Wapello County History
Wapello County is named in honor of the Fox Indian Chief Wapello, his name meaning “the prince.” He was a powerful ruler among his people and a good friend to the white man. During the Black Hawk War, Chief Wapello was the second-in-command over the combined Sac and Fox Indians who occupied the land prior to its settlement in 1843, and he is remembered with a statue that stands atop the courthouse.
It is from the Sac and Fox Indian tribes that most of the county’s rich Indian heritage comes from. The signing of a peace treaty opened the land to settlers, forcing the Sac and Fox Indians to reservations in Nebraska.
Wapello was born about 1787 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. In 1838 Chief Wapello moved his village from Muscatine to the Des Moines River just south of what is now Ottumwa. An Indian agency was being built near what was to become known as Agency City, and General Joseph Street arrived with his family in April 1839 to oversee it.
Chief Wapello died March 15, 1842 near the forks of the Skunk River while on a hunting trip. He so admired General Joseph Street that Chief Wapello asked to be buried beside him upon his death. Both are buried near Agency, Iowa in Chief Wapello Memorial Park.
Wapello County was created on February 17, 1843 from Unorganized Territory. The county opened at midnight on April 30, 1843 with several hundred eager settlers camped along the eastern border. At the sound of a shotgun, they raced towards the “New Purchase” to make their claim. Many conflicts arose over the hastily made boundary lines, which were usually settled peaceably by the claim committees. Within a month 5,000 people lived in Wapello County.
The county officially organized nearly a year later on March 1, 1844, with the first election held in April of that same year.
The County Seat
The town that was to become the county seat was laid out by the Appanoose Rapids Company. The company surveyed the county in 1842 in anticipation of building a city in the center of the county as soon as the Indian title to the land ended. On May 1, 1843 when the land was opened, they established their claim to the site along the Des Moines River. Of about four hundred lots first laid out, each alternate lot was donated to the county upon the condition that the county seat should be located there.
In May 1844 the three commissioners appointed to locate the county seat did indeed choose the site founded by the Appanoose Rapids Company, which the Company had named Ottumwa. The Indian name “Ottumwa” is thought to mean “tumbling water” or “the rapids,” perhaps chosen because of the Des Moines River which flows diagonally through the town and county. The commissioners ignored its given name, however, and dubbed the town Louisville. The Appanoose Rapids Company and the large majority of the settlers objected—thus causing the name of Louisville to be dropped, and the name Ottumwa permanently adopted.
A simple log cabin was the county’s first courthouse. It was not long before it was abandoned in favor of a more suitable building. The first permanent courthouse was a brick structure that cost an estimated $1,000. This building was used until 1855, when it was sold to the Christian Church.
In 1855 the county constructed its second courthouse at a cost of about $13,000. This building was also two stories, but twice the size of the previous building. This building was used until 1891. It was then demolished to make way for the third and current courthouse.
In 1891 voters approved $100,000 worth of bonds to be used towards the construction of a new courthouse. The cornerstone was laid on September 28, 1892, and it was dedicated two years later on May 17, 1894.
Rough cut sandstone was used for this five-story building. A large clock tower was part of the original design; however in 1950 the clock tower and several chimneys were removed. About 450 tons of bricks were removed to help alleviate stress on the building.
During the fall of 1881, Wapello County experienced a gold rush. A speculator claimed he discovered gold along Bear Creek. The prices for land and mineral rights seared until an investigation proved the scheme to be a fraud.
Counties adjacent to Wapello County include Mahaska County (northwest), Keokuk County (northeast), Jefferson County (east), Davis County (south) and Monroe County (west).
Cities and Towns
Cities and towns include Agency, Blakesburg, Chillicothe, Eddyville, Eldon, Kirkville and Ottumwa. Unincorporated communities include Ashland, Bladensburg, Dahlonega, Phillips, Pickwick, Ottumwa Junction and Rutledge.