Cerro Gordo County >> 1910 Index

History of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Ed. and comp. by J. H. Wheeler. 2 vols. Chicago: Lewis Pub Co., 1910

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.

By H. G. Parker.

 The 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 land adjacent.

   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 Grove.

   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 by all.

   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 townships.

   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 Turner, Clerk.

   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 unnoticed.

  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.

Photo: Mason City in 1870, page 24