The Wet Year of 1858 and Union Slough mini-akapan-kaduza
Kossuth county, Iowa
Before the boundaries of Kossuth County were finalized and after the attempt to establish the Ho-chunk of Wisconsin in a neutral ground between the Sac/Mesquakie and the Sioux/Dakota, Lakota, a twenty-mile wide strip of land running from northeast to southwest Iowa territory and through what later became Kossuth County, new settlers to the northern part of the county encountered, in 1858, a wet summer and a slough such as they had not seen before.
Union Slough, so-called because it stretches between the east fork of the Des Moines River that runs south and the Blue Earth River that runs north, is described by Thomas MacBride in his 1903 geological study of Kossuth, Hancock and Winnebago Counties. “Extending from the north part of Portland township entirely across Ramsey township and into Ledyard is a deep, well-defined depression known as Union Slough. The banks are in most places precipitous, twenty or thirty feet high and evidently the result of some former erosion. We may say former erosion because there is evidently no erosion now. The bottom is flat, a mile at least in average width, without present channel or even drainage; simply a sharply outlined morass or swamp a mile or more in width and ten miles long, shut in by high banks and hills. At present the whole surface is covered with water from one to three or four feet deep, so level that a stream escapes from each end, south into Buffalo creek, north into the Blue Earth River.” First mapped for Europeans by Pierre LeSueur in the late 17 th century, the slough is or was so level that a southerly wind can send its waters south to the Des Moines River rather than north to the Blue Earth.
Early settler A.A. Call wrote that in “the summer of ’58 we had a repetition of Noah’s flood. The Des Moines river was a sea from its source up in Minnesota to its mouth. Every ravine was a millstream and every slough a pond.” B.F.Reed recalls moving from Marshall to Kossuth county in 1858 when there were no bridges. Even the higher lands, that year, were too soft for a team. The Des Moines river over flowed in April and spread bluff to bluff until late fall. “The train started, splashing through mud and water with the wheels cutting through the sod every inch of the way. The sloughs and ponds were more than full, and the track barely visible. After going two or three miles the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents. The water came through the wagon cover and drenched the members of the family so that they did not have a dry thread on in a few minutes….The loaded wagon would sink to the hubs in the sloughs, and all four teams hitched to any one of them could not pull it out without unloading….To lighten the loads so that the wagons could cross over the sloughs the contents were frequently partly dumped into the water and the remainder carried over by hand. Sometimes the four teams would haul a part of one load across, then unload on the ground, then return and get another part of a load until all the household goods were taken over. One man of their party was deeply upset by the abuse of his oxen. He told the others that he would not continue on for a gift of the whole of Kossuth county.
Nancy Henderson, fourteen at the time, later told her grandchildren that though crossing the prairie and bogs and sloughs was hard for grown ups it was fun for children. “It was such fun to…ride over the immense prairies and ford the rivers and never know how deep the water was going to be. The woods were full of ferns and flowers and birds and animals and we never knew what we might see next. The prairies were just one great flower garden…and we considered it only more fun and excitement when we got mired down in the sloughs and the men folks had to unload and carry everything across.”
Harvey Ingham reports that the northern part of Kossuth County was surveyed in 1858. But this was such a wet year that the Des Moines River was out of its banks all summer. So virtually the whole northern half of the county was taken to be swamp land. Swamp land drainage money was available for counties from the federal government although much of it was spent on building court houses and bridges. Confusion arose in Kossuth County when settlers appeared in subsequent years and found desirable land in areas that had been designated as swamp land in 1858. The American Emigrant Company of Connecticut capitalized on this confusion by buying swamp land cheaply and then later demanding market rate payment for the land from settlers who had established homesteads on it.
MacBride explains, “All the streams here described are remarkable in that they take origin in simply wide-extended meadows, great marshes on which the water is generally nowhere deep enough to prevent luxuriant growth of sedgy vegetation, but which seeps away with such slowness as to become in fact a perennial fountain.” MacBride continues, “The effect of man’s interference [by drainage] has been in many cases,–by no means yet in all,–to hasten by ditching the escape of the marsh water and at length of the storm water, so that such rivers as the Iowa are likely more and more to become tenuous and uncertain in dry weather, more and more impetuous, sudden, erosive torrents in time of protracted rain.” Twenty-five years after MacBride wrote this assessment, in 1938, the Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge was established on 2200 acres along eight miles of Union Slough and Buffalo Creek. The Refuge assists with the production and management of waterfowl in the Mississippi Flyway, says a 1991 Visitors’ guide to the county. At the eastern edge of the Northern Great Plains, Union Slough is a small site yet during spring and fall migrations it sees peak numbers of some 35,000 migrating birds.
Sources: SHSI: Macbride, Thomas H. Geology: Kossuth, Hancock and Winnebago Counties. Des Moines, 1903; Union Slough: A Story of Swamp Land Beginnings. With compliments of Harvey Ingham, n.d.; Russell and Edna Marshall Local History Research Files Ms 234/Box 1, Kossuth folder; Reed, B.F. History of Kossuth County Iowa Chicago, 1913; Cowles, Florence Call. Early Algona, Eda’s Cradle: The Story of Our Pioneers 1854-1874. Des Moines, 1929; Kossuth County 1991 Visitors Guide.