Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Squatters at Leando

I've got an idea about an old legend concerning the "squatters" found at Leando. It is no secret that Portland (Leando) is Van Buren's oldest settlement.

John Tollman laid out a village and named it Portland in 1834, then moved on to Iowaville. Later that same year, the Holcomb clan arrived--John, Sam, Clinton, Stephen, and Zephaniah.

Before Tollman laid out the village, John Holcomb had paid a visit to the area in 1833, and when he did so he found six houses at the site, around a trading post. Legend is that these squatter families had resided there for several years, and "spoke a strange language."

The trading post is probably one of those which Pike had proposed and referred to as Fort Crawford (there were at least three dotting his crude map published in 1811).

It has never been determined who those first settlers at Portland were, what language they spoke, or what happened to them after the Holcombs arrived.

One thing about Pike's map released in 1811, is that it contained information which he obtained from someone else. There is nothing in his notes to indicate that he was ever in Van Buren County himself or that he explored the Des Moines River beyond a few miles above its mouth. Yet, his map showed the bend and many of the tributaries flowing into it, including "Paul's River" which was later named Chequest Creek. Where did he obtain all of his information?

It seems that Jean Baptiste Fairbault had a trading post along the upper reaches of the Des Moines River near the present site of Boone, between 1799 and 1802. At least twice per year, he made trips down the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers to St. Louis with canoes loaded with furs. He kept records and mapped regions as he went.

Fairbault made an encounter with Pike in 1805 when Zebulon was exploring the upper reaches of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Pike employed him as an interpreter when he asked the Dakota Indians to cede land for a military base--the eventual site of Ft. Snelling.

It is my belief that Fairbault shared information with Pike before the map of the Des Moines River valley was drawn and published in 1811. This leads to my idea about the squatters found at Portland (Leando) in the early 1830s.

Fairbault himself was a Frenchman. Since he made trips down the river several times each year to trade his furs in St. Louis, he might have left some traders and scouts in locations along the line. Over the years, they may have mingled with the Indians and thus the squatters at Portland likely were descendants of Fairbault's crew of explorers.

If the people spoke either French or a combination of French and Indian it would explain why John Holcolm could not understand them.

There have always been legends about French people once residing in Van Buren County "before the white man arrived." This might partially explain that. We should remember, that legends usually have an element of truth about them even when they are vague and hazy or don't exactly match known facts. The problem is, the idea is feasible but cannot be proven beyond doubt.

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