It was rumored that a wagon and team of oxen had disappeared from sight as its driver attempted to cross Purgatory Slough. They were never seen again. And the Marshalltown Evening Times Republican reminded readers about the rusty gun barrel and human skeleton that had been discovered in Hell Slough. Both sloughs were located in Calhoun County, but travelers in most parts of the state faced the dangers of the wet, marshy swamps that mired down wagons and caused headaches for humans.
In the early and mid-1800s it wasn’t unusual for stage coach companies to replace their coaches for a common lumber wagon to traverse the frequent sloughs that covered the prairie. When a coach or wagon got stuck in the sloughs, one end of a strong rope was attached to the tongue of the vehicle and the other to a team located on solid ground. Then the pulling began. It helped if a strong human could pry the buried wheels up with a sturdy board. Stage passengers were encouraged to carry a fence rail with their luggage in case they had to help pry the stage out of the muck.
The Daily Iowa Capitol newspaper recounted the story of L.S. Coffin’s family of Fort Dodge traveling by wagon near Stratford in Hamilton County in the spring of 1854 becoming stuck in the mire. The team could not move. Mr. Coffin started out on foot to find help. Within a couple of miles he came upon a man with a yoke of oxen who was happy to assist. After a little work, the wagon was freed. Mr. Coffin tried to pay the fellow $5 for his trouble, but he refused to accept the money. The Coffins happened to have a bottle of whiskey in their wagon (which they had brought along in case of snake bites) and offered the man a drink, but he again refused. The Coffin family thanked the man, and everyone went on their way across the prairie.
In winter the sloughs were frozen solid. Cold and “dead as icebergs,” according to an article in the Daily Iowa Capitol. Muskrat houses could be seen scattered over the surfaces. In summer the sloughs were alive with wildlife: mollusks, yellowheaded blackbirds, purple grackles, red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, minks, cranes, geese and dragon flies.
The dark green grass (“black grass”) that grew in the sloughs offered cover for ducks. And the celery settlers planted to attract the birds encouraged the fowl to stick around for a while. Duck hunting season was closed from April 15 through September 1, but during the rest of the year hunters were known to get 40 to 60 birds in a three-hour span in the sloughs.
By 1899 many of the sloughs had disappeared. A newspaper editor from Webster City wrote they were as “rare as deer and buffalo.” He blamed drainage practices and “changes in climate” for the situation. Cultivated fields replaced lakes and ponds. He claimed many species of animals and birds that had dwelt in the sloughs had become extinct.
Flickinger, Robert Elliott. The Pioneer History of Pocahontas County, Iowa.
Fonda, Iowa: The Times Print, 1904.
“A Hunter’s Paradise,” Evening Times Republican,
Sept. 25, 1899.
“The Old Prairie Slough,” Daily Iowa Capitol, Jan. 13,
The WPA Guide to 1930s Iowa, Federal Writers’ Project
of the Works Progress Administration for the State of
Iowa. Iowa City: University of
Iowa Press, 1938, p 438.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a former high school history teacher and public television project manager. She is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for young people. She was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” for her talk at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum’s Reading Festival. Her Iowa history column about people, places and events from the past inspire Iowans to treasure their history.