By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
Elijah Buell died in 1889 as one of the wealthiest men in Iowa. He was born in Utica, N.Y. April 1, 1801 and went out into the world in his teens, as most young men of that era did. His family and he moved to Sacketts Harbor near Cleveland, in 1813, and by 16 he had become a navigator on the Great Lakes and was the first to bring a schooner, the Aurora, into Chicago. He moved on to become a pilot on the rivers, by 1823.
In 1828, the staunch Democrat voted for Andrew Jackson for President in Louisville, Kentucky. As in today’s politics, Jackson was vilified for marrying a divorced woman who had not been properly divorced in the courts. “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and christian [sic] land?” said pamphlets of the time.
Buell traveled down the Ohio River and then up the Mississippi in the 1830’s, after marrying Caroline Boyd in 1829. As a riverboat pilot, he amassed some modest finances and called St. Louis his home during that time. He was no green kid when he decided to settle further up-river. Just a little of the wild pioneer areas remained when he scouted for land to live upon. He and his family slowly wended their way up the Mississippi. In 1835, they stopped at Cordova, Illinois, arriving on the steamboat Dubuque. Elijah then planned to travel further up-river and settle on the Illinois side. It had to be near water.
That year, he and John Baker chose the narrows as a most promising site. Baker settled in what is today Fulton, IL, and Elijah Buell decided to go across to the Iowa side, even though it wasn’t officially open for settlement as yet. This was a key spot -- narrow for fording purposes; also high and safe. It was July 25, 1835. He built his cabin on the river at the very spot where he stepped ashore at 25th Avenue North. His hired man, George Harlan, and “his man” Henry Carson were with him. They built the cabin with the help of Indians who helped them “snake” logs down from the adjacent bluffs.
Not much of the River was left uninhabited at that point. The French had settled the Mississippi from the north, and Colonel Davenport and Antoine LeClaire had
already begun their settlements to the south. In fact, Buell himself had some French connections. It is not clear if he was French himself. His father, Jebtha, had come to America with the Marquis de Lafayette in 1776, and decided to stay. So, Buell probably did know of Lyon, France and likely pronounced it properly (Lay-own). However, uneducated pioneers undoubtedly anglicized it to become like the large cats (“Lions”). This was not at all uncommon. (Note Charlotte and Guttenberg.)
In her 1946 book about Clinton History, Estelle LeProvost Youle writes in great detail of the Buell’s first Christmas around the ”limestone hearth in their 16 X 16 foot cabin. The fireplace was so wide that six foot logs could be rolled into it and, on the ledge above it, Caroline had placed scarlet haw berries and berries of the thorn apple. A wee fir tree was on a log table and all her precious gay ribbons were hung on the tree. On that eve, they slept well under quilts that had been brought from the east, down the Ohio and up the Mississippi. They ate well, cooking a wild turkey and turnips along with many other delicious and exotic dishes.”
The Indians were not to be feared, except if they were high on “fire-water.” The things to fear were “wolves, bears, snakes, and swooping eagles.” Fevers like diphtheria and typhoid were also deadly. Elijah, Caroline, and little Jeptha had “brought just the essentials of food, tools, a minimum of dishes and cooking utensils.”
The first year had little snow, so Buell planted corn and potatoes very early in the spring. His young son died that winter. Later, on a trip down to Meredosia near Albany, he came upon settlers who’d given up and were headed back east. He bought two sets of oxen and cows and calves from them, and the total bill was $110. In 1837-38, Buell took eight days to travel to Chicago to sell wheat and pork. He knew the geography of the whole Midwest and was sure of his way.
The original “squatters” in Lyons with Buell were Beale Randall, Dennis Warren, George Hartland, Chalkley Hoag who claimed the land July 17, 1840 as attested to by Justice Reuben Root. The title was solidified in Dubuque November 26, 1860. Buell’s second home was at 2524 Grant Street (it still exists), and his final dwelling was his mansion at 2517 Third, which was then Ninth Street.
Elijah Buell’s final home was purchased by John Struve of the Model Roller Mill on SW corner of Main and Third in 1928. The home was one block north of Main, and Mr. Struve could look out his window and oversee things going on at the mill. The home was torn down July 16, 1969 as it was unable to find an owner willing to preserve it
Elijah had company as one of the first settlers in the county. Joseph Bartlett soon had a cabin in New York (Clinton); J.D. Bourne, the postmaster on the Wapsi, had been there from 1833; and Heman Shaff was in the territory from 1830, and in Camanche from 1837. Dr. George Peck had founded that town. At this time, there were many little towns around such as Ringwood, Riverside, etc. and the mile houses went right out Main Avenue to places like Bryant. Why all the little towns? Ninety percent of all Midwesterners until the 1940’s were farmers, and they needed all the small, now nearly extinct, towns close by. Some of them, like Shafton, are now but distant memories.
The Buell’s were magnanimous in sharing their land. Thirty-five acres were donated for use as the fair-grounds, probably Root Park at Schick. It had the best half mile track in the state. The Buells were always involved as humble and gracious citizens. Everything they did was focused on their community.