The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



The official act of the Territorial Legislature naming Keokuk county and defining the boundaries thereof, bears [the] date February 5th, 1844.  So it appears that the county was not named and laid out until nearly a year after the first settlement had been made west of the treaty line of 1837, and five years after the first settlement had been made on the "Old Strip."

The Indians had left, and the whites had not yet appeared in large numbers. Although the county contained but few citizens, yet the white man had marked it for his own.

During these years the county was in an undefined state of existence, or non-existence.  In one sense it was a county, in another it was not.  It was named and laid out.  So that, in point of fact, there was a region of territory described as Keokuk county, in the then unorganized State of Iowa, as early as January, 1844.  But there was no county organization proper, no county government, and not even many citizens for several months.  In a few months, however, the new county gained citizens, but in other respects it continued for some time in the same undefined state.

The work of organization was only begun when the county was named and laid out.  It remained to hold an election, and organize a county government.

Thus the early settlers were for a time in a peculiar situation.  They dwelt in, but were not properly citizens of, Keokuk county, since there were no county courts or other authority to control their actions, and they were still, in these respects, under the discipline of another county.

For judicial and other purposes the new county was still a part of Washington county, and so continued until its formal organization was completed.  It does not appear that there was much call for the exercise of this authority, or that the loose and ill-defined county government produced any bad results.  "The laws are for those who need them," and the early settlers dwelt together in harmony that did not call for the interference of sheriff or judge.  This is a somewhat remarkable feature of Keokuk county, and contrasts vividly with the early experience of some other counties.

The county seems to have prospered well during this period of loose, half-formed organization. The settlers were too busy with their own affairs to intermeddle with those of others, and so had little occasion to call for the authority of the law.  But it was soon apparent that the business affairs of the community called for a county organization.  Roads should be laid out, a county-seat located, and other preparations made for a thriving and prosperous future.  So in 1844 the county was formally organized in the manner spoken of more fully under the head of "organization."

The people in the county at the time of the organization were mostly Germans, or native born Americans, and from that time to the present the population has been mostly of that character.  The county filled up steadily and rapidly.  Nearly always the new-comers were poor in purse.  Few men of means came to Keokuk county in the early days.  But, although they came almost without exception poor in pocket, they brought with them industry, economy and intelligence, so that, in the course of years, wealth has been the result.  The growth of the county never slackened or came to a stand-still, except for a very short time, but continued steadily year by year.  The brunt of the pioneer battle was borne by the very early settlers, for within a few years the great hardships of pioneer life had disappeared, and the people lived in comfort.

At the time of the organization in 1844, the county contained less than 1,000 souls.  In 1847 there were 2,918, which shows an increase of about one hundred per cent each year for the three years following the organization.  In 1849 the population had increased to 3,953.  In 1850 the population was 4,822, and in 1852 it had reached the number 5,306.  In 1854, which ended the first decade of the county's history, the population had reached the remarkable number of  7,299.  This certainly shows a remarkable degree of progress and prosperity.

Passing over the next ten years, which include the war period, it will be interesting to note the increase of population a decade later.  In 1865 the population had grown to 13,996, and in 1867 to 15,429.  In 1870 the county numbered 19,434.  In 1875 the population was 20,488, and at this present time it is estimated that the number will approximate 21,500.

But the rapid increase of population is not the only datum whereby we may estimate the rapid growth of the county.  In 1850 there were in farms 21,075 acres of improved land, and 62,263 acres of unimproved.  In 1856 there were in farms, of improved land 52,517 acres, of unimproved 163,725.  In 1875 there were 208,125 acres of improved land in farms, in addition to 98,999 acres of unimproved land in farms in connection with these lands.

In 1850 there were 24,990 bushels of wheat raised, 346,650 bushels of corn, and the value of the live stock was $103,285.  In 1856, 64,113 bushels of wheat, 983,097 bushels of corn; the value of live stock was $108,073, and the value of cattle alone which were sold that year was $79,390.  In 1875 there were harvested in the county 368,528 bushels of wheat, and 3,327,282 bushels of corn.

In 1865 the total value of the personal property in the county was $1,056,328, and the value of farm lands was $1,909,794.  In 1875 the value of personal property was $1,473,649, and the value of farm lands was $3,087,215.

In 1850 there were in the county 820 dwellings and 857 families; in 1856 there were 1827 dwellings and 1889 families; in 1875 the number of dwellings was 3,690, and the number of families 3,763.

The church and school statistics also afford a datum whereby we may estimate the growth of the county, and these statistics give even a more striking illustration of its unparalleled development than the facts and figures relating to material prosperity.

In 1850 there were 39 schools, 39 teachers, 1015 pupils; $200 were raised by taxation for the maintenance of these schools, $640 from the public fund and $1,800 from other sources.  In 1875 there were 128 ungraded schools, 8 graded schools, 218 teachers, and the number of pupils in these schools was 8,042; this does not include 4 private schools, employing 6 teachers, with an enrollment of 151 pupils.  To carry on this educational system for one year, the county expended the sum of $46,911.

In 1850 there were 16 church buildings, valued at $3,450; they were as follows: Baptist, 4 churches, valued at $900; Christian, 3, valued at $800; Friends, 2, valued at $450; Methodist, 7, valued at $1,300.  At present, there is probably not a township in the county but what contains better facilities for religious meetings than the entire facilities of the county twenty years ago.

The total value of the property of the county in 1865 was $3,071,126, against $4,845,323 in 1875, showing an increase in ten years of $1,774,197, or more than 55 per cent.

Thus, from the very first, the history of the county shows a steady career of thriving, prosperous growth.  The following table of important events shows the general landmarks of the county's growth and history to the present time:


First settler, Aaron Miller, March, 1838.
Oldest settler still residing on original claim, William Bristow.  County laid out, 1844.
County formally organized, 1844.
Sigourney located, May 10, 1844.
First white child born, J. F. Scearcy, December 15, 1840.
First marriage license issued in county, April 5, 1844, Nelson Green and Elizabeth Warner.
First term of court, July 22, 1844.
First land entered, 1846.
First land transfer, February 15, 1845,
First mill erected, commenced June, 1842; finished February, 1843.  County-seat removed to Lancaster, August 7, 1846.
First newspaper published, "Western Friend," June 1, 1854.  First mail received at Sigourney, February 7, 1845.
County-seat returned to Sigourney, April 12, 1856.
Gold excitements, 1849, 1859, 1876.
Old court-house built, 1844.
Old jail built, 1848.
New court-house completed, 1858.
New jail completed, 1875.
First railroad train in Sigourney, April 9, 1872.

This brief table represents a large amount of history, and will be very instructive to those who may "ponder it fittingly."

Speaking generally, the growth of the county has been steady and continuous, although there have been, of course, times of ebb and flow.  The first period of the county's growth was one of much hardship and privation.  The California emigration, however, brought golden days to the county, and prosperity continued in high tide until the panic a few years before the war.

These were evil days for Keokuk county, there was very general discontent, and many business men in the county were ruined.  A slow recovery followed and introduced the war period.  From the close of the war up to the panic of 1873, Keokuk was again in a prosperous condition.  The county did not suffer in this directly so much as indirectly, in the general derangement of the business of the country.  But the experience was much the same as that in the former period of high times.  Property depreciated and become unsalable, and general discontent and uneasiness spread among the people. There has been nothing peculiar to Keokuk county in this experience—it has been that of the country in general.  At the present time the county is fairly started again on a career of prosperity.

So, in Keokuk county, good times have followed close upon evil times, and vice versa all through the period of its growth.  It would seem that old sage's thought would be a good thing to keep ever in mind, both in prosperity and distress: "Even this shall pass away."  Such a lesson is taught by the experience of the county, from the organization to the present time.

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!


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