Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Times Were Hard When They Came

George C. Duffield said that when his father James brought his family to Van Buren County in 1837, they arrived at their new home with very little more than the clothing on their backs.  The family had a precious small supply of meal, flour, salt, a few dishes and tools.

They had stopped in Illinois for two years, but what grain and necessities they could save were left behind.  George made a trip or two back on horseback to get some things, yet still they virtually lived in a cabin without furnishings.  His father’s tools consisted of an axe, a plow, an auger and a plane.

Samuel Clayton, the millwright, had arrived the year before and built a cabin at the mouth of Chequest Creek in 1836.  He raised a little patch of corn and was joined by his family in 1837.  With the help of his sons Henry and Harvey, he built a dam across Chequest, about a mile above the mouth.  Here he built a mill—the first one west of the Des Moines River in the present limits of the State of Iowa (Annals of Iowa, July, 1904.)

The dam was what was known as a crib dam, made of large hewn logs, with a roof.  The structure was 14 to 16 feet through, 8 or 10 feet high and 60 to 65 feet in length.  Claytons built a road to the mill.

The Clayton children were playmates of the Duffields, but while Clayton built the mill, Duffield was raising his first crop.  Before anything else was planted, some precious potato eyes were planted in the ground, as food was scarce—so scarce that potato peelings sometimes could be sold for $2 per bushel, for seed. 

Plowing was done with oxen.  Many settlers arrived without means.  Their own ground barely cleared of brush, John Duffield went for miles around with the oxen to help plow where he could. 

By the time the new potatoes were ready, the meal and flour had long vanished.  Fruits were now in abundance, but there was no bread.  George said he shuddered to think of those early days—the times were so bad. 

When they left Illinois in 1837, thousands of people were on the trails to Iowa from the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.  1837 was a Depression year—people were on the verge of starvation.

Although they were among the first settlers in the Troy (Pittsburg) area in April, 1837--Van Buren County was settling very quickly.  “Cities” in existence or ambitiously planned were Farmington, Alexander, Portland, Mechanicsburg, New Market, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Hartford, Bentonsport, Plymouth, Harrisburg, Watertown, New Lexington, Rochester, Meek’s Mills, Rushville, Columbus, Winchester, Parkersburg, Rising Sun, Van Buren, Hedvolante, Salubria, Black Hawk, Napoleon, Iowaville, Woods Mills (Mt. Sterling) and others (George C. Duffield, Annals of Iowa, July, 1904.)

More than anything, the depression probably contributed to the reason why this territory became so quickly  populated during the late 1830s, before government land offices opened.  That there was no famine and this county prospered, was due to the oversight of a kind Providence, according to Mr. Duffield.  The family quickly learned to make corn meal for mush, and a scratchy corn pone cake.


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