Events of Interest in History of Bonaparte 
Prepared for Historical Committee of the Centennial by Miss Nora Burrier

rom Van Buren Record, Thursday, August 12, 1937 

Events of Interest in History of Bonaparte Prepared for Historical Committee of the Centennial by Miss Nora Burrier 

Bonaparte, beautiful village, set like a jewel amid magnificent forests, and which had its beginning just one hundred years ago is situated on the north bank of the Des Moines river, in the southeastern part of Van Buren county, Iowa. 

Our little city has had a romantic setting. Once its location was a mere spot in the vast expanses of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1807 Iowa was included in the territory of Illinois, in 1812 in the territory of Missouri, in 1834 the Black Hawk Purchase having been made, all of the territory west of the Mississippi and north of the southern boundary of Missouri was made a part of the territory of Michigan. 

In 1837, the year of its initiation as a habitable village, it was designated as Meek's Mills, Michigan Territory, U. S. A. It was not until 1841 that it was named Bonaparte and not until 1846 that it was a town in the State of Iowa. 

To those first white men, who, after their ardous journeys through long stretches of wet, harsh prairie grass, horse high; across many rapid streams and dangerous bogs, in their search for a new land, suitable for a future home, this primitive area, now Bonaparte, was viewed as a land of promise, in a perfect state of Nature. 

Robert Coates was evidently the first white man to make a permanent settlement here, as a record in the "Annals of Iowa" states that he was here in the summer of 1836, and located a homestead on the small open park on the north bank of the Des Moines river, closely surrounded by forest trees. But as his purpose was a tillable farm, he transferred his claim to Robert Moffett, and he in turn disposed of the present western part of the town to William Meek, who arrived later in the same year, 1836. Mr. Meek was seeking timber and water facilities. 

Soon Dr. R. N. Cresap, in his peregrinations, to find a homeland, ferreted out this wilderness Eden and was so enthused with the beauty and possibilities of the location for a town site that he entered with Mr. Meek in that project. January 17, 1839, an act was approved by legislative enactment whereby William Meek and Sons were authorized to build a dam across the Des Moines river, and which started the conservation of water power to operate saw mills, flouring mills or other enterprises. 

More pioneers arrived from day to day until there were a sufficient number to lay out a town. This was done in the year 1837 by William Meek, Dr. R. N. Cresap, P. R. Rice, Joseph Rabb, Edwin Wilson, David Sewell, Lewis Christian and William Welch, named in Van Buren County History as the town's pioneer citizens. 

In the years between 1836 and 1843 the population increased rapidly, as well as the entire county. In 1838 the population of the county was 3,000 and in 1840 it was 6,140. 

From the few cabins of the first hardy settlers, when the town was laid out in a wilderness, it has grown until today, one hundred years after, although not at the peak of its population since its settlement, it is one of the most attractive of the small Iowa cities. 

At first Bonaparte had two rival neighbors. Directly across the river a settlement was started, named Napoleon, but did not survive its early stage of development. Also up the river, one mile west, another settlement called New Lexington came into a thriving existence as a trading post for Indians, but the rapidly growing industries of Bonaparte so near, sapped its vitality and the village lapsed into a farm. 

John Bundy and William Meek are both credited with having kept the first store in the village. Dr. R. N. Cresap kept the first hotel; the first blacksmith was R. B. Willoughby, and Hamilton Kearns was the first wagonmaker. 

The first child born in the village was William Willoughby; the first death was Angeline, wife of Dr. R. N. Cresap, and the first marriage ceremony solemnized in Bonaparte was that of Joseph A. Kean and Miss Elizabeth Williamson. 

During the many years that have passed since these beginnings in the secular life of the community, many changes have come and gone, to the varied inhabitants have come honors and vicissitudes, joys and sorrows, all has made up those pages of the town's history, and which in the enjoyment or endurance of the same, with fortitude or triumph, secures blessings for those who obey the Divine Law. And so, with that largeness of gratitude to their Creator and Giver, they early constructed church edifices for worship. Dr. R. N. Cresap gave the ground to each denomination in turn. 

The Baptist built the first, which was finished in 1857 at a cost of $2,800. The Methodist was long organized as a church before they built a chapel in 1872 at a cost of $700. In 1868 the Presbyterian was organized and in 1871 they built a $2,800 church, with Rev. H. R. Lewis as the first pastor. Another church organization was that of the Advent denomination. 

Not alone religion, but education must have been a primary consideration among these intelligent homemakers. The first district school house was built in 1844 and Thomas Chariton [Charlton?] was the first teacher. The building was burned in 1859, and from this date until 1871, rooms were rented for school purposes by the district. In 1865-66 and 67 the Bonaparte Academy Association erected a fine brick building, two stories high, containing four study rooms and two recitation rooms at a cost of $20,000. The incorporators of this Association were Thomas Christy, Joseph A. Kean, J. G. Vale, Benjamin Wagner, John T. Stewart, George W. Sturdivant and A. H. Leach. They erected the building "for the purpose of promoting education, literature, science and art." E. P. Howe was the first principal. In 1870 the district became independent and in 1871 the Academy building was purchased by the directors of the Independent School District of Bonaparte for a public school, and the price paid was $12,000. In 1915 this building was totally destroyed by fire and again rooms had to be provided until a new building could be built upon the same site, and this year the addition of a large and commodious gymnasium has provided the town with a school facility to be proud of. 

The first commencement exercises of Bonaparte High School were held in the Haney Opera House Wednesday evening, May 6, 1891, with Nellie Jones and Gerry E. Whitmore graduating with the following Juniors assisting: Dora Christy, Xantippe Stutsman, Margaret Stebbins, Regina Vale and C. P. Cook. A teachers' institute was held in August, 1881. Will Hastings was the County Superintendent. Miss Anna Packer was conductor. Instructors were O. W. Weyer, John T. Fegtly, W. A. Packer and Emma Layton. The lecturers were Prof. Von Coelln, Rev. J. W. Wright, Rev. James Welch and Rev. D. L. Clouse. The enrollment was 112. This was the eighth session held in the county, but the first held in Bonaparte. 

As previously stated, one of the initiatory steps by the founders of the town was the building of a dam to utilize the water power, and after the right was secured by William Meek & Sons, a first and second was constructed. The last at a cost of $36,000 in the year 1872, and was known as the best mill dam in all the west. It added usefulness and beauty to the town until the year 1903, when on June 3, the greatest flood ever known in the history of the Des Moines river reached its highest stage at Bonaparte. Forces of men with loads of hay, rocks, heavy timbers and sandbags worked all day Sunday, June 2, in rain, to keep the water from cutting into the south abutment of the dam, but about 4 o'clock Monday morning the dam broke and was never rebuilt. Another serious flood came June 10, 1905, and removed the last timbers of the ruins. 

In a speech made by a pioneer he said: "In looking back to the early days I regard the winter of 1837-38 as the hardest times we ever endured. Crowds of people had located during the summer and many were in very uncomfortable cabins when winter came on. Some had raised a little corn, but there were no mills in the country nearer than Waterloo, Missouri, to grind it, and a severe winter was upon us." 

This is only a brief idea of the many privations, disadvantages and dangers the first settlers had to struggle with. The greatest of these was the accessibility to food supplies. The only recourse was for the individual pioneer to transport his own load, which took many days of travel over rutted roads and bridgeless streams, while the wife and little ones were left alone in the crude cabins surrounded by dense timber and often prey to wild animals and marauding Indians. 

No real thoroughfare led into Bonaparte until 1847 when a state road was laid out from West Point in Lee county to the town here. The ferry boat was the only mode of crossing the river until the year 1878 when the largest bridge in Van Buren county was constructed to span the Des Moines river. It has 5 piers and 6 spans, each 150 feet long. Each span weighs 60 tons and the cost was $35,000. 

The infant manufacturing projects of the town, the saw mill and flouring mill were begun in 1838. They were of crude construction and launched before there was a dam across the river. The power was obtained by building a wing and placing a large wheel in the current for the purpose of running the machinery, but it was not a success. The next flouring mill was built in 1844 and served until 1872. The third was built by Robert Meek and Bros. Later Isaiah Meek overhauled the machinery and installed the latest improved methods. In the year 1853 the Meeks added the Woolen Manufacturing building and machinery and worked under the firm name of William Meek and Sons, until 1855 when the father retired and the name was changed to Meek Bros. The Woolen Mill building was burned in 1863. Robert Meek and Bros. rebuilt a brick structure five stories high and continued this flourishing institution for many more years. 

A very useful industry conducted at the northern outskirts of town, was the brick kiln owned and operated by Hazard Whitmore and Sons. This industry furnished the material with which many of Bonaparte's most substantial buildings were constructed. 

Another industry was the Bonaparte Pottery, started in 1866 by Parker and Hanback, continuing for five years when Robert Wilson succeeded Mr. Parker. This factory could turn out 125,000 gallons of pottery per year. They also made flower pots, drain pipes and fire proof brick. In 1876 the Pottery building burned, but was rebuilt at once, and the machinery was run by steam power. 

The first fire of which any record is known occurred in 1852. A one story frame building, situated on front street in block one, filled with a stock of merchandise owned by John McCausland. The next large fire was the Meeks Woolen Mills, totally destroyed July 5, 1863. Another was July 16, 1886, when 14 buildings were destroyed. 

If there is any one thing more than another of which people of Bonaparte have reason to be proud, it is the record made when the rebel lion threatened the life of the nation. Her soldiers served with loyalty and bravery and their names are honored by their posterity and contemporaries. 

Bonaparte also has the honor of being the residence town of a living real Granddaughter of the American Revolution in the person of Mrs. Lydia Whitmore. Her ancestor was Moses Leavitt of New Hampshire and Mrs. Whitmore is an honored member of the Van Buren County Chapter. 

Of the orders, the Bonaparte Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows No. 22 is the oldest, its charter having been granted Nov. 8, 1849. 

The second entry of land made in Van Buren county was by Robert Sturdivant of Bonaparte on October 5, 1838. It was 160 acres in Harrisburg township. The first Recorder was William Welch of Bonaparte, and the first instrument of record was dated February 23, 1837. 

The first newspaper published in Bonaparte was the Van Buren County Democrat which made its appearance January 19, 1870, under the management of Smith and Holcomb. Shortly afterward Mr. Holcomb sold his interest to his partner, George F. Smith, who continued publication until 1876 when he moved his plant to Keosauqua. 

Rees and Riggle began the manufacture of carriages in Bonaparte in 1874. For the first few years they had to stand the strain of heavy competition from cheap eastern firms, but they held to the idea that hand made carriages would regain favor and soon were averaging a $3,000 sale a year to home trade alone, besides shipping to neighboring states. 

An axe handle factory for a time flourished, a company organization for awhile, but in 1900 the building was destroyed and never rebuilt. 

It would be interesting to know at this Anniversary celebration how many remember the immense crowds that used to congregate in Cass Meek's beautiful sugar maple grove to celebrate Independence Day, or when Scheyli's Grove extended westward within the city limits, so that the present location of the Wm. Pa??e and Dr. Percival homes were in a growth of forest trees.

(Written by Nora Barbara Burrier, Historian of Van Buren County Chapter D. A. R.) 

Source: clippings from scrapbook located in the Van Buren Co. Genealogical Society Library, Keosauqua, IA

Contributed by Volunteer Transcriber Paul French


Van Buren Co. GenWeb Project