Indian trail stone marker becomes part of riverfront memorial in Riverside Park

(Article provided by Rick Bierman)

MUSCATINE, Iowa – A stone Indian trail marker is, once again, on display at Muscatine’s Riverside Park. The memorial was placed during the summer of 2020 thanks to the efforts of the Muscatine Parks and Recreation Department.

In May of 1936 the trail marker was put on display at Riverside Park to honor E.L. Koehler and his efforts to beautify the park. The memorial was removed during landscape redesign and trail construction along the Mississippi riverfront.

The Indian trail marker and two similar markers were placed along an Indian trail that travelled from the Mississippi River to Rocky Ford on the Cedar River. One marker was placed close to the Mississippi River bank and was used as fill during levee construction prior to 1936. A second marker was placed at a point to the northwest of town and probably somewhere close to where the 61 Bypass and Mulberry Street intersect. This marker disappeared many years before 1936. The marker now on display at Riverside Park was removed from a spot close to Saulsbury Road and not far from the Cedar River.

Although no trace of the trail remains, research has revealed a likely path through the county. The map above, courtesy of Virginia Cooper, shows the town of Muscatine and the path of an Indian trail that passed through the area well before Muscatine was settled.

The trail starts at the Mississippi River where there must have been a ford across the river from the Illinois side. 

The trail continues across town to what is now Cedar Street and by Jefferson School. You will notice in the center of the map above that the trail crosses Mad Creek at the spot where the 9th Street Bridge was built.

This crossing is mentioned by one of our earliest settlers, Err Thornton.

During the spring of 1834, Thornton was looking for land to settle when he came to the trading house at the future site of Muscatine. He left the trading house with the intention of travelling east along the Mississippi River. He walked from the trading house to Mad Creek and then up to the Indian trail crossing. Because of high water, he was unable to cross the creek so he took the trail heading west and found himself lost and at a point a few miles northwest of the trading house. One of the three stone trail markers was placed close to the Mississippi River and probably marked the direction to go to find this main trail. 

The map above shows the northwest section of the trail where it moves along Papoose Creek and toward the junction of what is now the 61 Bypass and Mulberry Street. If you look at the center of the map, you will see a 7 with the words bent tree and a small stick drawing showing a vertical line with two 90 degree angles in it. The Indians had a way to manipulate the growth of a tree so that it formed two 90 degree angles. They used these trees to mark trails, campsites and other important features.

This tree looks like it might have been by Papoose Creek and close to the intersection of Cedar Street and Logan Street.

In a Muscatine Journal article of May 30, 1936, the Indian trail is described as starting at the Mississippi riverfront and extending to the Cedar River and then in the direction of Iowa City.

This 1845 map shows a road going from Bloomington (Muscatine) to a town named Lucas on the Cedar River and then on to West Liberty and Iowa City. Many of the early roads followed Indian trails because the Indians went from one place to the next following the most convenient route.

Lucas occupied the site of the abandoned village of the Indian leader Poweshiek. Poweshiek’s village was on the west bank of the Cedar River and by a natural rock bottom ford across the river. This river crossing was about a quarter mile upstream of the old Saulsbury Bridge.

Here is an excerpt from the accounts of another early visitor to Muscatine County during 1835, James Mackintosh.

“He stopped that night near the Iowa River, and spent some time the next morning in Black Hawk’s village, where Wapello now is.  He visited the old Chief’s tent; the Indians were out on a hunt.  He crossed the Iowa River at some risk – stopped that night at Thornton, but found no food for man or beast, and left at day-break next morning for the trading house, now Muscatine.  

“Some miles below, a family were encamped, and they having plenty of corn, the traveler’s horse was fed, and the saddle-bags filled in case of need.  The family were faring sumptuously on honey, from a bee tree they had cut.  An invitation was given, and gladly accepted.  That was an interesting group, sitting around the stump of that tree, with chips for plates, and nothing but honey for breakfast.  

“The next station was the trading house, and our traveler, who intended reaching Pine Creek that night, unfortunately took the wrong trail, and found himself on Cedar River, near Poweshiek village.  The weather turned suddenly cold, and being wet, having waded a creek full of floating ice, the only hope left was to get to the village.  But that proved impossible.  The river was open, and being unacquainted with the ford, to attempt it would have been madness, and to go back was equally difficult, as the creek was to cross, the bottom wide, and the trail two feet deep in water.  

“There was no alternative but to camp, without fire or food.  Matches were not common in those days – the fire-works had been lost, and the grass too wet to strike fire with the pistol.  He made a bed of leaves and grass, wound himself in his blanket, and lay down at the foot of a stump, to which he tied his horse, who fared the best, as his supper was in the saddle bags.  That was a night to “try men’s souls” – the howling of the storm, and the still louder howling of the wolves, made the night terrific.  Sleep was out of the question.

“It froze hard enough by morning to cross the creek, or the river.  He arrived at the trading house by noon, nothing the worse of his cold lodging, with a good appetite for dinner, having eaten nothing but the honey for three days and two nights.  Resting there that night, he proceeded next day to Pine Creek, where the accommodation was good for that period, and the next day he arrived at Frank’s claim, below Rockingham, which he purchased.”

Mackintosh’s account shows the existence of a trail from the trading house by the Mississippi River, moving to the northwest and ending at the Cedar River across from Poweshiek’s village. He also mentions a ford across the Cedar River and a creek that was probably Chicken Creek. 

We know that one of the three stone trail markers was at the bank of the Mississippi River, but where were the other two placed? Thanks to the research of Anne Wieskamp Collier, we know that the stone marker, now on display at the riverfront, was taken from the farm of T.M. Barnes, just this side of the Cedar River and by Saulsbury Road. The third marker, that sat northwest of town, might have been placed at the junction of two Indian trails, the trail going to the Cedar River and another trail that connected the Indian camps on the Iowa River by Wapello and the camps on the Mississippi River by Davenport. 

Thanks again to Muscatine Parks and Recreation for displaying this historic artifact.