February 5, 1844 marks the beginning of Mahaska County’s history. On that date Iowa’s Territorial Legislature enacted the law authorizing the organization of a county named Mahaska. The county was named for one of the most noted chief of the Ioway Indians. Mahaska is interpreted as “White Cloud.” Oskaloosa, meaning “last of beautiful” after a Creek Indian princess, was named the county seat.
By this law Mahaska County became two years older than the State of Iowa. William Edmundson, receiving his appointment from the Territorial Assembly, became the first sheriff and justice of peace and was charged with the organization of the twenty-four mile square county. With the help of his clerk, Micajah T. Williams, these two officers divided the county into nine precincts, and by the first Monday in April 1844, an election was held for county officers.
On May 11, 1844 a Commission of three men, appointed from Iowa’s Assembly, selected a site for the county seat. The location was the narrowest point on the divide between the Des Moines and Skunk rivers, known as the “Narrows”. They left the naming of the new town to the local Board of County Commissioners, who chose the name of Oskaloosa, meaning “last of Beautiful” in honor of a Creek Indian princess.
The County Commissioners, by May 14, 1844, had chosen the grand and petit jurors for the first term of the District Court to be held July 1, 1844. The courtroom was an unfinished log cabin built by William D. Canfield and located within the present limits of Oskaloosa. The first Court House owned by the county was a two-story frame structure built at the northwest corner of the square and occupied in January 1846. It was also used for a church, opera house, and Indian dances.It was abandoned in 1855 and thirty years passed before the first permanent Court House, now located east of the square, was built at a cost of $132,500 and dedicated on February 27, 1886.
Over the years, extensive remodeling has kept this courthouse up-to-date enough to meet the county’s needs.
Coal mining brought the county its first sources of wealth.
During the county’s first years, vehicles were scarce. The sheriff owned the only buggy. By 1860 the Western Stage Company was doing a thriving business into the county seat from the river. The Des Moines Valley railroad reached the county in 1864, and the Iowa Central Railroad in 1871.
The first County Fair was held in the public square on October 23, 1852, and in 1861 the traveling State Fair was held in Oskaloosa.
Kay Swanson, Mahaska County Auditor, 2002
Jon Lubke, Mahaska County GIS/MIS Coordinator, 2002