The Odd Case of Iowa’s Largest County

On November 26, 2014 · 0 Comments

I had a fascinating Twitter conversation with Steve from Connecticut Museum Quest recently. He has a much more interesting Twitter feed @CTMQ than my mundane @TheReal12MC. Seriously, I don’t have much to say on Twitter other than using it to announce each new article and maybe posting a few beer pictures occasionally. A few people seem to follow it and sometimes I get article ideas so its useful to keep it going. You should subscribe and maybe I’ll start being more diligent. Anyway Steve wanted to know about the oddly over-sized Kossuth County on the northern edge of the state. It appeared as if it got a double scoop of territory when the authorities doled-out portions.

That’s exactly what happened although the story was a little more complicated.

Few people lived in Iowa in the earliest part of the 19th Century although settlers began to arrive in greater numbers as the decades passed. Iowa gained sufficient critical mass to become a state in 1846. It didn’t have a lot of counties yet and that was starting to create a problem. The county structure looked like this when Iowa joined the Union:


Iowa Counties in 1846
Iowa Counties in 1846
Generated From Newberry Library Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

There were plenty of counties in the southeastern quadrant where pioneers had settled although the rest of Iowa remained largely unorganized at the local level. The Iowa Legislature addressed the governance gap by establishing forty eight new counties in 1851 all at once. The configuration then matched essentially the same structure that exists today. It wasn’t completely identical, however. A few tweaks happened over the next few years, including some involving Kossuth County and its neighbors.

I’ve color-coded Kossuth and its surrounding counties to help explain the situation that was described in detail in the History of Kossuth County, Iowa (1913). My summary derived largely from that source unless otherwise noted.


Kossuth County in Iowa
Kossuth and Surrounding Counties in Iowa

Kossuth County Judge Asa C. Call became a driving force during this formative period. Practically nobody lived in Kossuth when the Call brothers, Asa and Ambrose, arrived in 1854. Judge Call recalled,

I made my first settlement in the county in July 1854. At that time there was no settlement north of Fort Dodge which was forty miles from us and no one on the east nearer than Clear Lake. I brought my wife to the new settlement on the 4th of November.


Algona, Iowa, High School
Algona, Iowa, High School by photolibrarian, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The two brothers founded the town of Algona and it became the county seat. They named it for a Henry Schoolcraft (remember him?) corruption of an indigenous word meaning "Algonquin Waters," I suppose it was done in recognition of the Native American tribes that were forced from the area only a couple of years earlier. The local tribes were Sioux, not Algonquin, although that didn’t seem to matter. An Indian was an Indian to those early pioneers. It was better than the original proposal though, Call’s Grove.

In the beginning, with the creation of those new counties in 1851, Kossuth was the same size as its neighbors to the west and east, Palo Alto and Hancock. However, Judge Cass was an ambitious man, a beloved figure and well-connected politically. He noticed Bancroft County immediately to his north and figured it would make a mighty fine addition to Kossuth, seeing how practically nobody lived there so it couldn’t defend its own interests. He also pondered Humboldt County to his immediate south. It would be helpful for Algona to sit near the center of the county if it were to be an effective seat of government so Kossuth had to pick up some southern territory too.

Webster County, south of Humboldt, also wielded power. Fort Dodge was its county seat. Webster was well organized politically and structurally due to the earlier establishment of Fort Dodge as a military outpost. Kossuth managed to grab all of Bancroft in the 1855 Legislative session. However, it had to split Humboldt with Webster. Bancroft and Humboldt counties, caught in a squeeze, disappeared. This was called "The 1855 Freak Legislation." I’m not making this stuff up.

Right now the 12MC audience is saying, "but wait, I see Humboldt County on the map!" That’s right. Judge Call learned about schemers in Webster plotting to expand farther, and they hoped to grab a large chunk of Kossuth in a subsequent session that would leave it vulnerable to being obliterated entirely. He foiled the plot by colluding with former Humboldt officials. He managed to reestablish Humboldt so it could act as a buffer between Kossuth and Webster. It was better to give up some of the larger Kossuth than to jeopardize its future existence. However, Webster was able to hold onto the bottom tier of Humboldt’s former townships and that left the restored Humboldt appreciably smaller than the original.

That explained why Kossuth became the largest county in Iowa, Humboldt was so small, and the neat latitudinal lines across Iowa created in 1851 fell out of alignment in the the north-central part of the state.

Republic of Indian Stream

On November 19, 2014 · 0 Comments

The short-lived Republic of Indian Stream owed its existence to frustrations rooted in divergent interpretations of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War between the United States and Great Britain. The treaty included a number of provisions including those designed to establish firm boundaries between Canada and the United States. Ironically, a document intended to create a bright demarcation actually created additional confusion.

The treaty devoted an entire section, Article 2, to preventing "all disputes which might arise in future" along the border. That purpose seemed both noble and fair. The problem centered on its reliance on geographic landmarks to create a line, specifically its use of watersheds. The confusing portion of the clause read:

…that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands; along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence, from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the northwesternmost head of Connecticut River; thence down along the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree of north latitude…

It sounded fine in theory. However the United States and the Great Britain couldn’t agree on the placement of the "northwesternmost head of Connecticut River."



Was the northwesternmost head at Halls Stream, Indian Stream, Perry Stream or the Connecticut River itself? The United States favored Halls Stream while Great Britain favored the Connecticut River. One would have thought those little details might have been discussed and resolved before ink dried on paper. They were not. Negotiators failed to clarify their intent and created a small disputed area between Halls Stream on the west and the Connecticut River on the east.

The former belligerents negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the United States ratified it the following year. Yet dueling interpretation remained fully intact for nearly a half-century afterwards. Finally local residents reached their breaking point. They tired of double taxation, military recruitment and rule of law. People in this disputed territory declared themselves to live in an independent state, the Republic of Indian Stream, in 1832. The couple of hundred residents formed their own legislature, minted their own coinage, established their own law enforcement, and set about creating the infrastructure of a tiny nation. The United States and Great Britain were not impressed. They continued to squabble and bicker while ignoring the notion of a sovereign Indian Stream.


Pittsburg, NH
Pittsburg, NH by Axel Drainville, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Republic, if it truly ever existed, ended in 1836. A force from Indian Stream "invaded" Canada to free one of its local citizens who had been arrested for an outstanding debt and imprisoned there. This created an international incident. The Republic quickly authorize its annexation to the United States and the New Hampshire Militia occupied the territory to protect it. Great Britain decided the dispute wasn’t worth the trouble and acquiesced to an American interpretation using Halls Stream as the border.


River Road Covered Bridge
River Road Covered Bridge by James Walsh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

After finally resolving the boundary dispute, the former Republic of Indian Stream became New Hampshire’s Town of Pittsburg. It’s attractions included the beautiful Connecticut Lakes, a string of lakes along the Connecticut River named without regard to imagination, First Connecticut Lake, Second Connecticut Lake, Third Connecticut Lake and Fourth Connecticut Lake. It also included the Happy Corner Covered Bridge over Perry Stream. Other than an historical marker, there isn’t much evidence of the old Republic any longer.

Events in northern New Hampshire have been considerably more sedate ever since.

Colonias

On November 16, 2014 · 1 Comments

I failed to mention a specific Milwaukee example in the recent I Before E Like in Milwaukie. That was intentional. I noticed a rather unusual reference included within the Geographic Names Information System that deserved further observation. It featured two adjoining neighborhoods that had the dubious distinction of sharing a name with a rather unpleasant beer that I’ve done my best to avoid since my college days.



Old Milwaukee East and West, Laredo, Texas

I was sure the names were coincidental, that Old Milwaukee East Colonia and Old Milwaukee West Colonia borrowed from the road of the same name that each of them flanked. The situation was unlike, say, the Old Milwaukee Lane in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where Rexam Beverage Can Americas runs a factory). I’m sure the Laredo reference happened by chance. Someone from Wisconsin probably lived near the border in decades past and the name stuck.

What was a Colonia, though? The literal Spanish translation meant colony, although it could also represent community, neighborhood or settlement more generally. However it had a very specific context in the southern United States borderlands. The Texas Secretary of State defined it as, "a residential area along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing." The source provided additional statistics.

Colonias can be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but Texas has both the largest number of colonias and the largest colonia population. Approximately 400,000 Texans live in colonias. Overall, the colonia population is predominately Hispanic; 64.4 percent of all colonia residents and 85 percent of those residents under 18 were born in the United States. There are more than 2,294 Texas colonias, located primarily along the state’s 1,248 mile border with Mexico.

The Attorney General of Texas provided a handy interactive map.


Colonias of El Paso Texas
Colonias Near El Paso, Texas, USA
via Attorney General of Texas Interactive Map of Colonia Communities

Colonias were developed in a predominantly predatory manner beginning in the mid-20th Century. People with little income needed places to live and speculators sold them undesirable scrub lands with little to no zoning or infrastructure at bargain prices. Purchasers often couldn’t obtain ordinary loans from banks because of their unreliable incomes so plots were sold to them in "contract for deed," arrangements, i.e., rent-to-own. People wouldn’t own the land until they paid every monthly installment to the speculator.

Residents didn’t generally build their homes all at one time either, so they built as they could when they had enough money to afford it. Maybe the foundation one year, then the framing and the roof, then later walls and interior work, all over a period of several years while living on the site the entire time. Structures were ramshackled in various stages of completion, perhaps with plumbing or electricity or not, or maybe eventually. It was an arrangement that seemed to work in an unusual sense. Speculators made tidy sums on rent-to-own arrangements; residents got a place they could call their own that they could improve over time, and generally free of pesky building regulations and government oversight. None of that erased the grinding poverty of many residents though, or the lack of basic necessities within numerous Colonias.

The interactive map contained color coding as defined by the state. The worst was red, and "Lack access to potable water, adequate wastewater disposal or are un-platted — greatest public health risk."


Cameron Park Texas Home
Cameron Park, Texas, USA
via Google Street View, May 2011

Cameron Park near Brownsville, Texas was held up as a negative example of a Colonia with problems identified by multiple sources. It sat along a lovely stretch of Spoil Banks Ditch. According to the United States Census Bureau, Cameron Park had a Hispanic/Latino population of 99.3%, a median household income of $24,851 per year, and a distressing 52.8% of residents living below the poverty line. Wikipedia claimed, "Cameron Park is the poorest community of its size or larger in the United States, and is among the 100 poorest places in the United States." Yet, Cameron Park was listed as yellow on the interactive map, leading one to wonder how much worse the conditions might have been in the ones listed as red.


dftmpMEMAOGMMtkkkkkkk--------
Modular Bathrooms by U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Significant academic, media and government attention have been focused on the issues of Colonias in recent years. Texas A&M University founded a Colonias Program to study issues and develop solutions. Major publications including the New York Times and CNN featured both problems and potential. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development created several programs, as did other Federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture plus individual states along the border. The Flickr image showed modular bathrooms built by the USDA’s Rural Development agency for a Colonia in southern Arizona on land of the Tohono O’odham Nation (it’s an issue for all disadvantaged people along the border). The Tohono O’odham Nation, some readers may recall, last appeared on 12MC in Overheard in México.

Fortunately the situation of Colonias has been improving slowly in recent years although there is still a long way to go.


Colonia, New Jersey



Colonia, New Jersey, USA

The community of Colonia, New Jersey appeared to be completely unrelated, just an instance of an unfortunate coincidental name.

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12 Mile Circle:
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