The German Heritage of Carroll County, Iowa
by David Reineke
Early County History and the First German Settlers
those of us born and raised in Carroll County, it is somewhat difficult to
imagine what the area was like before the first white settlers arrived during
the 1850’s. Today, Carroll County is a perfect square, 24 miles on each
side. It is sub-divided into 16 square townships, each in turn divided into
32 square sections of one square mile each. But in the early 1850’s, the land
comprising present-day Carroll County was part of the vast prairie grassland,
unmeasured and seemingly immeasurable, that stretched across the Midwest.
There were no towns, no stores, no buildings of any
kind. There were no roads, no fences, and no corn fields.
The first inhabitants of the area were
nomadic groups of Native Americans who had occupied the region for centuries.
By the early 1800’s, a number of Indian tribes were known to inhabit the
area. Some of these are the Ioway, Fox, Sioux, Winnebago, Sak and
Pottawatamie. An Indian trail, called the “war path” by early white settlers,
crossed the center of the county from north to south. Abundant evidence of
Indian occupation was also found in the form of stone implements and
arrowheads. Even today it is not uncommon to uncover such items in the fields
of Carroll County.
West-central Iowa, including Carroll County, was the last
region of the state to be populated by white settlers. Although small numbers
of settlers had been crossing the Mississippi River since the early 1800’s,
Iowa was not officially opened for settlement until 1833. After that, people
came in ever-greater numbers, moving first into settlements along the west
bank of the Mississippi. Farther west, along the Missouri River, there were
several small settlements established during the 1830’s. By the 1840’s, the
only sizeable town there was Kanesville, which later became Council Bluffs.
The first German settlers also arrived in Iowa during the
early 1830’s. Like their fellow pioneers, the German immigrants initially
settled in towns along the Mississippi. At first, they were relatively few in
number, but thousands of Germans would soon follow, and towns like Davenport
and Dubuque would become centers of German culture in Iowa. Most Germans
arrived in Iowa either on their own, or in the company of a few friends or
relatives. Some, however, arrived as part of larger groups intending to found
colonies based on various religious or social principles. With the exception
of the Amana Colonies, founded in 1855, these colonies all eventually failed.
However, dozens of towns throughout the state would see the founding of
innumerable German businesses, banks, newspapers, churches and social
As the population of Iowa grew and expanded westward during
the territorial period (1838-1846), the state capitol was moved from
Burlington to Iowa City in 1841. The military recommended the confluence of
the Raccoon River and the Des Moines River in central Iowa as a site for a
military outpost, and construction of Fort Des Moines began in 1842. The
first stage line reached the settlement in 1849, and by 1850 the population of
Des Moines was 502. The town was incorporated in 1851.
By the time of statehood in 1846, many settlers, including
German immigrants, were already pushing farther west, and it soon became
necessary to organize the largely unknown and unsettled area of western Iowa.
By the early 1850’s, the Indians had mostly been relocated--their land taken
by the government through a series of treaties. In 1850, the total population
of Iowa was estimated at 192,214, of whom approximately 7100 (the largest
number of any foreign population) were German immigrants. When the state
legislature convened in Iowa City in 1850, Iowa had a total of 51 counties,
but nearly half the state was still unorganized. In 1851, the legislature
created 45 new counties in western Iowa, one of which was Carroll County.
Carroll County’s written history begins with the arrival of
the settlers. Although there is no way to be certain, tradition has it that
the first white settler in Carroll County was “Jumping” Dave Scott, who
arrived with his family in 1852. He received his nickname due to some unknown
nervous disorder, in those days referred to as the “jumps.” He had come up
the Mississippi River, and then along the Des Moines and Raccoon, until he
reached a spot in present day Union Township along the Middle Raccoon River.
He is said to have put up the first permanent residence, a log cabin, in the
county. He stayed only a few years before moving on to parts unknown.
Enos Butrick of
Connecticut is generally credited with being the second
settler, and the first who remained permanently. He had been living in
neighboring Greene County, and in 1851 he took up a temporary residence along
the North Raccoon in present-day Glidden Township, where he hunted and
trapped. In 1854, he brought his family from Greene County and built a
permanent cabin. He hunted deer and elk, and is said to have shot the last
buffalo in the county.
By 1855, the
population of Carroll County was probably around 200, but there was still no
county government. Therefore, an election to choose county officials was
scheduled for August 1855. It was held at the home of Henry Copeland, on the
Middle Raccoon, just south of present day Carrollton. The 28 votes cast
resulted in the election of the first county judge, court clerk, treasurer,
recorder, surveyor, prosecuting attorney, and sheriff. In 1856, a petition
was circulated asking for the selection of a county seat. The place chosen
was Carrollton, in the south-central part of the county. At this time, the
county was divided into two townships, Jasper in the north, and Newton in the
The first county
census, also in 1856, listed 251 residents, four of whom were Germans: Conrad
Geiselhart, Albert Brutsche, Charles F. Buss, and L. Sherrie. Conrad
Geiselhart, the first German settler in Carroll County, appears in the list of
voters in the 1855 election, on the 1856 petition, and in the 1856 census. He
also served on the first petit jury in 1858.
nineteenth-century standards, life was hard during these early days in Carroll
County. The land was still an unbroken prairie which stretched for miles.
The roads were little more than trails and were often impassable. There was
no railroad in the entire state until 1855, and the railroad did not reach
Carroll County until 1867. People tended to travel and settle along rivers
and streams where logs for cabins could be obtained. A typical dwelling was a
one-room cabin of about 200 square feet or less. There were virtually no
stores or businesses, and the nearest saw and grist mill was in Panora. This
meant that lumber and flour had to be imported from 20 to 30 miles down the
Raccoon River, and many items had to come from Des Moines, 60 or 70 miles down
river. The story is told that the first county judge, A. J. Cain,
commissioned a law book to be transported from Iowa City and that the
round-trip journey took three weeks.
Progress was slow but
steady. By 1859, the population had actually declined by one person to 250.
However, land was being surveyed and sold, and the foundations of local
government were being laid. The first marriage license had been granted in
1855. Beginning in 1856, taxes were levied for things like roads and schools,
and in that year the first school was established at Carrollton. A post
office was established there in 1858, and a courthouse was built the following
In other parts of
Iowa, a railroad bridge crossed the Mississippi by 1856, the state capitol was
moved from Iowa City to Des Moines in 1857, and Iowa State University was
established in Ames in 1858. By 1860, the overall population of Iowa reached
674,913, including 35,842 German-born immigrants.
In Carroll County,
the population had only increased to 281 in 1860, and Conrad Geiselhart was at
that time the only German resident--Albert Brutsche, C. F. Buss and L. Sherrie
having moved away by then. However, expansion was inevitable. In the late
1850’s, the county’s first grist and saw mill was set up at Coon Rapids.
Albert Brutsche, the second German to reach Carroll County, is said to have
sawed the first logs and milled the first flour there. It is said that before
the mill was established, he once hauled wheat to Des Moines to have it milled
into flour, but that on the return trip he gave away much of it to people who
needed it. The new township of Union was established in 1863. By 1865, the
county population reached 400. The new townships of Carroll, Glidden and
Sheridan were established in 1867. Also that year, the county seat was moved
from Carrollton to the centrally located town of Carroll, and the first
railroad entered the county.
Beginning in the late
1860’s, the population of Carroll County began to grow rapidly, fueled in
large part by hundreds, and then thousands of German immigrants. Eventually,
the German population in the county would become the majority. Although
Germans were a small minority during the first years of county settlement,
their biographies provide a good idea of frontier life in those early days.
Conrad Geiselhart, the first German to reside in Carroll
County, was born in Germany on November 10, 1822 and attended school there
until he was 14 years old. He then worked as a stone mason and plasterer for
approximately four years before immigrating to America in 1841. He sailed
from Bremen, Germany in steerage aboard the bark Heinrich, and arrived
in New York on May 24. The passenger list of the voyage states his age as 20
and his occupation as stone cutter. His place of origin was Hohenzollern, a
province centered on the town of Sigmaringen in the far southwestern part of
At first, he lived
and worked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He later moved to Lisbon, Columbiana
County, Ohio, where he married Miss Nancy Butts, a native of that county, in
1846. In 1851, the family returned to Pennsylvania, but later decided to move
In 1855, the family
traveled west along the Ohio River, crossed the Mississippi into Iowa, and
then came by wagon to Carroll County. They stopped a short time near the
present town of Coon Rapids and then moved about six miles west to Brushy
Creek, near the present town of Dedham. They settled along the “road” that
ran from Des Moines to Denison. Mr. Geiselhart farmed and ran a small tavern
here for about two years, which was said to have earned him a fair sum of
Like most of the
early settlers, the family endured the hardships of frontier life. Mr.
Geiselhart is listed in the 1856 census with his wife and four children in
Newton Township. He was the owner of 275 acres of unimproved land and 45
acres of corn. During the preceding year, he had produced three tons of hay,
300 bushels of corn, and 416 pounds of butter. The census taker also noted
that a late crop of spring wheat had been destroyed by insects.
In 1857 or 1858, Mr.
Geiselhart purchased 80 acres of farm land and 40 acres of timber about a mile
and a half north of Coon Rapids, where he built a 14 by 18 foot log cabin.
Their small shell of a house was cold in the winter, but it was said to be
among the best in the county and was used as a meeting place for church
Over time, the family
enlarged and improved the farm. By the 1880’s, the farm had grown to 170 acres
including a two-acre orchard. The log cabin was replaced by a frame
residence, and rough sheds were replaced by sturdy farm buildings.
Mr. Geiselhart was
described as “quiet and unassuming,” but not a great deal of personal
information is known about his him. He voted in the first county election in
1855, and signed the petition to establish a county seat in 1856. He served
on the first petit jury in 1858. He was affiliated with the Democratic Party
and served in various township offices.
Nancy Geiselhart died
in 1884, leaving her husband and six children. Conrad Geiselhart died in
1890. He was said to have no religious preference, but his funeral was in the
Methodist Episcopal Church at Coon Rapids.
Credited with being the first German settler in neighboring
Guthrie County, Albert Brutsche was also the second German to arrive in
Carroll County. According to an 1884 biography, he was born in Baden, Germany
in 1832. In 1844, his family moved to Switzerland where he attended school
until he returned to Baden in 1850.
He immigrated to America in 1854. He arrived in New York
on August 19, following a 52-day voyage aboard the ship Victoria.
According to the passenger list, he was 21 years old and a miller by
profession. After working about two years as a carpenter and at other trades
in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he came to Carroll County in 1856. The 1856
census lists his occupation “miller” and shows him living in Newton Township.
In October of the same year, he moved to neighboring Guthrie County, where he
married Elmira Titus, a native of New York.
Although living in Guthrie County, the Brutsche family was
active in the affairs of Carroll County. They lived just across the county
line, less than two miles southeast of Coon Rapids. The family endured the
same hardships as the other settlers, but over time achieved uncommon
In the early years, there were few businesses in the area,
and many goods had to be obtained from distant locations. Panora was the
closest place where flour could be purchased before a mill was set up on the
Raccoon River in Coon Rapids. Mr. Brutsche is said to have cut the first
lumber and milled the first flour there. He was an early member of the Free
Mason society and helped to build the Masonic Temple in town. He was an
enterprising businessman and owned a general store and a large brick hotel
where the first Catholic services in Coon Rapids are believed to have been
held around 1880. In 1885, he spoke to a reporter from Der Carroll
Demokrat, the German-language newspaper in Carroll, about the hardships of
the early days in the area. Mr. Brutsche recalled that the nearest market in
those was at Des Moines. He related that he had arrived in Carroll County
about a year after Conrad Geiselhart, and that in those early days, herds of
antelope and deer could still be found in the area. The reporter called him
the most good-natured fellow he had ever met.
By the late 1880’s, the Brutsche farm in Guthrie County had
grown to 1600 acres, and they had over 200 head of cattle. Albert and Elmira
Brutsche had 10 children. Albert died at a hospital in Omaha in 1913. At the
time of his death, he was 81 years old and one of the oldest living pioneers
in the area. His funeral was held at the Catholic Church in Coon Rapids.
Elmira Brutsche died in 1932.
Charles F. Buss
According to an 1893 biography, Charles F. Buss was born in
Prussia, about 27 miles east of Berlin, in 1833. He attended school until he
was 14 and then spent three and a half years working as a blacksmith. He
emigrated to the United States when he was 17, arriving in New York in 1850.
He made his way by railroad to Chicago and then to
Milwaukee, both small towns at the time. After working three years near
Milwaukee, he came west to Nebraska and then to Carroll County, Iowa. He
appears in the 1856 census as a 23-year-old blacksmith living in Newton
Township with the family of O. J. Niles, a pioneer settler of the Coon Rapids
area. Although he was an early resident of Carroll County, he had purchased
land in neighboring Crawford County in 1854, and he moved there permanently
and constructed a log cabin in 1859. He married Miss Maria Agens who was born
in Michigan and whose family was among the early settlers of Monona County.
In Crawford County, Mr. Buss was affiliated with the Republican Party. He
served as a justice of the peace and as a member of the school board. He died
This name appears in the 1856 Carroll County census as a
20-year-old woman, born in Germany. She is listed as living with a family in
Newton Township. At this time, nothing further is known about her.
Henry J. P. Müller
Although a 1912 biography states that Henry J. P. Müller
(often spelled Muller in English) was the first German to settle in Carroll
County, it is more accurate to consider him one of the earliest
German-American settlers in the county. Born in Indiana in 1841, his parents
were German immigrants (his father from Hanover, and his mother from Friesland),
and he received his high school education in Germany.
He grew up on the family farm near Fort Wayne, Indiana, and
received his early schooling there. When he was 14, his parents sent him to
Germany in order that he might obtain a good German education. He lived with
his grandmother for four years while attending the gymnasium, or advanced high
school, in Meppen, Hanover.
Müller returned to Indiana in 1859 and worked for a time as a school teacher
and German instructor, and also farmed. In the spring of 1862, he moved to
Goshen, Elkhart County, Indiana, where he was in charge of the Catholic parish
school. On November 22, 1862, he married Martha Anna Ballou, or Ballow, said
to be a niece of the assassinated President James A. Garfield. They resided
in Huntertown with her father, who passed away in August of 1863.
The following year, the young couple decided to move to
Iowa, so they outfitted a prairie schooner with cooking gear and bedding. On
April 11, 1864, packing a Winchester rifle and accompanied by a good dog, they
left their home in Indiana. They traveled northwest through Illinois, crossed
the Mississippi River into Iowa, and finally halted in Carroll County, which
at that time was still almost completely prairie.
After renting property for a time, they purchased 200 acres
located partly in Newton Township and partly in Audubon County, west of Coon
Rapids. Mr. Müller built a log cabin measuring 12 by 16 feet, where the
family lived until 1871 when they built a fine new residence. The family
belonged to the Catholic religion, but there was no Catholic church in the
area at that time. They eventually joined the Annunciation Catholic Church in
Coon Rapids. Mr. Müller later recalled the hardships off those early days on
the prairie. Roads were terrible and the closest mill was 35 miles away. In
order to obtain flour for bread, families would grind corn on improvised iron
graters. But as the county grew, the family prospered, eventually acquiring
over 500 acres of farmland. In 1900, the family moved to Coon Rapids, where
Mr. Müller operated the city scales and later worked as a coal dealer.
Henry and Martha Müller had a large family. Henry died on May 11, 1926 and
Martha died in 1928. They are both buried in the Coon Rapids cemetery.
Further Development of the County
During the first years of county history, these few German
settlers were only a small minority of the population. Although they could
not know it at the time, however, they were actually the vanguard of the
coming German invasion of Carroll County.
By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the county’s
population was only about 400. Within a few years, however, some significant
events occurred which were instrumental to the future growth and development
of the county.
The first events occurred in 1867. In that year, the
railroad reached Carroll County from the east, and the county seat was moved
from Carrollton to Carroll (at first usually called “Carroll City”), which had
been laid out by the railroad along their tracks in the center of the county.
At that time, the county’s population was still only about 688. The railroad
quickly made a difference, however, and within two years, the population
Another event, which was of particular significance to
future German immigration, occurred in 1868. In that year, a relatively
unknown city official from Dubuque, named Lambert Kniest, signed a contract
with a railroad tycoon to bring a number of German Catholic families from
eastern Iowa and settle them on the prairie of northern Carroll County. This
story is told in Chapter Two.
SOURCES FOR CHAPTER ONE:
Much of the general information about early Iowa and
Carroll County came from published histories: Leland L. Sage, A History of
Iowa (Ames 1974); A. F. Allen, Northwestern Iowa, Its History and
Traditions (Chicago 1927); History of Western Iowa (Sioux City
1882); A. T. Andreas, Illustrated Historical Atlas of Iowa (Chicago
1875); Paul MacLean, History of Carroll County, Iowa (Chicago
1912); Historical and Biographical Record of Greene and Carroll Counties,
Iowa (Chicago 1887).
Information for the biographies of the early German
settlers came from their obituaries published in various editions of the
Coon Rapids Enterprise, and from published biographies in Historical
and Biographical Record of Greene and Carroll Counties, Iowa (Chicago
1887); History of Guthrie and Adair Counties, Iowa (Springfield, Ill.
1884); Biographical History of Crawford, Sac and Ida Counties, Iowa
(Chicago 1893); and Der Carroll Demokrat, 25th
Anniversary Edition (1899).
Information on the early German settlers in Iowa comes
from Joseph Eiboeck, Die Deutschen von Iowa und deren Errungenschaften
[The Germans of Iowa and their Achievements] (Des Moines 1900).