History of Cerro Gordo County,
Chapter 3: Early Settlement
Biographies submitted by Kay Ehlers.
The Early Settlement—Who the First Settlers
Were and their Place of Settlement—Troubles With the Indians—Resulting
Hardships of the Settlers—Important Events in Early History of the County.
H. G. Parker.
first settlement in Cerro Gordo county was made by Joseph Hewitt and James
Dickirson, who came from Clayton county, in the summer of 1851, for the purpose
of hunting, to capture buffalo calves and elk, which were known to exist here in
great numbers at that time. They
first camped on the southeast shore of Clear Lake, in July, 1851, after
experiencing many hardships and labors in crossing streams, swollen to unusual
proportions by the rains, which deluged the country that season.
Little thinking that this wild place was henceforth to be their home, and
eventually the place of their burial, they proceeded to construct such cabins as
their immediate wants, and necessities of pioneers demanded.
To these cabins, as evening approached each day, they brought bountiful
supplies of buffalo meat, elk, venison, and other game, as well as fish from the
lake to supply their wants. Here,
fifty miles distant from any white neighbor, cut off from retreat to the
settlements by the high waters and almost bottomless sloughs they had to cross
in their journey, they were compelled to make preparations to pass the winter
and endure such hardships as only the first settlers experience, privations
unknown to the poorest inhabitants of today, too numerous to be mentioned in
detail, and, if mentioned unpleasant to dwell upon.
When the spring of 1852 came, Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Dickirson decided to
remain and permanently locate. Accordingly
they took claims of timber and prairie belonging to the government lands which
had not yet been surveyed. Little
farming however, was done for several years, and the grain for the animals, as
well as flour for bread, was brought in wagons for many miles, often from Jones,
Delaware and Clayton counties; while groceries and clothing came principally
from Dubuque, 180 miles distant.
A little after this, either in the fall of 1861, or spring of 1852,
Elijah Wiltfong settled on the Shell Rock, at Shell Rock Falls, in the
northeastern part of the county, and made a claim to the water power and timber
The next to follow his lead were two brothers, David and Edwin Wright,
who located on the banks of Lime creek, about three miles northwest of the
present site of Mason City, in 1852. There
they took claims and made some improvements. They, too, were accustomed to
pioneer life, and with the rifle supplied many wants which otherwise would have
been severely felt. John B. Long and John Biford came from Winnebago county,
Illinois, in June, 1853, and made extensive claims on Lime creek, in the
vicinity of what is now Mason City. Their
claims comprised most of the timber lands, and some of the finest prairie in
this vicinity. To the large body of
timber on Lime creek near this place, Mr. Long gave the name of Masonic Grove,
in honor of the order of Free Masons, of which he was supposed to be a member,
and the early settlement of the vicinity, was for several years known as Masonic
In the summer of 1853, Anson C. Owen, located a claim in a fine grove
about six miles southeast of Mason Grove, and the grove immediately took the
name of Owen’s Grove. Subsequently a civil township was named in honor him, and his
name from that time to the present has been as familiar as household words to
every old settler. In the summer of
1853, Robert O. Sirrine and James S. Sirrine settled and took claims on the east
shore of Clear Lake, while Michael Callanan located on the south side.
That spring the county was surveyed into townships, by John T. Everett
and a Mr. Anderson, government surveyors.
In the latter part of the same season the county was sub-divided into
sections and quarter sections, and the following year a town was laid out on
part of the present site of Mason City by John B. Long, George Brentner and
Joseph Hewitt, each proprietor and owner of a one-third interest, although the
land on which it was laid out yet belonged to the government.
The town was christened “Shiboleth.”
Subsequently Joseph Hewitt sold out his share in the plat.
In October of that year John McMillen, accompanied by James Jenkinson,
arrived and put up the body of the first log cabin on the town plat.
Mr. McMillen returned to Winnebago county, Illinois, to winter, leaving
one young friend Jenkinson to pass the winter as best he could alone in camp.
A few stones now mark the spot where he established his winter quarters
on the bank of Lime creek, in the timber near a spring half a miles northeast of
Shiboleth. To James Jenkinson
belongs the honor of being the first permanent settler in the immediate vicinity
of our city. What hardships he
endured that eventful winter of 1853-4, now on the verge of starvation, and now
almost miraculously relieved by timely aid at the hands of a visiting Indian,
who shared with him his venison while enjoying the comforts of his cabin, we
will not now enumerate. He came out
alive in the spring of 1854, when he was relieved by the return of J. L.
McMillen and others, bringing ample supplies of provisions and material to
replenish his somewhat tattered wardrobe.
That spring added quite a number of inhabitants in to the few already
here. Among these was Jarvis J.
Rogers, who, with his family, located twelve or thirteen miles southeast of
Masonic Grove and eight miles southwest of Owen’s Grove, in a small body of
timber to which the name of Linn Grove was given, on account of a cluster of
linn or basswood trees at its western extremity.
Here he made his claim and erected his small cabin and with the help of
his family, although in very poor health, commenced to improve the land and
cultivate the soil.
At this time, every thing looked reasonably prosperous and promising to
the settlers. Hope that a constant stream of emigration, gradually increasing,
would flow in to the county, animated the hearts of the sturdy pioneers.
They had planted and sowed, expecting their crop would carry them through
the next winter, and they should not need for bread or grain. But suddenly an
unforseen [sic] calamity comes upon them. The
news of an Indian raid; that a band of Sioux warriors are at hand, ready to
murder the inhabitants, is spread among them, and they are thrown into a state
of consternation resulting in a general stampede for a protection to the older
settlements on the Cedar river. This
hasty retreat of the settlers took place on the fourth of July and for some time
afterwards the county was depopulated, only the soldiers who were sent to repel
the Indians daring to return to Clear Lake.
The trouble originated in an old feud between the Winnebagoes and Sioux
Indians. A band of the former, to
whose tribe Captain Joseph Hewitt (Nock-a-shooka) had formerly been a trader,
were wont to visit their old haunts at Clear Lake and camp in the timber near
Hewitts cabin. To the Winnebagoes
encampment, one evening, came two Sioux pretending friendship. These the Winnebagoes entertained kindly through the night,
although well aware that mischief and treachery were at work.
Toshanaga, a Winnebago brave, (The Little Otter) communicated his
suspicions to Captain Hewitt, who bade him to be quite, telling him that the two
Sioux, seemed well disposed. Toshanaga’s son, Patchoka, a boy of fifteen, rode
Hewitt’s horse to look for the cows, following the road the Sioux had taken
down the shore towards R. O. Sirrine’s house.
He had been gone but a few minutes when the report of a gun in that
direction convinced Toshanaga the boy was murdered and soon the horse came
galloping back riderless. Hewitt
found drops of blood and a small piece of a bone on the horse’s back. He and Toshanaga hurried down the road and found the headless
body of Patchoka in the road. Giving
him a hasty burial the Winnebagoes left the settlement, and messengers were sent
to all the settlers of the county to make their escape.
Thus originated the hasty flight of all the inhabitants, on July 4, 1854,
so disastrous to their prosperity, depriving them of the little crops, they had
put in for the winter’s use, and bringing other discomfitures so keenly felt
Slowly and sadly they returned to heir homes, after weeks of absence, to
find them robbed of all that could be made useful by a lawless crew of soldiers
and roughs, who had visited them during the absence of the proprietors.
Notwithstanding all this, most of them determined to remain and hold
their lands, which would come into marked on the following September.
Many had been compelled to use the funds laid by for the land sale during
their absence. This with some was a serious matter, but they all repaired to
Des Moines to attend the land sale, which opened September 4, 1854. They
were regularly organized into settlers clubs for the purpose of protecting each
other in securing their claims, and especially against speculators who might
appear and bid on their lands.
The officers of the land office gave them their full sympathy and aid,
advising them to settle all dispute among themselves, then to appoint men to bid
on their lands as agreed among themselves, and if any speculators interfered or
offered to bid against them, the Des Moines river was near and they knew what to
do with them.
After securing their lands they returned to enter more heartily upon the
work before them. Yet they were not
free from difficulties, for the stampede in July had used up much of what was
now needed, and their money had been expended in purchasing their lands, while
some had no funds to secure their lands, and had to borrow for that purpose.
That year a good number was added to the settlers already here.
To Shell Rock Falls came Richard Moore and H. I. Smith, with his mother
and other members of the family; also Richard Morris, Mahlon Brown and Robert
Campbell. George L. Bunce and
Chauncy Lugard settled on the Shell Rock a few miles below the falls.
Jacob Van Curen located in Lime Creek township, on section 26.
Wellington Benton settled three miles north of Mason City.
In August, Henry Martin came and settled on land north of Mason City.
James G. Beebe and others came to Masonic Grove, while several others
came to the vicinity of Shiboleth, which was purchased by John B. Long, who
changed the name to Masonville in honor of a son of his named Mason, who died a
short time previous to his leaving Illinois.
Either soon after this, or early the next year, a postoffice was
established, and as there was already an office in the state called Masonville,
both the postoffice and the name of the town was changed to Mason City.
The following winter, 1854-55, is said to have been unusually mild, a
very fortunate circumstance for the inhabitants in their condition at the time.
The next spring and summer of 1855 were seasons of prosperity and rapid
growth of the settlements. Early in
the spring Cerro Gordo was attached to Floyd county for judicial purposes, and
treated as one of the civil townships. Accordingly
an order was issued by John M. Hunt, judge of Floyd county, for an election to
be held at Mason City on the first Monday of April, 1855, for the election of
two justices of the peace, two constables, three township trustees, one assessor
and one township clerk.
The records of that day, though very imperfect, show the fact that George
L. Bunce and John L. McMillen were elected justices of the peace in and for
Cerro Gordo county.
It is presumed that other officers were elected at the same time,
although the records fail to mention the fact.
Among those who came to Mason City that season we may name J. S. Church,
N. M. Adams and family, Silas Card, I. W. Card, E. Randall, Thomas Drummond, A.
B. Miller, F. J. Turnure, S. Zuver, and many others.
Alonzo Wilson also settled at Owen’s Grove, and William Abbott
purchased land there. C. W. Tenney
came in May, 1855, and located near the present site of Plymouth.
At Clear Lake, Marcus Tuttle, James Turner, Joseph Wood, H. G. Parker and
others purchased property and settled.
At Shell Rock Falls, A. J. Glover purchased the water power, erected a
log store and prepared to build a mill.
Thomas Perrett, John G. Kortee and others also came to the Falls.
Ira Williams built a house on the prairie one mile west.
E. Randall and his brother came to Mason City and built a saw mill, the
first in the county from which sawed lumber was obtained for floors, which up to
this time had been hewed from split logs.
Several persons had already settled on the Shell rock, three miles above
the Falls, where Plymouth now stands. Among
them were John Morgan and John Meyers.
The first Monday of August, 1855 was designated by the judge of Floyd
county as the time for the election to be held at Mason City, to organize the
county. At this election John B.
Long was chosen judge; Henry Martin, clerk of the district court; C. B. Raymond,
attorney; Henry Van Patter, treasurer and recorder; David Wright, school fund
commissioner; I. W. Card, county surveyor; N. W. Stackhouse, sheriff, and James
Dickirson, coroner. With this board
of officers, Cerro Gordo county began her organized and official career, and
began to assume among the counties a separate and distinct form of government.
On the fourteenth of the following November, C. W. Scott was oppointed
[sic] clerk of the district court in place of Henry Martin, resigned.
Subsequently the judge divided the county into four civil townships or
precincts; Lake, which took in a tier and a half of the townships on the west
side of the county; Canaan embraced the territory adjacent to the north of Mason
City; Falls, in the northeastern part of the county; and Owen which had for its
capitol Owen’s Grove, and embraced all the territory south of Canaan and Falls
These townships were organized at an election held April 7, 1856, in
each, at which time two county officers were also elected ; Thomas Drummond,
school fund commissioner, and A. G. Parker, drainage commissioner.
The first officers of Lake township were: Marcus Tuttle and H. G. Parker,
justices of the peace; Peter P. Wood and Hiram H. Stiles, constables, and James
Of Canaan township the first officers were: Elisha Randall and Solomon
Zuver, justices of the peace, and J. G. Gregory, constable.
Owen township had the following for its officers: Alonzo Wilson, justice
of the peace, and Charles Strong, constable.
[No officers for Falls township were recorded in this history.]
Having named the first officers chosen in their respective townships, as
far as they can found out, it is proper that mention should be made of some
enterprises carried out at that time.
In the spring of 1856, the saw mill, which Elisha Randall had built the
previous year, was carried out by the ice and high water, the loss of which
being a public calamity the citizens assisted him to rebuild. That season Edwin
Nichols and Oscar Stevens erected a steam saw mill at Clear Lake, from which
large quantities of lumber were turned out to be used in the construction of
frame buildings, many of which were at that time being put up in the new town of
Clear Lake village, on the north east shore of Clear Lake.
During the summer of 1856, a survey was made as far west as Clear Lake,
from McGregor on the Mississippi river, for a railroad.
The people believed the road would be speedily constructed.
It was called the McGregor, St. Peter and Missouri Railroad. Many of the people took stock, and as payment put in farms,
which they eventually lost, while the road remained unbuilt and the company
became bankrupt. Not until
November, 1869, did the iron horse find his way into our county; but it is
needless to mention today the wonderful things which every one can behold.
Our ears are greeted with the steam whistle of the locomotive, which
dashes along over our prairies bringing our daily mails and depositing the
necessities of life at our very doors. Our telegraphs dropping intelligence with
lightning pulsations, and words of eloquence hot from the lips that utter them;
our churches with spires pointing upward; our school houses with our system of
schools; all contrasts so strikingly with the condition presented by our county
at that time, that he who knew it then can hardly realize that the same skies
are over his head and the same soil beneath his feet.
And now after this very broken history, I drop the thread, feeling that
nearly every subject, which should have been fully dwelt upon, has been
Indeed as one attempts to grasp the whole and reduce it to a few pages,
it widens and expands, growing in importance and magnitude.
A complete history of our county its growth from the beginning, a mention
of its worthy heroes, living and dead, would fill a volume.
Very exact and patient of research must he be who can do justice to all,
and fully perpetuate the memory of every event, even for the brief period which
has transpired since the first settlement of the county in 1851.