Joshua and Family move from Rockton, Ill. To Battle Creek, Iowa

 by Vincent Valentine Malcom

My word additions and changes are in blue.  Marla Hembree

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1880-81   When Josh’s Family left Rockton, Illinois (near Rockford) they joined up with other families in wagons headed in the same direction for homesteads in Iowa anywhere from only 100 to 500 miles away.  There were passenger and freight railroad lines to northwest Iowa available during these years.  Settlers chose to join a slow moving wagon train (accompanied by their livestock) because that mode of travel accommodated families in wagons hauling large loads of household items, furniture, clothing, foodstuffs, and start up supplies such as some lumber, nails etc.  Moreover, because it was cheaper.

The following narrative by Vincent Malcom was sent to me very rough hand-written draft form.  His words are in black type.  My corrections or additions are in blue type.


"These were not seeking a new world in California.  These farmers were going to land they had already picked out on the Iowa plain.  They were really moving their farm to a new location.  Most had a little money from selling some of their livestock and depended on buying again when they settled.  (Josh had been a retail grocer in Rockton for some years so he probably had sold his business and also had money he made from profits)  They drove their wagons usually with horses (Josh had four) and herded the remaining horses, cattle and hogs and even a few sheep.  The only thing that rode was the chickens in wooden crates tied to the back of the wagon.  They milked the cows morning and night and even churned butter as the wagons rolled along.  The churn was a little oak keg fastened top and bottom to the heavy springs of the wagons which were jerked up and down by the movement of the wagons.  All this was the reason for the slow movement.


During the winter preceding the trip, Josh hatched up a scheme to employ Emma’s two younger brothers who he figured as he stated, “of adventurous spirit and would probably do better on their own.”   (These brothers were Franks Willis Lake (age 17 or 18) and Charles Wilber Lake (age 15 or 16), Emma’s unmarried brothers who lived in Rockton with or near their Mother.  Emma’s father had died in 1978.  See the Lake Family Page on the web site for further information about Emma's brothers and her Father.) The idea became a reality since Josh had a family of three children, and the brothers had none and they had little money or property except horses and personal equipment.  Josh planned as soon as spring opened up for them to ride ahead.  He thought that they could ride to western Iowa by July 1st and he gave them the money for expenses, more money to buy draft horses, harness, wagons and money to buy supplies for everyone to last over winter the following year.  In addition, money for lumber, nails, window glass etc to build a small house and a shelter for the animals.  They would have plenty of time to get the materials and locate the land, build the two buildings.  Then when they (Josh, Emma and the three children) arrived in the fall they would have a house to move into equipped with things like a range for cooking, and other necessary household items that would be difficult to bring on the wagon train.  He told me that they would have to go to Sioux City anyway to get the location of the land.  He said that he had put a copy of the land records in their saddlebags showing the location of the land.  He also stated that they might lose or forget it before arriving at the location and would have to go to the Woodbury County offices and get new data.


That attended to, he went about his work of organizing the wagon train and getting it to western Iowa to the place where they would break off and proceed on their own.  The first delay occurred when they had gone only about 100 miles where they encountered the Mississippi River just south of Dubuque, Iowa.  The delay was an argument about how they should cross the Mississippi.  Some wanted to go to Dubuque where there was a ferry and cross there.  They sent a delegation to Dubuque which took a week and reported back that it was not practical and too costly.   Some of the people in the train wanted to caulk the wagon’s beds and let their draft animals swim across pulling the wagons and let the live stock swim.  Josh said that they would lose all their belongings and some lives.  He wanted to cut logs, peg them together into rafts and carry everything on the rafts.  It took him weeks to convince them and get their help to cut timber and build the rafts.  At any rate, they made the rafts and ferried the train across with out loss of wagons, humans or livestock. 

Note: Years later I sold a floor surface on a wood floored bridge over the Mississippi at Dubuque.  I stood on the bridge and looked at the river.  It’s was about 50 miles north of Josh’s crossing.  The river there was 1700 feet wide and swift.  I judged at about 4-5 miles per hour.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to be afloat on a raft about 15 feet square laden with a covered wagon loaded and chained down, with women and children and with two long sweep oars on the back and two men  attempting to guide it at the mercy of the current.  I wondered if I would have agreed or gone north to the ferry.   But on the other hand, I had never seen the ferry.   (My Uncle Don’s short account of this event says that the women and children were ferried across at Dubuque.)

When they got across the first thing they had to contend with was the steep bluffs along the river.  Josh told me that the “bluffs crossing” had been predetermined by sending a man across the river in a small boat, which they hired from a man living on or near the river.  The “scout” climbed the bluffs and picked the place to cross so that once they had conquered the bluffs with their wagons, they would have flat land as far as he could see.  Josh said they planted “dead men” at the top of the bluffs and with ropes and pulleys winched the loaded wagons up the bluff which Josh estimated at 100 feet in height or more.  They drove the livestock up a gully.


Once over the river, the train did not progress rapidly.  Every few days, they would stop to let the live stock rest as well as the people.  They got started late in the morning and had to camp early at night.  Progress was slow.  They had planned on it taking the whole summer and it did.  By late fall when the wagon train was within about 100 miles (This in reality is about 50 miles "as the crow flies") of Josh’s destination, he and his family broke off the train and went straight north west to his destination.  The last of the train angled southwest towards the Missouri River crossing near Omaha, Nebraska. 


Note:  Actually, the train for the most part had followed a route roughly parallel to the old Lincoln Highway (US 30) from Cedar Rapids through Ames, Denison and north of Omaha. The next east west highway in Iowa was south of this route and passed through Des Moines and Omaha.  It was along this route that Horatio Malcom took a wagon train about 25 years before.  The Malcom’s finally settled near the little town of Danbury not far from Ida Grove.  Josh and his brothers-in-law farmed while Horatio and his son Joe Malcom ran cattle on a ranch which meant that they owned two or three sections of land and herded a drove of cattle which grazed on their land and any land which was not fenced.  This was a sore point between ranchers and farmers.  Many settlers lacked the money to fence their land so the cattle ate at will.  Josh had the money to fence his land so he was not bothered and cattlemen did not care.  The day of the open range rancher passed when the State Herd Law passed which required that cattlemen either herd their cattle 24 hours a day or pay damages or fence their land.  As a child I lived in South Dakota at the time The Herd Laws were passed in that state. 


When Josh arrived at his land, he found that there were no buildings as evidence of activity so he camped there.  It was late, late fall and the air was clear and cold when he went to bed tired of the long trip and disappointed with his brothers-in-law.  But Iowa weather is extremely changeable.  In the night it turned colder and snow was falling and it continued to be windy and snow heavily.  It lasted for four days and then turned off bright and clear, about 20 degrees below zero.  Josh had a thermometer and he said it was below that reading on the thermometer and stayed that way for several days.  I asked if it drifted and he said, " Yes, some." 


Note: The next snows like that occurred in the 1950s and I saw tunnels on the sidewalks underneath the drifts all over Des Moines.  The drifts I saw were higher than the garages in the suburbs and stayed that way until the snow melted.


To return to our narrative:  Josh found his land OK but he was encamped in 4 feet of snow in his covered wagon with his stock outside.  He did not see his brothers-in-law until the next spring and did not hunt for them.  They huddled in the wagon and kept warm under Grandma’s down comforter and subsisted on cold preserves for while the storm lasted.  When the storm ended, Josh cleared a little space where they could get out of the wagon.  He took a horse, rope and ax and finally found a little draw with the brush still having pitch in it and cut a lot of the wood and dragged it back to the wagon. He started a fire and instructed Emma how to keep it burning.  Then he rode out again and saw smoke and found the town of Danbury about 8 miles away.  It was just a few houses.  One house had a little grocery store with a few staples in what was supposed to have to have been the living room of a square four-room house.  Grandfather Josh said they had flour, coffee (green), lard, some hams, bloaters, dried beans, no butter and maybe hundred gallon containers of fruits and sausage.  The jars were stoneware.  The sausage was half cooked and preserved in lard and they had dried beef in slabs which looked like *#x* but was edible if you cooked it long enough.  Josh bought one of each.  That was all he could buy or rather all that the store keeper would sell him at one time for he did not know when he would get some more from the city which was 35 miles away.  So Josh put the groceries in a gallon sack and tied it behind his saddle and started home.  He calculated he had traveled about 16 miles before finding the town, and he drew a map from memory.  He knew how to find true north from the position of the hands of a watch, (a trick I used to know but have forgotten.)  He also had a barometer at home and a pocket compass which he used constantly while traveling.  He knew the principles of surveying and had a small telescope which he carried in his saddlebags, all of which meant that he made a pretty good map.  He then laid out a straight course back to the wagon and when he topped a ridge he paused and looked around him with the telescope.  At first, he missed seeing his wagon and was afraid he was lost because he was looking for the fire’s smoke, but then he spotted the wagon with his telescope about a mile off his route and rode in.  He found the fire out and his family warm in the down comforter.  A long, tiring day for the new settler, his wife and children. 


On his return trip, he saw only two objects that interested him. One was a stack of hay that some settler had cut on his land.  Actually, Josh said it was just a large hump in the snow but he figured that's what it was.  Also, on the ridge he saw a gully or wash containing a thicket of sumac and about a mile down there were what looked like small trees.


The next day he investigated the hump and it was the remains of a stack of hay a couple of years old, half-eaten by range cattle.  But, the center was good and not much snow on top.  He plotted this on his map and then proceeded to the draw where he found the trees. He said they were about 10 feet tall and 2-3” thick at the trunk.  He cut 25 poles, trimmed and piled them up and went home. 


The following day he made what he called a “stone boat” which was two 2x4s about 8 feet long and ten 1”x12” boards about 6 feet long laid solid over the 2x4s and nailed in place with a hitch attached on one end so the four horses could be hitched to it.  He said it did not take long to make but the difficult part was to get the lumber (of which he had a meager supply) laid flat on the bottom of the wagon under all the other stuff they owned plus clothes, sheets, and comforter piled solid on the top layer.  That night he came home with about 50 poles and a load of hay.  He then framed a house using the poles for sills and corners and eaves and then spaced other poles 2 feet apart up the sides and on the flat tilted roof. 


He hauled hay for several days and stacked it about 2 feet thick along the length of the wall to the top of the wall.  Then over the roof.  He then cut a hole in the hay roof to let the smoke out and left an opening on the south for a door.  He added a “lean to” on the south side with two sidewalls and a roof which made a shelter for the animals which opened facing south.  He stacked the hay, tramped it down and buttressed it with snow until it covered the roof and until he could get more logs.  He said in two weeks they moved in as they feared more snow but it remained clear for about a month before more storms.  By that time they had a canvas covered gate for a door and they had to go through the “lean to” barn to get outside.  Mother (Minnie) said that it was a fine house but smoky at times.  The stove was in the center of the house on the dirt floor and had about 2 lengths of stovepipe which did not quite hit the ceiling and the smoke had to find its way through a 2” exit square in the ceiling.  During the winter and spring, Josh, tried to find out who the hay belonged to for he had measured the size of the stack before he took any and he wanted to pay the going price per ton.

Along in early spring his two brothers-in-law rode in on horseback and Josh said he wanted to kill them but was confronted with his wife and decided after all that he could not adequately punish them so he, in a way, forgave them but never trusted them again.  


It is hard to imagine a man with the intelligence of Joshua Humphreys laying out the trip for the wagon train and then arriving at his land for an early fall blizzard and then living with his family most of the winter in the covered wagon.  It was not planned that way.  As a matter of fact, Josh planned his part very well.  He did not know how far he had to go, nor what he would encounter along the way. 


The story of what happened to the two brothers came out in bits and pieces.  They had gone to Sioux City directly because they had lost the instructions Josh gave them.  On the street they had met a man who dressed like them and they went and had a few drinks with him.  They found that he was a nobleman from England, which put their friendship on a firm basis.  They learned that he was living on a ranch near the present site of Kingsley, Iowa (about 20 miles from Sioux City).  This ranch was the 1880s equivalent of “Dude” ranches today with a difference.  It was operated as a ranch but the main activity was to house and entertain a number of young British nobility commonly called “remittance men”.  These young men had misbehaved or disgraced their families in England in ways great or small such as: shooting a sitting fox at a fox hunt; being publicly rude at a cricket match; or involvement with a servant girl.  Cowardice and common manslaughter would be condoned if his family’s money caught up with him before the police did and even when the police arrived, there were “dissenter trials” with minimum penalties and low publicity if the culprit was exiled out of the country.  Some men had committed crimes which would have landed them in jail, or worse, if they returned to England.  A handsome salary was sent to a reliable man, such as the rancher, who paid it to the young man as long as he stayed at the ranch and did nothing further to embarrass the family back in England.  The salary was called a "remittance”, hence, "remittance man". 



Above is a photo of what is left of the 'Quorn Ranch' barn in Kinsley, Iowa.  It is a huge barn.  This photo was taken in 2006.


There were a number of remittance men at the ranch and the ranch was built for them to live on the balance of their lives, as it was a permanent arrangement in some cases.  They played polo, had shooting exhibitions, lived in what was luxury compared to the people living in the surrounding country and towns.  In fact, they did anything they wanted to.  Of course, they were limited in that they could only go as far as the remains of last month’s remittance would carry them on horseback and still report back to the ranch for their next payment.  Of course, there was ample fine liquor and gambling.  The rancher and his help provided for these things but did not participate.  From the standpoint of London the cost was moderate but in Iowa it was luxury. 


Note:  Josh had a store in Tennessee and he sold whiskey in the back… It was good whiskey in a keg and you picked up tin cup and filled it yourself and the price was 10 cents.  Beer was a nickel a mug and that was in 1895. 


The young man invited them to Kingsley as his guests and they liked the price of the board and room and stayed all winter.  Nobody tried to rob them or sell them any wild scheme or fleece them but, of course, they gambled with the other young men.  The trouble was that the other young men got a new supply of money each month and they had only the money that Josh supplied them.  They never bought the horses, wagons, lumber and supplies or delivered them to the homesite.  They kept putting it off all summer and they could not do it in the winter.  When spring arrived, they rode their horses to the homesite as it was the only place they could get free board."


The above story of the “remittance men” in northwest Iowa is a true one.  You can find evidence of the facts on this web site at: 

Or you can merely type the words “The British in Iowa” by Curtis Harnack into your search engine.

In addition, a very interesting book on the subject can be found authored also by the well known Iowa writer, Curtis Harnack.  His book is well researched from journals, newspaper accounts and interviews of involved persons.  The book’s name?  Gentlemen on the Prairie.  Both of these resources were located thanks to my cousin Guin Barcelou who personally contacted the librarian at Kingsley, Iowa who then gladly directed us to this information.  


You can visit what is left of the Quorn Ranch in Kinsley, Iowa and visit the Plymouth County Historical Museum located in LeMars, Iowa to find out further information about the "Remittance Ranches" in Iowa.  They have a great collection of items such as china dishware, polo mallets and etc. used on those ranches.  It is a wonderful museum!  Below is a photo of the polo mallets. ▼