1843 – A Letter To The Major Of Monongahela Valley.

On Wednesday, February 8, 1843 – in Iowa City – a business man by the name of Niles Higinbotham sat down in his busy office and wrote a three-page letter, responding to Major Longbow – a good friend from Waynesburg in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Apparently, the good Major – and another friend named Bird – were looking very seriously at relocating to Iowa Territory and had sent letters asking Higinbotham a series of intriguing questions about living in Iowa.

(JP-035) Niles Higinbotham’s letter (see above) was mailed the very next day – February 9, 1843 – and interestingly, it was addressed, not to Major Longbow, but to General B.B. Woodruff, Waynesburg, Greene Co., Penn’a.

(JP-035) Now, to make things really complicated, on the back side of Higinbotham’s letter (see above right), he also wrote: Monongalia Iron Compy, Ice’s Ferry, Monongalia Co, Va., and the instructions – Direct to E.L. Elliott Postmaster.

So, before we unpack Nile Higinbotham’s fascinating letter that gives us an abundance of facts and figures about Iowa in 1843, let’s first address a few of these intriguing questions surrounding the “who” and “why” this letter was seemingly sent to two different people with two separate locations. Let’s start first with telling you a bit about the letter’s author – Niles Higinbotham…

Niles Higinbotham was born in Vernon in Oneida County, New York on March 9, 1813, the oldest son of Sands and Temperance (Carpenter) Higinbotham – the first settlers and founders of nearby Oneida, New York in Madison County. Sands Higinbotham was a mover-and-shaker in the earliest days of the Erie Canal, and young Niles obviously learned a lot about business and finance from his father.

According to family records and local Iowa history, Higinbotham, age 24, along with another business partner from New York – Samuel Breese – came west in the late 1830’s. Bloomington (Muscatine) historical records indicate that Higinbotham (spelled Higginbotham here) arrived in 1837, purchased 80 acres, along with his partner, in 1838, and 1840 court records indicate that his firm – Breese & Higginbotham – was involved with some serious land dealings during that time as well.

Read more about the earliest days of Bloomington, Iowa here…

So, it’s our guess that Niles Higinbotham was, indeed, the writer of our Iowa City letter in February, 1843 and that Breese & Higinbotham – which was anchored in nearby Bloomington – had an office in the Territorial capital – Iowa City – as well. More on Niles a bit later, but now…

Let’s tackle the issue of two different mailing destinations used in Higinbotham’s letter – one in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia.

Waynesburg, Pennsylvania is located in Greene County – which is in the very southwest corner of the state. And, according to Higinbotham’s writings, we can assume that all four parties involved in his letter- General B.B. Woodruff, Major Longbow, Bird, and our Iowa City-based author – had strong connections with Greene County.

FYI – West Virginia didn’t became a state until 1863 – so until then, Monogalia County was a part of Virginia.

Now, just southeast of Greene County, Pennsylvania is Ice’s Ferry in Monogalia County, which, at the time (1843), was in Virginia – or, as you can see on the map above, today, it is located on the northern edge of West Virginia.

So, now that we know that our two locations mentioned in our 1843 letter are only 25 miles apart, here’s our common denominator…

Both Greene County and Monongalia County are located in and near the Monongahela River Valley (see map above) – a 130-mile-long river that runs northward from West Virginia into Pennsylvania, emptying into the Allegheny River – which then forms the Ohio River – in Pittsburgh. And it’s this one shared fact about the Monogahela River Valley that gives us our answer to why Higinbotham addressed his letter the way he did…

The word Monongahela (and Monogalia) is Native American in origin, meaning “falling banks,” and the Monongahela tribe was indigenous to this area prior to the settlement of white pioneers.

You see, in the early to mid-1800’s, Monogalia County, Virginia was the home to numerous iron works with huge furnaces that provided the much-needed iron used to build 19th-century America. Ice’s Ferry was the home of the Monongalia Iron Company, and during the War of 1812, for example, much of the iron used for war equipment was made in the Monongahela River Valley. As a result of the Valley’s great importance to the military, the U.S. Militia kept a sizeable army camp in this area.

(JP-035) So, it’s our guess, that in February of 1843, when Higinbotham sent his letter to Major Longbow, addressing it to General B.B. Woodruff, it’s almost certain that the U.S. Military had a good number of men stationed in and around the Monongahela River Valley. So, in order to reach Major Longbow, who was probably stationed somewhere around Ice’s Ferry, he addressed his letter to General Woodruff – who was headquartered in Greene County, and on the back side of his letter, was asking General Woodruff to forward the letter to Longbow by taking it to the Postmaster in Monogalia County, Virginia. Whew – got it?

As we said earlier, the coolest thing about Higinbotham’s 1843 letter is that it gives us a really good look at Iowa as it was in 1843, and secondly, it offers us the mindset of those early pioneers who came here from back east. And, since we know that Niles Higinbotham and his business partner – Samuel Breese – had been in the area (Bloomington) since 1837, there’s six years of experience speaking here to Major Longbow’s questions. So, here we go – one section at a time, with some occasional commentary from your humble author along the way …

I received, yesterday, yours & Bird’s and read it with infinite pleasure. You desired me to write to you – I confess I had a great mind not to do it – I am pressed with business – can find but little leisure and have had a vast number of letters to write. I reasoned in this way:  – I can hardly spare the time to write, but the Major is coming to the Territory – is a valuable friend to any man, and besides I may calculate, if I start a paper here, on getting him to write Jack Downing communications for it. So I concluded to write, yet I confess had it been any one else than Major Longbow or an old associate, I should not have done it. Enough of that.

It sounds like our letter writer – Niles Higinbotham – is one busy man in the growing community of Iowa City. As we mentioned earlier, Niles and his partner, Samuel Breese, have been working in Bloomington (Muscatine) for several years, and from all we can tell, they were involved heavily in business & finance.

Now, in 1843, there were already two newspapers in Iowa City – The Iowa Capitol Reporter and The Iowa City Standard, so while Higinbotham certainly would have had both the interest and the resources to finance a new paper, he obviously didn’t go that route.

So, who Is Jack Downing – the name Higinbotham mentions when talking about Major Longbow writing for his proposed newspaper? Seba Smith (above right), an editor, journalist, novelist, and poet, was known for his creation of a single character – Major Jack Downing. Beginning in 1830, and continuing through 1856, Smith penned fictional letters and cartoons (see above) filled with political humor, sending them to newspapers around the country, making his Jack Downing into a household name.

You wish me to write on matters in general, and answer some questions in particular. I will give you the best information I have- at the same time bear in mind it may not be altogether correct.

First – matters in general. Iowa is a beautiful country – with but few if, any low, marshy, swampy or boggy grounds, but laying high and dry – gently undulating – rolling, like what we may conceive of the ocean, when slightly agitated, – and perhaps three-fourths of its land being prairie – Iowa is fertile. The first year after the ground is broke up, it yields as good a crop as the generality of land in Greene (County) – the second a better one, and the third, with far less labor than is bestowed upon land in Greene which brings thirty bushels of corn to the acre, it will fetch 100 bushels. It is equally well adapted to the raising of wheat, oats, potatoes, and other things which grow in Greene.

No country can be conceived that is better calculated for grazing – a man need be at no expense for pasturage. If he owns no land, though he has thousands and tens of thousands of horses, cattle and sheep. And for winter, he is at liberty to cut down a million of tons of hay and none will say him nay. The Northern part is not so productive – is more rocky and rough. It is chiefly valuable for its minerals – in the vicinity of Galena, men have made vast fortunes by digging lead ore, and mining is carried on to a great extent.

While the northern sections of Iowa – such as Dubuque – are viewed as “valuable for its minerals,” Higinbotham rightly believes that farming and ranching hold the real future of Iowa. Interestingly, in the 1870’s, Iowa City became the world’s capital for the breeding of Holstein cattle. Read more about Thomas Wales and his cattle empire of Johnson County.

Times, in Iowa, are extremely hard, money very scarce, and business at a low ebb – but matters will improve shortly. The land sales will come off in a month or less. The Legislature will pay off its members and officers, and adjourn in a week, – which will have the effect of scattering many thousand dollars through the country and of reviving business. Let that do for things in general – now for the particulars…

Sheep, surprisingly as it is, are not plenty. There are but few owing to the newness of the country, and the lack of capital in men, who would otherwise go into the sheep business. It will not long be so. Every body is aware of the advantages which the country possesses in that respect, and will in proportion to their means turn their attention to it. Why the sheep of Pennsylvania would laugh, yes, positively laugh to see these prairie pastures. They sold last fall, that is common sheep from $2.50 to $3, and are now worth, I am informed, from $1.62½ to $3.00. The sheep business would be decidedly the best to go into. Our Legislature has passed a law to encourage the growth of wool, exempting all sheep from taxation, and 100 of each man from execution for debt.

In other words, Major Longbow – get out here soon – and get into the sheep business! It’s a ground-floor opportunity just waiting for you – and at least 100 laughing sheep – to explore!

Not a very good article to bring here. Some say but 20 cents, and some thirty.

As we said earlier, the Monongahela River winds its way slowly from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, where it merges with the Allegheny to become the Ohio River. Beginning in the late 1700’s, farmer-distillers worked the Monongahela Valley, growing rye and distilling it into a distinct style of whiskey that took the region’s name. Monongahela rye was the first American whiskey to gain widespread recognition, both in the U.S. and abroad. But apparently, Higinbotham likes Iowa sippin’ whiskey instead! And in 1843, there were several hotel/taverns in Iowa City and Bloomington where he and his business partners could grab a glass or two. Read more here.

All specie paying banks of Pennsylvania and the East generally pass par here, – in fact in some instances, they have been preferred to specie – a premium of 2 per cent being paid on them.

Back in the 1830’s, local banks produced their own currency – called “paper,” and obviously, the “paper” was only as good as the financial well-being of the bank itself. Specie-paying banks from back East would honor both gold or silver coins (specie) and paper money, making them a safer bet than the untested, start-up banks in America’s new West. Read about Iowa City’s first regional bank here.

By the quantity, they may be bought for from 6 to 7 dollars a pair. St. Louis would be a better place to purchase. They can be bought there from 4 to 5 dollars a pair.

Keep in mind that in 1843, St. Louis was the prime gateway into Iowa. The Ohio River would connect Easterners with the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis, and then a riverboat would take you north into Iowa, stopping in Keokuk, Ft. Madison, Burlington, and then Bloomington (Muscatine). At that point, it was a day’s ride by stagecoach or horse over to Iowa City. Read more about stagecoach travel around Iowa here.

They can be bought at from 3 to 5 cents. There are no tanneries in the Territory, and they are thus low in consequence.

In other words, leave your dry beef hides in Virginia!

Land is worth from $1.25 to $30 per acre, according to situation and improvement. You may pick out land belonging to the government that is worth 10, 15 or $20 per acre, and, if you establish a claim upon it you are sure of it at the government price – $1.25. No person being allowed, by what is called the claim, club, or neighborhood law, to bid against you. Claims are made by erecting a cabin, breaking up 5 acres, or fencing in a portion. Frequently, where timber is scarce, ditches are dug to answer the purpose of fence.

So, here’s the primary question most Easterners had about coming to Iowa Territory – buying land and how much will it cost? It’s this access to good farm land at very reasonable prices that made Iowa the attractive place to be in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Read more about the process of surveying, purchasing, and homesteading land in Iowa here.

In 1843, the only Land Office was in Dubuque, but by the 1850’s, a second office opened on Clinton Street in Iowa City. Read more here.

Money scarce –  Eastern specie paying banks par – but one bank in the Territory, Dubuque bank – its charter forfeited, and paper worthless. None but gold, silver and Missouri State Bank funds received in the Land Office.

There were certainly many ups-and-downs in Iowa banking during these early days. Read more about the banks in Iowa’s oldest community – Dubuque – here.

They are cheap now, and bring but 30 to $50 per yoke. Last fall they were considerably higher, but such is the pressure of the times, that all property is depreciated in value, and such the want and at the same time the scarcity of money, that anything may be bought for half its intrinsic value. Money may be loaned here at 100 per cent interest without trouble.

Yowsers! If you had money to lend in 1843 – certainly, you were set. But pity the poor soul who had to find a short-term loan at 100% interest!

Now then, I have answered your inquiries as well as I am able. I would like of all things to see you in Iowa, and if you bring sheep advise you to come. Tell Bird I thank him for his kind letter, will write to him shortly, but cannot encourage him – much as I would like to see him in Iowa, more than I did.

In other words, get your tails out here as soon as you can – and don’t forget to bring money and sheep! C U Soon!

Accept my best respects. Yours etc. etc.  Higinbotham

So – what ever became of Niles Higinbotham and his friends?

While we don’t know if Major Longbow, General Woodruff, or Bird ever made it out to Iowa, we do know that Niles Higinbotham (1813-1890) stayed here in Iowa for six more years. But in 1849, he decided to move back to New York – settling in Oneida – where it looks like he partnered with his Iowa business partner – Samuel Breese – and one other gentleman – Sands Goodman – first in opening a dry goods business, and then, starting Oneida’s first private bank. That same year (1849), Niles married Eliza Randall (1823-1903) and according to his obituary, together they had three daughters. Both Eliiza and Niles Higinbotham are buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Oneida (Madison County), New York.

Thanks Mr. Higinbotham. Though we know you didn’t stay here in Iowa for a lifetime…we do so appreciate you taking the extra time in your busy schedule to answer Major Longbow’s questions! All these years later, all Iowa historians say…Thank You & Godspeed!

DYK- November 18, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

First Settler in Bloomington, History of Muscatine County Iowa -1911, IAGenWeb/Muscatine, Volume I, 1911, pp 61-63

Muscatine Journal & News-Tribune Centennial Edition, 31 May 1940. IAGenWeb/Muscatine

The Iowa Standard, Bloomington, Muscatine co. I.T., Friday, November 6, 1840, Vol. 1 No. 3, IAGenWeb/IowaOldPress

For Sale, The Bloomington Journal, February 5, 1848, p 3

McConnell’s map of Greene County, Pennsylvania, Library of Congress

Monongalia Co., West Virginia, USA, MindAt.org

Monongalia County, West Virginia, Wikipedia

Monongahela River, Wikipedia

History of West Virginia Mineral Industries – Iron, West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey

Ice’s Ferry, The Historical Marker Database, HMdb.org

Ices Ferry Ironworks, encyclopedia.org

The Immortal Major: Jack Downing and the Rise of American Political Humor, Daniel Burge, WereHistory.org, February 25, 2019

Thomas B. Wales, Jr. and The Brookbank Herd, Tim Weitzel, timweitzel.wordpress.com

What is Old Monongahela Rye?, Sam Komlenic, WhiskeyAdvocate.com, January 4, 2018

Sands Higinbotham, Find-A-Grave

Eliza Randall Higinbotham, Find-A-Grave

Niles Higinbotham, Find-A-Grave

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