A Pioneer Family Comes to Iowa

In the spring of 1837 the Duffield family was moving to Iowa. Everything they owned was packed in a covered wagon pulled by two oxen. When they reached the wide Mississippi River, many other pioneer families were already lined up on the Illinois side. The Duffields waited until it was finally their turn to ride the ferry across the river.

A Day's Work

The oxen pulled the wagon onto the flatboat that would ferry them across the river. The eight Duffield children hopped aboard. The men rowed hard, but the boat still drifted downstream in the current. When it reached the Iowa side, the men jumped ashore and pulled the flatboat back up to the landing. Crossing the river had taken almost all day!

"Going to the Ioway settlement?" someone asked.

"Yes, where might the trail be?" Mr. Duffield replied.

"Leading out between the big bluffs there," the man answered, pointing west.

The Duffields followed the trail. They passed near the camp of Chief Keokuk. The Native Americans were busy making maple syrup from the trees that grew along the streams.

A Little Help From Some Friends

Next the Duffields had to cross the Des Moines River. But there was no ferry and no bridge. The water was too high and the current too swift to ford it.

From across the river several Native Americans watched the Duffields. Mr. Duffield borrowed two large canoes from them. He lashed the canoes together and tied rough boards across the top. Then he took everything out of the covered wagon and loaded it onto the raft. He took the wagon apart and loaded the pieces.

Everyone climbed on. The Native Americans helped paddle. Slowly the raft crossed the river, carrying the Native Americans, the ten Duffields, their dogs, everything they owned, and the wagon parts. The old horse was tied to the back and swam along behind. When they reached the shore they unloaded, took the raft apart, put the wagon back together, and loaded it up.

A Determined Spirit

Crossing a river was hard and dangerous work for pioneers. Sometimes it required creative thinking—as with the Duffields and the native Iowans. But for those pioneers who were determined to settle in the Iowa land, the rivers were used as paths to new lives.


  • Ginalie Swaim, Ed., “Rivers in Iowa,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 4 (April 1985): 2.