A continuing series about interesting people who lived in and near Iowaville from ca. 1838 until ca. 1856.
Van Caldwell, by sheer force of personality and good humor, probably was the most widely known resident of the Iowaville neighborhood during his years there, which stretched from ca. 1838 until October of 1856, when he died at the age of 56. Although by no means affluent, his hospitality was, and remains in the words of those who experienced it, legendary.
Like his neighbor, James H. Jordan, he settled in territory just west and north of Iowaville, right along the Des Moines River in the extreme northeast corner of what became Davis County, that belonged by treaty to the Sauk and Fox until May of 1843. Unlike Jordan, however, he was able to work out an arrangement with Gen. Joseph M. Street, then agent to the confederated tribes, to remain. So his home was spared while Jordan’s was burned by dragoons. It it is the only dwelling marked on the 1840 survey map of this small triangle of land --- along with Black Hawk’s grave and the old chief’s “wigwam.” His cabin and claim were northwest of the Jordan place, closer to what now is Eldon, which is just across the line in Wapello County. A case could be made that Van was the first member of the white tribe to reside legally in Davis County.
Upon his death at this time of year in 1856, Caldwell’s body was taken down the old trail through Iowaville and then up to Iowaville Cemetery where his beautiful and remarkably well-preserved tombstone still looks out toward the Soap Creek Hills.
I’ve lifted his story, which follows, from an account of it written in 1895 by George G. Wright and published in “The Annals of Iowa” (Volume 2, Third series; Des Moines: Historical Department of Iowa, 1895-95, pp. 386-390). It is an eloquent tribute, phrased elegantly, so I’ve not meddled at all but will expand upon a few points at its end.
Judge Wright was a significant character in early Iowa history. Born 24 March 1820 in Indiana, he began the practice of law in Keosauqua during the early 1840s and served as prosecuting attorney for Van Buren County during 1847-48. He served in the Iowa Senate 1849-51, then as a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court 1854-1870. Elected to the U.S. Senate from Iowa, he served 1871-1877 but did not seek re-election. A resident of Des Moines after 1865, he also was among founders of the University of Iowa College of Law, president of the American Bar Association and a banker. Van's son, Henry Clay Caldwell, studied law under Wright in Keosauqua, and so that is another link not mentioned in this account. Wright died 11 January 1896, the year after he wrote the following tribute, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, a headier resting place, but no more satisfying, than that of his old friend, Van Caldwell.
By the Late Hon. George G. Wright
Solicited to give my impressions of some of those prominent in Territorial times --- not especially in political circles, but plain men and entitled to deserved praise for their work in the development of our commonwealth, I have selected for this brief paper my long-time and esteemed friend whose name appears at the head of this article.
Van Caldwell was born in Ohio County, Virginia, March 5, 1799, and died at his home on the Des Moines River in Davis county, October 8, 1856. He was the son of John and Sarah (Mulligan) Caldwell --- the former a native of Scotland, the latter of Ireland. So it will be seen that he was of as pure Scotch-Irish stock as any Wallace, Scott or Cassady, or of any one either of Ulster or elsewhere. And sure I am that neither Scotland, Ireland, Virginia, or any land, need be ashamed of him or feel otherwise than complimented by the blood of this man who was a very nobleman in appearance and deportment --- for he was six feet, two and one-half inches in height, turned the scales approximately at two hundred pounds, had a carriage to his last days as straight as an Indian, perfect in his proportions, with an air of manhood and inexpressible dignity which denoted the truest nobility of nature. In any assembly he commanded attention, and with strangers and friends alike that involuntary respect which such a bearing inevitably and always exacts. With him often in political and other assemblies, traveling over our new lands in early days on horseback and by other methods, at the cabins of the early settlers and primitive hotels, I knew him well, and may be allowed to say that few if any men had a more commanding figure, or one better calculated to impress those with whom he was brought into contact, than this Virginia mountaineer.
Coming to Iowa in 1836, he first settled in Bentonsport, in Van Buren County, but in a few months removed to a farm two miles north of that place. Within a year he “tackled the wagon of the wilderness” and with his family and worldly goods went farther into the country acquired by the “Black Hawk purchase,” and settled on the “claim” which was his home to the time of his death. He, however, soon met with difficulties in this new land in finding that he in common with many other adventurous spririts was within that part of the “purchase” still reserved to the Sac and Fox Indians. The settlers were therefore ordered by the Government under the guidance and compulsion of the regular troops, to leave the reservation; and all did leave, I believe, except our friend, who was permitted to remain under the following circumstances:
The Indian Agency, under the charge of that grand old Virginian, Joseph M. Street, was located near what is now Agency City. Those connected therewith needed a mill to grind their grain and provide them with needed lumber; and to meet these wants a mill was erected on Soap Creek south of the Des Moines River. As the river had to be crossed to reach the mill from the Agency, and hence, when there was water enough in Soap Creek to run the mill the river was not fordable, it was arranged by the agent, under the authority of the War Department, that the subject of this sketch could remain upon his “claim” if he would establish a ferry across the river. Under this contract he provided a ferry, being the only one in that region for years, and thus he held his “claim” and enabled the Agency and other people to reach the place where they obtained as they could not at any other, at least some of the necessaries of life. And this instance, by the way, serves to illustrate, as many others might, the resourceful nature of the man, the hold he always had upon those in authority and their confidence in his ability and worth.
In politics he was the most earnest and enthusiastic Whig of the Henry Clay school that I ever knew. And though a Virginian he was as thorough and enthusiastic in his devotion to the new organization, before his death, in the campaign of 1856, as any anti-slavery man in Iowa. I need not add that had he lived he would have been a Republican without guile and among those most loyal and patriotic in the support of the Government during the struggle which involved the nation’s life in 1861-65. He was emphatically of that old school who never would see anything good in “Jackson Democracy,” but felt he was doing his highest duty when opposing their candidates and policies. This passing incident will serve to illustrate his intense political enthusiasm. In April, 1854, I think it was, the Whig candidate for State Superintendent was overwhelmingly defeated, but one county (Henry) giving him a majority. Stopping at Caldwell’s house soon after to spend the night, he met me in his usual hospitable manner and almost at once said: “Well, they beat us again, but by ginger if a dog from Henry County should come along I would feed him on peaches and cream for a month.” He never sought office, nor as far as I know held any: and yet he was a most prominent figure in our political conventions and a very valuable aid to his friends in any cause he espoused.
His name was but another for hospitality throughout the Des Moines Valley, and indeed the entire State. Those of all classes and conditions, if entitled to respect, whatever their politics or religion, and whether rich or poor, always found in his humble home a welcome. Governors Robert Lucas, John Chambers, James Clarke, Stephen Hempstead, J. W. Grimes, R. P. Lowe and J. H. Gear; Judges Charles Mason, Joseph Williams, J. C. Hall, J. C. Knapp, Cyrus Olney, Samuel F. Miller, S. C. Hastings, T. W. Claggett, Edward Johnstone, H. H. Trimble, H. B. Hendershott, W. H. Seevers --- distinguished lawyers such as Chas. Negus, Alfred Rich. H. T. Reid, C. V. Slagle, Henry Starr, W. D. Browning --- ministers, such as Samuel Clark, Milton Jamison, Daniel Lane, M. F. Shine --- prominent state officials, represented by such men as Shepherd Leffler, James B. Browne, G. W. Teas, W. H. Wallace, I. N. Lewis, S. B. Shelledy, W. S. Chapman, Bernhart Henn, Gen. S. R. Curtis --- these, and scores of others, among the most prominent as politicians and otherwise in the Territory and State, spent many enjoyable hours with him at that home on the Des Moines River, where he was never so happy as when surrounded by them or like friends; and none happier than then when resting, it may be, upon freely furnished beds upon the floor and enjoying his hospitable if not most sumptuous table. So keenly did he enjoy these and other friends that I doubt if he ever felt well treated if they passed his house whether in summer’s heat or winter’s cold without a call, and utterly regardless of the hour, night or day. Then, too, when I add that no man however poor was ever turned from his house needing food or lodging, or raiment even, if within his power to supply his wants, we can measure somewhat his generosity and hospitality. One result was that he never accumulated much of this world’s goods; but he did have a supreme consciousness of doing his duty, and if he died leaving fewer dollars than some others, he nevertheless led a happy and blameless life and left a name which his children and friends can ever cherish with the greatest pride and satisfaction.
Of his family, though there were others --- and all an honor to his name --- I have time only to mention Samuel T., a successful merchant and banker at Eddyville, and who twice represented, and with distinction, Wapello county, in our state legislature; another Benjamin F., for years a prominent business man in Wheeling, (West) Va., and lately mayor of that city --- the third Henry C(lay), known to all the people of Iowa, for years a leading lawyer of our State, a member of our legislature, distinguished in military service during the late war, United States District Judge, and now as Circuit Judge of the Eighth Judicial Federal Circuit. If he was blessed in his home he surely was in his noble and successful children. And in this connection I remark that few worshipped their children with a sincerer devotion, and this was returned with interest most usurious and constantly compounded. And well they might for he had the brains to know the right and the honesty to do it. Of him it may be said he had “courage without whistling for it and joy without shouting to bring it.” He was one of those who believed that the only religition which can “save a man is that which makes him a good man.” And I believe he tried to so live as to be honest with his neighbors and his God, “and hence did not need a big income to make him happy.”
Thus lived and died Van Caldwell, one of the best and highest types of Iowa’s pioneers. It is true he was not learned as of the schools, but he was strong in vigorous common sense. Though not polished as society goes, he had a face so genial, and a natural courtliness of manner, which, with his imposing presence made him ever welcome in the cultured circle or the most promiscuous or mixed assemblies. Such men helped make Iowa what it is in all its greatness and glory. Give us of this class now and for all time, and years will be add to her splendor. Blessed with such men fifty years since, so we are, and I believe now, and as I hope will be for all time. Confident of this, let us hope as the past is secure, so of the future no one need be afraid. Des Moines, Iowa, 1895.
MORE ABOUT VAN CALDWELL
There are a few mysteries (to me at least) about Van Caldwell’s family. He apparently was married four times, twice in Virginia and twice in Iowa. Samuel Tomlinson Caldwell (ca. 1824-1878), his eldest son, apparently was by a first marriage, which may have occurred ca. 1822. Poking around to see who his mother might have been, I found two (unreliable) references in information submitted to the LDS, one to an “Elizabeth” and the other to a “Miss Cockayne.” Neither reference is to be trusted, however.
Ohio and/or Marshall County, (West) Virginia, marriage records show that he was married to Susan Moffit on 13 July 1826. They seem to have had two of the sons mentioned by George Wright, above, Benjamin Franklin Caldwell (14 April 1828-1 January 1910) and Henry Clay Caldwell (4 September 1832-16 February 1915) and then divorced. Susan was living with their son, “Franklin” when the 1850 census of Wheeling, (West) Virginia, was taken and Benjamin Franklin Caldwell lived and died there. Susan still was living when the 1880 census of Wheeling was taken. The Caldwells probably became estranged on the Iowa frontier and Susan returned to Virginia taking Benjamin F. with her, but leaving Henry Clay and Samuel T. behind with their father. This is only a theory.
Whatever the case, Van was single on 28 September 1845 when he married Rachel Dickerson in Wapello County. They settled down on the riverside farm and had four children in quick succession: Adeline, who died 16 February 1847, age 5 days; Murat, born 29 August 1848 or 1849 (died 28 February 1924 in Clay County, Kansas); Belle, who died 5 October 1852, age 1 year, 10 months and 23 days; and Belle R., died 15 July 1854, age 2 months and 15 days. Rachel died at Belle R.’s birth, on 30 April 1854, age 29 years, 8 months and 21 days. The graves of Rachel and the Caldwell daughters, all marked, are with Van’s in the Iowaville Cemetery.
Finally, Van married Margaret Smith on 2 June 1855 in Van Buren County and they were living together at the time of his death.
Following Van’s death, Murat went to live with his half-brother, Samuel T., a farmer, merchant and banker in Eddyville in far northwest Wapello County. Henry Clay went on to become an acclaimed jurist, serving as a federal judge in Little Rock, Ark., but dying in California. He is buried, however, in Little Rock.