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