[Graphic] Click here to go directly to the content of this page[graphic] Welcome to Hardin County, Iowa[graphic] Arrowhead that is a link to the National Park Service website
[photo] Princess Cafe sign
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View of covered wagons pulled by oxen, [between 1870 and 1880]
Photograph from the Library of Congress collection, courtesy of Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.

With the rapid development of the American west in the 1800s, the state of Iowa became not only a resting stop but also a stopping place for many wagon trains carrying western settlers. Prior to European exploration, these lands were home to numerous American Indian tribes including the Sioux, Potawatomi, Winnebago and Iowa, after which the state is named. The French lay claim to this area as early as 1673, but the first European settler did not arrive here until more than a century later. The United States obtained the land as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Early western pioneers traveled west both by land and river. Possible land routes included Forbe's Road, the most important link between New England and the Ohio Valley, as well as the first national highway later known as the National Road (now U.S. Route 40). Begun in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1806, the planned route was intended to stretch to St. Louis, Missouri. Due to a national financial crisis in 1837, the terminus became Vandalia, Illinois--then the state capital--but the National Road succeeded in bringing many settlers to Indiana and Illinois. The Ohio River was an important river route, while the Great Lakes were advantageous for passage from the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and Canada. These pioneers arrived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, or Chicago, Illinois, where they could secure teams of wagons for the overland route--a trip that took from six to eight days, with fares ranging from six to 25 dollars.

The lands that are now Eastern Iowa, bordered by the Mississippi River, remained under the control of the Sac and Fox tribes until the 1830s, which prohibited European settlement. In 1832, after years of resisting removal, these tribes engaged in Black Hawk's War (lead by their war chief), were quickly defeated and shortly thereafter sold their land rights to the United States. By 1833 all great avenues of immigration were open to Iowa. Two decades later, by the time the United States negotiated with the Dakota Sioux for the rest of Iowa in 1851, the state was predominately home to white settlers. Population growth in Iowa was phenomenal, and the territory was alive with people who wanted to claim land and build homes. Statehood was granted to the territory by 1846.

Historic postcard view of Old Mill and Dam in Iowa Falls
Courtesy of the Iowa Falls Historic Preservation Commission

Prior to 1836, wagon trains hoping to cross the Mississippi from Illinois were only able to do so at Buffalo, Dubuque, and Burlington. By 1860, 17 other ferry locations were established to meet the demand. Early settlement in the upper Iowa River basin was strongly influenced by the existing watercourses. Timber along the streams was usually claimed in preference to the prairie land. It was easier to cut down and clear trees than it was to break through the tough prairie sod with primitive tools. These wooded areas were also a natural source for fuel and building materials for cabins and fences. Many mills were established with villages sited nearby. Mills were vital to these mid-19th-century agricultural settlements.

The following generalization helps illustrate what an early rural farmstead in Iowa was like:

"after the first decade or two of "pioneering," a general type of farming may be observed. The average farm was a combination of prairie and small patches of woodland. The farmer planted corn, wheat, oats and a few other small grains. He raised pigs, a few cattle of doubtful lineage, and some sheep; his work cattle consisted of a yoke or two of slow footed oxen or several nondescript horses. His farm buildings left much to be desired. By the 1860's he may have planted a small orchard, and he had a number of the latest agricultural implements - - steel plows, reapers, mowers, corn shellers, and, in some cases, a few planting tools. In fact, his machinery was well in advance of his methods which were usually those of his father and grandfather. His farm, in spite of careless cultivation, produced a large surplus which he sold at the nearest town" [Throne, Mildred, "Book Farming" in Iowa, 1840-1870," Patterns and Perspectives in Iowa History: Ames, Iowa; Iowa State University Press, 1974]

Current view of Honey Creek Friends Church
Courtesy of the Hardin County Community Development Council
Shortly after Iowa acquired statehood, Hardin County was created by an act of the General Assembly on January 15, 1851. The county was named in honor of Colonel John J. Hardin, a prominent leader in the Black Hawk War who was later killed in the Mexican War. The first settler to arrive in the area is believed to have been Greenbury Haggin. Haggin had arrived in Iowa from Kentucky in 1849 and built a log cabin on the Iowa River in Union Township that fall. One year later Jacob Kidwilder and his family settled in Section 2, Jackson Township, along with friends Adam Crim and Francis Mitchell. Also in 1850, a third settlement was established in what is now Eldora, the county seat. In February 1851, B. I. Talbot, Nathan Townsend, and John Caldwell settled in the vicinity of Iowa Falls. That same year several members of the Society of Friends settled along Honey Creek, in Providence Township, and later established the town of New Providence and the Honey Creek Friends' Meetinghouse. Another Quaker settlement was located just east of Iowa Falls along the river, and Iowa Falls itself was home to a significant Quaker population.

One challenge to early settlement of the area was the lack of timber resources away from the river. Initially, only 10 percent of the county was timbered, and became quickly depleted by lumbering. When the county was established in 1851, it contained fewer than a dozen families. However, after 1852 settlers moved in rapidly, mostly coming up the Iowa River from Marshall County. In 1852 a small amount of gold was discovered in the shoals of the Iowa River a few miles north of Eldora and for a brief time there were 500 to 1000 people camped in tents and wagons between Eldora and Steamboat Rock. Settlers were so busy panning for gold that they forgot about their farms and little was accomplished that year.

Historic view of Washington Avenue in Iowa Falls, c1910
Courtesy of the Iowa Falls Historic Preservation Commission

In July of 1853, Eldora became the first town platted in the county, and the first frame building in Hardin County was constructed there in December of that year. The abundance of good building stone further up the river was a factor in the development of Rocksylvania, and later Iowa Falls. Rocksylvania was platted in November of 1854 by Benjamin Talbot, over numerous objections to the name.

Like other areas of the state, mills were the focal point of the small agricultural settlements, and prior to 1860 most roads in the county lead to a mill. In 1856 a steam mill was built and that same year Iowa Falls was platted a short way up river. The vertical drop of the river as it passed through the county was even greater than that of Niagara Falls, and was a natural source for water powered mills.

Also in 1856, the government decided to establish a mail route between Cedar Falls and Fort Dodge, necessitating a postal highway through either Hardin City or Iowa Falls. Anxious lot holders from Iowa Falls persuaded station agent T. L. Chesney to choose their town by promising the use of their homes to board travelers. Iowa Falls grew quickly after that and absorbed Rocksylvania, which is now within the city limits.

View of a prosperous farm in Hardin County today
Courtesy of the Hardin County Community Development Council
By 1860, nearly all land in Hardin County had been purchased. Most settlers continued to migrate from the east; census records show that the largest number of settlers in the county had been born in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. Foreign emigrants came from Ireland, Canada and England, although Germans from East Fries Land (northern Germany) were the predominate ethnic group migrating to the area from the post-Civil War period until the 1940s. By 1865, the stagecoach and regular mail routes were established in the county and the railroad was not far behind. The growth of towns and farm productivity were closely related, and much effort was being expended to attract new merchants and farmers to particular localities. Many more towns were platted than were actually settled--paper towns such as New Berlin, Poseyville, and Georgeton existed only on paper. The towns that ultimately prospered in Hardin County were those connected to national and international markets via the railroad. It was during this time that the cribbed grain elevator became a sentinel over the Iowa landscape, drawing the local and regional harvest of grain to be held until shuttled to a larger transshipment point.

[graphic] Collage of different scenes from Hardin County
[graphic] Link to Settlement Essay[graphic] Link to Transportation Essay[graphic] Link to Agriculture Essay[graphic] Link to Preservation Essay