This county lies on the Missouri River, and is in the fifth tier from the northern and southern boundaries of the State. It is twenty-four miles north and south, by an average of nearly thirty miles east and west, in extent, and comprises sixteen full congressional townships, and some four or five that are fractional, embracing in all an area of abut six hundred and eighty square miles. The Missouri River, which is the western boundary, runs in a southeasterly direction, making the southern boundary line some twelve miles shorter than the northern.
A considerable area of the county is of bottom, or valley lands, upwards of one hundred and sixty-five thousand acres being included in the great Missouri River bottom, through the western portion of the county. The ascent of these bottoms to the north is more rapid than that of the Missouri River, thus leaving a small portion of these valuable lands subject to overflows in high water seasons, and rendering them sufficiently dry and well drained for easy and successful cultivation.
The eastern portion of the county is a high and rolling prairie, well watered and drained by Willow Creek, Soldier and Maple Rivers, and their affluents, all of which are surrounded by wide, beautiful and exceedingly fertile valleys. The uplands abut abruptly on the bottoms along the east side of the Little Sioux, presenting the varied and peculiar features characteristic of the bluffs along the Missouri bottoms throughout their extent in the State. These bluffs are unusually uniform in elevation, the highest point being not less than three hundred feet above the sea level. The uplands in the immediate vicinity of the bluffs, are too broken and uneven to be practically adapted to agricultural uses, and are cut up with wooded ravines, while the valleys of the smaller streams, a few miles inland, are bordered by gentle acclivities which ascend from the sloping bottoms to the well rounded and gentle divides which intervene between the water courses.
Most of the streams in the eastern part of the county are bordered by beautiful bottomlands, varying from one-half to two miles in width, while the streams themselves are margined by grassy banks, with beds composed of mire and quicksand. The Little Sioux River, with several other streams, affords some good waterpower for machinery, on which several mills have been established, while numerous other eligible locations still remaining will yet be properly and similarly utilized. Wells of excellent water are easily obtained in the valleys at depths varying from ten to twenty feet, while in the uplands it is often fund necessary to sink through the bluff deposit to a depth of over one hundred feet before a permanent supply of water can be reached. Springs are found at frequent intervals issuing from the bluffs, and with the brooklets that are fed by them, as also with the larger streams, afford plenty of water for stock, which find excellent grazing on the uplands, while on the low-lands several varieties of native grasses furnish very nutritious hay. Several lakes of considerable size are fund in the Missouri Valley, which are clear and inhabited with a variety of excellent fish. Some of these lakes have the appearance of having once formed a portion of the channel of the Missouri, which is now, however, several miles distant, with heavy cottonwood groves intervening.
The soil in the valleys is usually a deep black mold or fine loam, it is from six to fifteen feet in depth, and produces exceptionally large crops of corn, and other grains, and vegetables indigenous to the western slope. In the Missouri bottoms, low, sandy ridges are frequently met with, which are the remains of bars formed by the currents, when the river occupied the whole width of the valley from bluff to bluff on either side. The bottom deposits are quite variable in the character of their component parts, though the fine, dark loam constitutes by far the greater proportion of the surface soil. This is generally underlaid by sand and gravel, and sometimes by a deposit of clay containing large quantities of partially decayed wood, and other vegetable matter, which are frequently met with in sinking wells. Most of the upland is covered with a heavy coating of dark humus-charged loam, with subsoil of the light mulatto-colored bluff deposit. No sterile land is found in the county, for even that which is broken in the vicinity of the bluffs, is very fertile, and produces excellent crops of wheat, oats and other cereals, and in its native state produces very fine pasturage for stock.
The largest bodies of timber are the extensive groves of cottonwood, which border the banks of the Missouri, while more or less extensive groves of this and other kinds of timber are found on the Little Sioux, and many of the deep ravines running further back into the county are densely shaded with luxuriant forest growths. Like most of the counties o the Missouri slope in Iowa, Monona County has no stone or coal, while the bluff deposit furnishes an abundance of material for the manufacture of brick, which must be depended upon for the future supply of building material. The local supply of fuel, which all comes from the forests, though ample for the present wants, must become scarce in time, unless the future demand is anticipated by the cultivation of artificial groves.
So far as can be ascertained, the first white man to spend the winter in Monona County was Aaron Cook, who with some associates, passed the winter of 1851 here, engaged in herding cattle. The first permanent settler was Isaac Ashton, who, in 1852, located about two miles north of the present town of Onawa, where, in 1855, he laid out the town of Ashton. Philip Ashton, who was frozen to death in the winter of 1852, was the first white person to die in Monona County. Other settlers came in the summer of 1853, in which year Josiah Sumner located in the vicinity of Onawa, and Aaron Cook at Cook’s Landing, on the Missouri River, seven miles southwest of Onawa. Among others who came prior to 1855, were C.E. Whiting, Robert Lindley, Timothy Elliott, J.E. Morrison, J.B.P. Day, and B. D. Holbrook. Several of the early settlers came from the eastern part of Iowa, while others were from Illinois and the Eastern States.
Among the early settlers of the county was Charles B. Thompson, a Mormon leader, who, with a number of followers, located on the Soldier River, in what is now called Spring Valley Township, about fifteen miles southwest of the present town of Onawa.
They commenced their settlement in 1854. Thompson called the place Preparation, as he designed here to prepare his apostles for the “good time coming.” As Thompson was an important man in the early history of Monona County, some account of him, and of the enterprise in which he was a leader, will be of interest. He had been a follower and disciple of Joe Smith at Nauvoo, but went to St. Louis in 1852, and organized a church. In the summer of 1853, he sent some of his followers as commissioners to look for and select a location for his people in Iowa. They selected the valley of the Soldier in the south part of Monona County, all the land at that time being vacant.
In 1854 he brought some fifty or sixty families, and pre-empted several thousand acres of the best land to be found in the region. Some of the land he subsequently entered. Thompson regulated and controlled all the affairs of the colony, both temporal and spiritual, pretending that he had authority to do so under the direction of a spirit, which he called Baneemy. Among other assumptions, he pretended that he was the veritable Ephraim of the Scriptures, and directed his people to call him Father Ephraim. A strict compliance with his teachings divested his followers of all worldly care, and prepared them for the further essential doctrine of his religion, that in order to obtain the Kingdom, they must sacrifice all their earthly possessions. They accordingly conveyed to him all their lands and other property, including even their wearing apparel, and the right to their service.
Under this arrangement, “Father Ephraim” and Baneemyism progressed swimmingly, until the autumn of 1855, when a little rebellion occurred under the leadership of an Elder named Hugh Lytle, who, with some twenty of them, began a suit in the courts for the recovery of their property; but they failed, and the matter was subsequently compromised by the Lytle party receiving some of their property and withdrawing from the society.
The remainder adhered to Thompson without serious difficulty until the autumn of 1858. During the summer of that year, most of the male adults of the society were absent in other States, preaching the doctrines of Baneemyism to the Gentiles.
Thompson, who arrogated to himself the title of “Chief Steward of the Lord,” took advantage of their absence to covey all the realty to his wife, Catharine Thompson, and to one Guy C. Barnum, reserving only forty acres of homestead for himself. His disciples, hearing of this transaction, returned and immediately called on “Father Ephraim” for restitution. Being unable to obtain a satisfactory adjustment of the matter, they notified him that on a stated day he would be expected to meet them in Preparation to make settlement.
The “Chief Steward of the Lord,” and “Assistant Steward of the Lord,” Barnum, had not sufficient courage to “face the music,” however, and postponed their visit to Preparation until the day after the one appointed, doubtless thinking that the angry crowd would have become dispersed by that time. On the way they were met, about a mile from the village, by a young woman who had not yet lost confidence in “Father Ephraim” and Baneemyism, and who informed them that the people were still congregated at Preparation, and would hang him on sight; which information had the effect on “Father Ephraim” it was well calculated to have, especially as at about that moment of time, men on horseback were observed coming from Preparation at full speed, and heading in all earnestness in the direction of the Chief Steward and Assistant. Springing from the wagon in which they were seated, and unharnessing their horses, the two Stewards, hurriedly sprang upon the backs of the animals, and the chase, which ensued, was of an exciting and highly interesting character. After a lively race of fifteen miles, across prairies and over creeks and ravines, the “Father” and the “Assistant Father,” arrived safely in Onawa, where they were given protection by the citizens.
Thompson went from Onawa to St. Louis, and Barnum remained in Onawa until the following spring, removing thence to Nebraska, where he, in course of time, became a prominent citizen. Thompson subsequently attempted to found another similar religious society, but was unsuccessful, and next turned his attention to publishing a book on the “Origin of the Black and Mixed Races,” which book he pretended to translate largely from the Hebrew and Greek languages, which, it is said, he in reality knew nothing about. The last heard of him by his former followers in Monona, was to the effect that he was in Philadelphia in destitute circumstances. After his flight from Preparation, his family was sent to him at Onawa, his followers (?) dividing the personal property among themselves, each taking such of his own property as he could identify. An action in chancery was immediately be gun to set aside the conveyances of real estate, which litigation lingered in the courts for eight years, or until December, 1866, when the conveyances were all declared to be fraudulent, and were set aside, the Supreme Court of Iowa holding that Thompson held the property only as a trustee. The property was sold under an order of the court, and the proceeds were divided among the original contributors in ration to the amount contributed by each. Of the sixty families brought to Monona by Thompson-to the settlement at Preparation-only three or four remain-to such an inglorious termination was Baneeyism destined to attain the proper name by which this peculiar sect sought to be known is said to have been the “Congregation of Jehovah’s Presbytery of Zion,” which was contracted to “Con-je-pre-zion,” and hence the members came to be known as the “Conjepresionites.” Preparation was also familiarly know as Baneemy Town.