A Short History of Mahaska County, Iowa from A. T. Andreas' Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. 1875

Mahaska County is the fourth from the Mississippi River in the third tier of counties from the south line of the state, and contains an area of 576 square miles, or 353,540 acres. It is traversed by the Des Moines, and by North and South Skunk Rivers at nearly equal intervals, affording excellent natural drainage and abundant water power. Every township is well supplied with living water, and drained of all surplus or stagnant water by these streams, or by some of their numerous affluents, so that swamp or marsh land is unknown in Mahaska. All the principal streams are skirted by heavy bodies of excellent timber, furnishing an abundant supply for the entire county of all the valuable varieties indigeuous to Iowa soil.

Lime and sandstone of excellent quality for building purposes is found in different parts of the county, especially in the river banks, excellent stone for the manufature of quick-lime is abundant. Near Oskaloosa there is an inexhaustible bed of sandstone suitable either for building or flagging.


The extensive coal beds of the county constitute one of its most valuable sources of wealth. Mahaska lies almost wholly within the area of the lower or most productive coal measure, and here the beds reach their maximum thickness. Three beds are easily reached and have been opened at numerous points, affording coal of an excellent quality which is extensively mined and exported in large quantities by the intersecting lines of railway which furnish ready facilities for transportation north, south, east, and west. The mines at Oskaloosa Station, two and a half miles from the state line, are styled the most important yet opened in the state by Profesor C. A. White in the "Geology of Iowa."

Good materials for the maufacture of brick are found in sufficient abundance.

The surface of the county is generally rolling in the region of the uplands. The streams, however, are bordered with level valleys of considerable extent. An agreeable situation of timber and prairie lends the face of the country that highly pleasing variety in appearance generally wanting in exclusively prairie or timbered sections, and doubtless constituted one of the principal attractions which led to its rapid early settlement.

The soil is very productive and yields abundant crops of grain and vegetables. It is well adapted to the production of apples, pears, cherries, and all the small fruits, and extensive orchards are frequently met with. Grasses, both wild and tame, grow prefusely. The tame grasses are cultivated extensively; hence the county is admirably adapted to stock raising, in which respect it stands in the front rank of Iowa Counties; the farmers turning their attention largely to this branch of business.


Mahaska County was embraced within the territory known as the New Purchase made in 1842, and opened for settlement by the whites, May 1, 1843. Although not surveyed, this territory was prospectively laid off into counties by the Territorial Legislature, during the Winter of 1842-3 the boundaries being designated by townships and ranges. Previous to this time a house was built within the limits of the county by a Mr. Macbeth, about one mile above the Indian village of Hardfishes (since Eddyville), in the northwest corner of Wapello County where J. B. Eddy had a trading post with which Macbeth was in some way connected. This house was erected in October, 1842, probably for the purpose of holding and improving a choice claim before the expiration of the Indian title-a maneuver then not uncommon. Macbeth having no family employed John B. Gray to occupy the house and trade for him, and Mr. Gray moved in with his family in November and occupied the house until the following Spring, when he removed to Marion County, and his was undoubtedly the first white family that resided in the county.

During the month of April, 1843, many people collected and camped on lands within the limits of the county waiting for the Indian claim to expire. Few of them attempted to sleep on the night of the 1ast of April, and as soon as their watches indicated the hour of twelve they commenced marking their claims. It so happened that many made their locations and commenced making improvements simultaneously, and it was, therefore, impossible to tell who was the first. Among those who took claims in the south part of the county near the Des Moines River, were Dr. K. A. Boyer, W. A. Delashmutt, John B. Gray, Coey, Nowels, Davis, and Crane, and in the southeast part of the county, A. S. Nichols and Mr. Brin. The principal settlements first made were on Six Mile Prairie, between Oskaloosa and the Des Moines River, a beautiful section of country well calculated to attract the eye of the pioneer.

It is said that A. S. Nichols, Esq., erected the first blacksmith shop at a place then called Brin's Point, in the south-east part of the county.

These settlers did not know what county they were in until the following September, when the land was surveyed into townships, and by reference to the act of the Legislature above mentioned, the limits of Mahaska County were readily determined.


So rapid had been the settlement of the county that the Legislature provided for its organzation by an act dated Feb. 5, 1844, only about nine months from the time when the first claims were staked. M. T. Williams was appointed Clerk, and Wm. Edmundson, Sheriff, for the purpose of perfecting the organization. Under this act an election was held April 1st, 1844, for the purpose of chosing county officers, at which A. S. Nichols, Wilson Stanley, and Robert Curry were elected County Commissioners; John W. Cunningham, Commissioners' Clerk; Wm. D. Canfield, Treasurer; Wm. Pilgrim, Recorder; John White, Probate Judge; Wm. Edmundson, Sheriff; David Stump, Surveyor; W. A. Delashmutt, Assessor, and Brittain Edwards, Coroner. At the general election in Aug., 1844, a second election of officers took place. At this time A. S. Nichols, S. Droulard, and Harmon Davis were chosen Commissioners. The new board held its first meeting on the 8th of October. Previous to this time the county had been attached to Washington, and an election had been held under the direction of that county in October, 1843, at the house of Mr. Poultney Loughridge. Wm. Edmundson held the office of Justice of the Peace, by appointment of Gov. Chambers, under an act prescribing regulations for unorganized counties, and was the first public officer in the county


The Commissioners appointed to locate the County Seat, Jesse Williams, of Johnson County, Ebenezer Perkins, of Washington County, and Thomas Henderson, of Keokuk County, met at the house of Mathew D. Springer, and after qualifying according to law, proceeded to examine the situation. There were three points competing for the location, to wit: Six Mile Prairie, the "Narrows," and agreeably to a vote of those present, gave it the name of Mahaska, and on the 11th of May so reported. The commissioners received two dollars a day for their services.

The law of Congress gave each county the right of preemption to 160 acres of land, selected as a county seat, if unentered. The tract selected as the seat of justice for Mahaska County was at this time held as a claim by Wm. D. Canfield, who built upon it the first cabin within the limits of Oskaloosa, in October, 1843. It stood in what is now Perry Street, between Harrison and South, near the south-west corner of the old town. In what way the county arranged the matter with Mr. Canfield has not been recorded; but it immediately assumed possession of the tract.

The County Commissioners met on the 13th day of May, two days after the location was made, to lay out and plat the tract into town lots. The survey was made by David Stump, the County Surveyor. At this time Mr. Canfield, the County Treasurer, not liking the name of Mahaska, proposed a change. M. T. Williams, one of the company present, proposed Oskaloosa, which meeting with general approbation, was adopted by the board. This was the name originally chosen by the locating commissioners, but they allowed themselves to be overruled.

At the first public sale of lots in June, 1844, very few purchasers were present, and after eight lots had been sold at very low prices the commissioners stopped the sale. This was owing to the violent opposition manifested toward Oskaloosa by the friends of Six Mile Prairie and the center of the county, who, at the following August election, united their strength against the former in a contest for county officers. Oskaloosa triumphed after a sharp contest, and no county seat contest was ever afterwards inaugurated.

On the 11th of May, 1844, the County Commissioners made the following record: "Ordered by the board, that sealed proposals will be received by the Commissioners' Clerk, at any time from this date until the 1st of July next, for the erection of a Court House in Oskaloosa, the seat of justice of Mahaska County." At the time appointed the contract was let to James Edgar, and the building finished in 1845. During this meeting of the commissioners, May, 1843, M. T. Williams was appointed agent to act in the absence of the commissioners, in superintending the survey of the town, the sale of lots, and "such other business as may be him be deemed necessary."

In 1845 the Commissioners authorized the Clerk to negotiate a loan of two hundred dollars, with which to enter the site of the County Seat. The money was obtained of Wm. Wilson, for which the commissioners gave their note payable twelve months from date, at twelve per cent interest, to be paid from the proceeds of sales of lots.

The county was apportioned into election precincts previous to the April election of 1843, but was not regularly divided into townships until January 7, 1845, when the county commissioners defined the following: White Oak, Harrison, Spring Creek, Monroe, Union, Des Moines, Oskaloosa, Madison, Jefferson, Jackson, Cedar, English River, Lake, and White Breast. Jackson, English River, Lake, and White Breast were not part of Mahaska County, but were within the limits of other counties attached to it and ceased to be under the jurisdiction of Mahaska as soon as those counties were organized. Spring Creek was attached to Oskaloosa, March 11, 1845, and the name of Jackson was changed to Scott soon afterwards.

The first term of court in the county was begun on the 17th of May, 1844, by Judge Joseph Williams. This was a court having both federal and local jurisdictio, and William Thompson, Esq., was appointed United States Attorney pre tem., and Christian Stagle District Attorney pro tem. William Edmundson was Sheriff, and M. T. Williams was appointed Clerk.

This court was held in an unfinished buiding on the corner of Washington and Main streets. One account says the court room was on the west side of Washington, in a building erected by Mr. Canfield. Another locates it on the opposite side in a building afterwards known as the Great Western Hotel, kept by Mr. Canfield. The latter is probably correct. Here a platform was improvised of boards laid across the logs cut from the door, and upon this judge was seated upon a rocking chair behind a table or desk prepared by laying a broad walnut plank on the heads of two barrels. The lawyers occupied one end of this plank and the clerk the other. The grand jurors at this term were James Vance, George Argabright, John Rose, A. D. Bowers, Richard Parker, Adam Cline, M. S. Morris, Osee Mathews, George W. Jones, Jefferson Chitwood, William Bean, James Hickenbothum, Wellington Nasman, James Comstock, Adam Storts, William Welch, John Shelleday, Harmon Davis, John B. Stewart, Brantley Stafford, Jacob Crane, Alexander May, and John Vance, the majority of whom long since died or removed from the county. By order of the court the grand jury held their deliberations in a hollow toward the north end of Washington street, and continued in session the remainder of the week without presenting any indictments. The petit jurors were John Newel, Samuel Peters, John D. Baldwin, Thomas Brooks, Alfred Seevers, William Bovel, Robert Hammond, Thomas Fancher, Jacob Nordike, James Seevers, William D. Brown, Joseph Ross, Alfred Hood, Solomon Barber, Pleasant Parker, Green T. Clark, John P. Majors, Joseph H. Benedict, Thomas Williams, Isaac Barker, W. H. Freel, Thomas Wilson, Robert Curry, Jr., and Benjamin Thomas. Some of these afterwards became prominent men in the county. A panel of twelve was selected from this number in the trial of the case of James Hall, Appellee, vs. Joseph Koons, forcible entry and detainer, in relation to a claim on public lands, which occupied all the time of the court until its adjournment Saturday evening.


In June, 1843, William James laid out the first town in Mahaska County, on Six Mile Prairie, which he called Harrisburg. It was never recorded, and some time afterwards George W. Jones laid out a town on the same site, and named it Auburn. A warehouse built by him was all the improvement ever made. Mr. George W. Jones is the now well-known proprietor of the Jones House of Des Moines.

Early in 1843 Dr. E. A. Boyer came and selected a location adjoing the site of Rochester, where he secured a "squatter's right" by marking out such land as he desired to enter. He at once commenced the practice of medicine, and for a number of years had a ride of many miles.

A branch of the Fourier Association commenced operations, and made some slight imporvements near Dr. Boyer's place during the winter of 1843-'4 but being destitute of capital soon broke up and abandoned the undertaking.

Mr. John W. Jones, subsequently a prominent citizen of Oskaloosa, and brother of George W. Jones, located at an early day upon the farm where Harrisburg and Auburn were platted.

M. T. Williams came to the county in May, 1843, at the instance of his brother, Jesse Williams, one of the commissioners who located the county seat. Henry Temple, the first lawyer in the county, came the same season. William Brown, known as "Center Bill Brown," erected a log house in December, 1843, near the center of the county. He subsequently became one of the proprietors of Omaha. During the Summer of 1844, Mr. James Seevers came to the county, erected a house and became a permanent resident, afterwards removing to Oskaloosa. He was father-in-law of M. T. Williams, elsewhere mentioned, and father of Hon. W. H. Seevers, of Oskaloosa.

July 5, 1844, the commissioners levied the first tax in the county upon an assessment of $456,561, personal property, no land being liable to assessment. The levy was five mills county tax, and one-half mill territorial tax, also fifty cents for county revenue upon each poll: total tax, $505.63 1/2. The record shows that there were 498 polls assessed, hence there must have been that many adult male citizens here when the assessment was made, between the months of April and July, 1844. They were not all in Mahaska County, however, as Monroe and possibly Poweshiek were included in the assessment. The first levy of taxes for school purposes was made in 1846, and amounted to $429.35.

In January, 1846, the commissioners of Mahaska County granted John Scott permission to establish a ferry across Des Moines River, at the mouth of Raccoon River, for a license fee of ten dollars. So far did the jurisdiction of this coutny extend at that time.

The first mill in the county was built in 1843, by Jospeh H. and John K. Benedict, on Muchekinock Creek, about three miles above Eddyville. It was a saw mill, with a small pair of burrs for grinding corn.

The first sermon was preached by a Methodist circuit rider named Lewis, in October, 1844, at the house of Isaac Harrell, on Six Mile Prairie. Soon after a Methodist class was organized in this neighborhood, and a Mr. Chestnut chosen class-leader. This was the first religious organization. The first school in the county was taught by Miss Semira A. Hobbs, in September, 1844, on section 16, township 75, range 15.

The mode of access to this county during its early history was by water to Keokuk, the "Gate City" (so called because it was the gateway to the territory northwest as far as Des Moines), thence up the Des Moines River by such rode water craft as could be procured to points whence the immigrants could make their way to their destined location by team and wagon. The way was roundabout and the journey long and slow, yet such means of communication with the outer world were then regarded as exceedingly valuable and convenient. Hence the settlement which extended up the Des Moines River valley was the first of any great importance that penetrated far into the interior of the state. This was before the era of direct and rapid communication by rail. Then Mahaska County was away in the far west, a long distance beyond civiliazation. Now it is the home of civilization, with all its best institutions. The river has been abandoned for the ready communication to the rail, and the county is traversed by numerous


The Keokuk & Des Moines Railroad passes from the Gate City to the Capital City through the county. The Central of Iowa passes centrally through the county, and is a direct through line between St. Louis and St. Paul. Both these lines connect with all the east and west lines across the state. The southwestern branch of the C., R. I. & P. road is now building from Sigourney to Oskaloosa, and when completed will bring the county on an important east and west line, connecting at Albia with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. These lines afford ready communication in all directions.


One of the leading educational institutions in Mahaska County is Penn College. This is under the exclusive patronage of the Society of Friends, and was named in honor of that most distinguiesed exemplar of their profession, William Penn. This was originated and designed by the members of the society throughout the West as their chief seminary of learning. Their excellent and spacious stone edifice, about one mile north of the City of Oskaloosa, was commenced in 1870. The college is now provided with an efficient corps of instructors, has a large number of students, and is progressing prosperously.

Oskaloosa College is another prominent institution, which will be more particularly mentioned elsewhere. The public schools of the county number upwards of 180, and are most liberally provided with school houses valued at very nearly $160,000. The amount annually expended in maintaining the public schools, including compensation of teachers and cost of other facilities, averages somewhere between $70,000 and $75,000. The permanent school fund of the county is $34,909.08; that of the several counties of the state bring upon an average about $30,000. It will thus be seen that Mahaska County provides unusually liberal support for public schools.


This enterprising young city is located on a beautiful tract of high, level prairie, on the divide between the Des Moines and Skunk Rivers. There was not a tree upon the town site when it was laid out, but the citizens began early planting native forest trees, and continued it to such an extent that it has been denominated the "City of Trees." William Canfield built the first cabin (as elsewhere stated) upon this territory, in 1843. Dr. T. D Porter was the first practicing physician in the place. The first school taught here was by Samuel W. Caldwell, in the Winter of 1844-5.

The town has had a steady and continuous growth and improvement since 1844, never outrunning the development of the country in speculative improvements, but fully keeping pace with it in substantial business enterprise and prosperity. Since the completion of the Central Railroad, its progress has been materially quickened and its business much increased. Around the Court House Square, in the center of the town, are ranged handsome and costly business blocks, excellent and well filled store roooms, fine hotels, and all the evidences of a large and thriving business. Almost every department of mercantile and professional business is well represented. The manufacturing interests are represented by extensive flouring mills, woolen mills and foundry and machine shops, besides numerous minor establishments.

The city is duly incorporated under the general incoorporation law of the state.


Oskaloosa College is located on a beautiful ten-acre plat near the west end of the city. The college edifice is a stately brick building, three stories high, presenting a front of 130 feet. The openings for doors and windows, the groins, copings, base and string courses are of dressed limestone. This institution was incorporated in 1857., and the preparatory department was opened in 1861. Its success has been highly gratifying. It has an excellent faculty of five professors, including the President, Rev. F. M. Bruner, A. M., and is annually attended by a large number of students.

The city also maintains, under an independent district organization, an excellent system of graded schools, furnished with suitable school houses, and all other appropriate facilities. These employ nearly twenty teachers; and the course of instruction includes, besides the common branches, several of the higher branches, among which are Latin and German.


Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized November 10, 1844, by Rev. B. B. Bonham, with twenty-two members. This society erected the first house of worship in the county, in 1846.

The First Presbyterian Church was organized February 21, 1845, by Rev. Samuel Cowles, with seven members. A Sabbath school was organized in 1848.

The Church of Christ was organized March 25, 1846, by H. H. Hendrix, acting evangelist, with eleven members. The chapel was founded in 1853., and a Sabbath school was organized soon afterwards.

The First United Presbyterian Church was organized in June, 1849, as the First Associate Reformed Church, and adopted its present name in 1858.

The First United Presbyterian Church was organized in June, 1849, as the First Associate Reformed Church, and adopted its present name in 1858.

The Methodist Church was first organized as a class in the Fall of 1844, by Rev. A. W. Johnson, the first preacher of the gospel who settled in the county.

The Baptist, Universalist, and Roman Catholic Churches and the Society of Friends have been organized since. Nealry all of them have good houses of worship.


The Weekly Oskaloosa Herald is a large, nine-column to the page, folio sheet, published Thursdays, by H. C. Leighton and W. H. Needham. It is Republican in politics, and enjoys an extensive circulation. It has an excellent news and job office in its own building, the Herald Block, and its presses are propelled by steam. The Herald was established July 2, 1850, by John R. Needham and Hugh McNeeley. Mr. McNeeley sold his interest to John W. Murphy, he to J. H. Knox, he to James Brown, and he to Charles Beardsley. Then the entire office was sold by Needham & Beardsley to C. W. Fisher and John W. Murphy. In November, 1865, Mr. Murphy sold his interest to the present proprietors of the paper, and in January, 1868, Mr. Fisher sold his interst to W. A. Hunter, and he to the present proprietors, in March, 1870. It was started as a five-column folio, and was enlarged successively to six, seven, eight and nine columns, and finally was made a sheet 30x46 inches, by lengthening the columns, in 1870.

The Oskaloosa Standard is a Liberal Democratic newspaper, published Thursdays, by Carleston & Hare, and is a lively newspaper, enjoying a prosperous business. It was established in 1865. It was established in 1865, by the present proprietors.

The Evangelist, a religious newspaper representing the Christian Church, is published weekly, at Oskaloosa, by the Central Book Concern, G. T. Carpenter, editor in chief, and has a wide circulation throughout the state. It was established at Fort Madison in 1849, and removed to Oskaloosa in 1858. It was issued monthly, or semi-monthly, until 1870, when it was enlarged and made a weekly. The founder was D. Bates, and after him A. Chatterton, G. T. Carpenter, A. Hickey and B. W. Johnson were proprietors, successively. From Mr. Johnson it passed into the hands of the Central book concern.

The Reform Leader is an enterprising sheet, published Thursdays, by P. C. Welch, by whom it was established, in 1871. It is independent of political parties.

NEW SHARON. This is a thriving town on the line of the Central Railroad of Iowa, in the northern part of the county. It is surrounded by a rich farming region in a high state of cultivation, and enjoys quite an important local trade in merchandise and produce. It is building and improving with considerable rapidity and enterprise.

The New Sharon Star is an enterprising Republican newspaper, published every Friday by H. J. Vail, by whom it was established in 1873. It is an eight-column to the page follo sheet, of creditable appearance.

OSKALOOSA STATION is a shipping point on the Keokuk & Des Moines Railroad, two and a half miles from the city. Quite a village has grown up here, and considerable manufacturing is carried on.

The other villages and post offices are: Agricola, Auburn, Belle Fountain, Buck Horn, Cedar, Eveland Grove, Ferry, Flint, Fremont, Givin, Granville, Hopewell, Indianapolis, Leighton, Mauch Chunk, Peoria, Union Mills and White Oak.


Geo. A. Ross, Auditor.

David R. Moore, Clerk of Courts.

James E. Hetherington, Sheriff.

Henry R. Kendig, Treasurer.

Wm. R. Cowan, Recorder.

Jasper Hull, Superintendent.

L. P. Shriver, Chairman Board of Supervisors.


Return to

  • Mahaska County, Iowa Genealogy
  • Iowa Genealogy
  • Home Page