A Pioneer Woman's Life


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To Mother Mary Hanna, prior to her death in 1912, belonged the honor of having been the oldest resident in Black Hawk County. Mrs. Hanna was also the first white woman to permanently locate in this county and she was the second white woman to visit this section, Mrs. Sturgis, who located near Cedar Falls, being the first in this respect. George W. Hanna and his wife, Mary, with her brother, John Melrose, came to Waterloo by oxen team in the year 1845, arriving on the east bank of the river on July 18th. They made their camp in a prairie schooner that night and the next day they forded the river at a point about a block north of the present Fourth Street bridge, or opposite the site of the Illinois Central depot. This ford was on an Indian trail from Fort Atkinson to Indian-town on the Iowa River. Mrs. Hanna told of the wondrous beauty which was unfolded to her. She was a native of Southern Illinois and was born on June 9, 1821.

    It is perhaps due to the prophetic vision of Mrs. Hanna that the original town site of Waterloo was located on the west bank of the river. When the party made their first camp in the wilderness near the scene where they were to spend so many useful and profitable years, Mr. Hanna and Mr. Melrose were for stopping on the east bank of the river, but Mrs. Hanna, struck with the beauty of the limpid Cedar, and viewing the rolling prairie with its scattered, mighty oaks, opposite her, told of the vision in her own words:

    "Boys, don’t stop here. This seems to me to be the river of life and over yonder is Canaan; let us cross over."

    Apparently there was some demur to this and it was then that Mrs. Hanna made a prophecy which has been fulfilled a thousand times, "Boys, if you live long enough you will see a fine town grow up on those hills over there."

    Mrs. Hanna was convinced that the Lord led her to the site of the future Waterloo.

    After making a camp for one night on the west bank of the river shelter was found in the log cabin built by a man named Charles Dyer, a bachelor. Later the family located near where the present Hanna home stands on the south Cedar Falls Road in Waterloo Township. They built a log cabin 18 by 24 feet in dimensions, in that day and age a pretentious home for the wilderness, on the edge of the blooming prairie. Mr. Hanna and Mr. Melrose took up farming and gradually the land holdings were increased until Mr. Hanna was the owner of a considerable portion of the land on the west bank of the river.

    From accounts retold by Mrs. Hanna her husband was of the type of the early boomer. He took pride in the new town and freely gave of his land in small tracts, to those who designed to establish themselves in business and would signify intention of building a shop or store. In this way Mr. Hanna gave the ground on which the Stewart blacksmith shop and home on the southerly side of Fourth Street, west, and now occupied by the Iowa State Bank and adjoining building. The ground for the first schoolhouse in Waterloo near the corner of Jefferson and Park Avenue, on the easterly side was given by Mr. Hanna. At one time this estimable couple deeded the mill square, now perhaps as valuable as any property in Waterloo, for the sum of one dollar. The man who secured this tract of ground for the princely sum noted was J.H. Eggers.

    In the early progress of Waterloo Mr. and Mrs. Hanna resided on their farm, but in 1852 they moved to the village to help it along. Mr. Hanna purchased the store conducted by S. Fancher in a log cabin which stood on the present site of the Federal Building. A lean-to was added to the store and Mr. Hanna increased the stock of goods. Their home was a modest structure of brick, which stood on what is now Park Avenue, northeasterly from the Federal Building. They remained residents of Waterloo seven or eight years, Mrs. Hanna being uncertain as to the exact length of time and then returned to the farm.

    The building up of the town was hastened by the fact that before many women or families were in the country a number of young bachelors had come out of the East and were engaged in building log cabins, which were sold to settlers as fast as they would buy.

    Mrs. Hanna retained vivid and pleasant recollections of the trip overland from the home in Illinois. The motive power was oxen, big, rangy fellows, that could walk farther in a day than the average horse. It was possible for the little caravan to make twenty-five to thirty miles a day, but this was not the average speed. The party crossed the Mississippi River at Davenport on July 4th and Mrs. Hanna remembered that as they were crossing on a horse-power ferry they heard shots on the island above them, the shots that ended the earthly career of Col. George Davenport.

    At Cedar Rapids, which then consisted of two big log cabins, a sister of Mrs. Hanna was taken ill and the patient and her husband were compelled to rest there until October.

    The first families had Indians for neighbors, but Mrs. Hanna seems never to have been afraid of them. She became quite well acquainted with the squaws and she related that eventually many of them came to her cabin and while she taught them English, she gradually acquired a portion of the Indian language.

    There was in that time plenty to eat and only occasionally did the farmers want for the substantial things which adorned the early table. The Indians in this country were then Pottawatomies, Musquakies and the Winnebagoes, all peaceful tribes, and north of here Sioux, which Mrs. Hanna said, "were the bad Injuns." The Indians annually made sugar in the immense sugar tree groves, which wooded the hills along the river to the northwest of Waterloo. It was the custom for the white settlers to trade flour for sugar.

    There was a post at Clarksville and when the Indians drew their rations and supplies it was their custom to break for the white settlements, where blankets, calico, and articles of clothing, etc., were exchanged for foodstuffs and different articles of barter. The Indian women were proficient in the art of making moccasins, trimmed with beads and bright cloths, and these they traded to the white settlers.

    Mrs. Hanna recalled one winter when about all they had to eat was cracked corn. The weather had been mild and the duty of going to the mill at Cedar Falls for flour had been delayed. There came one of the heaviest snows ever known in the country and it was then impossible to replenish the flour bins. Mr. Hanna was compelled to make his way to the timber, cut a large tree, hollow out a portion of the trunk and in this the corn was cracked. The spirit of hardihood and free acceptance of whatever might be their portion is illustrated by a statement made by Mrs. Hanna in connection with this experience. Some of the families forced to eat the cracked corn constantly were prone to complain, but, said Mrs. Hanna, "We regarded it as something funny and I told my sister in a letter after that we had pound cake every day that winter, but I did not tell her what kind of pound cake it was."

    "I was never afraid of the Indians," said Mrs. Hanna, "although one time I remember they tried to play a joke on me. The men folks were away from home, when two or three Indians came from the north where they had got some whiskey and were half drunk when they reached our cabin. They marched in the door, carrying their guns, something they had never done before. They ordered me to get some supper and get it pretty quick, intimating that they would shoot me if I did not obey them. My little Johnny was with me and of course he was frightened half to death, but I told him to keep quiet. I told the Indians that I would not get them any supper, and reaching for my husband's rifle hanging on the wall I told them I would shoot if they did not get out. At this they commenced to laugh fit for anything and told me I was a good squaw. I told them I was not a squaw, but a white woman. They went off through the woods toward Waterloo. A short time after they had left Jack Taylor, a trapper, who lived on Dry Run, south of Cedar Falls, came to the cabin to see if I needed any help. He had seen the Indians pass his place and knowing that they were drunk feared they would harm me. 

    Mrs. Hanna’s recollections of the stirring scenes during the seven or eight years she was a resident of Waterloo was a prolific field of research. She was intensely patriotic. Her great-grandfather was in the Revolutionary war and from time immemorial members of the family were aligned with the abolitionists. Her father left West Virginia, then a part of Virginia, to escape from the slave state. Mrs. Hanna remembered the Fremont Presidential campaign in 1856. Opposite their house on Park Avenue the republican party was organized in Waterloo and as the election approached a flag staff from which floated Stars and Stripes was a pleasant sight. The night before election this flag was torn down by some men and trampled in the mud. The next morning Mrs. Hanna rescued the flag from the mire and carrying the bedraggled bunting on sticks to her wash tub, pumped water on it and washed it clean, afterward drying and ironing it. She gave the flag to some men of the new republican party, with strict injunction to repair the staff and float the flag above the polling place during election day. At the polls that day there were several fights, but the flag remained on the staff. After the day was over, or the hard part of it, word was brought to Mrs. Hanna by lawyer Rawson, a democrat, that the men at the polls were cheering madly "for the woman that washed the flag."

    After the family returned to the farm the mother sent her boy, John, to town one day and he returned with the news that an officer was here taking enlistments and adding a request that he be permitted to enlist. The reply of the mother was characteristic: "Go, my son, go. If I did not have any sons to send I would enlist myself. I could at least carry water to the soldiers on the field and help care for the dead and dying."

    Through her whole life there ran that patriotism and willingness for self-denial when principles were and are involved.

    She spoke with love and reverence for one Brother Collins, who was a traveling evangelist in the early years, but the family resided here. Reverend Collins came to this county in the year 1847. The Hanna log cabin was home, church and courthouse to suit the needs of the time and the deed. Mr. Hanna was the first justice of the peace in the county and his court was conducted in the home. Religious services were held there every Sunday. Mrs. Hanna related that on one occasion, when Brother Collins had arrived from the Southland, footsore and weary, she provided the good man with a pair of socks which she had knit and also with moccasins which she had made. The reverend gentleman, in company with Mr. Hanna, left on Saturday evening, traveling over the crusted snow on snow shoes they had got of the Indians, going a distance of some fifteen miles into the "big woods" country in Bremer County, where the Tibbitts and Messengers had located. A meeting was conducted there the next morning and as the two men were a mile from the meeting place, making the journey home, they heard the people shouting the joy of "finding themselves born again." The two men made the trip home in time to conduct services the same evening in the Hanna home, which was crowded with seekers after the true light. There were three beds in the room, the children were perched on the backs of the beds, the women sat along the edge and the men stood up.