Excerpts from Records Of The March 1835

Exploring the Prairie

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The march of three companies of United States Dragoons through the interior of Iowa in the summer of 1835 was in many respects the most important exploration of that region. Little was known of the country soon to be opened for settlement. The official reports of the expedition and Albert M. Lea's Notes on Wisconsin Territory, with a map, published in 1836 did much to attract favorable attention toward Iowaland.

Few activities on the frontier a hundred years ago were as fully recorded as this military expedition. An unknown member of Company I kept a diary in which he described the events of each day.

Lieutenant Lea acted as topographer of the expedition. He took notes on the character of the country, plotted the route with a pocket compass, estimated the distances traveled, and collected information from every available source. His field notes appear to have been lost or destroyed after he used them for his official reports and in the preparation of his little book.

On September 8, 1835, Lea submitted a detailed report upon the navigability of the Des Moines River to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Kearny. Six days later Kearny included this letter with his own report of the expedition to the Adjutant General in Washington. He said that existing maps were very imperfect, but he hoped to forward soon a map "as correct as circumstances would admit" and "made with great care" by Lieutenant Lea.

Lea submitted his map on November 4th and the next day Kearny sent it to the War Department. Accompanying the map was an explanation "Memoir" written by Lea.

The map is no longer with the Memoir in the files of the Adjutant General's office, and appears to have been lost.

Excerpts from Memoir

To accompany the map of the country explored by the Detachment of Dragoons under command of Lt. Colo. S.W. Kearny, in the summer of 1835.

After leaving the comparatively low prairie in which Fort Des Moines is situated [the present site of Montrose], our route lay along the dividing ridge between the waters of the Missippi [Mississippi] and those of the Des Moines rivers. [More exactly the dragoons followed the divide between the Des Moines and Skunk rivers.] A narrow prairie, from 1 to 6 miles wide, extends along this ridge, skirted by groves of oak and hickory usually about 1 mile wide.

Both wood-land and prairie, thus far, are exceedingly fertile, the soil being a black loam based upon clay. The trees are usually oak and hickory, and the woods are free from under-growth; and no stone is to be found, except siliceous pebbles and granitic boulders.

After this, the prairie became much wider; and indeed it cannot be considered of any definite extent; though frequently intersected by strips of woods, of which every stream affords more or less, it may be here considered a part of the Grand Prairie. The soil, too, is less rich; sand becomes abundant, and gravel frequently shows itself on the surface.

The country preserves this character until we pass Ha ha wa, or Swan, Lake [in present day Hamilton County], in which Shakauk, or Skunk, river has its source… This lake is also a tributary of Boone River. … Shakauk is usually clear, rapid in its current, and much resembles the Des Moines river between Raccoon and Cedar.

Beyond Lake Hahawa, about 10 miles, we crossed a river, called by the Indians, Ioway.

After passing this river, we found an almost continuous succession of swamps, for 14 miles, the prairie being scarcely interrupted by a tree. Traversing then a few miles of dryer ground, we came to a high ridge, where we found a Sioux Fort, made by excavating a series of holes, large enough to contain several men, and arranged in an elliptical form, outside of which, when used, skins are stretched on stakes, fixed in the ground, to intercept the view and the missiles of the enemy.

Fort and Otter creeks are each about 20 yds wide, 18 inches deep, clear and swift; and being fed by lakes, they are perennial. The latter, affording most water, gives the name to the united stream [now known as the West Fork of the Cedar].

Nothing peculiar presents itself between Otter creek and English [Shellrock] river, or rather the Lime creek branch, where large groves relieve the general baldness of the prairie.

Leaving English river, we passed over a tract diversified with woods & prairie, hill and dale, but of less fertility, to the main Ioway, called by the Indian traders, Red Cedar. It is here [near the present site of Osage] about 35 yds wide, 2 ½ ft deep, swift, clear, and has a gravelly bottom. Limestone bluffs present themselves occasionally on either bank. No falls or rapids, are known in the river; boats annually ascend it about 80 miles; those that have traversed it in canoes, say that the navigation is better above that point than below; it is an open, uninterrupted stream where we crossed [northeast of Albert Lea, Minnesota], it is 45 yds wide, 4 ½ ft deep, with a current of ¾ mile per hour; and it is fed also by lakes: from these facts, it may be inferred, with great probability, that keelboats may be taken to its very source, during severally months of the year, and that even steamboats of light draught may navigate it advantageously.

For several miles before we reached the Upper Ioway, we travelled through a broken, unproductive region, presenting nothing attractive, save now & then a clear cool spring of limestone water; but on the Upper Ioway itself, the soil is very rich. The river is 25 yds wide, 2 ½ ft deep, clear and swift, at our crossing, but very irregular both in depth and current; it washes against high, overhanging bluffs, the tops of which are 200 ft about the pools at their bases.

These bluffs are of limestone of the variety usually found associated with Galena [lead bearing], both on the Upper Mississippi and in Missouri. There is little doubt of the presence of this mineral on the Upper Ioway, and even on the main Ioway [Cedar] and Shakauk [Skunk] rivers. Passing through a fine forest three miles wide, we came to a large branch of this river, and in ½ mile further, we crossed a smaller branch, both presenting much the same appearances as the main stream. This day's march of 13 miles has been through a country broken, hilly, and very rough, though very fertile, about the rivers.

We traversed a barren tract between the Upper Ioway and Root rivers; but we found a forest 1½miles wide on the latter and some very rich bottom lands. The uplands appear to be much broken, and are frequently clothed in a sort of brushy oak woods.

Fifteen miles beyond Root river is the dividing ridge between its waters and those falling into the Embarras [Zumbro River]; and here also is the transition from the Limestone to the Sandstone formation, as is indicated by the scarcity of springs, a change of soil from black loam to whitish sand, and a difference of growth. On the top of this ridge, we got into an extensive morass, generally strong enough to support horses and waggons, but occasionally presenting places where the sod was destroyed; and whatever was so luckless as to get into these places, was lucky if it got out again. Such Morasses are frequent in the region of the Upper Mississippi.

Three or four miles further on, we came to several bluffs of sandstone covered with a redish lichen, and much resembling, at a distance, immense edifices of brick, in partial dilapidation.

The general level of these highlands is about 800 or 1000 ft about the river, towards which they very gradually slope for several miles. Through this immense barrier, the Mississippi appears to have burst a passage a mile in width, and is now walled in by precipitous rocky bluffs from 500 to 600 ft high, and continuous, save where severed by the action of tributary streams. Now and then the barrier recedes far enough to allow a little plateau, usually prairie, between itself and the river.

Wabashaw's Village [about five miles above the present site of Winona] is situated in a prairie of this kind, about 7 miles long by 2 miles broad. These bluffs run along every creek that intersects the country, gradually decreasing in height above the level of the stream as that level rises.

In returning form Wabashaw's village, our route lay through a part of the Highlands just described. Seven miles beyond Root river, we came again into the region of limestone and rich lands. We traveled a few miles over our outward track, and then bore westward, nearly in a parallel with this river, over as uninteresting a country as may be imagined; it is chiefly prairie, but occasionally presents aspen thickets exceedingly difficult to traverse even on horseback. Though there had been no rain for several weeks, we found much marshy ground about the heads of the creeks.

At the crossing of Root river, we must have been full 700 ft above the Mississippi; yet the ground rises almost continuously thence to the Upper Ioway, a distance of 43 miles. This fact may give some idea of the elevation of the sources of this and contiguous streams.

The Upper Ioway has a sparse growth of scrubby oaks along its banks, which are usually high, though marshy bottoms sometimes occur. As it was much swollen by rains, we could not ascertain its usual size; it is probably fed by lakes, as it has much the appearance of an outlet to one being deep, narrow and sluggish.

We next came to the main Ioway [Cedar] again, it has been already described. About the second crossing, the timber was very fine and extensive in the low grounds, and on the ridges the small oaks look like fruit trees regularly planted.

Leaving this ridge, we approached the Des Moines, and found the prairie far less marshy. Its bed is full of long, entangling grass, rendering it dangerous to swim horses over it, as we experienced. This is common to all such streams.

We crossed the Des Moines as a rapid [probably in the vicinity of the present town of Rutland]. There are some fine low lands along it; but there is little timber, except near the Forks [about ten miles north of Fort Dodge]. The "Upper Forks," as this junction is termed, has been spoken of as a site for a Fort.

The general course of the Des Moines is southeast, and its length, below the mouth of Raccoon, is about 266 miles. [The distance is over-estimated.]

Below Cedar river, for 80 miles to Keokuk's Village [a few miles below the present town of Eldon, according to Lea's map], it is about 160 yds wide, is less crooked and without snags; but the general depth is less.

Below Keokuk's village, the river is usually from 200 to 225 yds wide; its course is remarkably free from sudden bends; its current is nearly uniform, about 2 miles per hour, in low water; the depth is very regular, seldom under 15 inches; the bottom is a smooth blue limestone, sometimes covered with sand and fine gravel; and not a single extraneous obstruction presents itself, save a few loose rocks at one place, until within 11 miles of the mouth.

About 11 miles above the mouth, the influence of the Mississippi begins to be felt; the river is reduced to 80 or 100 yds in width; the channel becomes crooked; the banks are frequently caving in; and snags are abundant; but there is always deep water where there are snags. Though 10 miles of the river is thickly set with snags, boats may avoid them in daylight, but they can never run that part of the river by night. The back-water form the Mississippi causes frequent collections of driftwood, and renders this part of the river very liable to change its bed, as it has recently done to a great extent.

GAME. Of this we found little, on any part of our route. A few deer were usually seen every day, as we marched along, except in the highlands about Wabashaw's. Near the head of the Shankauk river, on the waters of the Ioway, and on the Des Moines, as low down as Raccoon, we found a few scattering elk, in heads of 2 to 10 only. Near Lake Hahawa we chased a herd of a dozen buffalo, and near the Ioway [Cedar], another of 100, which is all the buffalo we saw on the campaign. Furred animals are scarce every where, except about the sources of Shakauk and Buffalo [Iowa] rivers, where muskrats are abundant; there are also some foxes along there, some of which are white. Beaver has almost entirely disappeared, except on the raccoon, and otter is no where in plenty. Indeed the extinction of all the larger and more valuable game in this region seems to be fast approaching. This is owing to the crowding of Indians upon tracts too small to afford them subsistence as hunters, and also to the inducements held out to them by the traders to kill many animals, valuable for food, for the sake of their skins alone. Consequently game is scarce. Fish is the only game still abundant, and with this every stream is well supplied.

POPULATION. The Sioux Indians have, from time immemorial, held most of the country which they now inhabit, and in times past, they possessed much more. They extend from East of the Mississippi high up the Missouri, and from latitudes 43o north into the British possessions. They mostly live in villages, and depend in some degree upon the cultivation of the soil for subsistence; this is especially the case with those living along the St. Peter's [Minnesota] river, where villages are numerous; but many bands have no fixed residence, subsisting altogether by the chase, and wandering over their almost limitless prairies as the game may lead them.

That district lying on the Missouri, south of the Sioux line [southwestern Iowa], ceded to the United States for a common hunting ground for the neighboring tribes, is little used by any of them, it being rather a hostile than a neutral ground. The United Nation of Pottawattamies, Chippewas and Ottawas have by treaty been given 5,000,000 acres of this tract, and are now moving to it.

There are about 6,000 of them and there is not game enough in their country to feed them 2 years. The district between the Missouri river and the western line of the state of Misssouri, relinquished by these Indians to the U. States, is a very valuable one. There are, or were, many squatters upon it, even in defiance of law. The Ioway Indians, once a powerful tribe, now a mere handful, are staying on it also; having sold all their lands, they now live at the mercy of Heaven.

The SAC and Fox nation, inhabiting chiefly along the Des Moines and the Ioway, contains only about 1,700 persons, of whom about 700 are Sacs. They live in 4 villages, the Sacs on the former river, the Foxes on the latter. Keokuks village contains 450, Opanoose's 350, Wawpello's 250, and Poisheik's [Poweshiek] 650 inhabitants, according to the best information to be obtained on the ground. In consequence of the great destruction of warriors in the war of 1832, the whole nation could not muster more than 300 fighting men.

"Records of the March," "Official Letters," and "Memoir," The Palimpsest, April 1935, pp. 105-131. Reproduced by permission of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

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