosauqua Republican, 28 August 1872.)

Leando, first known as Portland, also claims settlement as early as 1833, with an interesting sidebar. Portland was laid out in 1834 by John Tolman of Portland, Maine. When he and a handful of English-speaking settlers arrived, they discovered a dozen or so white people already living in Portland who "spoke a strange language."

My theory (although unproven) is that these first settlers spoke Spanish, or perhaps a mixture of Spanish and American Indian. On a map of the Mississippi Valley published by General Pike in 1805, two forts are placed in this area--Fort Crawford, located a short distance from Portland, and Fort Gelaspy, opposite Iowaville. I have not been able to determine how long these forts were in operation (if ever) or if any people inhabited the sites, but this could be a source of these mysterious residents.

Also, several Spanish land grants were issued to citizens of the United States in the vast area west of the Mississippi River before the French government owned and sold it to the United States as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The first land purchase was made by Julien Dubuque who bought land from the Indians for the purpose of mining lead.

On March 30, 1799 a man named Lewis Honori was issued a grant from the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Louisiana for the purpose of trading with the Indians. The site was at the rapids of the Mississippi River (called the Des Moines Rapids) near present-day Montrose. Here he planted an orchard, cultivated crops, and built structures. In 1805, Mr. Honori sold his one-square mile of (Iowa) land to Thomas Reddeck (sometimes spelled Riddick or Reddick.)

This land was in the Half-breed Tract, in the panhandle of Iowa located between the two rivers that was to be sectioned off to people of mixed white, Spanish, and/or Indian blood. It is quite possible that some of these half-breed people ventured up the Des Moines River to the site of Portland.

A majority of Van Buren County’s 6,000 residents had receipts to show that they had purchased their claim lands, thus they resented the label of "squatter" attached to their occupancy. In the fall of 1836, my great-great grandfather (Asahel Fellows) temporarily left his family in Michigan to travel into Iowa to purchase a 700-acre claim across the river from present Hotel Manning. He paid an agent named Mr. Anson the sum of $800 for this claim, and returned to Michigan for his family. By May of 1837, they occupied their claim site. Surveyors came through the area that summer. When the land sales office was finally ready in Burlington to issue the deeds and record the sales, it was necessary for Asahel and other citizens around Keosauqua to make the trip to Burlington as a group armed with pitchforks, axes, and old muskets, so as to prevent any claim jumpers from grabbing land they had already purchased. In those days "preemption rights" was a subject of controversy, but never once did citizens who had purchased claims from agents feel that they occupied their land illegally, as some would suggest.

According to notes of the surveyors who crossed the county, at least 23 villages dotted the landscape including Rochester, Columbus, Lexington, Des Moines City, Bentonsport, Portland, Iowaville, Kilbourne, Bonaparte Mills, Farmington, and Troy (Pittsburg.) It is not clear if all of them had populations, as some of them may have been towns on paper only, but all of the existing river villages in Van Buren have roots and ties to "squatter" settlement. Of all the villages, Farmington appears to have been the largest, with an estimated resident population approaching 200.

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