Early History of Iowa

By Charles Henry Meyerholz, 1912


Indian Mound

Indian Mound

The earliest known inhabitants of Iowa were the Mound Builders, which has been shown throughout the years by an abundance of historical evidence. However, crude implements, human skulls and other human remains have given evidence of a people who inhabited this section of the great Mississippi Valley even before the Mound Builders came. Though little is known about these earlier peoples, but, it is believed that they were much lower in civilization than the Mound Builders.

The Mound Builders left material remains from which we have learned much concerning their civilization and mode of living. They are called Mound Builders because, in many parts of the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, they erected great mounds of earth to mark the burial places of their dead. These mounds, many of which are located on the bluffs along the Mississippi River, were found to contain human skeletons, axes and other implements made of stone, copper vessels, stone knives and often stone carvings representing birds and animals. The greatest number of these mounds in Iowa are found along the Mississippi River from Dubuque south as far as Des Moines County, but, similar mounds of earth have been found in the Des Moines Valley and as far west as the Little Sioux River. All these remains prove the  Mound Builders to have been a people much superior in civilization and life to the Indians who seem to have come later. It is not known how long these early people were able to resist the invaders who drove them out.

The American Indians were the next inhabitants of Iowa. The Indians who formerly occupied the soil of  Iowa were not as warlike as many tribes found in other parts of the United States. If they were cruel and treacherous as enemies, they were also brave warriors and loyal friends to many white people with whom they soon began to trade. The  Indians claimed the soil by right of conquest and occupation and next to the  Mound Builders are recognized as the second owners of the soil of Iowa. The countries of Europe held the theory that lands discovered or found in the possession of uncivilized peoples were subject to seizure and settlement by any Christian nation. These European nations recognized the rights of the  Indians as occupants, but asserted that discovery and settlement by Christian nations gave the right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy.

European Claims:

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

On the morning of October 12, 1402, Christopher Columbus, an Italian from the city of Genoa, in the employ of the King and Queen of Spain, first saw the land of the western continent. He made discoveries among the islands of the West Indies and claimed the country for the Government of Spain. Columbus made three other voyages to America and discovered the coasts of Central and South America. A little later other Spanish explorers visited the coast of Florida and the Gulf region. During the Mediaeval period the authority of the Church was held superior to that of the State and the Pope at Rome claimed to be in the exercise of that authority. On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a proclamation, dividing the unchristian world into two parts, giving the western part to Spain and the eastern part to Portugal. As a division line he chose the meridian 100 leagues west of the Azores. Later, in 1494, the line was fixed at 375 leagues west of the Cape Verd Islands. At that time, Spain and Portugal were the leading nations of the world in making discoveries and explorations. Spain’s claim to America made by Columbus was strengthened by this act of the Church asserting its authority. Thus, Spain was the first among Christian nations to claim what would later become the state of Iowa.

In 1497, John Cabot sailed from Bristol, England, and in the names of the King and Queen discovered and explored the coast of North America from Labrador towards the south. Later, his son Sebastian made another expedition to our eastern shores. On these discoveries and explorations, England based a claim to the American continent south of the St. Lawrence River and north of the Spanish claims, and extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, which included Iowa.

In the early years of the 16th century, France made extensive settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley and later pushed farther west and established trading posts along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. In the spring of 1673 Father Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary, and Louis Joliet, a French-Canadian fur trader, crossed the Great Lakes and followed the Wisconsin River down to the  Mississippi River. They then floated down the Mississippi River in boats and were probably the first white men to see  Iowa. They made a landing on  soil, on June 25, 1673, at the mouth of the Des Moines River. In 1682, Robert de La Salle, a French explorer descended the Illinois River, then passed down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. On the basis of these two expeditions, France claimed the territory drained by the Ohio and  Mississippi Rivers and called it Louisiana after King Louis XIV. Now France became another claimant to the soil of  Iowa.

Mississippi River steamboat

Mississippi River steamboat

Soon; however, a dispute arose between England and France over the ownership of the territory in the valleys of the St. Lawrence and Ohio Rivers. The trouble increased when the English and the French inhabitants began to make settlements in the Ohio Valley. War broke out in 1755, and by the Treaty of Paris, which closed the conflict in 1763, France ceded to England, all of Canada, except three small islands near Newfoundland, and her possessions east of the Mississippi River, except New Orleans. France then ceded her possessions west of the  Mississippi River and New Orleans to Spain. This gave Spain undisputed ownership of the soil of Iowa.

With the close of the French Revolution, in about 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte became the leading ruler in Europe. He rapidly made new treaties of alliance with the leading nations on the continent. By the secret treaty of San il de Fonso on October 1, 1800, Spain ceded the territory west of the  Mississippi River to France. So, France again became the owner of the territory which included what would later became  Iowa. But, France found a great rival in England and was anxious to destroy its power and reduce its territory. Napoleon feared England would seize Louisiana and annex it to the territory she already owned. About the same time, the United States was having great difficulty over the navigation of the lower Mississippi River. While Spain yet owned the Louisiana Territory and the land on both sides of the mouth of the Mississippi, the Spanish authorities often charged exorbitant duties on goods shipped up the river destined for towns in the United States. These troubles continued after France received the territory from Spain in 1800. Congress decided to make a new treaty with France and, if possible, to purchase the territory on either side of the mouth of the river. President Thomas Jefferson instructed Robert Livingston, who was then minister to France, to make a treaty, and later sent James Monroe to assist in the negotiations. A treaty was negotiated and signed on April 30, 1803, by which France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States. By this treaty, Iowa came into the possession of the United States.

Territorial Organization:

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