The Footsteps of Ira Cook

Compiled by: Daniel F. Rittel, PLS

In 1896, one of Iowa’s “Original Surveyors” had the forethought to document for posterity some of his memories of his time spent as a Deputy Surveyor.   This surveyor’s name is Ira Cook and his recollections were published as, “Government Surveying in Early Iowa,” in the January, 1897, issue of The Annals of Iowa.   Though his number of years as a Deputy Surveyor was short, his memories, stories, and descriptions of the life and times of a government surveyor are well detailed and give us good insight to some of the conditions those men worked under in their struggle to survey the land for settlement.
Ira Cook was born in the Town of Union, Broome County, New York, on October 6, 1821.   His childhood years were spent mostly attending school.   In October of 1835, his father, one sister and her husband moved to Iowa and settled on land in what is now present day Davenport.   Ira and the remainder of his family moved to Iowa the following spring.   The spring move took two months to accomplish mostly by river travel.   Ira worked on the family farm planting corn for a few years and also for a while lived in Tipton, where he once met then Territorial Governor Robert Lucas.
In 1849, Ira Cook teamed with John Evans on a contract which began his four-plus year career as a government surveyor.   In his recollections, Ira mentions this contract to be in Ringgold and Decatur Counties, however, Evans’ contract in 1849 from Surveyor General Booth puts them in Ringgold and Taylor Counties, not bad for a 47 year memory.   During his time as a surveyor, Ira and his crew subdivided several townships in parts of Iowa and Wisconsin.

After leaving his surveying career and Davenport in the mid 1850's, Ira Cook moved to Des Moines and entered the banking business with the firm of Cook, Sargent & Cook. Around 1860, he engaged in insurance and real estate with C. C. Dawson.

Ira was married in 1854 to Mary C. Owens. It seems that around 1857, Ira and his wife were given a three year old girl to care for by the child's father. After caring for the girl for a while, the Cook's became very attached to her and wanted something more to protect their interest in her. Ira worked with John Kasson, a member of the State Legislature, to craft legislation concerning the adoption of children in Iowa. As soon as the bill was passed and signed into law, Ira and Mary immediately adopted the child. Ira and Mary also had one other daughter of their own born in 1859.

During the Civil War years Ira again took up government work. He was elected Mayor of Des Moines in 1861 and resigned not long after. In 1862, he moved to Washington D.C. and assumed a position in the Post Office Department and also held a position as a Deputy United States Revenue Collector.

Moving back to Des Moines, Ira was elected to two terms on the City Council beginning in 1866. In the 1870's, he became a stockholder in the Iowa Loan and Trust Company and in 1880, was elected one of its Trustees. In 1879 he partnered with G. M. Hippee and others to form the Des Moines Syrup Refining Company which operated to make syrup, sugar, and glucose from corn.

In addition to writing “Government Surveying in Early Iowa,” Ira Cook also published another recollection of his earlier years in Davenport and Eastern Iowa titled, “Reminiscences,” in The Annals of Iowa in 1900. Ira Cook passed away on March 11, 1902, and is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines. Today, visitors to the State Historical Museum in Des Moines will find Ira Cook featured in the “You Gotta Know the Territory” exhibit.


Andrews, L. F. Pioneers of Polk County, Iowa, and Reminiscences of Early Days, Vol. 1, Des Moines, 1908.

Cook, Ira. “Government Surveying in Early Iowa,” Annals of Iowa, 1897, Third Series, Vol. 2.

Cook, Ira. “Reminiscences,” Annals of Iowa, 1900, Third Series, Vol. 4.

Edmunds, A. C. “Ira Cook, Ex-Mayor of Des Moines,” The Western Life-Boat, 1873, Vol. 1.

Union Historical Company, History of Polk County, Iowa, Des Moines 1880.

Ira Cook

Ira Cook, Deputy Surveyor

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