The area of Crawford County was once apart of the empires of three great European powers: Spain, England, and France. These countries did little to govern this territory that was the tribal hunting grounds at various times of the Sioux, the Omaha, and the Otoes. Occasionally the Pottawattamie visited the southern part of the county. Game was plentiful and intrepid French fur traders carried on their activities on the Missouri slope.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 brought Crawford County into the United States. President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the territory the government had just purchased. They passed through this area and spent a night camped at the mouth of the Boyer River, a well known spot to fur traders and early travelers. Iowa and Crawford County became parts successively of Louisiana, District of Louisiana, Michigan Territory, Wisconsin Territory, Territory of Iowa, and finally the state of Iowa in 1846. The oncoming tide of settlers made it necessary for the Iowa State Legislature to divide the western area of the state into counties in 1851. Crawford was among those created, and was named in honor of a statesman from Georgia who at various times served as U.S. Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of the Treasury and Minister to France during the first quarter of the 19th century.
The early settlers of Crawford County came from three sources: the natural oncoming from the east starting in 1849, the Mormon migration from the west in 1846, and the promotion of land on the frontier by the Providence Western Land Company of Providence, Rhode Island. The company had purchased 20,000 acres in the center of Crawford County. Jesse W. Denison was chosen by this company to carry on the work of beginning a settlement and encouraging settlers to buy the company's land. He arrived in Crawford County in 1856 to find about 235 settlers scattered throughout the county. He pointed out the advantages to the district judge and three county commissioners of locating the county seat in the center of county: the central location, equidistant from other settlements in the county, and the future route of the railroad. Furthermore, the Providence Western Land Company would donate to the county the square upon which the courthouse was to be located. The commissioners accepted Mr. Denison's offer, and then followed the suggestion of the judge's wife and named the town for the company agent, Jesse Denison.
Mr. Denison's next move was to construct a lodging house for prospective settlers and a small store. The company put on an extensive advertising campaign in eastern papers and travel books, and within 15 years the population of Denison was 800 and growing fast.
The War Department in Washington recalled the soldiers stationed at the frontier forts in 1862 to fight in the Civil War against the Confederate armies. This resulted in the entire frontier, including Crawford County, to be open to Indian raiders. Roving bands of Sioux Indians began to appear. The county called for volunteer scouts to warn against Indian attacks. Forty Enfield rifles and a number of rounds of ammunition were obtained from the state to be used in defense. These rifles were all returned to the state at the end of the Civil War.
The period immediately following the Civil War was one of railroad expansion. Instead of a quiet, orderly settlement that had marked the steady growth of Denison, the community became a railroad or a frontier town. A lawless element came with the railroad and a number of altercations took place. As the rails moved westward, the lawless element went with it.
The year 1881 marked the beginning of agitation for a county jail. There were no funds available and it was recommended that a tax levy of one mill be assessed for the purpose. "It was further ordered that J.P. Miller purchase a steel or iron cage for jail purposes and to erect a suitable building to contain same in the town of Denison." The proposition was approved by county voters in 1885.
From 1899 to 1902 three elections were held before a bond issue was approved by the people of the county for a new court house. Crawford County has been represented in the General Assembly or State Legislature since the 5th and having its own representative since the 20th assembly.
This brief history of Crawford County and the City of Denison has been condensed from an address written and delivered by Anna Schneller of Denison, Iowa at the Old Settlers' Picnic at Denison on August 23, 1996.