American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


THE beginnings of the city of Des Moines are not shrouded in romance or shadowy tradition. Thrilling episode and epochmaking events do not abound in her history. Cannon have never thundered against the gates of the city, nor hostile armies marched and counter marched within her environs. Not even the blood curdling war whoop of the Indian ever struck terror into the hearts of her pioneers. Yet the story of the capital city of Iowa is neither prosaic nor uninteresting. Her origin and early history typify the beginnings of civilized life throughout almost the entire State of Iowa; and since the seat of government was transferred to the city in 1857, her history is in epitome the history of the great commonwealth of which she is the capital.

The origin of the city's name is a moot question among antiquarians. Popular etymology has derived Des Moines from the early associations of Trappist monks at or near the mouth of the river, la riviere des Moines: but Dr. Elliot Coues regarded this as spurious etymology. Some local historians have contended that the name arose- from the fact that the valley of the Des Moines River was inhabited by the Mound Builders: numerous mounds were found in what is now the heart of the city; hence, the "river of the mounds." The French explorer Nicollet ascribes its origin to the Algonquin name Momgoinan, and the earliest map showing the journeys and discoveries of La Salle, Joliet, and Marquette designate the river by the Algonquin name. In later times the French voyageurs and traders clipped the word, for we find Des Mans, De Man, De Mayen, Demoin, Demoir and sometimes Demon. The French settlers probably had in mind the great "middle region" beween the Mississippi and the Missouri when they referred to the De Moyen or Des Moines.

The city of Des Moines was originally a frontier fort. Unlike the majority of such in the West in early days, this outpost at the "forks of the Raccoon" was not established to protect the whites from the Indians. On the contrary, Fort Des Moines was founded to guard the Sac and Fox Indians, to secure them in the peaceful possession of their hunting grounds and to protect them against rapacious land agents, the encroachments of the whites and the bloody Sioux. And the event was typical of the relations of the national Government with the Indian tribes of Iowa. When Iowa became known to the people of the East the tide of emigration soon began to run high and strong toward the Mississippi. It is not extravagant to say that never have more beautiful lands been opened for human settlement than lay beyond the "Father of Waters" in the hunting grounds of the Sacs and Foxes. "One ravissante conferee" exclaimed in 1842 King Lotus Philippe's son, Prince de Joinville, as he gazed upon the gorgeous green of the river bluffs, forests, and valleys, and meadows and prairies of Iowa. The wonderful stories related of the marvellous fertility of the soil and the attractiveness of nature in this Western Mesopotamia gave a tremendous impetus to emigration. But the national Government firmly held back the tide. The Mississippi was patrolled by troops to prevent the settlers invading the lands. Colonel Zachary Taylor and Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, both later to achieve great fame, were among those who guarded the rights of the Iowa Indians and ejected overzealous frontiersmen and "squatters." But the pressure of population westward was irresistible; and small pretexts were sufficient to break down the barriers. The war with the Sacs and Foxes under their great leader, Black Hawk, came on and by the treaty of 1832, known as the "Black Hawk Purchase," negotiated by General Winfield Scott, a tract along the Mississippi fifty miles wide was opened for settlement. This strip was rapidly populated and in 1836 the Keokuk reserve was ceded to the United States. In 1837 a large tract adjacent on the west, aggregating 1,250,000 acres, was purchased from the Indians. In a short time the settlers began to clamor for the opening of the beautiful lands in the Des Moines Valley and beyond, and to petition Congress; and on October 11, 1842, Governor John Chambers, the second Territorial governor of Iowa, negotiated a treaty at Agency City which obtained title to the rest of Iowa. By its terms the Sacs and Foxes were permitted to remain three years in their beloved hunting grounds before their departure for Kansas. It was the latter provision that led to the establishment of Fort Des Moines.

In May, 1834, a military camp styled Fort Des Moines was established at the mouth of the river near where Keokuk now is, but abandoned in 1837. As early as 1835 Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Kearny had been ordered by the War Department at Washington to "proceed up the river Des Moines to the Raccoon fork" and reconnoitre with a view to the selection of a military post. He reported adversely, however, believing that a fort should be established farther north near the Minnesota line; and nothing was done until the treaty of 1842 was ratified. Then General Scott, in order to protect the Indians from molestation by the whites, directed that troops be stationed near the Agency buildings then located a few miles south and east of the present city. Captain James Allen of the First Dragoons selected the "forks of the Raccoon," and in May, 1843, a steamboat came up the Des Moines River and landed soldiers and supplies. The soldiers set about building the fort, which, when completed, consisted simply of the officers' and men's quarters, one story log huts with puncheon floors, a storehouse, hospital, and stables, all so 'arranged as to form a right angle, the sides of which ran parallel to the banks of the converging rivers, and came to a point at their junction. There was no stockade, em bankment, or outlying moat on the exposed view or any other protective feature.

During t h e time the fort was garrisoned there were a few whites permitted to occupy lands near by,a representative of the American Fur Company, traders, a tailor, a blacksmith, and gardeners, persons who served the fort in some way, but the population never exceeded two hundred, soldiers and all. Captain Allen and his dragoons had to give all their time to restraining restless bands of Indians and crowding back the eager settlers who were on the eastern boundaries of the purchase awaiting the departure of the Indians. The latter, although they manifested a disinclination to leave their old haunts, and trouble was anticipated when the order came for them to move, nevertheless peacefully withdrew under their great chief Keokuk.

Even before the Indians' title to the lands had expired many whites had slipped over the borders, dodged the dragoons, spied out the most desirable places for settlement and determined to claim them as soon as they could be entered.' Many a story is told of men roosting high in trees for days to keep out of the sight of the troops. On the night of October 10, 1845, men were stationed in all directions from the fort ready to measure off their claims. Precisely at twelve o'clock, midnight, a signal gun was fired at the Agency house. Answering guns rang out sharply in quick succession from hilltop and valley for miles around. The moon was shining dimly and its beams ill supplemented the fitful gleams of the settlers' torches as they hastily made their rough surveys, marked by blazing trees or by setting stones or stakes. Men helped each other. Two friends would run in two directions and each fire a gun when the terminus was reached. When the sun came up a new empire had come into being and the order and industry of the white man had displaced the listless, unprogressive life of the savage.

The rush of the settlers into the region about Des Moines ahead of the surveyor's chain led to the development of an institution of peculiar interest in Western history. Not only was it unique, it was also a striking instance of the spontaneous growth of an institution of government. It was almost if not quite the realization under almost ideal conditions of the theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau that Government arises from and rests on a Social Compact. It was known as a Land Club or League or Claim Association, and it played a large part in the organization of government in Iowa. It overrode the law of the land, or rather it blocked the natural course of the law; yet at the same time it maintained order and secured under strict regulations equity for the early settlers when the enforcement of the law would have worked harsh injustice, and possibly have produced serious outbreaks against national authority.

When Iowa was first opened for settlement the pioneers could not pre-empt lands or secure title to them until they were surveyed; and then only at public sale. But the surveyor lagged far behind the pioneer, who considered not the law, but, anxious for a home, hurried into the new tracts and settled on his claim. The "squatter"" had no legal title to his claim, nor could he obtain it by priority of occupancy; and he knew that any stranger or speculator with a longer purse string could purchase his land and oust him and his family the moment the Government should offer it for sale. It was the likelihood of this dire contingency that led to the formation of Claim Clubs or Associations in nearly every locality in Iowa. These clubs were composed of all the settlers in a township or county. They adopted a constitution, elected officers and conducted their affairs by definite procedure. They governed all matters relating to the amount and character of claims, their occupancy, improvement, abandonment, transfers, and disputes. The decisions of the club were rigidly enforced. Claims were recorded and the members were under solemn agreement not only to guard each other from interference but to prevent lands claimed from being sold to strangers at the public sales. Unhappy was the fate of a man who had the temerity to "jump" a claim or to outbid a claimant. Tar and feathers or unceremonious banishment or even harsher treatment was not unlikely. At the sale the club selected a member who would bid in the members' claims. He was accompanied by a posse whose presence always prevented outsiders from bidding as the law contemplated. If the Government officials were not always in sympathy with the settlers, at least they were always discreet enough to manifest no disapproval of the proceedings.

These Claim Clubs of Iowa aroused fierce opposition in the East. Calhoun and Clay denounced them as "conspiracies of lawless men" who so, terrorized would be purchasers that bona fide sales were impossible, and they urged that vigorous measures be taken to abate them. Webster came to the settlers' defence. He pleaded for what he called their "reasonable rights" under the circumstances. The Government had delayed the surveys; yet the settlers had been encouraged to go into the new lands and make their homes; to dispossess them would work severe hardship; the clubs, although outside the pale of the law, had enforced order and maintained to a marked degree all the forms of law and government, and violence was extremely rare. To Webster's eloquence was due the passage of the early pre-emption laws. They were not liberal enough, however, and in 1848 a strong Claim Club was formed at Des Moines.

Although the treaty of 1842 opened the lands in 1845 they were not surveyed until 1847 and title could not be obtained until late in 1848. Meantime claims in large numbers had been entered. In 1848 speculators and "landsharks" came in and roamed about regarding the settlers' claims with envious and designing eyes. Fear of them was a leading motive in the formation of the Claim Club of 1848. Strangers were closely watched. Any suspicious action led to the suspect being warned that discretion was the better part of valor. There were some disturbances but none were serious. The most notable arose within the club itself. One Perkins jumped his neighbor Flemmings's claim. The latter appealed to his club members. A "war" ensued in which Perkins narrowly escaped hanging. When the sale took place at Iowa City, 125 miles east of Des Moines, the club's agent bid in at $1.25 all of the claims and soon thereafter the club ceased to play any part in the life of the community.

The first local government to which the inhabitants of Des Moines were subject was the county government of Polk County provided for by the Territorial Legislature in January, 1846. The town government was not organized until 1851. By this time Fort Des Moines had become a thriving place. It was an important way station on one of the main stage routes to the West. In 1852, the establishment of a Government land office brought to the town for the entry of lands the multitudes of speculators and settlers then rushing into Western Iowa. In the days of the gold fever and during the border wars in Kansas and Nebraska her ferries and hostelries did a bustling trade.

In those early days life was free, easy, simple, and buoyant. The population of Fort Des Moines was made up of people from both Southern and Northern States. They lived in log huts or simple frame buildings. Pork and "corn dodgers," coffee, sometimes made of parched corn, and tea, often made from native plants, constituted in the main their diet. They had to go many miles to get their flour ground. Oxen were generally used in drawing wagons and ploughs. Stage coaches were the common carriers until the railroads entered the city in 1866. Prior to 1858 the State constitution prohibited the establishment of banks of note issue and the money of the citizens was chiefly "wildcat" and "red dog" currency. In 1857-58 the City Council so far trenched on the powers of Congress as to issue "City Scrip," with the twofold object of paying the city's debt and affording the citizens a circulating medium. As the scrip did not become popular, in a short time the city called in its paper and redeemed it. Like most frontier towns a certain reckless disregard of the sober customs of the Eastern cities characterized the social life. Sunday was a sort of gala day, when horse and foot races between whites and Indians, accompanied by more or less gambling and carousal, were not infrequent. But the garish and reckless life soon gave place to the staid habits of well ordered communities, and since the Civil War Des Moines has justly sustained the reputation of a "conservative" Western city.

The navigation of the Des Moines River was a great factor in the first years of the city's growth. Steamboats came up the river from Keokuk in the spring and summer months and brought most of the city's supplies. The people living along its course soon perceived that the river could be made a great waterway for commerce. Those were the days of "internal improvements.". Congress was induced in 1846 to give to the new State every alternate section of unsold land in a strip five miles wide on either bank of the river to be used for the improvement of the channel. A River Improvement Company was formed. River traffic increased rapidly and the people went wild over the project. As usual the matter soon drifted into politics and decided the fate of political parties. Demagogism ran riot. A story is told of two candidates for Congress in 1850, campaigning together, who rushed across field to greet a farmer. The first one to reach him, extending his hand, cried:

"Hurrah for river improvement! "

The farmer so eagerly sought proved to be a scarecrow.

The net result of all the excitement and speculation attending the various efforts to improve the river was failure and collapse. The State after expending immense sums abandoned the task in 1862. Worse still, complications arose over the extent of the grant from the Government, and left the people above the city a sorry heritage of costly litigation that continued till 1892 over the titles to their homes. The entire experiment was an instructive illustration of the futility of most of the attempts at "internal improvements" fostered by congressional land grants.

In the summer of 1894 the river achieved notoriety in connection with the epidemic of "Commonweal Armies" that disturbed the public that year. One division, mobilized at San Francisco under a "General" Kelley, when it reached Council Bluffs was refused transportation by the Iowa railroads. The horde then marched overland, levying on communities for provisions, reaching Des Moines Sunday evening, April 29th. The citizens, in much trepidation, lodged the tramps in an abandoned stove factory. The people were frantic to pass them along, for their sojourn threatened plague, pilfering, and multitudinous evils. But the tramps refused to walk farther. The citizens were in despair. Finally some genius suggested that the army be floated down the river. The "General" agreed to evacuate the stove works when the fleet of flatboats was ready to launch. On May 9th, amid general rejoicing, Kelley and his army floated away. The voyageurs reached the Mississippi only to suffer ignominious discomfiture.

In ante-bellum days the subject of slavery made life and politics keenly interesting in Des Moines. Many stanch Southerners and not a few abolitionists generated an electrical atmosphere. The first resident Governor, James W. Grimes, who later brought Iowa fame in the United States Senate, spoke out strongly against' the arrogance of the slave holders and the border outrages. The city was on John Brown's "underground railway," and the spiriting of slaves through the town gave zest to public discussion. When Brown came through with the slaves he, had captured in Missouri he stopped over night, February 16, 1859, with James C. Jordan,: a State senator. The next day his ferriage was paid by the editor of the State Register, John Teesdale. One of Brown's most trusted companions, who died by his side when Lieutenant Robert E. Lee recaptured Harper's Ferry, was a Des Moines boy, Jeremiah G. Anderson, who had joined Brown's forces in Kansas i n 1857.

One of the most dramatic incidents in Iowa history grew out of the ill fated expedition against Harper's Ferry. With Brown were Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, of Springdale Ia., the Quaker village where the conspirators were drilled. Edwin was captured and hanged. Barclay escaped and after exciting adventures in Maryland and Pennsylvania got back to Springdale, where the entire community armed to prevent his capture by the Virginia authorities. On January 23, 1860, an agent of Governor Letcher, of Virginia, called on Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood with a requisition for young Coppoc. Kirkwood discovered flaws in the papers, among them that no indictment had been found or crime charged, and he refused to honor the requisition. The agent became excited. Just then two members of the Assembly, Ed. Wright and B. F. Gue, came into the Governor's room, overheard the conversation with the agent, and discovered his object. They left and immediately dispatched a messenger to Springdale to warn Coppoc, who was hurried off to Canada. Slavery sympathizers in the Legislature soon heard of the matter and introduced a resolution calling on Kirkwood for an explanation of his proceedings. He sent in a ringing message in which he said:

"Permit me to say in conclusion that one of the most important duties of the official position I hold is to see that no citizen of Iowa is carried beyond her border and subjected to the ignominy of imprisonment and the perils of trial for crimes in another State otherwise than by due process of law. That duty I shall perform. . ."

In the uncertain days preceding the Civil War, when the friends of liberty in the North were timid, Kirkwood's message had the effect of a tocsin call.

When Sumter was fired on and President Lincoln called for troops, Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, telegraphed Kirkwood that one regiment was expected from Iowa. The Governor was not then in the city. The messenger who carried the telegram from Davenport to Iowa City found him out on his farm working in a field. On reading the message he musingly asked:

"Why, the President wants a whole regiment of men! Do you suppose that I can raise as many as that?

Within a few days ten regiments were offered him. Iowa sent nearly 79,000 men to the front, who played a conspicuous part in the great struggle. Des Moines contributed her full share; among the number three became generals, one, M. M. Crocker, being an especially brilli3nt officer under Grant in the campaigns in the West.

The history of the Western States is rife with struggles over the location of county seats and State capitals, the incidents of which are often picturesque and exciting. The selection of Des Moines as the capital city of Iowa was an important 'event in her history. Largely in consequence thereof the city has become not only the metropolis of the State but its chief nerve centre too.

Iowa's first territorial capital was Burlington. From 1841 to 1857 it was at Iowa City, when the State archives were moved to Des Moines. The change was not made without a spirited contest, the marks of which are seen today in the State's constitution. For, in order to placate the people of Iowa City and secure permanency for the arrangement, the constitutional convention of 1857 inserted the provision that the State University should forever remain at Iowa City, and the capital at Des Moines, a piece of log rolling not unlike that resorted to by Alexander Hamilton when the national capital was located at Washington. There was a deal of politics and dissension in Des Moines over the selection of the site of the capitol; so much indeed that the animosities then engendered exercise a baneful influence in dividing the city even now. A superb site was chosen on a high hill in East Des Moines whence one can look over the hills and dales of the river valleys for miles around. The first capitol was a plain three story brick structure, donated by the citizens of the east city as a part of the inducement to the commission to locate where they did. After the Civil War the building became inadequate; the ravages of time rendered it unfit for a repository of the State's precious papers; and the people of Des Moines began to agitate for the erection of a capitol commensurate with the needs and dignity of the State. Thereupon followed a contest whose incidents were most interesting and instructive.

The urgent need of a new capitol was generally admitted. But the justness or propriety of a measure is not alone sufficient to secure legislation. The jealousy of rival towns was fanned into fierce opposition. Their representatives fought an appropriation with tooth and nail. Two million dollars was magnified into unheard of proportions. Time serving politicians who admitted privately that the State needed a capitol, badly, tore passion to tatters in portraying the poverty and distress of the taxpayers. With a State "full of barefooted women and barefooted children" they assevertated such an expenditure would be criminal. Such "politics" long prevailed. In 1867, the people of Des Moines elected to the House of Representatives, Hon. John A. Kasson, to conduct the fight for the appropriation. No better man could have been chosen. He had attained distinction as Assistant Postmaster General under President Lincoln, and as a member of Congress. With what tact, patience and diplomacy he carried on the contest his career since as our country's envoy to the courts of Austria and Germany indicates. For five years Mr. Kasson struggled with recalcitrant representatives through trying vicissitudes before he got the appropriation. As it was, he escaped defeat by but one vote to spare, and that vote he would have lost but for the timely aid of a Catholic priest, Father Brazil, of the city. The opposition resorted to the rascally ruse of getting a bibulous member who was friendly to the measure dead drunk and locking him up to prevent his attendance at the time of the vote. On being informed of the trick, Father Brazil sought out the recreant son of Erin, secured him, and marched him up to the House chamber just as the roll was about to be called, and sat severely by until his charge had answered "Aye."

It took twelve years to build the capitol. During practically all of that time its construction was under the absolute control of three commissioners, John G. Foot; Peter A. Dey, and Robert S. Fiñkbine, and the stately structure that now adorns Capitol Hill is a monument to their intelligence and integrity. Not an unwise expenditure nor a dishonest or corrupt transaction was ever charged against their stewardship, and the people of Iowa hold their names and services in grateful memory. It is a sad commentary on our public morals that the erection of a State capitol without suspicion of corruption is so exceptional as to be noteworthy and the proud distinction of the people of this Western commonwealth.

From a frontier fort and a huddle of huts, Des Moines has grown to be a stately city whose corporate limits include fifty four square miles and a population of nearly 70,000, almost double the population of any other city in Iowa. Her citizens boast that "without riots, booms, or conflagrations" she has steadily grown in strength and stature. Her industries and commerce make the city a hive of activities. Seventeen railroads radiate from Des Moines, enabling the city to become the wholesale and retail jobbing centre of the State. Sixty miles of electric street railways and fifty eight miles of paved streets make her suburbs readily accessible. There are vast deposits of coal and clay under and about the city. The smoke of three hundred factories, large and small, tinge her atmosphere with the hues of Pittsburg. Among insurance men the city is called the "Hartford of the West," as fifty one insurance companies have their headquarters in Des Moines and employ five thousand people. In her various colleges and schools of law, medicine, and commercial practice there is a population of nearly six thousand. Thousands of visitors annually come to the State Agricultural Fair and to the political and educational conventions that assemble in the city. Congress has recently provided for the establishment of an army post just south of the city limits, and the War Department is about to expend several hundred thousand dollars in erecting barracks and in the preparation of drill grounds for troops.

Few cities in the West possess scenery of greater natural beauty than that which greets the eye in and about Des Moines. The junction of the rivers near the centre of the city gives her topography a configuration similar to that of Pittsburg. On the south and east her limits are marked by a range of wooded hills through which the silver stream of the united rivers makes its way. The view of the landscape across the river valley to the horizon's edge which is visible from most points is particularly pleasing to the eye in the spring and summer months. The main part of the city between the Forks" is in a forest of native oaks, elms, and hickories so dense that the looker from the Capitol dome can scarce perceive the residences. To the attractions of nature the landscape gardener and architect have added much. Nearly five hundred acres of parks give the people fine pleasure resorts in the hot summer months. Many handsome wholesale and retail houses and manufacturing establishments grace her thoroughfares. The city has nearly completed a beautiful Public Library, located on the west bank of the Des Moines River, and, as a result of the years of devotion and unremitting labors of Mr. Charles Aldrich, the State has begun the erection of the Historical Library, which will be one of the chief attractions of Des Moines.

[Also see the early Iowa biographies]

Historic towns of the Western States

Return to History at Rays Place