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Story of Nevin (Iowa)

by J. Loran Ellis (1901)


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Chapter I, 1855 - 1856

The Parson's Vacation || Land Speculation || Getting the Land || Planning the City



During the middle fifties, the public interest in the question of the extension or non-extension of slavery to the Kansas country was intense.  Emigration there from the east was rushing indeed.  Rev. Edwin H. Nevin, the pastor of the Congregational (orthodox) church at Walpole, Mass., a few miles from Boston, having a desire to look in on the opening territories just beyond the Missouri river, took the occasion of his summer vacation in 1855, to visit that region.  His trip westward was by way of Cleveland, crossing the Mississippi on a steam ferry, to Burlington.  Then by mail hack he continued his journey to Afton.  From Afton he was a passenger on Wm. Lock's mail rig, that ran weekly to Adair and Lewis postoffices.  The route by way of the "Mormon trail," passed the northern limits of the later-on, Nevin lands, two miles away.  From Lewis he went on by the four-horse Concord coach line running from the Mississippi to the Missouri.  Upon getting to Nebraska, the Dr. inspected an Indian mission school at Bellevue; and then he visited the new settlements in Kansas, as well as some of the scenes of the conflicts in the territory, where the overwhelming numbers of the "free staters" finally, later on, secured the new state to freedom.

Dr. Nevin returned to his Walpole parish in due season, filled with delight and enthusiasm from his summer outing.  He was especially impressed with the native wealth of western Iowa's never-ending rolling divides, then so luxuriantly covered with waving grass in a sea of green, and dotted with flowers of every hue; all tossing their radiant greetings to him in the gentle summer breezes.  He actually imagined that all nature was saying to him, "Come and settle the land!  Come and build a city!  Come and plant a new Garden of Eden!  Come!  Come!!"



An early-day writer says:  "The speculation-in-land spirit was fire in these early years; this was especially so amongst the Boston capitalists.  The desire to accumulate riches speedily, induced many of them to invest largely in western lands; and then some of them, to lay out big towns, and town additions; more particularly was this last named speculation indulged in, in Iowa and southern Minnesota.  They even built air-castles and 'paper-cities,' selling the lots long before they themselves had seen the lands or had obtained land titles."  Another writer says in reference to the times:  "Cities were built (upon paper), railroads traversed the county (in prospect).  But alas for the hopes of the imaginary owners; not a trace of even the ruins of cities, or of railroads, can at present, (1860,) be seen.  What the excavations of some future day may reveal, we cannot predict; but it is certain that if the cities themselves are not buried deeper than the ruins of Pompeii, the hopes of the founders are buried so deep that the sound of no resurrection trumpet will ever reach them."

Soon after Mr. Nevin's return to Massachusetts, a business meeting was held at the office of Harris, Cowles & Co., stock and money brokers, at Nos. 9 and 11 Kilby street, Boston, to consider the question of planting a colony of New England people on the open prairies of southwestern Iowa, as suggested by the Rev. gentleman, who was present.     Among the business men present was Mr. Roswell W. Turner, a mortgage broker, who resided at Newton, Mass., and Mr. Richard B. Smith, of West Roxbury; the junior member of the firm of Harris, Cowles & Co.  His father, Alvin Smith, the financial support of the son in the future venture of the colony, was also present.

The men named, accepted and agreed to the proposition of Dr. Nevin.  The scheme was:  That Mr. Turner and Mr. R. B. Smith should each furnish one-half of the money needed to float and manage the intended speculation.  Dr. Nevin's name was to be given to the place, and he was to give the project his moral support, but was to put no money in the concern.  It was understood that Mr. Nevin was to receive a present of a 160-acre lot in the colony lands when located.

Mr. Turner was supposed to be manager-in-chief, though on the surface he and Mr. Smith were equal.  The men planned to buy land warrants to the amount of twenty-five sections, if they could be had for about one dollar per acre.   Ex-Mexican soldiers U. S. government land warrants were then on the market for sale.  With the warrants, they expected in due time to locate land for the colony, in the land offices at Chariton and at Council Bluffs.

The men soon after, commenced buying their needed land warrants, wherever they could be had at a satisfactory price.  But for some reason they stopped buying for themselves, when they had but about sixteen sections.  They now turned their attention to a plan of laying out the land into lots and streets, on a big scale; developing a town or city four or more miles square.  There were to be 160-acre lots on the outer margin of the tract; some 40-acre lots inside next to the 160's; then, 10-acre lots; inside of which would be a large number of 2 1-2 acre lots; and a common, or public square in the centre.

In September, Turner and Smith employed one Solomon Brown as their agent to help boom the enterprise, and to visit Maine, where he formerly had lived, and to do other needed field work.  This Mr. Brown was a retired Maine farmer, then living at Walpole, Mass., with his two old-maid daughters as housekeepers.  He was a deacon in Dr. Nevin's church, and was also the dispenser, or retail-selling agent of the town, for spirituous liquors to be used for mechanical, medicinal and sacramental purposes, under state laws.  In October, or thereabout, Mr. Brown went to Gorham, Maine, where he formerly lived, and to Portland; where he had advertising notices printed in poster-bill form.  These bills he posted along the coast towns, all the way from "way down east" to Boston.  Later, in the early winter, he posted more at Walpole, and perhaps at other towns.

The following is a copy of one of Mr. Brown's advertisements posted at Walpole, in December, 1855:


The subscriber is now receiving names of applicants for this colony, of those who wish to become -- Actual Settlers -- in this healthy, fertile section of country; and the object of this colony is to have a settlement of entirely New England people to settle down together

ON 16,000 ACRES OF LAND! !

more or less in a square, as shown by a plot by the Agent; on lots of 160 acres, of 40 acres, of 10 acres and of 2 1-2 acres, with a large common or public grounds in the centre.  We want mechanics of every trade, school teachers, physicians, ministers, Sabbath school teachers, and anyone wishing to do good, to get good, and to make themselves and their families independent, are invited to go.

"The Agent will be at Walpole through January, 1856, where he will give all information in regard to the Colony.  Those wishing to become members of the Colony are requested to call as soon as possible, as it is fast filling up.

"SOLOMON BROWN, Agent."         


During the late winter and the early spring, the Colony project was advertised in the weekly "Boston Recorder," then the leading paper for Sunday reading amongst the Congregationalists of New England.  During April advertisements appeared also in the Boston dailies.  We will here give a copy of one clipped form the Boston Traveller of April, just after Mr. Brown and his company had started for western Iowa:


"This Colony consisting of persons from the New England states is located in the southern part of Adair, and the northeastern part of Adams counties, in the town of Nevin.  It lies near to two railroads, is well watered.  Some farms and lots are yet offered for sale at a very low price in order that they may be put within the reach of actual settlers as early as possible.  Farms three dollars per acre, half in advance, and balance in two years.  A school house and hotel are to be put up immediately.  Emigrants who wish good society and Christian privileges will do well to secure homes in this Colony.  The prices of lots and conditions of sale can be learned from Solomon Brown, Esq., on the ground, or Rev. E. H. Nevin, care of Harris, Cowles & Co. Nos. 9 and 11 Kilby St., Boston.
          Tu. Th. S. 4w.                                                                                          April 24.

There were other advertisements in the Boston Recorder later on in 1856.  See pages later on.


Going back to the events of the first of March, Messrs. Turner and Smith started from Boston about March 1, 1856, with their sixteen or more sections of land warrants, to locate the land.  They had ascertained that the largest body of unentered land in southwestern Iowa, was to be found in the northeast township of Adams county and in the edge of Adair county adjoining on the north.  So, they had decided to locate their land warrants on this land, and in a square form as near as practicable.  Adams county was then in the Chariton land district, and Adair was in the Council Bluffs district.  The men arrived at Chariton, where about half the warrants were located in the name of R. W. Turner, on March 10th; then going on to Council Bluffs, they there entered the balance, most all in the name of R. B. Smith, though one or two tracts were in the name of Mr. Turner.  This was on March 12th and 13th.

There were some tracts of land within the limits of their proposed four miles square that had been entered by others previously:  320 acres in section 2, 160 acres in section 11, and 120 acres in section 10; all in Twp. 73 or R. 32, Adams county.  And 240 acres in section 35, 40 acres in section 26 (the northwest corner), and 40 acres in section 33; all in Twp. 74 of R. 32, Adair county.  Consequently their 16 1-4 sections of land warrants covered about 960 acres of land outside of the four mile square area.

The men made a superficial inspection of their new lands; but, as it was yet early in March, they could not see in the base, brown surface of the country, all the enchanting views that Dr. Nevin had seen seven months previous; but doubtless they in their imagination, had bright visions, as they pictured these dark, bleak ranges; transformed into great fields of waving wheat and golden corn; peopled with hosts of live Yankees in their new and happy homes in the "El Dorado" of the west.


Turner and Smith having returned from Iowa, now directed their attention to the starting of a party west as soon as possible.  Arrangements were made to have a meeting at Harris, Cowles & Co.'s Boston office, on the 15th of April, of those proposing to settle in the new colony at once, and also of all who wished to secure choice of lots at that time, expecting at some future time to settle there.  Messrs. Turner and Smith had previously fixed upon the price of lots and terms of payment, as follows:     160-acre lots were $3 per acre; 40-acre lots, $5 per acre; 10-acre lots, $10 per acre, and 2 1-2 acre lots were $50 each; half cash, and half on two years' time, at 10 per cent annual interest, secured by mortgage of the tracts sold.

At this 15th of April meeting and sale seventeen persons bought each a 2 1-2 acre lot, as shown by Turner and Smith on their plan of laying out and numbering lots.     A few paid cash in full, but the most of them availed themselves of the terms of credit.

A peculiarity of these first deeds was that the description said, "in a town to be called Nevin," instead of saying, in the town of Nevin.

Mr. James McDougall, one of the lot buyers at this first sale, thinking there was some risk in waiting; in order to secure a 160-acre lot before they were all gone, bought a quarter section lot, a 40-acre lot and a 10-acre lot, thus making sure of not being obliged to return because he could get no land; and most effectively preventing his return, should he ever desire to do so.  In this, he exhibited the courage of even a Cortez himself when landing in Mexico.  There were several others who bought 160-acre lots at this sale, who were not planning to go west at present.  Mr. John Jewett and several others of this first outgoing party also wanted farm lots, but they deferred the particular selection of them until after they had seen the place.

Most of those who bought at this sale, sent their deeds by the hand of Mr. Solomon Brown, together with fifty cents to each deed to pay for their recording.  But the town of Nevin not having been yet laid out, Mr. Brown left the deeds with Mr. Chapman, the Adair county recorder, who kept his office then in his log dwelling at "Chapmans" grove, about 3 1-2 miles south of the county seat; then Fontanelle, but formerly Summerset.  Mr. Brown, however, retained the half dollars, which he never accounted for to the rightful owners to this day.



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