A Glimpse of Pioneer Life in 1840’s Iowa

This story of pioneering life in the Edgewood area, written by Martha Jane Steele Garrison is transcribed here as it appeared in the “Manchester Democrat” newspaper published Sept. 5, 1900 and in the  “Delaware County News” published Sept 7, 1900. Since the author was not born until 1849, she is undoubtedly relating the story of another, perhaps her mother, and incorporating some of her own early experiences.

Auld Lang Syne (“Times long past”)

by Mrs. Wm. Garrison (Martha Jane Steele Garrison)

In September 1843 we left northern New York to make a home in the far west.  We went overland to Buffalo, from there on the lakes had a very rough voyage to Chicago, then overland most of the time with ox teams and arrived at our destination on the 14th day of October, on the farm of D.B. Noble. We took up our abode there for eighteen months. The house was 14 x 16 and our family consisted of eight persons, father, mother, D.B. and Albert Noble (mother’s brothers) and a Mr. Molakin.

Provisions were very scarce.  We found a little salt in a wooden bowl and potatoes in the ground, these with a little milk in a pail hanging on the wall where all the edibles we found (and that was all the milk we had until the next July as the cow was sold the morning we came) but fortunately we had a little flour we had brought with us, so managed to get along, as the men were threshing the wheat (the oxen were trampling it out on the ground) quite a different way than at the present time with the steam thresher. 

In about two weeks, we went to the Sage mill near Dubuque and took twelve bushels of wheat, and that had to last us for flour until spring,  so I had to devise some way to help it along. We went to hulling corn as it was called in those days (hominy now) chopped it fine, put a little flour with it, baked it in the bake kettle, as we had no stoves in those days, and we had a loaf good enough for a king, or at least we thought so in those days, used it six months, had but one mess of biscuit and one batch of light bread during that time. 

There was quite a lot of wild game, but the men were too much occupied with their various kinds of work to hunt much, so mother learned to shoot and surprised them with many a good meal of prairie chicken.  One day some ducks came sailing over and lit in a small pond nearby. Mother looked for ammunition and found two small pieces of lead, enough for two parts of bullets, but it was enough to get two of them. 

Dubuque was the nearest post office. Mr. Noble went for the mail once, but neglected to take take an order for our mail, so could not get it, but found there was a letter.  It was six weeks before we got it and that seemed a long time to wait for we had heard nothing from home since we left. Letters were worth something in those days, as you had to pay 25 cents before you could get one. 

The nearest neighbor we had was in Eads Grove, on the farm of James Rutherford, then Daniel Brown‘s.  There was not quite so much chance to gossip as now-a-days.

In the spring of 1845 we moved onto the old farm, which had been previously entered and which we owned at the time of father‘s death, eleven years ago.

Indians made us one visit, but it proved to be a friendly one.  They wanted to buy corn. They called for a spider, parched some, ate their breakfast and left.   

The winters were intensely cold, some persons losing their way in traveling froze their limbs, and sometimes lost their lives. Oxen were their chief teams.

Schools were not very numerous. I remember the second school I attended after coming here.  It was taught by the Hon. R.W. Terrill of your city. He was a child with the rest of us, except in school hours.  He used to say that he had eyes in the back of his head, but we failed to see them. 

But, oh, what changes since then.  And who can help loving our beautiful country, county and home.

End notes

“D.B. Noble” mentioned is Daniel Bohan Noble, a son of Bohan Noble, head of the Noble family that was among the earliest arrivals in the Edgewood area.  That area was called “Yankee Settlement” until it was renamed “Edgewood” in the 1870’s.  The author’s mother, Elizabeth Abiah Alger Steele, was the step-daughter of Bohan Noble.  The author’s father was Roderick Nelson Steele.

“Mr. Molakin” is most likely Lorenzo Mulliken, who accompanied D.B. Noble to the area in 1842. There is no record of an “Albert” in the Noble family of the time, so that name is likely a nickname.

When a post office was established in the area, Bohan Noble was named the first postmaster of “Yankee Settlement”.  His cabin was a general store, post office, and residence, and is thought to have been located at the SE corner of the intersection across from the former Thurn Livestock location. The location of the D.B. Noble house mentioned in the article is unknown.

“Ead’s Grove” mentioned in the article was early-on considered as a location for the county seat of Delaware County.  In 2022-23, Jim & Jody Kerns constructed their new home in the vicinity of Ead’s Grove.

The term “spider” as used in the article is a cast-iron frying pan made with legs for cooking over coals on a fireplace hearth.