by Dave Lager

Chapter 8 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1882

By 1882 there were two and in a few places three tiers of farmsteads on each side of Old Post Road, which meant there were also stubs of dirt roads that would many decades in the future be extended into a network of connected county roads, that, many more decades later still, Deputy Sheriff Ro Delahanty would be patrolling. The same was true of a tier of farmsteads that bordered the Makuakeeta Road adjacent to the river west of Lee’s Landing. Altogether, close to a third of the county’s land that would someday fall under the plow was now being worked.

But the “special place” Young wanted to share with Coates at this point was nowhere near any road, so to get to it they had to take what was essentially the long way around, following Old Post Road from Montgomery almost all the way into Lee’s Landing, then heading back out along the Makuakeeta Road; it was a nearly twenty-five-mile, all-day trip on horseback. They camped for the night at the bottom of a set of beautiful waterfalls that tumbled over a spectacular rock bluff and ended in a small pond where Young caught some fresh fish for dinner.

The next morning Young led them a short distance west along the base of the bluff to a narrow path that followed a natural draw up the bluff, except the path was winding, overgrown and dotted with numerous rocky steps that neither man nor horse found easy going. Again, decades in the future, after a great deal of blasting and earth-moving, the path would be turned into the southern end of County Line Road that straddled the border between Fort Armstrong County and Makuakeeta County.

Even though it was only three miles as the crow flies, it took Young and Coates most of the morning to climb to the top of the bluff and work their way through the thick underbrush. Coates had seen lots of woods – and quickly recognized what they were passing through as “old growth,” in other words, woods that had never seen the woodsmen’s axe – and had traveled over many trails – so he knew what they were following had once been a more heavily travelled animal path – and, finally, was curious about an unexpected change in Young’s personality – where for the several days the old trapper had tended toward the dour and taciturn, Coates was amused that he now seemed almost child-like in his excitement.

It was when they stopped for lunch that Young couldn’t contain himself any longer. “These ain’t no ordinary woods you’re gonna see, Coates… My mother’s people believed they were sacred,” he said, grinning, but then left the anticipation hanging.

Coates had always been of two minds about “the woods;” while certainly not a religious man, he had a deep respect for their beauty, grandeur and simplicity; but, at the same time, he’d also tended to hold the white man’s attitude that they were there to be exploited for man’s needs, cut down for firewood or cabin logs, hunted for food and clothing, cleared for cornfields or pastures.

So, while he had no doubt Young was sincere in his belief, he’d kind of dismissed it as so much superstition. That is, until a little while later they crossed a shallow, rocky creek that Coates correctly assumed was the same one they’d camped next to at the bottom of the bluff, and emerged from the woods into a broad, sun-filled meadow…

…and his breath was literally sucked from his body.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 7 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1882

Asa “Kentucky” Coates should be in the Iowa and Fort Armstrong County history books, but isn’t. In fact, he is only briefly credited in a section of the Iowa State Department of Natural Resources’ website that talks about the major attractions in Five Falls State Park as “being the first to identify Neshnala as one of the oldest trees in the state.” While that’s perfectly true, it’s also roughly akin to saying something like “Leonardo da Vinci did some sculpting;” it’s only half the story.

Coates was a colorful character, to say the least. Born in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1839, he grew up hearing about the exploits of local celebrity Daniel Boone, whose family had lived there for a time. His early years somewhat paralleled Boone’s, as a kid doing a lot of hunting and trapping in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky; then, like Boone, he saw warfare, serving as a scout with Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee from 1862 to 1865; and, finally, after the war, apprenticing as a surveyor for two years.

But he chafed at the more settled life of a typical land surveyor in the relatively “tame” Ohio River Valley and through some chance encounters carved out a unique career as a timber surveyor, spending most of the second half of the 1860s and the 1870s roaming around the backwoods of northern Michigan and Wisconsin mapping out roads to desirable timber stands for lumber barons like Charles Mears and Frederick Weyerhauser. Which is how, in 1882, he ended up in eastern Iowa…

In 1879, a committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, recognizing that forests still made up something like a fifth of Iowa’s land area, commissioned what amounted to a preliminary inventory of the state’s woodland resources, specifically to include an assessment of its potential commercial value. It took another two years for the Iowa Senate to finally agree to fund the venture. It was Coates who was hired under a three-year contract to visit each of the state’s nearly one-hundred counties, starting with the eastern counties, and eventually report back to the legislature.

Coates − an imposing figure at six-three and two-hundred-plus pounds − was a cross between a surveyor – he carried his surveying equipment, along with camping gear, on a pack horse – and a latter-day mountain man – his familiar Winchester carried across his saddle, a Colt .44 holstered on his right hip. He was known as “Kentucky” Coates because he’d never lost his accent.

As he moved into a new county, his practice was to visit the local sheriff’s office for two reasons. The first was to show the law enforcement official his warrant from the state to justify why he would be seen wandering around the county’s backcountry armed – by the 1880s eastern Iowa no longer thought of itself as a wild frontier.

The second reason was to ask the sheriff where he could connect with the few locals that still tried to make their living as trappers; it was a lesson he’d learned as a kid, trappers always knew where there were any wild places left, which is why he would hire one as his guide for that county.

The Fort Armstrong County sheriff directed him to a tavern on the edge of the small settlement called Montgomery along Old Post Road about fifteen miles north and west of Lee’s Landing. Of course, as he had already spent several weeks in the five counties along the river north of Fort Armstrong County, the “trapper’s grapevine” had flagged the bar’s denizens he was coming.

Recognizing a kindred spirit, Coates hired a grizzled old man in his mid-sixties named Jack “Breed” Young, so nicknamed because his mother was from the Fox tribe, to show him any remaining timber stands in the county, most of which were long, narrow bands, roughly a half-mile to a mile wide, along the major rivers, like the Pincatauwee on the north and the Mississippi on the south, as well as a half-dozen creeks in between. What Coates found would be a recurring pattern for many counties he would visit: There were some desirable clusters of hardwoods in these groves sufficient for local use, but, unlike Michigan and Wisconsin, hardly enough for any large scale commercial development.

Except “Breed” Young had saved the best for last…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 6 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1830-1870

While occasional trading on what was known as Trader’s Island, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River downstream from Lee’s Landing, may have been going on since the mid- or even early-1700’s, the first official white presence in the area was Fort Armstrong – eventually the county’s namesake − established in 1813 on the river’s western shore overlooking the rocky narrows between it and Grand Island. It was supposed to defend the Upper-Mississippi Valley from British attack − or more specifically, from upper-Midwest Indian tribes allied with the British − during the War of 1812, but was abandoned in 1814 and soon fell into disrepair.

The first known “cabin” in the Lee’s Landing area was a trapper’s log lean-to built a few years later, with a smattering of others not far behind, even though the area was still considered Indian territory and whites officially weren’t supposed to be there, except nobody bothered to enforce the “ban.”

Late in the 1820s, Elias Hubbard and August Neufeld were among the first of the real “town-builders” to arrive in the area. Hubbard opened a trading post and general store and Neufeld began operating the first ferry to cross the river, and both prospered. Being true entrepreneurs, they quickly recognized the potential that the early-1830s treaty had unlocked and so through the rest of that decade made numerous contacts with U.S. officials in Detroit, where the regional land office was located, and in Washington, and drew up a variety of proposed city layouts for Lee’s Landing. Which is why, in 1838 they were the first to secure land grants in the Lee’s Landing / Fort Armstrong County area.

While Elias Hubbard himself would have virtually no role in the Neshnala Saga, his descendants some forty-plus years in the future would.

Another major, though inadvertent character in the Neshnala saga was Enoch Moody, who, late in the 1840’s was among the first grant recipients for a chunk of the open land out in the county. Moody was a land speculator from Ohio who had previously held and developed tracts in Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.

His grant was for nearly six-thousand acres adjacent to the Makuakeeta Road in what would eventually be the southwest corner of Fort Armstrong County. He coveted it because it included hundreds of acres of flat and easily developable rich river-valley bottom land that would fetch top dollar once broken-up into farmsteads; but it also encompassed some heavily wooded tracts above the river bluff that he thought might someday be worth logging.

Ironically, Moody never saw his land in Fort Armstrong County; instead he sent one of his employees to oversee its development and sale. Not being local, the representative had never heard of Neshnala; all he knew was that the thickly wooded land on top of the bluff was virtually inaccessible by wagon, and therefore was a very low priority in terms of development potential. Throughout the 1850’s he was kept quite busy platting and selling off farmsteads in the river valley area that was nearer the booming town of Lee’s Landing; when the Civil War broke out he was recalled to Ohio to handle some of Moody’s war-related business ventures there; after the war Moody’s attention shifted far to the west, away from Fort Armstrong County.

As a result, the part of the Moody grant on top of the bluff that included the Neshnala Grove was never surveyed, let alone platted, which meant that Moody’s “option” was not exercised, so that, more than forty years after the treaty with the Indians was signed, this particular chunk of land was still officially owned by the U.S. government.

This would turn out to be yet another serendipitous episode in the Neshnala Saga…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 5 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1840-1860

By treaty, the federal government now “owned” the land once occupied by the Native Americans: It’s ironic, of course, that the Indians had no concept of “ownership,” to them the land was the land, there to be used by all, but also to be respected as part of something bigger. While the new “owners” had a broad understanding of what they’d acquired – roughly the eastern quarter of what would become Iowa – that was still a long way from having individual chunks of it ready for settlers to move onto and start working.

By the later part of the 1830s, “grants” of land began to be made to individuals by the government; sometimes they were bought, but just as often they were given as rewards for helping with some war effort. The grants were large chunks of undeveloped land, usually defined by prominent natural landmarks, like creeks or rocky bluffs.

However, legally speaking those that had gotten the grants still didn’t “own” the land, rather, what they had received was in effect an exclusive option to develop it – this would later prove to be a crucial factor in Neshnala’s Saga.

Enter the surveyors, who needed to carefully map out the borders of the grants and then plat them into useable / saleable chunks; city lots or farmsteads. Once a plat of a grant was accepted by the government, only then was the land formally deeded to the grant holder, who could then sell off the pieces and give title to the new owners – this would turn out to be a decades-long endeavor.

However, even before the surveyors could get started on any city lots and farmsteads, the railroads had to be taken care of. They had long ago negotiated “first dibs” with the government for rights-of-way through newly opened-up settlement territory, so those corridors – usually next to the river, because the land was flat and much easier to build on – had to be surveyed and legally described.

Next there were the existing cross-country “roads,” really, pretty much dirt tracks, that had to be taken into account. By the late 1830s there were four major roads centered on Lee’s Landing whose rights-of-way had to be surveyed and defined before adjacent land could be opened-up:

– One led south and west along the river to Makuakeeta, the next town downstream – in Lee’s Landing it was called Front Street, outside of town it became the Makuakeeta Road.
– Another paralleled the river going upstream toward Jaynesport, which was at the head of the river rapids that ended at Lee’s Landing – its entire length was known as Indian Trail Road, because for as long as anyone could remember it had been used by the Indians to portage around the rapids.
– Lee’s Landing’s Main Street went pretty much straight north, outside of town eventually turning into the Dubuque Road, because it ended in that community some eighty-miles distant.
– Old Post Road started in downtown Lee’s Landing, angled north and west until turning pretty much due west to end up in Iowa City, the state’s first capital, fifty-miles away. It was called Old Post Road because as a stage coach trail it carried the mail.

After the railroad and road rights-of-way were “on the books,” the surveyor’s attention then focused on providing both some sort of logical development plan, as well as legal status, to the future growth of the small settlements – nascent towns like Lee’s Landing − that either already had, or were popping up around the landscape.

Only then could they finally start gridding out the open land itself into one-mile squares – or six-hundred-and-forty-acre sections − which were then subdivided into roughly fifty-acre individual farmsteads, as this was thought to be about as much as an individual farmer could work with a horse-drawn plow; ideally, there was supposed to be a road right-of-way along each section line as well.

However, what made this latter process so daunting and time-consuming – as in decades long − was the actual lay of the land – hills and valleys, creeks and wooded groves, rock outcroppings − meant there had to be innumerable adjustments to both the size and orientation of the farmsteads, and to where roads could, in fact, realistically go through. So that, instead of trying to do the whole county at once, the practice was to first plat sections of land that would be easiest to get to, that is, those immediately alongside existing roadways, then, when those were mostly sold, move on to plat-out an adjacent tier of sections.

In other words, through the 1840s, 50s and beyond, there were big chunks of the new county – like the Neshnala Grove – that, because they were distant from any road and not easily accessible, totally escaped any surveyor’s attention.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 4 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1800-1840

As was to be reenacted over-and-over again as the American frontier marched steadily westward, during the first decades of the 1800s encounters between Native Americans and whites in the Mississippi Valley were increasingly fraught with resentment and conflict – the Native Americans resented the white man’s frequent intrusion on their hunting grounds, the whites resented that the Native Americans were in the way of their expansionist ambitions. There were fights; white cabins were burned; Indian encampments were raided; people on both sides were killed.

Eventually, in the early 1830s a treaty was negotiated – except the large contingent of Illinois Militia and their loaded muskets looking-on made the “negotiation” decidedly one-sided – in which the Sauk and Fox ceded to the U.S. government all their territories bordering the Mississippi River in what would later become Iowa.

By now, of course, the white men had corrupted both what the Native Americans had thought of as a descriptive phrase for a profound personal experience, “neesh-na-ha-a-la,” into a proper noun, Neshnala, and its meaning into “The Tree of Knowledge.”

During the treaty “negotiation” there was a request articulated by some of the Sauk chiefs to retain the sacred tree as Indian land, but the disdain the whites had for what they considered to be ignorant and godless savages − “Hell, every rock or tree seems to be sacred to those people!” – meant the request was simply ignored.

Even though the treaty supposedly opened-up a vast new territory to farmers and town-builders, it by no means triggered an immediate flood of land-plowing, tree-cutting settlers; that complex and time-consuming process would take another twenty years to begin to have any meaningful impact.

After just a few years, even the few whites who had heard about the Indian’s “sacred place” had forgotten about it, which, along with that their attention was focused elsewhere, meant the Neshnala Grove fell into a kind of benign obscurity for nearly another fifty years, and that the great tree’s two-hundredth birthday would slip by, unnoticed. Here’s why…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 3 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1750-1800

Like anyone who has ever undergone a profound spiritual awakening, the Sauk Holy Man loved to talk about his transformation with anybody that would listen. Over campfires at night he would go on and on, speaking of the tree’s great power and the peace and joy it had brought to him.

Being a Holy Man meant he was known as the tribe’s “thinker,” the one who thought about the “why” questions that were difficult to answer, like what is our place here? Which meant, in turn, that the down-to-earth members of the tribe who were more focused on mundane day-to-day survival activities than those sorts of “big questions,” while they always treated him with deference and respect, also tended to shrug at his strange ideas and go on about their business.

So that when the Holy Man led pilgrimages of other tribe members up the difficult trail to the meadow to experience the tree for themselves, only a few actually went. And only a relatively few of those, perhaps because they, too, were “ready,” attested to having some form of spiritual experience – a “neesh-na-ha-a-la.”

Those few then told others, not only within the tribe, but with neighboring tribes, so that after just a couple of decades, tribes as far flung as the Cheyenne way to the north, the Lakota Sioux on the Great Plains in the west, and the Potawatomi near the great lake to the east had heard of the sacred tree in the Sauk’s territory.

From time-to-time a Holy Man, or a medicine man, or a chief from one of these neighboring tribes would make a pilgrimage to experience “neesh-na-ha-a-la” for themselves; even if they were from a tribe where there had been bad blood in the past, they were always welcomed.

Through the 1780s and 90s, what had earlier been more or less rare contacts with white men in what was still pretty much a wilderness − a once or twice a year visit for trading purposes, perhaps an occasional encounter while on a hunt – turned into a steady, if small trickle, and word of the sacred tree began to seep outside of the Native American communities; however, being both ethnocentric and arrogant, the whites tended to be dismissive of any suggestion the Indians could in any way be truly religious or spiritual.

“Hell, every rock or tree seems to be sacred to those people,” they’d sniff. It was a mindset that would prevail among the whites for well over a century and greatly affect the tree’s future fortunes.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 2 – Neshnala’s Saga: About 1750

Because the tree was what future foresters would call a “lone wolf,” in that it sat all by itself out on the meadow, away from other trees, over the decades it took on the perfect proportions of its species, the white oak, growing in height slowly but steadily, while at the same time sending out long branches so that it was as broad as it was tall.

Eventually the buffalo and elk grew to “love” the great tree because it offered them cooling shade during the hot summer months. And they, in turn, returned the favor, though inadvertently, by bunching under the tree and with their hooves preventing any competing trees from gaining a foothold.

By the middle decades of the 1700s both Native Americans and white men had begun to infrequently appear in the area, mostly limiting their visits to the great river a couple of miles to the south. The white men were the rough Voyageurs that paddled up and down the river, either to do their own hunting for furs or to trade with local tribes. The Native Americans were the Sauk and Fox, who were building new villages in the vicinity because they had been driven from their territory further to the north by wars with other tribes.

It was somewhere around 1750 that a Sauk Indian was in all likelihood the first human being to actually look upon the great tree, which, even at a relatively “young” seventy-years-old was already awesome in its height and breadth.

Being a Holy Man and by nature a loner – the two were usually associated − he had been in search of contemplative solitude rather than game or berries, when, following a faint but nonetheless discernible game trail up a natural draw in the bluff, he stumbled across the meadow and its stately denizen.

Perhaps because he was already psychologically primed for a spiritual experience… Maybe because he was just tired and susceptible to visions… Possibly because he was old and already suffering from what later men of medicine would call dementia… Or perchance because the great tree indeed did have a powerful mystical presence that deeply touched him…

…the Sauk Holy Man had no doubt that his life was wholly transfigured as he slowly and reverently approached the tree and placed his hands on its immense trunk, a gesture he had only intended to be a show of respect for its humbling age. Later he would tell of being suddenly imbued with a profound sense of wholeness and completeness, as if he had become connected with not only the tree’s own great life force, but with the beating heartbeat of all living things. It was as if he had transcended from his everyday world to another level of understanding, as if the tree knew him, and as if he knew the tree…

Which he would describe to others with the words “neesh-na-ha-a-la,” or “the tree that knows me.”

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 1 – Neshnala’s Saga: Around 1680

The Mississippi River meanders for hundreds of miles down through the upper-Midwest, bouncing off rocky shores here, lazily spreading out over wide shallows there, cutting new channels where it can, sometimes taking unexpected hard turns to avoid obstinate obstructions.

For millennia a great variety of critters – huge mastodons in the distant past, shaggy buffalo in more recent eras − foraged on the grasses and shrubs along the floor of the great valley the river had cut after the last glacier, over time often finding natural clefts in the bordering bluff to discover a new and enticing meadow above.

One such meadow − one of literally thousands along the river’s corridor − was three-quarters of a mile back from a particularly spectacular two-mile long limestone palisade – also one of many − in an area where the river had made one of those unusual turns and for the relatively short distance of a couple dozen miles actually flowed from east to west.

The meadow was more or less amoeba-shaped, not quite a hundred acres in size, and was surrounded by thick woods, mostly oaks and hickory, with a smattering of maple, birch, ash and pine. Along its western edge a shallow, rocky creek flowed down from the north to eventually tumble over the edge of the palisade in a series of spectacularly stepped falls before finally reaching the Mississippi.

While there were some signs – animal-shaped burial mounds found along the edges of the river bluff at various locations far to the north and south − that men had visited, or more likely simply passed through the area as far back as when Greek culture was flourishing in the Mediterranean, there was no evidence that over the ages any human foot had ever trod this particular meadow.

So, for century upon century, bison, elk and smaller critters regularly visited the meadow to feed; and for century upon century the thousands of squirrels that inhabited the nearby woods would in the fall wander out onto the meadow and bury thousands of acorns.

The white oak produces acorns annually, but every fourth to sixth year yields a bumper crop − the year Europeans would call 1680 was just such a year.

Most of those acorns would eventually be dug up and eaten as winter food; many would be overlooked and decompose in place; and only a relatively few would find just the right favorable conditions − slightly acidic soil, plentiful rainfall, but with good drainage − to send a root below ground and a tentative shoot above ground in the spring. Most of those, in turn, would rarely reach more than a few inches in height, ending up either trampled by buffalo and elk hooves or being nibbled away by the deer.

One white oak acorn, though, would get buried out on the meadow, would be “forgotten” by the squirrels, would start growing the next spring, and would by many fortuitous chances escape the hooves and foragers and continue decade after decade to grow.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Neshnala’s Saga: Prolog

Every writer hopes to create a “character” that takes over his or her writing, that in effect writes itself; that’s what has happened to me with Neshnala.

Neshnala isn’t a human character, it’s a tree; to be exact, a three-hundred-year-old great white oak tree located in Five Falls State Park that is first introduced in “Ro’s Handle.” While it is a relatively minor character in that novel, it does play a role to help demonstrate Ro’s special connection with trees and her respect for tradition – there is also an element of “setting-up” involved, as Neshnala will be a recurring character and will take on a more significant role in some future Ro Delahanty novels I have in mind.

So, as part of my ongoing goal in this blog to provide more background on Ro novel characters than can actually fit in the books, I thought I’d do a series of posts on Neshnala − my initial assumption was it might involve a half-dozen or so.

I began drafting the first post by posing what I thought was a simple question: How can a tree survive to be three centuries old? What unique and unexpected circumstances can forestall it from falling victim to threats, both natural and human, for that long?

And what I found in answering that question proved to be a whole lot more fascinating, to say nothing of complicated, than I thought, and those presumed half-dozen posts have now ballooned into twenty-seven chapters, and, at not quite seventeen-thousand words, would now qualify as a novella…

In other words, the Neshnala Saga literally ran away with me, much to my delight.

(For those not familiar with literary conventions, anything under ten-thousand words is considered a short story; anything between fifteen and twenty-five-thousand words is a novella; and anything over thirty-thousand words is a novel. And yes, I suppose there is some possibility the Neshnala Saga may someday be published.)

So, I’ll begin posting the much-richer-and-more-colorful-than-expected chapters of the Neshnala Saga this coming Wednesday, and will add a new one every few days for roughly the next couple of months.

I hope you find it as much fun to read as I had writing it…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

First professional review of “Ro’s Handle”

Werner Lind, the moderator of the Action Heroine Fans discussion group on Goodreads, has done a professional review of “Ro’s Handle,” my first Ro Delahanty novel. Here’s the link:

While it was, you might say, “a mixed review,” I do believe it was fair and balanced.

I’m pleased with the parts of the book he was enthusiastic about, and I understand (as the expression goes) “where he was coming from” with regard to those parts he was not comfortable with.

But I’m encouraged that he did end the review by saying he’s looking forward to the next Ro novel.

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