River Beautiful, 1835

 River Beautiful, 1835

From Notes on the Wisconsin Territory, by Lt. Albert Lea, 1839.  (Dragoon Expedition of 1835)


The general appearance of the country is one of great beauty.  It may be represented as one grand rolling prairie, along one side of which flows the mightiest river in the world, and through which numerous navigable streams pursue their devious way toward the ocean.  In every part of this whole district, beautiful rivers and creeks are to be found, whose transparent waters are perpetually renewed by the springs from which they flow.  Many of these streams are connected with lakes; and hence their supply of water is remarkable uniform throughout the seasons.  All these rivers, creeks, and lakes are skirted by woods, often several miles in width, affording shelter from intense cold or heat to the animals that may there take refuge from the contiguous prairies.  These woods could also afford the timber for building houses, fences, and boats.  Though probably three-quarters of the district is without trees, yet so conveniently and admirably are the water and the woods distributed throughout, that nature appears to have made an effort to arrange them in the most desirable manner possible.  Where there is no water, isolated groves are frequently found to break the monotony of the prairie, or to afford the necessary timber for the enclosure of the farmer.  No part of the district is probably more than three miles from good timber; and hence it is scarcely any where necessary to build beyond the limits of the woods to be convenient to farming lands.



The Des Moines River and its Tributaries afford fine lands, well diversified with wood and prairie, as far as I am acquainted with them, some fifty miles above the “Upper Forks.”  There is much that is inviting in the general character of the country bordering on the Des Moines; level meadows, rolling woodlands, and deep forests present themselves by turns.  The soil is usually rich and productive; and when there are no natural springs, there is no difficulty in obtaining water, by digging, at almost any point in the highland-prairies.


Having specially reconnoitered the Des Moines River during the summer of 1835, I can speak of it more confidently than of any of the other smaller rivers watering the district.


From the Racoon River to the Cedar, the Des Moines is from 80 to 100 yards in width, shallow, crooked, and filled with rocks, sand bars, and snags, and is impetuous in current at high water; yet it is certain that keel-boats may navigate this portion of the river, being 96 miles, during a great part of the spring and fall; and it is not impossible that even steam-boats may run there.


But from the Cedar River to the Mississippi, except a few miles near the mouth, there is no obstruction to the navigation of the Des Moines in a tolerable stage of water.  For four months of the year, boats of two and a half feet draught, will perform this distance of 170 miles without difficulty.  The width is from 150 to 250 yards except a few miles above the mouth, where it is only from 80 to 100 yards wide; its bed is perfectly smooth and flat; and the bottom is generally a thin coating of sand and gravel over a blue limestone rock, until you descend within the influence of the backwater from the Mississippi, where there is much alluvial deposit with many snags.  By the removal of a part of these snags and a few loose rocks above, everything will be done for the navigation that can be done without augmenting the supply of water.  The first rapids that occur in the river, above the mouth, are those near the lower end of the Great Bend.  There is a ledge of limestone rock running across the river here; but the chief obstruction is caused by loose rocks lodged along this ledge.  The chief rapids between the Racoon and the mouth are some 40 miles above the Cedar River.  Here is considerable fall for several miles, a sudden pitch of several inches, many large loose rocks, and a very sudden bend, altogether making a difficult pass in the river.


The mineral productions of this river are interesting.  Sandstone, suitable for building, occurs frequently, as far down as Tollman’s, 14 miles from the mouth.  Limestone is found along the whole distance, from a point 15 miles above Cedar River, to the Mississippi bottom.  Bituminous coal of excellent quality occurs abundantly at many points between Racoon and Cedar Rivers, and also near the Missouri line.  I also found large masses of the oxide, sulphuret and native sulfate of iron, lignite, and the earths usually found in coal formations.


It is about seventy-five miles from the mouth, by water, to the Indian boundary.  The lands, on both sides of the river, throughout the greater part of this distance, are exceedingly fertile, and many of them are covered with forests of the finest walnut, oak, ash, elm, and cherry; and back of these wooded bottoms are extensive prairies, both flat and rolling.  The settlements have long since, that is in the fall of 1835, extended along the river entirely up to the line, and are beginning to spread out on either side, especially toward the head waters of Sugar Creek.  There already some extensive farms along this river, and others are in rapid progress.




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