This land called Lucas County was until the fall of 1842 recognized by the U.S. government as territory of the confederated Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) nations and therefore closed to land claims by non-native settlers.
Although native Americans (most notably the Ioway for whom Iowa is named) had lived and hunted here for millennia, as their artifacts testify, they had touched the land lightly. It remained virgin prairie astraddle a high curved ridge dividing the Mississippi and Missouri river drainages punctuated by creek and river valleys fringed by timber and marsh.
The Chariton River, named tradition tells us for French trader Jean Chariton whose trading post was deep in Missouri near where his namesake river joins the Missouri, rises near Smyrna in what now is Lucas County's western neighbor, Clarke, then meanders northeast to the center of Lucas County where it comes to a point — Chariton Point — then turns abruptly southeast toward the Missouri state line.
It is impossible to say how long Chariton Point had been a landmark or who had named it. Countless non-native hunters and explorers, many from Missouri, had passed this way for at least a century and had used the point to orient themselves.
Fringed by bottomland marsh to the south and west, the eastern flank of this point consists of wooded slopes that descend sharply from prairie to river. Early settlers described the exhilaration they felt as they traveled across endless grassland and then spotted Chariton Point's timber on the western horizon.
Thomas Brandon, who at 16 settled with his family during May of 1843 in extreme southwest Monroe County, wrote many years later about trips to the point he made with his father during June and September of that year.
"About that time (mid-June 1843), three men drove up to the camp (northwest of what now is Iconium in Appanoose County), and said they had been out west looking at the land. They lived in Missouri and we knew them when they drove up. They stated to us that they had crossed the Chariton pretty much west of a point we named Chariton Point. The timber growing up on the prairie showed grand for five miles east of there.
"We called it twenty-five miles from where we first landed to Chariton Point," Brandon wrote. While camped there, "Father looked around at the timber and admired the place as the timber came up so boldly to the top of the prairie, but he would not think of changing his place as he had such fine spring water."
Chief Keokuk and son, 1838, by Charles Bird King (hand-colored lithograph).
Under terms of a treaty signed at the Sauk and Fox agency just east of what now is Ottumwa on 11 October 1842, the Sauk, led by principal chief Keokuk, and the Fox, led by Poweshiek, ceded all of their claims to land west of the Mississippi to the United States in return for various financial considerations and the promise of new land in "Indian Territory" west of the Missouri River.
Under terms of that 1842 treaty, the Sauk and Fox agreed to move prior to 1 May 1843 west of a line drawn north to south from the Neutral Ground in northern Iowa to the Missouri border through the red rocks on the Whitebreast fork of the Des Moines River, north of what now is Knoxville. That Red Rock Line formed roughly what now is the Lucas-Monroe county line.
The Sauk and Fox were given three years of grace to occupy the land west of the Red Rock Line, including Lucas County's territory, but pledged to leave Iowa by the third anniversary of the treaty, 11 October 1845.
Settlers flooded into Monroe County on and after 1 May 1843, but what would become Lucas County remained officially off limits until late fall 1845.
There were no roads, only trails that had been followed for centuries. The principal route was defined by the great curving ridge, northwest to Chariton Point, then southwest to Smyrna.
"We had no road from our place to Chariton Point," Brandon wrote of his 1843 travels. "We followed the main ridge from where we lived to Chariton Point."
The 1843 opening of Monroe County and other areas east of the Red Rock Line had aspects of a land rush as settlers camped on the border of the new territory and dragoons were stationed there to prevent them from entering to stake claims until celebratory gunshots were fired at midnight on 30 April/1 May.
There was none of that when Lucas County opened to settlers just after midnight on Oct. 10/11, 1845. Monroe County had relieved the pressure on Lucas and the lands farther west would be settled more gradually.
Lucas County was created three months later by an act of the final Iowa territorial Legislature dated 13 January 1846 and named for Robert Lucas (left), the first territorial governor. That act defined county boundaries, directed that the uncharted territory be surveyed and placed it under the jurisdiction of Monroe County, which already was administering as best it could a county-wide strip of territory that stretched all the way to the Missouri River.
So far as anyone knows, there were no permanent settlers in Lucas County during that January, but history and geography soon would conspire to turn the broadly curved ridge that bisected it into the nation's busiest highway.
To understand why this happened, it is necessary to travel southeast to Nauvoo, Ill., lying within a broad bend across the Mississippi River midway between Fort Madison and Keokuk, Iowa.
Joseph Smith Jr., founder, president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons, had led his flock there after they had been driven from northwest Missouri during 1838-39. Under his leadership, Nauvoo grew into one of the largest cities in the Midwest, rivaling Chicago, and was among the region's most beautiful and cultured communities. A great temple, rebuilt and consecrated during 2002, was its crowning glory. Estimates of Nauvoo's peak population during 1845 range from 12,500 to 20,000 with thousands more Saints scattered around the city and in southeastern Iowa.
As the Mormons flourished, so did troubles with non-Mormon neighbors and anti-Mormon agitators. These troubles climaxed when Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered by an Illinois mob at the jail in Carthage, Ill., on 27 June 1844.
As Brigham Young emerged as the new Mormon leader, the Illinois mobs continued to pressure the Saints. Finally, Young determined to lead his people west across Iowa, then the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, to refuge in the Great Salt Lake Valley of Utah. Most of these thousands of Mormon pioneers would pass through Lucas County.
The first fleeing Saints, led by Young, crossed the iced-over Mississippi on 4 February 1846 and headed west. Their route took them to Bonaparte, then northwest to a point just west of what now is Drakesville in Davis County. Here, trek diarist Erastus Snow tells us, "finding it impracticable for us to haul grain for our teams, owing to the bad condition of the roads, we thought it expedient to deviate from the direct course which we had intended to travel (a course that probably would have taken this first party through Lucas County) and bear further south, so as to keep near the (Missouri) border settlements where we could obtain feed for our teams."
This rough and challenging route, known today as the Mormon Pioneer Trail, angled sharply southwest to a troublesome Chariton River crossing southeast of Centerville, then angled northwest to Garden Grove in what now is Decatur County. The first Saints arrived at Garden Grove on 24 April 1846 and set about building a way station to serve those who followed.
Three weeks later, a second way station was commenced 40 miles northwest at a place called Mt. Pisgah in Union County, and Brigham Young directed that the southern route he had blazed to Garden Grove be abandoned because it was too difficult to travel.
Instead, he directed scouts to travel back from Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah to southeast Iowa, blazing as they went a new trail that headed creeks, rounded Chariton Point, then angled southeast toward Drakesville down Lucas County's great ridge. He instructed the Saints who followed to use this new trail through Lucas County — and thousands did, commencing as early as late May 1846. It is now called the Mormon Trace.
The Mormon Trace departs Dodge's Point just west of Iconium in Appanoose County, cuts for a short distance through extreme southwest Monroe County and enters Lucas County in the southeast corner of Washington Township. The Trace then angles northwest up the ridge past Greenville to Russell and west past Salem Cemetery (where a shortcut joined the main Trace) to Chariton Point. From Chariton Point, the Trace angles southwest past Last Chance to Smyrna in Clarke County. At Smyrna, the Trace forks. One branch leads south to Garden Grove; the other, due west through Lost Camp to join the trail from Garden Grove to Mt. Pisgah.
The timber and fresh water at Chariton Point offered respite to hundreds if not thousands of Saints during the summer and fall of 1846, but it was a family tragedy during the harsh winter that followed that turned the Point into a Mormon way station that, although it never rivaled Garden Grove or Mt. Pisgah, still has a place in the grand saga of the Saints' remarkable trek.
Mormon Elder Freeman Nickerson, his wife, Huldah (Chapman) Nickerson, and their children — along with at least one and perhaps two of Freeman's plural wives — were among the last of the Saints to leave Nauvoo. Called "poor Mormons" because loss of property had left them penniless and in many cases in frail health, they were ill-equipped to travel, but forced to do so. The Nickerson family party of more than 20 people, a majority of them children, was driven out of Nauvoo and across the river on 29 September 1846, according to descendant Maxine Rasmusson.
Traveling very slowly, they had reached the Bonaparte area by 8 November 1846, where Freeman's plural wife Huldah Howes died. Continuing on, they reached Chariton Point during late November or December, and could go no farther as a harsh winter settled in.
Family members took refuge in crude shelters built at the base of bluffs on the east banks of the Chariton River, across from what now is Pin Oak Marsh, and felled trees so that their livestock could feed on buds and branches. Elder Freeman died in one of those shelters on 22 January 1847, age 69, and a child in the party shortly before or after. Their bodies probably were taken up to the prairie and buried at the site of what now is known as Douglass Cemetery. According to Uriel Nickerson, a son of Freeman who arrived at Chariton Point to assist his family during April of 1847, the young victim went unburied for 10 days because illness had made adult members of the party too weak to undertake the sad task.
By April of 1847, the Nickerson families had come up to the prairie from the river and begun to built cabins and plant gardens. They lacked resources to go farther, but the adults were entitled to claim 160 acres each by pre-emption, claims that could be sold later to help finance the journey west. These claims, cabins and gardens became the basis for a way station used by the Saints who followed them and also the site of the first permanent settlement at Chariton by non-Mormons who purchased Mormon claims, most notable William S. "Buck" Townsend. The Nickersons themselves had moved on by the winter of 1847-48, most to Fort Des Moines where they worked until they had earned enough money to continue the trip to Utah.
Shortly after the Mormons commenced their temporary settlement at Chariton Point, a few permanent settlers began to arrive in Lucas County.
Notes taken during the first survey of the county contain information about only three permanent settlers who had arrived by late fall 1847. Those first surveyors found claims occupied by Peter N. Barker and Daniel Barker in the Whitebreast Creek valley north of what now is Oakley and a claim occupied by John Ballard in Section 12 of what now is northeast English Township. By his own account, William McDermit had moved his family from the Pella area to an area he called Ireland at the site of Bethel Church some seven miles northeast of Chariton Point in what now is Cedar Township during September of 1847. The Barkers seem to have moved on, so Ballard and McDermit are recognized as Lucas County's first permanent settlers. As other settlers moved in, most settled in McDermit's Ireland neighborhood and in the neighborhood of Xurey E. West's later Greenville in Washington Township.
A supplemental act directing the organization of Lucas County and dated 14 January 1849 was passed by the second General Assembly of the state of Iowa. That act set 4 July 1849 as the date the county would gain its independence and appointed James Roland, a resident of McDermit's "Ireland" neighborhood, as organizing sheriff. His principal duty was to call an election on 6 August 1849 to select county officials and justices of the peace.
That election was duly held at the McDermit home with 25 men voting. William T. May, Jacob Phillips and James G. Robinson were elected county commissioners, predecessors of today's county supervisors. These commissioners held their first meeting four days later, on 10 August 1849, at the home of Buck Townsend, who by that time had purchased a Mormon claim and settled at Chariton Point.
The organizational act of January 1849 also had named three independent commissioners whose job it was to locate a county seat. They were Wareham G. Clark of Monroe County, Pardon M. Dodge of Appanoose County and Richard Fisher of Wapello County.
These commissioners gathered with the county commissioners and others on 10 August, also at the Townsend cabin.
Townsend, a Kentuckyan and one of the county's more colorful early residents, had built his cabin (or modified an existing Mormon cabin) about a mile and a half southeast of the current courthouse along the Trace (now Blue Grass Road). Townsend's cabin functioned as a primitive inn and as a gathering point for all who arrived at the point, Mormon and non-Mormon alike.
Although Townsend had hoped that his claim might become the county seat, the commissioners had other ideas and instead selected a survey stake to the northwest, at the intersecting corners of Sections 19, 20, 29 and 30 of what now is Lincoln Township, and declared the 160 acres surrounding it the city of Polk, honoring then-President James K. Polk (1845-49). That survey stake reportedly was located at what now is the intersection of Court Avenue and Main Street, near the southwest corner of the Chariton square. The decision became official when the locating commissioners' report was accepted by the new county commissioners on 11 August.
For reasons probably political the name "Polk" did not set well with those assembled at Chariton Point, a public meeting was called soon thereafter and the city's name was changed to Chariton and recorded as such.
The county commissioners appointed Buck Townsend on 12 September 1849 to survey the county seat and scheduled the first sale of town lots for the first Monday of November 1849.
During these fall days of 1849, the Mormon Trace remained the principal route to Chariton. While the Trace would continue to be an important route for many years, as settlers began to pour into the new county, the Trace was supplanted by a more direct route leading more or less due west from Albia.
The same 1848-1849 legislative session that ordered the organization of Lucas County also directed that a state road be surveyed west from Ottumwa through Lucas County to Traders Point on the Missouri River some four miles below Kanesville (now Council Bluffs). Buck Townsend, along with John G. Baker, John Webb and John Clark, had been appointed surveyors by the Legislature. Work on this route was deferred, probably at Townsend's behest, until Chariton had been located, then it was driven through the new town following the approximate route of today's U.S. Highway 34.
According to a report from Townsend, published in The Burlington Hawk-Eye of 9 December 1849, survey work began on 13 August at Ottumwa and concluded on 15 October at the Missouri River. According to Clark's report, the route followed the Mormon Trace/Trail west from Chariton through Lost Camp (southeast of Osceola) to Mt. Pisgah, then west to the Nishnabotna and West Nishnabotna rivers and Silver Creek to Traders' Point on the Missouri.
Early travelers noted that although the new road had been surveyed, they couldn't find it — so continued to make their way along its approximate route as best they could. But gradually the ruts deepened and the route began to emerge. The now-ghost town of LaGrange was platted just west of where Highway 34 now enters Lucas County and for a few years that town rivaled Chariton in size. LaGrange, however, died soon after the Burlington & Missouri River rail route was place a few miles south during the 1860s.
As those pre-Civil War years passed, more rough and muddy Lucas County roads were developed along earlier trails — northeast to Knoxville, northwest to Indianola and south to Corydon — and a web of secondary roads developed, some surveyed and others not, to connect the homes and villages of the county with Chariton.
But until 1867, the old Mormon Trace and the new State Road remained the principal transportation routes.