Once Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, many young easterners sold everything they had and moved westward, looking for new opportunities on the other side of the Mississippi River. In this post, allow me to introduce to you two such young men – Jonas Wescoatt from Indiana and Josiah H. Bonney from New York.
In November 1849, a government-related manuscript/letter was sent from Monroe County Clerk Jonas Wescoatt to Josiah H. Bonney – Iowa Secretary of State in Iowa City. In it, Wescoatt reported the annual expenses for the Monroe County Criminal Prosecutions Office. And apparently, there were no convictions for the county for the year ending November 1, 1849, so the expenses needing to be reimbursed by the State of Iowa was $18.59!
With all of the Iowa state governmental offices now located in the new capitol building in Iowa City, Secretary of State J.H. Bonney would have turned this report over to the state treasurer – whose office was located on the first floor of the capitol building. Read more here.
Jonas Wescoatt was born in Indiana in 1826, but little is known about his earliest years. Records do show, however, that in 1838, the year Iowa became a U.S. Territory, the Wescoatt family – Joseph, wife Sarah, their three sons; Nelson (1821), Jonas (1826), & Riley (1828), and their daughter Lucy (1831) – moved from the Hoosier state to Van Buren County in Iowa. As you can see from the map (above) Van Buren County, named for President Martin Van Buren, was easily accessed via the Des Moines River.
In Iowa’s earliest days, many new settlers would arrive here by taking the Ohio River south and west to the Mississippi River (near St. Louis) and then head north on the Father of Waters. When they reached the Des Moines River in the far southeastern corner of Iowa, they’d either continue going north to Burlington, Bloomington (Muscatine) or Dubuque, or like the Wescoatts, go north and west into the unsettled wooded areas along the Des Moines River.
Sometime after Monroe County was opened to settlers (1843), Jonas and his brothers relocated there and started their life’s work. By 1847, there were but four families in the little village of Albia. Two of these families occupied the log courthouse – the Flints and the Marcks. Dr. Flint had two charming daughters — Amy and Nancy. Jonas Wescoatt won the heart of Amy Flint, and Robert Meek, who for many years was one of the proprietors of the well-known woolen mills of Bonaparte, Iowa, wooed the equally charming Nancy. The wedding was a double affair held on October 10, 1847. Our letter was written two years later – in October of 1849 – while Jonas was serving his one year stint in Albia as the Clerk of the District Court of Monroe County.
By 1850, Jonas, his brother Nelson, and their families moved to Lucas County – once again helping establish a new community – Chariton. Here, Jonas became Lucas County’s first county judge/clerk, holding that position until 1854. Nelson was the first county surveyor, platting Chariton, and also served as its first postmaster. During those early days of Chariton, their other brother, Riley, apparently joined the family clan there as well.
In 1849, Gold Fever hit the nation. Nelson and Catherine Wescoatt were the first in the family to head for the gold fields – about 1851. Then in 1853, Jonas and Riley had the clever idea of buying cattle from local farmers and then recruiting young men to travel alongside them as they took their huge herd westward. In the spring of 1853, the Wescoatts and their families were off to California. Upon their arrival, the brothers realized a profit of more than sixteen thousand dollars for their cattle, with some of the choicest cows bringing $150 each and the heavier oxen $300 a pair. Jonas Wescoatt and wife, Amy, soon returned to Chariton where Wescoatt served for many years as a judge. After the death of his wife, Amy, Jonas returned to California, living in a hotel in San Francisco, where he, sadly, lost his life in the destruction of that city by earthquake on April 18, 1906.
Josiah Hinman Bonney was born on February 14, 1817 in Steuben County, New York – the youngest of five children. Josiah’s father died when he was two and a half years of age, leaving the children dependent upon their mother, who supported them by her work at the loom and needle and by managing a toll-gate. At age eight, Josiah’s mother re-married, leaving the young Josiah with Joseph Lyon, under the agreement that he would work for Lyon for six years in return for food, clothing and three months of schooling each year. At age fourteen, Josiah entered a mercantile house in Elmira, remaining there for four or five years, and at the age of twenty-one (1838), Josiah decided to come west, moving first to Illinois. On reaching Cass County he found himself with only 18 and 3/4 cents in his pocket, and was obliged to sell his trunk in order to pay the expense of bringing his baggage from Aurora.
In the spring of 1838, Josiah formed a partnership with B. B. Rew and decided to come to Iowa with a small stock of goods which they had purchased in St. Louis on credit. Josiah and Rew settled in the new community of Rochester in Van Buren County on June 9, 1839. Rochester was located near the center of Van Buren County on the Des Moines River and had contended for the county seat before losing it to Keosauqua in 1837.
Bonney and Rew prospered their first summer in Van Buren County, but in the late fall of 1839, the delivery of a larger order of goods from St. Louis was held up due to both early winter ice forming on the Mississippi River and the political issues surrounding the Border Line dispute (Honey War) between Missouri and Iowa. Read more here. Unfortunately, this shipment did not reach Rochester until spring, and with the partners’ bank notes maturing, the firm failed. Sadly, Rew soon died, leaving Josiah struggling for the next ten years to pay off their company’s indebtedness.
Despite his financial struggles, Josiah married Orpha F. Stanard at Rochester on May 20, 1841, and in July, the new couple settled in nearby Keosauqua, which became their permanent home. Over the next twenty-six years, eight children were born to the Bonneys, two of whom, sadly, died in infancy.
In 1840, the political parties for the Territory of Iowa were being formed and Josiah, a long-time Democrat, was elected to serve as the first Sheriff of Van Buren County, serving two separate terms (1840-43 and 1844-46), being elected as a representative to the Territorial Legislature in Iowa City for the 1843-45 session – the second assembly to be held in the new capitol building.
In 1846, Josiah was elected Clerk of the District Court and in 1848-1850 served as Iowa’s Secretary of State – working out of the capitol building in Iowa City. It was during this time our letter came across Bonney’s desk.
In 1853, Josiah became one of the commissioners of the Des Moines River Improvement Project, and for seven successive years – 1871-78 – he was steward of the Van Buren County Poor Farm. Bonney was an Odd Fellow and a Mason, and was educated under Methodist influence, though not a member of any church.
On September 12, 1887, at the age of seventy, Josiah H. Bonney passed into death and both he and his wife Orpha Stannard Bonney are buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Keosauqua, Iowa. One obituary states:
(Joisiah) set an example of industry and integrity, and being a gentleman of intelligence, his influence was marked and lasting. Memories of his character and deeds will ever be pleasant.
Godspeed, Jonas Wescoatt and Josiah Bonney – two brave Iowa pioneers!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.