T A L L G R A S S P R A I R I E
OXFORD TOWNSHP IN THE DAYS
OF PRAIRIE GRASS AND EARLY SETTLEMENT
“Where the trees stopped, the explorers came out into the fields of Eden, a natural grassland that flowed before them to the horizon under an incredible reach of sky. Here the world was dominated not by trees but by grass — the big bluestem and its associates.”
From Where the Sky Began, Land of the Tallgrass Prairie by John Madson, 1982.
Imagine yourself on the high hill on 30th Avenue in the northeast part of Oxford Township, Jones County, looking to the southwest. Now imagine that it is 1840, summer. You are quite alone in the township except for some Indians and wildlife. Your vista from atop your horse is magnificent: tall prairie grass of several varieties and wildflowers as far as you can see. A meandering river in the distance, trees around the river and the many streams. There are no roads, buildings or telephone poles. You close your eyes. You hear only birds and the wind in the grass. You smell the sweet fragrance of the wildflowers. When you look up you notice that the wind moves the prairie grass like waves upon the sea. It bends and sways, the shadows of the clouds like ships moving over that sea. The moving blanket covers the undulating hills and valleys. It was like that.
Soil and Climate
The rolling hills of our small part of the prairie were shaped by the glaciers of the Pleistocene epoch when most of the northern hemisphere was covered by great ice sheets, about 1 million years ago to 11,000 years ago. Mile-thick rivers of ice flowed down from the north to grind, tear, and pile the earth. Iowa lies within the southerly extensions of the last glaciation. It is estimated that 70% of original American grasslands were formed on deposits created by glacial ice, lakes, stream, and winds. When the ice had melted, Iowa was mostly covered by a spruce tree forest with occasional grassy openings. Animals included the mammoth, mastodon, camel, ground sloth, giant beaver, and wolf. Next came the birch and pine forests. As the climate rapidly warmed, oak and elm forests began to dominate. The climate continued to become both warmer and dryer until 5,000 years ago when it became more like the Great Plains of today. During that period of rapid warming the tall and short grass prairies, aided by frequent fires, became abundant throughout Iowa, with hardwood forests found mainly along the Mississippi River Valley.
Iowa is covered with glacial drift — rich soils evolved from rock, minerals, plants, animals, bacteria, temperature extremes, moisture, fire, insects, decay, time, and sun. Prairie soil developed in a temperate, relatively humid climate under tall grass. It is alluvial soil, made from sand, mud, etc. formed by flowing water. And it is loam – consisting of a friable (easily crumbled) mixture of varying proportions of clay, silt, and sand. The Iowa Board of Immigration’s 1870 publication describes the soil: “It is supposed that there is no where else on the globe an equal area of surface with so small a proportion of untillable land as we find in Iowa. The soil is generally a drift deposit, with a deep covering of vegetable mold, and on the highest prairies is almost equal in fertility to the alluvial valleys of the rivers in other States. The soil in the valleys of our streams is largely alluvial, producing a rapid and luxuriant growth of all kinds of vegetation…..“ The first plows turned over black, moist, deep soil. Our land is among the richest in the world. It lies between the forested east and the drier prairie west of the Missouri River. The climate here is moderate and favorable for agriculture. It includes severe winters owing to the prevalence of north and northwest winds which sweep at will over the prairies, warm summers, and average annual rainfall of 34 inches.
The Nature of the Prairie
Webster says that prairie is a large area of level or rolling land in the Mississippi valley that in its natural uncultivated state usually has deep fertile soil, a cover of tall coarse grasses, and few trees. But it was more complicated than that concise definition. The prairie was beautiful with its colors and scents changing with the seasons. The air was so clear than it was long after sunset before it was dark. It was wind-swept in its treeless stretches. It was redolent of flowers and wild grasses. It was awesome.
When people from the forested eastern states came to the end of the trees and the start of the prairie, they were struck by the openness. In what seemed a profusion of light, they saw open sky from horizon to horizon and grass everywhere. The vast, empty prairie seemed God forsaken to some and the wonder of God to others. The forest provided shelter and warmth but required much work to clear fields. The open prairie lacked the abundance of wood but offered grasses for man’s use and had fewer trees to clear for fields.
The prairie was frightening when a prairie fire started from lightening or the Indians or a careless settler. More prevalent in the fall, the fires would rage for miles with nothing to stop them. The smoke could be seen for many miles. Forewarned by smoke and the red glow, farmers plowed firelanes around their buildings. A prairie fire spread so fast, it couldn’t be outrun. An early resident of the prairie wrote: “I would like to describe the effect of a prairie fire at night, when it is cloudy or the night dark, but I cannot, words fail me to depict what I feel. It is a novel, magnificent, immense picture, which deserves the very ablest description, if I only could do it. A fiery band, reaching farther than the eye can see, a great quantity of smoke, and a terrifying glare, all the while silence reigns, for those who look on do not venture to speak. It is something incomparably beautiful….” Another, writing in 1848 said “How awful and how grand!” Local families who recalled prairie fires to their descendants were Pence, Rogers, and VanSickle.
To the early settlers, the Plains must have seemed to be an endless sea of waving waist-high prairie grass, dotted with trees, bushes, and ponds. It stretched as far as the eye could see, a lush and fertile land that had limitless resources of water, wood, and wildlife. 400 million acres of grassland cloaked the center of North America before European settlers arrived. Conditions effecting prairie grass vs. trees: wind velocity, temperature of the ground, relative humidity of the air, and fire. There were about 150 kinds of grasses in tallgrass prairie. Herbaceous plants, they comprised the cover of our township. Farther west where it was dryer, shorter grasses ruled but here Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi and “Big Blue”) was dominant. A warm season grass of southerly origin, it had bluish leaf sheaths and slender spikes borne in pairs or clusters, and bluish-purple bloom. It grew to 5 to 9 feet high depending on the moisture available for roots. A rider had to stand on his saddle to see over the grass in places. Cattle got lost in it. Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began “The finest corn habitat today is that in which big bluestem reigned yesterday.”
All varieties had slender but tough stems with nodes (joints) at regular intervals. At each joint, a narrow leaf. Their flowers were delicate and unremarkable but many-colored. Their fruit, small and nutritious. Most breakfast cereal and cattle feed has its origins in wild grasses. Underground stems (rhizomes) spread the grass as well as by seed, via wind and animal. In Iowa entire townships were covered with prairie grass, indicitive of good moisture levels. It was estimated that 9/10 of the state was prairie.
Vandemark’s Folly described the Iowa prairie in the early spring: “It was like a great green sea. The old growth had been burned the fall before, and the spring grass scarcely concealed the brown sod on the uplands; but all the swales were coated thick with an emerald growth full-bite high, and in the deeper, wetter hollows grew cowslips, already showing their glossy, golden flowers. The hillsides were thick with the woolly possblummies [pasque-flower] in their furry spring coats protecting them against the frost and chill, showing purple-violet on the outside of a cup filled with golden stamens, the first fruits of the prairie flowers; on the warmer southern slopes a few of the splendid bird’s-foot violets of the prairie were showing the azure color which would soon make some of the hillsides as blue as the sky; and standing higher than the peering grass rose the rough-leafed stalks of green which would soon show us the yellow puccoons and sweet-Williams and scarlet lilies and shooting stars, and later the yellow rosin-weeds, Indian dye-flower and goldenrod. ……It was sublime! Bird, flower, grass, cloud, wind, and the immense expanse of sunny prairie, swelling up into undulations. …..the newest, strangest, most delightful, sternest, most wonderful thing in the world — the Iowa prairie…”
Sawgrass would cut horses legs. A few varieties made good hay for cattle and horses. Melissa Pence Mizaur recalled farmers going to the Lost Nation area to “make hay” from prairie grass, evidently staying two or more days as they took a large, round army tent to sleep in. Sloughgrass, a hard type of grass that grew in the wetter soil in sloughs and near water was used for kindling and fuel, thatched roofs, sod houses, hay (if cut early in the summer), and livestock bedding. The Kiowa Indians parched grain from the Dropseed variety and ground it into flour. White man came and disrupted the prairie with the plow and mowing, and with cattle grazing and trampling. In 1882 there was only a quarter of a section of original prairie in the Midwest. A “reconstructed” prairie stands near Williamsburg IA as Williams Prairie. In this century 30,000 Oklahoma acres were seeded in tall grasses and opened to a herd of bison. Other samples exist, but for the most part tall grasses were replaced by Kentucky bluegrass. Iowa’s prairie country still produces tall grasses in the form of corn.
Flora and Fauna
Trees grew along the Wapsipinicon River and the many streams, and in the few timbers in our township: Cottonwood, Oak (White, Black and Red), Burr Oak, Hard & Soft Maple, Walnut, Ash, Boxelder, Popples, Black Walnut, Butternut, Hickory, Cherry, Red & White Elm, Linn, Hackberry, Birch, Honey Locust, Quaking Asp, a few Sycamore, groves of Red Cedar, Willow (near water), and a few isolated pines, all diminishing as they went west. Burr Oak can live 200 years. It’s possible that there is a Burr Oak in our area that shaded our pioneers. Other plants were cowslip with yellow flowers, wild pansies, Indian tobacco, sheep-sorrel, johnny-jump-up, Indian head (bloody butcher), lady slippers, dry land lily, slough lily, and thistle. Vandemark wrote (through Quick) “…in 1855 there ran a brook two feet wide in a thousand little loops, with beautiful dark quiet pools at the turns, some of them mantled with white water-lilies, and some with yellow.”
Wildlife was abundant and the streams full of fish: chubs, shiners, punkin-seeds, bullheads, etc., and frogs. Plentiful prairie chickens were a species of grouse, gone by the 1880s. Prairie wolves were coyotes. Deer, elk, antelope, fox, wolf, rabbit, squirrel, rodent, snake, geese, duck, crane, songbird…… even huge flocks of pigeons until ca. 1866. Some of our pioneers caught pigeons and shipped them to Chicago, dressed and packed with salt in barrells. There were buffalo in Iowa but were virtually gone from here before the settlers came, having been hunted out, with surviving herds far west. The horns of the last buffalo in Jones County, shot northeast of Onslow by Samuel Conley, are mounted and hanging in the home of a Conley descendant. The French and Indians had hunted and trapped in the heart of tall prairie — beaver, otter, mink, raccoon, wild cats, buffalo, wolves, coyotes, and fox. By the time the early settlers arrived in Iowa, most of the otter and beaver had vanished down trade routes that were old before the first covered wagons appeared. Before there were markets for agricultural products, furs and hides were always in demand.
The Indians called our river Wa-pe-se-pin-e-ka which became Wapsipinicon. According to Galland’s Iowa Emigrant it was also called White Mineral river, “… a fine stream, abounding with water power and a good soil. This is regarded as the commencement of the mineral region, in ascending the Mississippi.” Just northwest of Oxford Mills there was a Mineral Spring/s that tourists and locals enjoyed from ca. 1886 to 1915 or later. The Iowa State Board of Health analyzed the water in 1889 and reported 10 minerals totaling 6.0247 solids (grains) per gallon. The report: “…the water is an excellent tonic, there being sufficient Iron in it to act on the system…. it is excellent for diseases of the kidneys or liver.“ The Wapsi begins in Minnesota and flows in a southeasterly direction for over 200 miles. Fishermen used to pull 20 to 100 pound fish from its yielding waters. Evidently there were mussels among the aquatic life as Smith’s ferry crossed the Wapsi at “mussel shell ford”, charging tolls for the crossings. Smith had to find other work when the bridge at Oxford Mills was built in 1865.
The mid-section of America was purchased from Napoleon in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase became 15 states including Iowa and amounted to 3 cents per acre. Iowa was first part of the Michigan Territory, then Missouri Territory, then Wisconsin Territory before Iowa Territory. Iowa is an Indian name, supposedly meaning beautiful land. When the area between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers became a territory of the United States on 4 July 1838, the name Iowa was retained. The Iowa Territory contained all of what became the state of Iowa, most of Minnesota and the Dakotas, population approximately 23,000. Robert Lucas served as the governor of the territory and was the first governor of the state. Iowa became a state in 1846 excluding Minnesota and the Dakotas and comprising almost 36 million acres, its population of 102,388 mainly in the southeast corner of the state with settlement continuing to the northwest. By 1850 there were 191,982. 1860 – 674,913, and 1869 – 1,040,819.
Jones County was established in December 1837 from Old Dubuque County of Wisconsin Territory. It was named for General George W. Jones (1804-1896), congressman from the Wisconsin Territory and later the Surveyor General of Iowa. Notes from the original survey of Jones County included “the prairie had been recently burned”, surveyors found buffalo horns and elk horns four and a half feet long…. John T. Haight, November 24, 1837. There were approximately 241 people in the entire county the following year. Oxford Township was carved from Hale Township, now west, in March 1855. It was described as “well watered, had rich soil waiting under the prairie grass, and had sufficient timber for the ordinary use of the inhabitants”. The 1856 census counted 10,452 in Jones County, including the new Oxford township at 83 North, Range 1 West. By 1860 the county had 13,306 people and 9 years later 18,113. Oxford Mills considers 1858 their start, Oxford Junction became a town in 1871. Iowa City was the first seat of government of Iowa. The land office there which probably replaced the Burlington office, and one in Dubuque were the only ones for the pioneers of Oxford Township, both quite far for the travel methods of the day.
Emigration and Migration
Picking up emigration from Europe to the U.S. in the 1840s, the German and Dutch came by the tens of thousands beginning in 1846. The end of serfdom, weakening of the Hapsburg dynasty, and the steamships providing safer and quicker crossings started the Czechs coming in 1848. I think the immigrants would have agreed with Albert Einstein when he said “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom”. Immigrants could take a train as far west as Chicago by 1852. Europe sent us her poor for over 60 years. Pioneers wrote home to urge their relatives to follow them to the land of freedom and opportunity. Often a member of a family came first and scrimped every penny to save for a steamer ticket for other members of the family in the old country. They traveled in steerage and during stormy weather the passage was a nightmare. David Levinsky, the subject of Abraham Cahan’s book asked “Who can depict the feeling of desolation, homesickness, uncertainty, and anxiety with which an emigrant makes his first voyage across the ocean?….. When the discoverers of America saw land at last they fell on their knees and a hymn of thanksgiving burst from their souls. The scene, which is one of the most thrilling in history, repeats itself in the heart of every immigrant as he comes in sight of the American shores.”
Galland’s Iowa Emigrant of 1840: “To abandon the place of their nativity, and to forsake forever the society of those with whom they have been associated from infancy to manhood; to exchange the shrill tone of the city bell, for the howling of the wolf or the melancholy hooting of the owl; the busy hum of men and domesticated animals, for the distant murmur of the prairie hen, or the silent beauties of an undulating plain, ornamented with wild flowers of every tint; to be as it were exiled from society and deprived of many of those social enjoyments to which they have become attached by habit, are circumstances calculated to cool the ardor of enterprize in many bosoms.”
By the time Iowa became a separate territory, it received a part of the overflow from population streams pouring into Wisconsin and Missouri. Iowa received its heaviest influx of settlers in the period following 1850. The government widely advertised the millions of acres of fertile land available in a mysterious region known as the Territory of Iowa. No inhabitants were in Oxford Township until 1850 (except for Indians), per the 1879 history of Jones County although the 2006 book on the pioneers of Oxford Township may reveal otherwise. English names were here first. Some pioneers in Iowa were second generation of pioneers in Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio where there was no room for them on their fathers’ farms so they went west. In 1850 almost ¾ of the Iowa settlers were from IL, IN, and OH. In the 1850s New Englanders and foreign-born came, then Scandanavians, mostly north of Jones County. The first across the prairie were breaking the silence of centuries.
In the mid-50s the Czechs started to come to the new state of Iowa. 1852 saw settlers start arriving by ox teams from Wisconsin, settling on the banks of the Iowa River in Johnson County (Ely, Solon, etc.) and a few of those people made their way to Oxford Twp. Wyoming Township to the north had mostly English and Germans. The Lost Nation area to the east and Lowden to the south had mostly Germans. The Civil War (1861-65) slowed down emigration which continued in great numbers after the war in never-ending streams of American pioneers following American expansion. This mass migration came from western New York, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio. Some came overland, but most took turnpike roads and canals down to the Ohio River, booked passage on a river steamer, and sailed along the Ohio to St. Louis where they took a smaller boat to the river towns of Keokuk or Muscatine in Iowa. From there they journeyed inland through a sea of prairie grass. Some of our settlers came through Canada, passing freely across the border and south to Iowa, or after landing at Quebec, took a smaller boat to a city on the Great Lakes and took trains west . In 1850 170,620 Iowans were born in the USA and 21,594 born in foreign lands. The next census determined that 568,832 Iowans were born in the USA and 106,081 in foreign lands. In just ten years almost 85,000 emigrants came for a piece of Iowa.
The “frontier”, the edge of civilization, was in eastern Iowa and Missouri in ca.1840. Beyond the frontier was Indian territory, and Minnesota was too cold for most to settle in. The brave and the ambitious came into Iowa for various reasons: hunting and trapping, seeking land, commercial plans, pure adventure, etc. A book about the pioneers of Oxford Township will name names and tell stories — to be published in 2006. Linn County IA (Cedar Rapids area) claimed to have been the frontier from ca.1840-55. Regardless, the frontier had moved to the Missouri River (west edge of Iowa) by 1854.
After the Civil War the railroads had built into the Midwest which fueled a mass migration farther west in the prairie. The surge westward was powered by the railroad lines. They tendered reduced fares to immigrants and with the wide swaths of land (6 ½ million acres in Nebraska alone) the Federal government had granted the rail companies along their rights-of-way, they offered inexpensive farmland to potential citizens. The Grange, a national farmers union, formed mainly to oppose the railroads’ land grab and high freight rates. Still, the coming of the railroad was immediately and ultimately a great boon to the settlers. It furnished much work for which the settlers secured real money. Large numbers of men with their horses and mules were needed to do the grading. Tons of stone were necessary for bridges and piers. Millions of ties were sought and great quantities of cordwood (before coal) were consumed by the locomotives. Food for men and animals found a market at good prices. Ultimately the effect of the railroad was as though the manufacturer of the East, the fruit grower of Florida and the Pacific Coast, the coal dealer of Illinois, and the lumberman of Wisconsin, had moved into the same county with the settler.
So it was a matter of deep concern to the settlers whether or not a railroad built through their area and whether a nearby town would have a depot and scheduled stops. The first train tracks to reach the Mississippi reached Rock Island in February,1854. The RR line continued construction on the west side of the river, the line that passes through southern Iowa, and reached Iowa City on the last day of 1855 in a winter that was so cold that deer died. The RR bridge over the Mississippi was delayed, however, due to a law suit by the steamboat interests. Attorney Abraham Lincoln won the case for the railroad — the boats would have to dodge the bridge supports — and the bridge was ready in April 1856. During the time when migrants took the train to the Mississippi but had to get off there, they took ferries across the river, purchased wagons, oxen, and provisions in Davenport and continued on their journey. Once the bridge was open it took 8 days by train in 1858 from Baltimore to Iowa City. Another source says 6 days from New York to Iowa.
In 1856 Congress made a grant of lands to Iowa to aid in the building of the railroads. The state donated the lands to various companies for construction of 5 great trunk lines crossing Iowa from east to west. Four lines were completed by 1870: Burlington & Missour River Railraod, the most southerly; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific RR through Davenport as described above; Chicago & Northwestern RR from Clinton, called the “Calico Line”, going through Lowden and along Highway 30, opened after the bridge over the Mississippi at Clinton was built in 1864; and the Dubuque & Sioux City RR. The fifth of the trunk lines, McGregor & Missouri River RR was completed in 1870. The first tracks in Jones County were in 1859, from Dubuque to Cedar Rapids or Marion with a branch to Anamosa completed in March of 1860. In 1868 there were still only 19 ¾ miles of track in Jones County. Oxford Township got its first rails in 1871 when the line through Oxford Jct. was completed, linking us with Chicago. That line junctioned with the one from the south, crossing the Wapsipinicon River just east of the modern bridge at Oxford Mills. A branch built by 1875 continued north to Wyoming and beyond. The railroad was key to the growth and economy of Oxford Township in those early days.
Motives for crossing the Missouri River were to escape the agricultural depression that followed the panic of 1837, the desire to get away from the malaria that raged throughout the Mississippi Valley, the attraction to Oregon and California, availability of cheap land, the chance to get ahead, the love of adventure, fleeing the law, missionary efforts, trapping and hunting opportunities, the Gold Rush of 1849 and 1858, etc. Oxford lost some to the westward trend. Some joined wagon trains for safety and for the trail bosses’ knowledge of (good) routes. A wagon train averaged 10 miles a day in good weather, camping along the way. One wagon trail passed through the north edge of Madison Township, just northwest of Oxford, called Pikes Peak Trail and was still visible in 1931. That trail as most others followed the ridges to avoid getting stuck in the hollows. There were wagon trails in every westerly direction from all the Mississippi ferries and landings. The roads branched from Dubuque and southwestward to Marion, and on to the Mormon trail; northwestward toward Elkader and West Union; the Old Ridge Road (followed the knolls and ridges) west through Dubuque, Delaware, Buchanan and Blackhawk Counties and westward.
The vehicle of choice for migration across the prairie was the covered wagon. Prairie schooners and conestoga wagons had minor differences but were of the same general design. The humble covered wagon stands as a symbol of the winning of the west. They were fortress, ambulance, and home on wheels. Pulled by horses, mules, oxen and in rare cases cows, the average was 3 yokes of oxen (6 animals) but 2 to 6 yokes were seen. Some shod their oxen and cows to avoid their becoming footsore. A large prairie schooner was pulled by 3 to 5 yokes of oxen. Wagons consisted of 3 parts: body (a wooden box 9 or 10 feet long and about 4 feet wide), top (canvas, called twill supported by 5 or 6 bows of bent hickory), and running gear (wheels of various kinds of wood circled by iron “tires“). The wheels were the hardest to replace enroute so they were of higher quality than the rest of the wagon. TNT television network’s ‘05 miniseries Into The West featured wheelwrights and their wheel-building process. Their skills were so valuable to the westward migration that a wagon train fee was waived for the wheelwright willing to join them.
Herbert Quick wrote of the migrant Vandemark saying while he was in Wisconsin – “I joined again in the stream of people swarming westward…… Here we went, oxen, cows, mules, horses; coaches, carriages, blue jeans, corduroys, rags, tatters, silks, satins, caps, tall hats, poverty, riches; speculators, missionaries, land-hunters, merchants; criminals escaping from justice; couples fleeing from the law; families seeking homes; the wrecks of home seeking secrecy; gold-seekers bearing southwest to the Overland Trail; politicians looking for places in which to win fame and fortune; editors hunting opportunities for founding newspapers; adventurers on their way to everywhere; lawyers with a few books; Abolitionists going to the Border War; innocent-looking outfits carrying fugitive slaves; officers hunting escaped negroes; and most numerous of all, home seekers ‘hunting country’ — a nation on wheels, an empire in the commotion and pangs of birth.”
One of the earliest roads (surveyed and surfaced as opposed to a trail) in Jones County was the Old Military Road. It was built in 1839 by the Federal government after being surveyed by Solomon Pence Sr., later of Oxford and Wyoming Townships, and his brothers. It passed east of Anamosa, following what are now highways 1 and 151, skirting the western edge of the county as it continued south to Iowa City from Dubuque. Not being paved or rocked, the first roads (trails) were sometimes deeply rutted from travel while wet, making rough rides and causing damage to the wagons. Dubuque, the first white settlement in Iowa, Julian Dubuque mining and trading there from September 1788, was a common place to cross the Mississippi. Often there were long lines of wagons waiting for a ferry ride. One could purchase supplies at “outfitting” places there, as well as Davenport and Iowa City, for the trip into Iowa and beyond. For a long trek, provisions consisted of 250 lbs of hardtack, 150 lbs of ham, 50 lbs butter, 50 lbs sugar, 30 lbs coffee, 10 qts vinegar, 20 lbs beans, 10 lbs peas, spices, axes, chains, rope, augers, saws, 20 lbs gunpowder, and 40 lbs lead and shot. The trekkers would hunt and fish along the way to supplement their purchased groceries. If starting their trip from a private home they would bake a large quantity of bread and dry it out so that it wouldn’t mold. Hot milk and the bread was a frequent supper. The first bridge across the Mississippi was a stone and wood trestle connecting northern Illinois and Iowa in 1856. That brought implements and goods from the east and returned products of the pioneers.
For those not arriving in Iowa by covered wagon or by train, stagecoaches could get them to their destinations. In 1846 Higley Stagecoach Service had routes connecting Iowa City and Dubuque. In ca. 1857 a stage line ran across Iowa with its western terminus at Council Bluffs (at the Missouri River), fare 10 cents a mile. In 1854 Luk and his party took some kind of “coach” into Oxford Township. Simple wagons and drivers were available for hire, too.
A significant factor in settlers being drawn to the Midwest and farther west was the Homestead Act of 1862. 10 % of U.S. land was turned over to individuals through this law, mostly west of the Mississippi and in 30 of the eventually 50 states. Any person who was the head of a family or who had arrived at the age of 21 years, a citizen or having filed to become naturalized, had never borne arms against the U.S. or given aid and comfort to its enemies, could claim 160 acres of unoccupied available Federal land. A $10 application fee, then $4 to record the claim, then $4 when “proven” was the total cost to file. A copy of the application is shown in chapter 7 of Iowa: The Home for Immigrants…. They would stake out their 160 acre farm, put up their first crude cabin and try to produce 10 acres of crops in the first year, as required. Then they made a 5 or 6 day horseback ride to the land office at Iowa City or Dubuque to register/file their claim so that they could buy the land later at $1.25/acre. In 1840 the land offices were in Dubuque and Burlington, the latter probably closed when the Iowa City office opened.
Pre-emption was the right of purchasing before others; the right given by the government to the actual settler upon a tract of public land. The settler had 6 months to make improvements, had to live on it for 5 years, then had to return to the land office within 7 ½ years of the first filing to prove his claim which was to take 2 witnesses who would attest to all the conditions having been fulfilled, including that they didn‘t own 320 acres or more anywhere, had not pre-empted before, hadn‘t settled just to re-sell and had no contract to do so. Some land offices required the house to have a glass window, some that the house be at least 12 feet by 12 feet. Title transfer was made through deeds or patents. Certain exceptions were made for soldiers. They had to pay with gold or land warrants, probably at the time of “proving up”. Government surveyors had driven posts at each section corner and half way along the section lines by 1855. There was a (financial) panic in 1857 caused by land speculation and causing banks to close and bankruptcies to be filed. The Homestead Act might have been passed in part to avoid the losses of that panic being repeated. Once through the process, the settler had realized his dream which had brought him to America and bought land at a nominal price. “In one lifetime the great tall grass reaches of middle America had been opened, broken, and inked into deeds.”, Madson in Where the Sky Began.
Life on the Prairie
“Westward” is a large painting by Edwin H. Blashfield whose description follows: “The main idea of the picture is a symbolical presentation of the Pioneers led by the spirits of Civilization and Enlightenment to the conquest by cultivation of the Great West. Considered pictorially the canvas shows a Prairie Schooner drawn by oxen across the prairie. The family ride upon the wagon or walk at its side. Behind them and seen through the growth of stalks at the right come crowding the other pioneers and later men. In the air and before the wagon are floating four female figures; one holds the shield with the arms of the State of Iowa upon it; one a book symbolizing enlightenment; two others carry a basket and scatter the seeds which are symbolical of the change from wilderness to plowed fields and gardens that shall come over the prairie. Behind the wagon and also floating in the air, two female figures hold respectively a model of a stationary steam engine and an electric dynamo to suggest the forces which come with the later men. In the right hand corner of the picture melons, pumpkins, etc., among which stand a farmer and a girl, suggest that there is the fringe of cultivation and the beginning of the prairie. At the left a buffalo skull rather emphasizes this suggestion.” A mural, it is probably still over the main stairway of the former Iowa State Historical Building in Des Moines, now the Ola Miller Building on Grand Ave., near the State Capitol.
We romanticize the early days but to those who lived it it was a grim struggle to survive in a strange and lonely land. From Giants in the Earth “Here was the endless prairie, so rich in its fertility, but also full of great lonliness.“ The new land demanded new ways, and the simple lessons of survival were the first order of the time. There was little use for amenities beyond the basic human decencies and the vital bond between neighbors. It was a culture reduced to functional essentials. Although the early settler could usually read, write and do simple ciphering, he was likely to dismiss further learning as irrelevant. The prairie pioneers were typically self-educated, uncultured, pragmatic people who were independent.
The first of the prairie pioneers were of American stock that had been tempered by a century or more of being free. They were their own people as much as any people can be, most with the goal of getting and keeping good land. This vein of independence was somewhat modified on the tall prairies where people were far removed from manufacturing centers and sources of supply, with agriculture less diversified and more concerned with small grain production. This resulted in a curious blend of dependence and independence, and from the earliest times of prairie settlement the capacity to cooperate has been a dominant character trait. Their word was their bond until it was broken. Men and women rallied to a troubled neighbor’s aid without question. Men had the burden of doing most of the physical work: building a cabin, breaking the prairie, and whatever it took to tame the wildlands. The prairie woman was wife, mother, teacher, cook, nurse, field hand, seamstress, laundress, gardener, dairymaid, food-preserver, hope-preserver, spiritual guide, and husband’s helper. Together they provided cohesion and strength to their families.
In 1850 87% of the country resided in rural communities. Most of the earliest people in Oxford Township were farmers. Some were trained in trades but circumstances and the advantage of free land turned most to farming. Through the Homestead Act of 1862 (above) land cost $1.25/acre. Other examples of land value are Luk paying $100 for 40 acres in 1860, and $800 for 80 acres in 1862. Those might have been earlier agreed-upon prices, not recorded until ‘60 and ‘62. In ca.1865 Shimerda sold 40 acres, no buildings, for $350. In 1867 40 acres plus log cabin and improvements sold for $800. The same year Hodoval bought 40 acres for $1000 near Baldwin. Another source said that Iowa prairie sold for $3/acre and good timberland up to $50/acre in ‘67 with lesser timber going for $15 to $40. One of the railroads, Chicago & Northwestern owned 747 acres in Jones County which it sold for $3 to $12/acre to our county‘s settlers who numbered 13,306 in 1860. Slope, streams, timber, and improvements were factors in land value. In 1870 it took $300-$540 to outfit a farm of 40 acres. Sources vary on this cost.
Farm laborers earned $14 per month in 1855/56. Breaking prairie probably was worth more, especially if the worker owned the breaking plow. Having room and board at the employer’s would decrease the pay rate. Iowa farm hands earned $18 to $25/month per the 1870 book. Kulhavy received $10/month in 1872, Podolak got $20/month in ‘73.
Our ancestors settled near wood (trees) and water which had to be rivers and streams as they lacked the equipment to dig deep wells. If they could afford to be so fussy, they would consider closeness to neighbors and proximity to market for their future produce. Their first priorities: break sod, plant seed, build shelter. Crude shelters were first, roofed with willow and sod or prairie grass, then log cabins, perhaps living in their covered wagon until the house was ready. Sometimes two or three families lived in a one-room cabin which was typically 12 by 16 feet. Furniture was scarce — people slept on bundles of straw on the floor. Farmers took grain to mills at Toronto and Oxford Mills to be ground into flour, sometimes paying with barter as they did for some other supplies. Besides wood, prairie grass, hay, weeds, cow chips, corn stalks and corn cobs provided fuel. Lighting was candles and grease dishes until the kerosene lamp replaced them in the 70s. Their food came from their vegetable gardens, hunting and fishing, store-bought dried beans and bacon, corn prepared many ways, wild fruit and nuts, and dairy from their cows. Spring thaw isolated the farmers by surrounding them with mud. The high, drier ridges held the best chance for travel. Before the grid system, most roads followed the ridges. Mail delivery in 1864 was 3 times a week, carried by a horse and rider from Lowden to Wyoming which had a post office by 1840 per Galland. A few years later mail arrived by train in Lowden, then was taken to Oxford Mills by horse or stagecoach. Settlers sent and received mail from their origin places which resulted in more settlers from the same origins. In Oxford Township cluster emigrations were from the Suchdol nad Luznici area in South Bohemia, Dzbanov in east Bohemia, and Delaware County in Ohio.
Iowa had blizzards in 1848 and 49. From January 1st into March of 1856 there was severe cold and snow, then a terrible winter of ’56-’57. In December of ‘56 three feet of snow fell, then a slight thaw, then a cold snap leaving crusted drifts. Man and dog could walk on them, but hoofed animals broke through, cutting their legs. Elk and deer herds were depleted that winter. Luk of section 11 described that winter in his autobiography of ca. 1885. 54.4 inches of snow were recorded for 1856 and 35.1 inches for 1857.
Aside from the harsh winters, or perhaps because of them, Iowa was a pretty healthy place to live in those days. There was some ague (malaria), cholera, flu and pneumonia, probably controlled by their limited social life. There was no mercury in the clear streams and no pollution in the air except for occasional smoke. In 1867 the mortality rate in Iowa was one death to every 94 people. The rate was probably higher in the ‘40s and 50s when their shelters and their diets were poorer.
Besides farmers, the 50s brought us trappers, ferry and mill builders, trail bosses, businessmen, outfitters, and adventurers. Before white man, Indians lived and hunted here. The Ioway was the most numerous and powerful tribe between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Their numbers were reduced by wars, whiskey and smallpox to about 1300 by the time they crossed the Missouri as white man continually drove Indians farther west. 1832 was the year of cession from Jones County but some Indians remained here after that, friendly and helpful to the whites. The Pence family was visited by the Sac/Sauk and Fox of the Sioux nation which had conquered other tribe/s to have this area for hunting territory in ca. 1824. They entered Pence’s dwelling, sat on the floor, and demanded flour which they were given. Mr. Pence went hunting and fishing with them, sometimes for weeks at a time. Shimerda was visited by Indians, too, and Schnepp later talked about them,calling them peaceful. Nespors also recalled Indian visits. While the encounters could be frightening to the settlers, there are no stories of harm done by the native Americans in our area. Unlike cowboy and Indian movies, the Indians seem to have been interested and amused by the wagon trains and their new neighbors from whom they received food and other gifts.
After the Civil War (1861-65) there were bitter Indian battles west of the Mississippi. Fear was a silent passenger in every covered wagon entering upon the vast emptiness of the Midwest. Many Indians were powerful and warlike and caused problems for wagon trains and settlers. But it seems that Oxford Township was spared this trouble. Isaac Galland wrote in 1840 that he had personal knowledge of Iowa’s Indians and their ways, and believed that reports of Indian cruelties were unjust and untrue. The “long knives” (whiteman) ordered the Sac & Fox chief, Black Hawk, to move across the Mississippi, to the west bank or beyond. Black Hawk’s long and eloquent speech to his people (hell no, we won’t go) in 1831 begins on page 22 of Galland’s book.
Crops and Critters
The same oxen that pulled the wagons into eastern Iowa pulled the plows that broke the prairie. Strong, intelligent animals, they could out-work a horse or a mule. Horses were the fastest. Mules dietary needs were the easiest satisfied. Oxen could pull the most and cost one third what a mule cost. In ca.1850 an ox cost $25. Oxen were so commonly used for pulling wagons that their owners were called “ox-team emigrants”. Oxford Mills was named for the place that oxen would ford the Wapsipinicon River (and for the mill nearby). Oxford Junction, one mile north, borrowed the word Oxford and took Junction from the convergence of two railroad lines there.
Oxen are the plowers of primitive society. Various species are used all over the world. For our pioneers they broke sod, pulled stumps, and moved stones, their great strength almost essential to sodbusting. Hitched to a breaking plow would be 3 to 6 yokes of oxen (6 to 12 animals), but most commonly 3 yokes pulling a 24 inch plow with 2 men. That combination could break (the first plowing) 2 acres per day. Sometimes 2 or 3 families would jointly own a team of oxen. Oxen were replaced by horses as the soil mellowed and the oxen died. They were gone from many areas by the end of the Civil War. The season for breaking was a little over 2 months. If they hired someone like Luk with his breaking plow, it cost $2.50 to $4.50 an acre. If the farmer broke prairie himself, “the thrill of joy surged over him as he sank the plow in his own land for the first time” as the main character, Per Hansa, expressed in Giants in the Earth.
A breaking plow was used to turn the virgin sod. The fibrous and tangled prairie grass roots made plowing very difficult. The soil surface was a mass of rootlets — ½ square meter of Big Bluestem sod may contain 13 miles of fine hairs and rootlets. A normal plow could be used for subsequent plowings, but the first plowing had to be done by a breaking plow — very large, made to cut and turn a furrow 20 to 30 inches wide, with a razor-like edge on the shear (share) to cut through the roots and for the ease of the team of oxen. The edge was sharpened every trip around the field. Steel plows were made in the 1830s, redesigned and manufactured by John Deere and Company in Moline, Illinois starting in 1837. Some no doubt made their way into Oxford Township. As plows evolved to lighter steel in better design, they could be drawn with one yoke of oxen or 3 horses. The first plowing turned over cool, moist, black richness. Prairie usually had no rocks larger than a walnut save for an occasional boulder left by a glacier. Plowing scared up mice, shrews, snakes, insects and bees, and was escorted by flocks of gulls. The first plow cut was shallow so that the sod would rot. Honorable L.S. Coffin wrote an article detailing the process of breaking prairie, published in Annals of Iowa, Vol. 5, No. 6, July 1902 which is posted on the iagenweb website.
The earliest crops in our area were corn, Arabian and Russian wheat, oats, barley and potatoes (10 cents per bushel in 1858). To plant corn, a farmer used an axe or hoe and dropped 3 kernels into the hole. His wife or child might drop the seed or kick the soil over the kernel. The first year the yield for this uncultivated “sod corn” was low, 15 to 25 bushels per acre (10 to 20 bu. per the 1870 Iowa: The Home… book. The second year the plowing was easier, the soil richer for the rotted sod, but our farmer probably had more land to plow for the first time. Wheat was seeded by hand. They cut grain with “cradles”, then hand raked it or used a reaper pulled by two yoke of cows or horses, or one yoke of oxen. Using these primitive methods, it was very difficult for a new farmer to get the required 10 acres under tillage the first year. Their harvested crops were the reward of hard labor with a minimum of tools. In ca. 1870, 2 men and 6 work animals using two 14 inch plows could plow 5 or 6 acres a day. In 1867 Iowa produced 70 million bushels of corn from a yield of 50-100 bu. per acre. Oats were threshed at 40-60 bushels per acre at that time. In 1868 Jones County had 127,104 acres of land cultivated in spring wheat, winter wheat, oats, Irish potatoes, and corn which harvested 1,733,062 bushels that year. Cinch bugs put an end to raising wheat in this area. Much of Oxford Township was too wet for farming in the first years of cultivation. Beginning in the 1880s clay field tiles layed strategically gave many acres to productive farming in the deep soils of the tallgrass prairie region. Fields weren’t fenced until barbed wire came along in the 1870s. Cowbells helped the farmer keep track of his livestock, sometimes tended by children. By the time the train came to Oxford Jct., Iowa raised 62 ½% of the value of livestock in the United States.
Tools typically brought with the settlers were hoes, scythes, cradles, axes, and a cast-iron plow. Many settlers were clever in devising tools and equipment to help their work. Koranda and Benischek were two of the inventors in our midst. Machinery came into Oxford Township as it was manufactured and as our farmers could afford it. Pence’s one-hill corn planter, made of wood and leather, is displayed in the Heritage Museum in Oxford Jct. A windmill factory opened in Illinois in 1862, perhaps delivering to some of our farms. The wheels (fans) were first 16 to 30 feet in diameter but gradually shrunk to 8 to 10 feet. Plowing brought an end to the tallgrass prairie. We regret that we can’t stand on that 30th Avenue hill and still see what our ancestors saw before the conquest of the boundless rolling prairie.
Bil Gilbert rode in the second RAGBRAI (Register‘s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), then wrote in Sports Illustrated: “Visitors have been struck by the inordinate number of friendly, sensible, out-going, just plain good people in Iowa. It may be that the state has some mean-spirited rascals but if so they are hustled into the backroom or tool shed when guests come to call — maybe Iowans have lived so long in a gentle, bountiful land that it has made them self-confident rather than self-righteous, openhanded rather than tightfisted. If so, Iowa is one place where a fundamental theory of modern social science has proved true. The theory is that a good environment has a good influence on the character of the people.”
Compiled by Judy Nelson in 2005.
A Pictorial History of Immigration, Oscar Handlin, 1972.
American Heritage, The Magazine of History, February 1962, article The Prairie Schooner Got them There, George R.Stewart.
The American Immigrant, Life of Time Inc.
Amerikan Narodni Kalendar, Volume 9, 1886.
Brief History of Oxford Mills and Oxford Jct., Edward F. McClenahan, ca. 1934.
Cedar Rapids, The Magnificent Century, Harold F. Ewoldt, 1988.
The Czechs in America 1633-1977, compiled and edited by Vera Laska.
Galland’s Iowa Emigrant, Isaac Galland, 1840.
The German-Americans, An Ethnic Experience, Willi Paul Adams, 1990.
Giants in the Earth, Ole E. Rolvaag, published in The Pioneers, Readers Digest, 1988.
Iowa: The Home for Immigrants, Being a Trestise on the Resources of Iowa…., Iowa Board of Immigration, 1870.
Mississippi Valley Beginnings, an Outline of the Early History of the Earlier West, Henry E. Chambers, 1922.
Panorama — A Historical Review of Czechs and Slovaks in the United States of America, Czechoslovak national Council of American, Cicero Ill. 1970.
The People. Author unknown.
Rand McNally’s World Atlas, ca. 1890.
The Rise of David Levinsky, Abraham Cahan, 1917.
Rootsweb internet site quoting the History of Jones County, Iowa, Past & Present, R. M. Corbitt, 1910.
The Sod-House Frontier 1854-1890, A Social History of the Northern Plains from the Creation of Kansas and Nebraska to the Admission of the Dakotas, Everett Dick PhD, 1943.
Speaking of Nature, article in Midland Times, Michele Olson, Jones County Naturalist.
State of Iowa brochure, 1966.
Vandermark’s Folly, Herbert Quick, 1922.
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson, 1982.