Exploring the history of Iowa’s people and places

Welcome to the Prairie Roots Research blog, a companion to the Prairie Roots Research website. This blog chronicles a journey of discovery, exploring the history of Iowa’s people and places. Join me in this adventure; together we’ll explore Iowa’s nooks & crannies, investigate historical & genealogical resources, and gain a greater understanding of our Iowa heritage.

Cropping & Corrections

Here’s an easy bit of project work. I need to go through all images and crop, straighten, rotate, correct color and contrast, etc. This is a good “multi-tasking item—it doesn’t require brain power, so I can work my way through 300 images with my feet up and the TV on!

Photo editing

Most corrections are accomplished with basic software—I like Microsoft Picture Manager, but there are plenty of choices. For more sophisticated photo work, Photoshop Elements works well. Between the two programs, just about any image can be properly adjusted and formatted.

Now those 300 images are ready to be tagged and documented.

Scanning and Saving

Boyden-Hull mementos

The next phase of my adventure with the Big Blue Bin doesn’t involve the Bin at all—for now I’m focused on dealing with the smaller bin that holds items from my husband’s life before our marriage. Again, I deconstruct this aspect of the project into smaller bites.

I like to deconstruct to the point that I can begin and finish a baby-step goal in a single session. Think of time in terms of blocks you can devote to your project. If you only have an hour to spare, what can you achieve with an hour’s work? Try to deconstruct to that point. Do you have an afternoon free? Or an entire day? What can you reasonably accomplish with that amount of time? Construct your baby-step plan accordingly. Continue reading

Setting Goals, Baby Steps

Unpacking the Big Blue Bin

Anytime we begin a new project, it’s necessary to articulate goals. Success is difficult to achieve if it’s undefined! The overarching goal of my new project is to reconstruct the family history of my husband’s Veen ancestors. This includes identifying and establishing relationships between the four surnames of his grandparents: Veen, Rensink, Rosenboom and Verrips. These are Dutch and German surnames. Although I have some Dutch ancestry, this type of research will be new to me.

Have you heard the word “deconstruction” before? I had not, until I began reading books on project management. “Deconstruction” in project management terms simply means to take a large, seemingly overwhelming task and break it down into manageable bites. Think of it as taking “baby steps” as you begin your family history project. Continue reading

The Big Blue Bin

Big Blue Bin

Last Christmas I promised my husband I’d organize, research and write his family history. OK, so maybe my motives were mixed: I’ve been shuffling around this big blue plastic storage bin of “Veen stuff” for several years. Every time I came across something “Veen” I added it to the bin, then as the bin filled, began piling items on top. I needed to get it out of the upstairs hallway, so this seemed like a good idea in addition to a nice gift. Continue reading


Like a prairie fire pioneers swept across the frontier, filling the land so quickly that by 1845 Iowa approached eligibility for statehood. Admitted as a free state in December 1846, Iowa served to balance Florida’s entry as a slave state.

Did statehood conclude the frontier era of Iowa? No. There was plenty of land left for settlement; the 1846 map defined Iowa’s new boundaries, but her internal organization remained incomplete. Another decade would pass before the last county, Hamilton, was formed.

Even county development did not truly draw to a close Iowa’s frontier era. Not until the years following the Civil War, when the railroad stretched its fingers across every part of the state, connecting farmers to eastern markets, goods and services, could Iowa finally say “done” with pioneer days.

From her earliest native inhabitants, to trappers, traders and adventurers; and finally to the American pioneers whose ambitions and ideals shaped a new state, Iowa continues to be the peaceful, prosperous, and beautiful “land between two rivers.”

Counting Iowa’s people

1838 Wisconsin territorial census, District of Iowa, Van Buren County, unstated township; Secretary of State, State Historical Society, Des Moines.

Territories and young states counted their populations early and often—a growing population meant more federal resources, better legislative representation, and a path to statehood. From territorial days through 1925, Iowa regularly counted her people. Earliest years were purely statistical, naming only the head of household. County response was limited. Here’s a run-down of census years for territorial Iowa.

Wisconsin Territory: District of Iowa

  • 1836 Wisconsin territorial census:
    Des Moines & Dubuque Counties

No preprinted forms were used. The stated purpose was to determine legislative apportionment. Information was collected by county sheriffs, who were requested to report their findings by 1 May 1838:

Name of heads of white households
No. males under 21
No. males over 21
No. females under 21
No. females over 21
Total Continue reading

A Timeline of Counties

Iowa began organizing counties in 1834 while part of Michigan Territory. Du Buque and De Moine counties embraced the legally settled area of eastern Iowa. These were subdivided into additional jurisdictions as the population grew. With each newly opened region, population swept west, and more counties organized.

Willard Barrows and Doolittle & Munson, A New Map of Iowa: accompanied with notes by W. Barrows (Cincinnati: Doolittle & Munson, 1845); Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov : accessed 6 Jan. 2016).

To find your ancestor, it’s important to know when their home counties formed, if the boundaries or name changed over time, and the names of any parent counties. Your search for records may need to expand to surrounding counties or other jurisdictions. Continue reading

Land Office Records

Territorial lands were considered “public domain,” that is, the property of the United States. The federal government distributed the land to individuals, companies, and states. Eligibility was spelled out through a series of Congressional acts. Although many early grants were awarded for military service, the majority of Iowa lands were sold on a cash basis, usually for about $1.25 per acre.

The process of purchasing federal land involved several steps. Each step created paperwork. Cash sales were straightforward, but even simple transactions generated “land entry files” which should include:

  • application identifying the desired land parcel
  • warrant authorizing an official survey
  • survey establishing legal boundaries and creating an official description of the property
  • patent (certificate) transferring ownership from the government to your ancestor

Amasa Hoit land application, certificate no. 20381, Mahaska Co., Iowa

The application may include your ancestor’s original signature, or his “x.” You never know what else might be included. The good news is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has preserved these documents and they are available to researchers.

Search the Bureau of Land Management website for your ancestor’s name. Be sure to search spelling variants. Or if you are sure of the location, the federal patent should be recorded in the county courthouse. Either way, you will need the entry file number, or certificate number, to order the original file from the National Archives. Continue reading

Dividing the Land

Native land cessions, 1824 – 1851. Illustrations by author.

Iowa lands were not settled all at once. As native tribes ceded their holdings and moved further west, the federal government set a date for each area of “public domain” to officially open for settlement. Land could not be purchased until federal surveyors completed their work, but settlers could move onto the land and stake their claim.

Dragoons patrolled areas still in the hands of local tribes. Theoretically,anyone who crossed the line into unauthorized areas were expelled. In practice, quite a few eager beavers made forays into soon-to-open regions and scouted out preferred locations. Some managed to evade detection and got a head start on their claim.

“New Purchase” central Iowa, 1842

Consider this example. A large swath of central Iowa was scheduled to open for settlement on 1 May 1843. In the preceding months hundreds of settlers massed along the “line,” waiting for the midnight opening. Imagine the tension and excitement for your ancestor:

“Those expecting to make settlements on the “New Purchase” were forbidden to come on the reserve until the time of its delivery into the hands of the government by the Indians, 1 May 1843. Dragoons were stationed all along the border, whose duty it was to keep the whites out of the country until the appointed time. For some weeks previous to the date assigned, settlers came up into the new country, prospecting for homes, and were quietly permitted to cross the border and look around, so long as they were unaccompanied by wagon and carried no ax. This latter weapon was sometimes place without a handle in the knapsack of the traveler and an impromptu handle fitted in by a penknife, when necessity called for its use.

“During the last few days of April the dragoons relaxed their strict discipline and an occasional wagon slipped in through the brush. The night of April 30th found some scores of newcomers on the ground, who had been prospecting the country, who had decided mentally what claims they would make, and had various agreements among themselves. These settlers were mostly along or near the Des Moines river, it then being thought that prairie land was not half so desirable as the river and timber country.

“As it neared midnight on the morning of May 1st, settler after settler took his place upon the border of his claim with his bunch of sharpend stakes and lantern, or his blazing torch, and when it was thought twelve o’clock had arrived there was some lively surveying by amateur engineers in the dark. The claims were paced off, and strange to say there were few cases of dispute, the matter having been pretty generally understood in the preceding day.” [1]

This scenario played out over and over again as each new region opened—and not just in Iowa! Continue reading