History of the Des Moines River

Local historian Al Nelson gave a presentation Saturday on “History of the Des Moines River.” He showed maps from the 1600s to  1850s and talked about things that affected settlement in the area around Fort Dodge.


We had about 30 people attend. More came after I took this photo.


Al Nelson gets ready to begin his presentation.


One of the earliest maps was drawn by Louis Joliet. He spent about 2 years traveling and taking notes and drawing maps. He was within site of a white settler’s cabin when his canoe overturned and he lost the trunk with his maps and diaries. He drew this from memory.


This map shows an early spelling/name of the river – a variation of Moingona, meaning of the Moingona people, a native American tribe.


Early land patents for the area that is now Fort Dodge.


Each land patent copy had a description of the holder, with William Williams being described as the “Shrewd Networker.”


The red area was in John Lemp’s name. The yellow area was James Williams’ name. The blue area was in William Williams’ name.

That section was part of the Des Moines River Navigation Act. The state was supposed to make the river navigable but failed, and outsourced the project to a guy who got financial backing from people back East. That’s how the Litchfield Co. was able to acquire so much land in this area. The ins and outs of the situation led to litigation that had land tied up for decades. Some people filed for homesteads with the federal government and improved the land, only to discover the land belonged to Litchfield and many were evicted. William Williams filed land patents through Litchfield and had less trouble, although it wasn’t completely trouble-free.

This did have a negative effect on settlement, as people didn’t want to put a lot of effort into improving land if they didn’t get to keep it. Some moved further west.

It was an interesting program. The Webster County Genealogical Society would like to have Al Nelson come back for another program, maybe next spring. We would welcome ideas for other programs or workshops. If you have any ideas, please email webcoiagenies@gmail.com with your suggestions. You can also leave a message on our Facebook page.

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