Hidden beside a gravel road that parallels Mosquito Creek a couple of miles northeast of what is today downtown Council Bluffs are the remnants of what some believe to be a grist and saw mill that was built around 1840.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 1833, Billy Caldwell — also known as Chief Sauganash, the son of a Potawatmi mother and a Scotch-Irish father who served with the British Army — and Alexander Robinson had negotiated the Treaty of Chicago, which led to Native Indians in that region moving to the area that is now Council Bluffs in 1836.
For his efforts in negotiating the Treaty of Chicago, Caldwell received a cash award of $5,000 and a lifetime annuity of $400.
According to an article by Charles H. Babbitt in “The Palimpsest,” the treaty Caldwell helped negotiate also called for the government to provide $150,000 “for the erection of mills, farm houses and blacksmith shops and for the support of such millers, physicians and blacksmiths as the President of the United States might appoint for the benefit and accommodation of the Indians.”
When the federal government deferred on paying for the construction of a mill to grind the Native Americans’ grain and saw lumber, Caldwell negotiated a contract with Samuel N. Holcomb to build a mill on Mosquito Creek for the sum of $3,000, pledging his personal credit and annuities in payment.
According to Babbitt’s research, Caldwell, who had not arranged for the first payment to Holcomb by June 1841, left for a summer hunting trip from which he returned sick. When the final payment for the construction was due on Aug. 22, 1841, Caldwell was seriously ill and unable to transact business. Although historical records differ as to the exact day — some say Sept. 27, 1841, others Sept. 28, 1841 — Caldwell died before the mill construction debt was settled.
Other area tribes refused to honor the contract, saying the treaty of 1833 called for the government to pay for the mill. The mill’s contract-payment issue was eventually referred to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, who approved the contract Caldwell had made with Holcomb and authorized payment.
Babbitt’s research indicated a 40-foot-long dam some eight to nine feet high had been built from north to south across Mosquito Creek with a spillway to the south end that powered the mill. The sawing area was a partly-enclosed shed 30 to 35 feet long and 20 feet wide. Next to the sawing area was a two-story frame building that housed the gristmill.
John Barnes, a member of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, said the remnants, located on property now owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad, could be the site of the grist and saw mill built around 1840, but it would be difficult to determine that for certain without an excavation.
“There was definitely something there,” he said. “There appears to be a cement foundation.”
John Edwards, a member of Preserve Council Bluffs, said that, while there was some sort of a structure at the location, it’s difficult to tell what the structure was.
“There was a cement structure there that looks as if it might have been the support for a bridge, but it’s really hard to tell,” he said. Could it have been the support for a water wheel used to power the mill’s equipment?
For history buffs who believe Caldwell died on Sept. 28, today marks the 176th anniversary of the death of the man who negotiated construction of the first mill in Council Bluffs. But today’s history buffs are not certain of the exact location of the mill.
Babbitt summed it up in his Palimpsest article: “The actual spot upon which the old mill stood has become so obscured by urban improvements and artificial changes in the channel of Mosquito Creek as to render its precise identification difficult, if not impossible.”