Peoples' Weather Map


Melting and Flooding: 1856-57

Monona County

Monona County’s extraordinary land forms make for some beautiful sites and vulnerable conditions. With the western border of the county up against the deep and wide Missouri River and, as a consequence, the western half of the county in the Missouri River floodplain, it is no surprise that one out of twenty original sections of the county (parcels of land) were patented under the 1847 Swamp Land Act.  Given settlers’ desire to drain and farm this land, it is also no surprise that creating drainage districts, starting with the first drainage district formed with neighboring Harrison County to produce the 1904 Big Ditch, eventually resulted in fifty named drainage districts between 1904-1947.  Prior to upstream impoundments on and channelization of the Missouri River, June and September high water occurred like clockwork resulting in a networked drainage system needing an outlet into the river at the same time that the river itself was especially high.

            In the winter of 1856-57, before drainage districts, impoundments, or channelization, the ground remained uncharacteristically unfrozen until December 1st.  But on that day black clouds descended quickly from the north.  By evening, it was snowing heavily.  The wind increased, reaching its peak by midnight.  The storm raged for 48 hours.  When it moved on, 3-4 feet of snow was left on the ground.  The snow then froze and crusted over such that a team of horses or oxen couldn’t move through it.  Early settlers in the county were cut off from their supply lines that went through the depot at Council Bluffs 75 miles away.   Given newcomers’ lack of significant shelter or familiarity with the land or infrastructure together with the harshness of the winter weather itself, the whole of the winter season was hard.  Recalling that winter, C.E. Whiting wrote in the Gazette on January 5, 1877, “in consequence of the presence of so much snow, which melted beneath the fervid beams of the sun and poured its waters into the stream, the Missouri River attained a height never known before or since, running through Badger Lake, the western portion of the Whiting settlement, Ashton grove, west and south of Onawa, and north of William Jewell’s and southeast to the Little Sioux [River] country.” 

            That part of Monona County not in the floodplain rises dramatically into the loess hills, a line of windblown sediment deposited as glacial outwash some time prior to 14,000 year ago.  Erosion and redeposition created the line of hills that extends from the southwest corner of Plymouth County through Woodbury and Monona counties to the Iowa-Missouri state line. Though composed of sediment, the hills have provided shelter through the years, away from the river and up from the floodplain.  For example, one Monona county history reports that in 1861 some formerly enslaved people lived in caves with log roofs, embedded in the hills. They came to work for Adam Miers.  Despite these early minimal accommodations, they and additional members of their community lived in the county until at least 1890, reports the history.  Some members of that community are reported to be buried in Jordan Township.

Sources: SHSI: Monona County Book Committee, Monona County Iowa, 1982; History of Monona County, Iowa, 1890; “Final Report of Preservation Partnership, Phase II, Monona and Woodbury Counties, Iowa” for the Bureau of Historic Preservation, 1990.