History of Palo Alto County, Iowa

At the time of the celebration of the Semi-Centennial of Palo Alto County, at Emmetsburg, Iowa, in July, 1906, I was asked to prepare a short history and list of old settlers for the souvenir program distributed by the committee. The preparation of that sketch led me deep into the beginnings of the county, and the interest then incited has continued to grow as the researches progressed. Moreover, there has been a deepening consciousness that it is our sacred duty to preserve by historical record the events and traditions of the past. The intrepid pioneers who fought the battles of the frontier in the early days are fast passing away and with them the precious storehouse of human acts and achievements so vital to any history. We cannot longer delay giving justice to whom justice is due and preserve for posterity the record of those who in the vanguard of progress made possible what we now enjoy.

During the four years that have elapsed since beginning this work, I have used many spare moments and much of my vacation time in preparing this history. The gathering of material has entailed a larger amount of hard work and patient research than at first contemplated; and the writing and publication of the book has been compressed into a few months and crowded to completion for fear that the constantly increasing distractions of a busy practice might soon prevent any further work upon it before its consummation. No one is more aware of the imperfections of the book than the author and it is too much to hope that there are no inaccuracies. But it has been my purpose to give as completely and accurately as possible the history of our county. I have tried to be fair and impartial. No labor has been spared to make the facts thoroughly trustworthy and reliable in every detail. References and explanations in footnotes have been given whenever practicable. But throughout it all the aim has been to keep the thread of human interest, the personal touch that makes life worth living and history worth reading.

The big 1906 Semi-Centennial celebration, lasting three days, bringing together as it did the old settlers and renewing forgotten associations, brought to light many valuable reminiscences and stories of the early days. An autograph register of all visitors, with the date of coming to the county, was a feature of the Old Settlers' Day and has since been permanently bound, together with the ac-count of the proceedings and other historical matter, and forms a valuable record for future reference. Yet it is a lamentable fact that much valuable historical material has been lost and destroyed. The most careful search and extensive inquiry among the old settlers has not revealed a single copy of the old Democrat, published at Soda Bar in 1869, nor of the Palo Alto Advance, published in the Old Town in 1870, nor of the Palo Alto Patriot, published in 1873, nor of the Enterprise, issued for a short period about the same time. A partial file and one or two odd copies of the Pilot, published in 1874, have come to light. Complete files of the Reporter and the later papers have been rescued from oblivion in old cellars, barns and attics. I have tried in vain to find a copy of J.L. Martin's sketch of early county history, published many years ago; and even the manuscript of that little book is now lost. We have waited until too late to begin the preservation of the valuable records of the early days. In fact in a very few years there would have been no survivors of the first days left to tell the romantic tales now recorded in these pages.


Table of Contents

Preface 7

Chapter I
Introduction "Westward" 10

Chapter II
The West Bend Settlement 15

Chapter III
The Irish Colony 22

Chapter IV
The Indians and the Spirit Lake Massacre 27

Chapter V
The Relief Expedition 33

Chapter VI
New Settlers 42

Chapter VII
Early Speculative County-seats 58

Chapter VIII
The Political Organization of the County 62

Chapter IX
The Call to Arms 74

Chapter X
A Decade of Growth 80

Chapter XI
The "Old Town" 107

Chapter XII
The New Emmetsburg 123

Chapter XIII
The Period of Development 135

Chapter XIV
Rise of the County Towns 145

Chapter XV
Our Modern County 156

Appendices 159

Index 169


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The "Westward Movement" is one of the most important facts in American history. Starting with a little fringe of colonies along the Atlantic coast, the settlements began to spread gradually westward, ever westward, toward the setting sun. The dangers and hardships of pioneer life on the eastern coast were met and overcome in each successive stage of the march westward. The same kind of opportunities and difficulties, colored with local variations, recurred to make the strong and sturdy growth from frontier simplicity to permanent development. It is this fact that has given a distinctive quality to American life the self-reliance, courage and independence which dominate American character. A study of the frontier, therefore, will give us the key to our history.

Moreover, the genesis of any settlement will show the basis and character of development. Many distinctive characteristics of any community have grown out of peculiar conditions or incidents in its early history. It is this frontier life, with its privations, its battles, its pleasures, its government, and its crude experiments and compromises, together with the effects of natural conditions and environment, that discloses the very beginnings of social life. We must study these frontier beginnings as well as later developments if we would appreciate our local history.