Biography of James R. Letts
Louisa County, IA Biographies





JAMES ROBINSON LETTS.
James Robinson Letts was born near the town of Newark, Licking county, Ohio, December 20, 1820. His grandfather in the paternal line was Nehemiah Letts, a soldier of the Revolutionary war and a minute man who did considerable service for his country in the long struggle for national independence. The Nehemiah Letts Chapter of the D. A. R. in Louisa county was formed of his descendants and the wives of his descendants who could show a Revolutionary line.

David Letts, the father of James R. Letts, was born in Pennsylvania and in early manhood wedded Mrs. Elizabeth (Lair) Dunavan, who was at that time a widow. They became early settlers of Licking county, Ohio. The mother had three sons by her first marriage, Albert, William and George Dunavan, who removed to Illinois with their stepfather, Mr. Letts, and became prominent in the development of La Salle county. Unto David and Elizabeth Letts were born three sons, Madison, James and Noah, all of whom eventually became settlers of Louisa county and continued residents there until called to their final home. One daughter, Amanda, was added to the family and she with her six brothers - the Dunavans and the Letts - accompanied her parents on their removal to La Salle county, Illinois, in 1830, at which time the family ranged in age from nineteen years down to six. On coming to this state the Letts family settled at Cedar Point, in La Salle county. The following winter has since been known in history as the "winter of the deep snow." The Letts had no cows that winter and milk and butter could not be purchased at any price. Even flour was not to be had that season and the grist mills failed. The Letts family were obliged to erect a corn pounder in the kitchen, which was operated by two of the sons, who were confined to the house with frostbitten feet. The hopper of this mill was made by hollowing out a section of a log at one end and driving the bolt of a wagon in the bottom. The pounder was an iron wedge fastened to a spring pole sustained from the ceiling. The corn was broken and pounded until the finer portions were sifted out for bread and the coarser for hominy. Their diet was limited to pork, corn bread, hominy and prairie chickens, and now and then it was varied with venison, for deer was then plentiful. The Black Hawk war broke out in 1832 and James R. Letts, then a boy of eleven, remembers well haw a messenger riding a foam covered horse drew up to their door, telling them a terrible tale of the massacre of two families on Indian Creek and that no doubt many others would be murdered that night by the Indians. The mother ordered a carriage prepared, and, taking her little ones, had an older son drive them to a neighbor's home twelve miles distant for safety, for the father, David Letts, was then away with a scouting party but returned to his home the night the family left it. Afterward the Letts family were quartered with other settlers in Fort Wilburn. While there Governor Reynolds came to David Letts to ask for a boy to carry a message to intercept a company of moving soldiers. James R. Letts, then eleven years of age, volunteered. His father consented, giving him a swift horse with orders to keep to the open prairie and let no man get within gunshot of him unless he rode a faster horse. The boy made the journey in safety and thus earned his first silver dollar.

With his father James R. Letts attended the first government land sale in Chicago, or Fort Dearborn. The settlers were there to bid in the land they had improved and were living on, David Letts acting as their spokesman. Eastern capitalists were there to outbid them, for the improved land was worth much more than the government price and money was scarce among the settlers. It was a time of intense excitement and the young boy never forgot the struggle of his neighbors to retain their homes. The settlers came with only the government price in their pockets, most of them finding it very hard to raise even that sum. At the sale they scattered through the crowd on guard; when a speculator made a bid on a settler's land the nearest settler would explain: "That is a settler's claim, better take back your bid." If he refused he was surrounded and sometimes roughly handled and his friends took him out a sadder but wiser man. The crier would call out cheerfully, "Make it among yourselves, gentlemen; I will wait on you," showing plainly which party had his sympathy.

James R. Letts began his education in a log schoolhouse in Licking county, Ohio, where the little children sat on benches so high their feet would not touch the floor. A roaring fire in a stone fireplace almost scorched their faces while their backs were cold with the drafts. Later he attended night school on the farm in Illinois and spent one winter at school in Dayton, that state. The boys of the Letts family entered, into all the sports of the new country with great zest fishing, the wolf chase, a deer hunt, the trapping of prairie chickens, all were sources of interest and amusement. As the years went by David Letts added to his agricultural pursuits the mercantile business and established stores both in Dayton and Ottawa. He also served as school commissioner and surveyor, and surveyed, platted and sold lots in the town of Peru for school purposes. In the conduct of his stores he generously trusted friends and neighbors with goods and as hard times set in they. were unable to pay and be was forced to close out his business and seek another situation and employment. Accordingly, soon afterward he removed to New Franklin, Missouri, and purchased a fine hotel, which he conducted for some years.

When the stores were disposed of, James R. Letts, then seventeen years of age, was given an outfit of a good team and covered conveyance loaded with goods from the leftover stock, with which he started to the Indian Territory, hoping to dispose of his goods profitably to the Indians. In this undertaking he was successful. His experiences and adventures in crossing the Ozark mountains, fording streams and sojourning with the natives and Indians would make an interesting volume if written in detail. When the goods were sold he disposed of his outfit except one horse, putting the money, all in silver and gold, in his saddle bags, mounted his horse and made his way home. There he remained for a few years, driving his father's fine team and entering into the social life of the country, which was largely settled by old Virginian families who were wealthy slave owners and much given to hospitality and gaiety. There in various ways he began to earn some money and the first hundred dollars which he accumulated he invested in eighty acres of land in Linn county, Missouri. He often related the fact that he assisted in raising the first courthouse at Linneus, the county seat of Linn county, a structure built of logs.

While living in Linn county, he married a young English girl, Hannah Hilton, who had come to the states with an aunt, she being an orphan. She was a faithful wife and helpmeet to him in his pioneer days both in Missouri and Illinois, where he lived later. He was not twenty one years of age at the time of his marriage. For several. years he lived in Missouri and prospered, and then sold his farm and removed to Hill county, Illinois, where he entered land on the site of what is now the town of New Lennox. There his first child, Amanda Annette, was born, the only child of this union. She married Edwin Robinson, of Vinton, Iowa, now deceased

Mr. Letts followed farming until 1850, when he started on an overland trip to California, being then in poor health. But the outdoor life proved the panacea he needed and when he reached his destination in August, he was brown and well and strong, entering heartily into the mining and rock washing in order to secure the gold. At the same time he owned an interest in a provision store at the camp. Afterward he spent several months with Hugh Ewing, of Ohio, on his ranch, buying and selling cattle and horses until, satisfied with his venture in new fields, he returned to his Illinois home in the spring of 1851. His experiences as related in a manuscript copy of his trip by land and sea read like a story. He made the return journey by way of the Pacific ocean and the isthmus of Panama. In 1854 he lost his wife. About the same time the Rock Island Railroad had been built through his farm, cutting it in two diagonally, and because his home was broken up he sold the farm and came to Louisa county, Iowa, where his brother Madison had located a few years before. He then purchased land in Grand View township, adjoining his brother's place on the west, and engaged in the cattle business with him for a few years.

On the 3d of March, 1859, Mr. Letts was again married, his second union being with Albina Brockway, a daughter of James M. and Lydia (Goff) Brockway, who were natives of New York and pioneers of Pennsylvania and Iowa. They settled in Louisa county in May, 1842, and ten years later removed to Muscatine county. The Brockways were moral and religious people and their influence in this part of the state has been of the best. James Brockway was a leader in good works, in educational and temperance movements and in everything that pertained to good citizenship. The son of a Revolutionary soldier, his wife the granddaughter of one who enlisted in the Colonial army before the Declaration of Independence was written, and discharged after the battle of York, they inherited the qualities on which republics are built and they did their work well. There were nine children born to this union, as follows: Cora E., who married B. F. Marick, a lawyer and immigration inspector of Boston, Massachusetts. Chester H., who was born in 1861, and died at Needles, California, in 1898; Alice Grace, who died in infancy; Ella Elizabeth, who married F. E. McCrary, of Florence, Arizona, a government acid humane officer; James D. Letts, a farmer, who married Lillie Runyan; Emery Clinton, a real estate agent, who married Jane Ellen Bushey; Arthur R., a ranchman of Texas, who married Alice Winkler; Fay R., who married Jessie Dickerson; Frank B., a ranchman of Texas, who married Elsie Stapp. Eight children grew to maturity.

Mr. Letts was never identified with any military organizations except at the beginning of the Civil war when he drilled with a company in Grand View. He and his brother Madison were powers in the land at that time in suppressing disloyalty and inspiring patriotism, in aiding the sanitary commission and in looking after the widows and orphans at home. At different times Mr. Letts served his county in minor capacities, on school and election boards, on the petit and grand juries, nearly always serving as chairman of the grand jury. His most important service was in the case of the Air Line Railroad against the county. In 1855 bonds had been issued for the building of the so called "Air Line Railroad," which, however, was never constructed. When it became known that the project was only an air line, prominent men in the county raised a fund, hired lawyers and succeeded in releasing the county from a part of the obligation. The matter came up for final adjustment while Mr. Letts was a member of the board. He, in common with all honest minded men of the county, believed it was a gross injustice for the county to be forced to pay for a railroad that was never built. The board, then of twelve men, were a unit on the question and decided to contest the case and refuse to levy the tax, which they did. After giving the United States marshal a great deal of trouble in finding them they were taken to Des Moines before the court and held there until they agreed to levy the tax. The judge said to them: "It is in my power to fine each of you until I impoverish you and send you to jail, but my sympathy is with you; but the bonds have passed into innocent hands and must be paid."

Mr. Letts was ever conscientiously opposed to secret societies, believing that a loyal and just man should let his light shine and do his good work in the sight of the world. In politics he was a stanch and enthusiastic republican, although he believed the party sometimes made mistakes, yet he believed in righting it from within, instead of without and remained with it. He cast his first presidential vote for William Henry Harrison one month before he attained his majority, and for Fremont in 1856 and never missed casting a ballot at the polls until the last election in November, 1910. His religious views were somewhat peculiar but he was thoroughly orthodox and read his Bible literally, never trying to twist the meaning to suit his own views. Although he was not a member of any church he was an humble and reverent believer and his hope of salvation rested solely on the atonement of our Lord. His religion taught him to be diligent and prompt in business and pitiful to the poor, and while there were older settlers in Louisa county than he there are few early enterprises in which he did not have a hand, for he was public spirited, benevolent and generous. There were few private or public benefactions but felt the uplift of his generosity. Churches, schools and charities never appealed for aid in vain and his children can point to this or that public edifice and say: "My father gave the first hundred dollars toward erecting that building." He was a strong temperance man, a believer in prohibition but inside the ranks of his party. To him total abstinence and government control of the manufacture of intoxicants was the only way to control this greatest of evils. His best efforts, his time, his purse were devoted to the cause all his years and he was opposed to the use of liquor even in sickness, insisting to the last it was not beneficial. He was a hospitable man with the old time hospitality of the pioneer days, with the "latch string out," as he expressed it, always, and a friend or stranger welcomed; a warm reception, a free entertainment, a helping hand when needed made his hospitality a benediction. He always lamented his meager educational advantages and because of his lack in this direction refused often to take responsible positions which others less capable accepted. Young people struggling for an education or a start in the world found in him a sympathetic and helpful friend and so unassuming was he in his beneficences that his best friends knew them not. Verily, his left hand knew not the work of his. right.

One who knew Mr. Letts long and well said unsolicited: "In the passing away of James R. Letts, at his home near Letts, December 18, 1910, Iowa has lost one of the most remarkable men that helped to make her early history. It was during the summer of 1855 that the writer, a barefoot boy, first met 'Uncle Jim Letts,' as the neighborhood boys all soon learned to lovingly call him. The first impression he made on my young mind has lasted until now. I have never seen his like and never expect to see it again. Measured by every standard by which man can be measured, he more nearly filled each one than any man I ever knew. Many of the men with whom I have mingled excelled him in special points, but when the average was made they all fell below his mark. He had traveled much before coming to Iowa. He knew how to meet old and young. His neighbors soon learned to believe in him. He was the kind of man that pioneers needed. He knew the prairies and how to select a farm. He knew the value of rotation of crops and tiling. He knew how to make worn out land as rich as virgin soil. He knew the value of groves upon the prairie land. He knew all this at a time when clover was a stranger here and there was not a spear of blue grass in Louisa county, and much of the now hundred dollar land was listed as 'swamp land.' He planted the first pines in his neighborhood. He built the first modern farm house in Grand View township, and lived in it for fifty five years. He helped to build the Grand View Academy and many of the churches in Grand View and Letts. He was public spirited and generous. He was free to give money and advice. He loved society and was the moving spirit in social circles for years. He has probably entertained more people at his home than any man in Louisa county. No person was ever turned away hungry from his door. He probably has stood beside more open graves than any man in Louisa county. He was always active in politics and firm and true in his convictions. He was often urged to represent Louisa county in the legislature but never would consent. Few men have been so much revered by the old and so much loved by the young. He scattered sunshine wherever he went. In the early days that meant much. He would often press a coin into a poor boy's hand. In the early days coins looked bigger to a boy than they do now. Many a man has taken his first ride in a top buggy' with Uncle Jim. Top buggies were as scarce then as automobiles are now. Many of the early settlers of Iowa will bow their heads when they read of his death. He was a cattle dealer and traveled far and wide on horseback; no man with whom he ever 'broke bread' could forget him. Those twinkling, honest blue eyes; that ringing voice, his handsome form, graceful carriage, the cut of his clothes, all bespoke a born prince before he had time to say a word. Such a man, coming into a country at such a time, means an epoch in its history. Within a radius of five miles of the beautiful home of James R. Letts, the prairie land of 1855 has been transformed into valuable farms and beautiful homes, such homes as are hard to duplicate within a like area. It sometimes looks as if God spared a few of our friends beyond the allotted time, to teach us how to grow old gracefully. If so, surely James R. Letts has well filled his mission." A pioneer in three states he assisted in laying the foundations of the commonwealth: broad and deep and true. Though the worker may be forgotten, the work remains.

From:
History of Louisa County, Iowa
From Its Earliest Settlement to 1912
Vol II
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.
Chiago 1912


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