Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
WHERE TO BEGIN THE HISTORY OF A COMMUNITY: The Wild and Wooly West
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any premise or benchmark for the origin of a town or community. Often, historians choose the point of first settlement as the origin. At other times, it is when the community or village first adopts a name.
In developing the history of Van Buren County and its many villages, this has been a difficult and sometimes aggravating task. If one community chooses a particular criteria to establish the origin, it is not always fair to other communities unless there is some consistency.
First of all, a definition of terms should be established. The word "settlement" according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary can mean 1) a place to stay, 2) to establish residence, 3) to furnish with inhabitants, colonize, 4) to cause to pack down, 5) to cause impurities to sink, 6) to arrange in desired position, 7) to make quiet or orderly, 8) to establish or secure permanently, 9) to come to rest, 10) to sink, 11) to arrange final disposition, 12) to become clear of a debt, 13) to establish a village or colony, 14) to take up an order, 15) to decide, 16) to conceive, or 17) to relieve nausea. I have highlighted the definitions that apply to the pioneering settlement of territory, but there still persists a problem. To establish residence is, or can be quite different from establishing a town or colony.
Because of a discrepancy in terms, it is not clear what the oldest village is in Van Buren County. When John Holcomb first came to Village Township in 1833, he discovered squatters living along the river. There were half a dozen houses near the trading post, and the residents spoke a strange language thought to be a mixture of Creole, Indian and Spanish. Traders were aware of these people as early as 1831.
During 1834, several more of the Holcomb clan arrived and the village of Portland began. Although the village was laid out in streets, it was years before it was platted (1847.) Since it was never incorporated, Portland (later called Leando) was never an official village of Van Buren County. Yet its origin was before white settlement.
Iowaville grew out of the old Sac and Fox village by that name. The Sac and Fox built the town in 1824 after defeating the Iowa (or Ioway) Indians, and settled there in order to supervise the defeated tribe and keep them in line. The village population at times reached 600 or 800. The Sac and Fox moved upstream in early 1838, and before they left the proprietors of Iowaville (Jordan, Phelps and Tollman) purchased the property from the Indians for $3,000. But did Iowaville begin in 1837, or in 1824?
The first settlers came to the area of Farmington and Kilbourne in 1832, Keosauqua 1835, Bentonsport 1834, and the Bonaparte area in 1835. But what about Indian traders? Since many of them continued their operations for awhile after the white settlers began arriving, should they be considered as the first settlers? In 1835, Old Garrison Trading Post existed about a mile north of the city limits of Keosauqua overlooking the river. Peter Avery had a trading post near Kilbourne in 1832, William and Caroline Phelps began trading at Iowaville in 1830. They supervised Old Garrison within the bend, and perhaps a trading operation at Farmington.
It is indeed clear that Farmington was chosen to be the County Seat of newly created Van Buren County (Wisconsin Territory) in 1836, because it was the only "village" with a population of substance. No one counted the villagers, but it is thought to have had 100 residents. Portland was the only other populated village and it was behind the settlement line within Indian Territory. Thus, Farmington has distinguished itself as Van Buren’s oldest village.
Farmington usually dates its origin as 1833, yet it was not laid out until 1836 (28 blocks) and incorporated until 1841. In 1847 it was re-incorporated as a city. Van Buren was laid out in 1837, annexed Keosauqua in 1838, became the new County Seat in 1838, but does not count its origin until 1839, because in that year it was re-surveyed and officially named Keosauqua. Later that year, Des Moines City joined the new seat.
Bonaparte did not exist as a village by that name until 1842, and as a town until 1897, yet it considers its origin as 1837 when a few blocks were laid out as "Meek’s Mills." I can go on and on as other villages in the county have chosen different methods of identifying their origins.
This is partly why the area was considered to be the frontier. Not only was there a lack of law and order at times, but certainly there was a lack of control and consistency. All of those matters comes with completed civilization, which was not apparent as we know it until well into the 1840s. Van Buren County was part of the wild and wooly west!
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick