Early History of Iowa

By Charles Henry Meyerholz, 1912

Indian Mound

Indian Mound

[Editors Note:  **This article, written in 1912, was before research found that the earliest inhabitants of what is now Iowa were the Clovis people.  For more information see Native American Archaeological Periods.]

**[Some of] 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, 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.

Ma-Has-Kah or White Cloud, an Ioway chief by Charles King, 1837.

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:

Europeans began to explore North America in the 15th century and 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. At 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:

Louisiana Territory

Louisiana Territory

On October 31, 1803, Congress passed an act placing the Louisiana Territory under the direct control of the President, who was to exercise all military, civil and judicial power through such officers as he would appoint. On March 26, 1804, Congress passed an act dividing the Louisiana Territory on the thirty-third parallel and called the south part, the Territory of Orleans and the north part, the District of Louisiana. Later, the northern portion’s name was changed to the Territory of Louisiana, of which Iowa was included.

On June 4, 1812, Congress passed an act changing the name of the Territory of Louisiana to the Territory of Missouri and gave it an organized form of government. Iowa existed as a part of the Territory of Missouri until Missouri was admitted as a state on August 10, 1821. Afterward, the territory of Missouri remained without a government until it was included within the Territory of Michigan in 1834. On April 20, 1836, Michigan was reduced to its present size and the remainder of the territory was organized under the name of Wisconsin. From 1836 until June 12, 1838, Iowa was a part of Wisconsin Territory but was on that date separated from Wisconsin, and all that part of Wisconsin Territory lying west of the Mississippi was organized under the Territory of Iowa.

Iowa Territory was initially bounded on the south by the State of Missouri, on the west by the Missouri and White Earth Rivers, on the north by Canada, and on the east by the Mississippi River and a line due north from the headwaters of that river to the Canadian line. Thus, Iowa Territory included the present State and parts of what would become the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  Iowa remained a territory until December 28, 1846, when it was admitted into the Union as a State.

Indian Wigwam

Indian Wigwam

Early Settlements in Iowa:

When the first white men of Europe explored the lands west of the  Mississippi River they found the American Indians living in wigwams clustered in villages along the hillsides and streams. They made their living by hunting and fishing and by a crude form of agriculture by which they stirred the soil with sharp sticks and raised maize and other grains. Iowa was an ideal land for the Indians. On the hills and in the valleys were deer, and on the prairies were found the buffalo. Wild turkeys, prairie chickens, grouse, and other wild game were to be found on the meadows and in the thickets. Plums, grapes, and other wild fruits were in abundance.

The Indians found predecessors in the Mound Builders, a race of people who differed in stature and in the mode of living from themselves. The numerous great mounds of earth found on the high bluffs along the Mississippi River tell a long story of the life and habits of these interesting people. Their departure was doubtless hastened by the bands of war-like  Indians who came into the Mississippi Valley from both the east and the west. Some of the most noted tribes of  Iowa  Indians were the Sioux, who held the regions in the north of Iowa and Minnesota and penetrated into Dakota. The Sac and Fox, who roamed over the plains of  Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, were members of the Algonquin tribe from the eastern Middle States. The Iowa tribe was in the southern part of the State and the Dakota came from the northwest. There were many other tribes among whom were the Winnebago, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ottawa, and the Illinois. Many of the counties, cities, and towns derived their names from  Indian tribes and from the Indian chiefs.

The transfers of lands from the Indians to the whites were made through numerous treaties with delegates representing the United States and the Indians. The Government paid for the territory and the amount and other details were put into writing. The Indians were often unable to cope with the white man’s shrewdness and generally were badly cheated. Bright colored blankets, firearms, and whiskey often purchased more than their value in lands. The most noted treaty by which Iowa lands were secured from the Indians was in 1830 when the United States bought from the Sac, Sioux, Omaha, Otoe, and Missouri, a large portion of the western part of the State, by paying a small sum to each of the tribes. Another large area was secured by the Black Hawk Purchase in 1833, and in 1836, the more than 400 square miles which were reserved for the Sac and Fox, and comprising Louisa County, was secured by the whites.

Father Jacques Marquette

Father Jacques Marquette

It was more than a hundred years after Father Jacques Marquette and Joliet first landed on  Iowa soil before the first white settlers came to establish homes on the west side of the Mississippi River. The first white man to settle in Iowa and to earn a living from the products of its soil was Julien Dubuque, a Frenchman, who came to what is now the city of Dubuque, in 1788. He learned from the  Indians what rich deposits of lead were found on the banks of the river and he obtained from the Indians the sole right to work the lead mines. He took ten French-Canadians with him and by a treaty signed with the  Fox tribe on September 22, 1788, at Prairie du Chien, he acquired the desired lands and immediately began operations. Dubuque built a log house, planted corn and other grains, and soon made his men comfortable in the little village. In March 1810, Dubuque died and was buried on the bluffs nearby the village. A wooden cross above the grave contained the inscription, “Julien Dubuque, Miner of the mines of Spain.”

In 1795, or seven years after the first settlement made in  Iowa, another Frenchman, whose name was Basil Gaillard, sometimes referred to as Giard, settled a little farther north along the river on the present site of McGregor in Clayton County. He was reported as having known Dubuque, and the two men sometimes traded together. Several years later, after the death of Gaillard, his heirs sold the immense tract of land for the small sum of $300.00.

A third settler on Iowa soil was Louis Honori, who settled near Montrose in Lea County. He obtained a title to his lands from the Lieutenant-Governor of Louisiana Territory in 1799. In 1839, the United States issued a title to some of this land and it is said to be the earliest title to any soil in  Iowa. A little later came Dr. Muir, a Scotch surgeon in the army, who was, at first, stationed in a frontier fort in Illinois and who later built a house on the present site of the city of Keokuk. Another early settler was Antoine LeClaire, who was among the first to settle at Davenport. A little later came Colonel George Davenport, a trader and army contractor, who settled in Davenport about 1820. It was after him that the city of Davenport took its name.

Zebulon Pike, early 1800s

Zebulon Pike

Two expeditions sent out for the purpose of exploration deserve mention in connection with the early history of Iowa. The first was the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sent out by President Thomas Jefferson, and starting from St. Louis, in 1804. The second was that under Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, sent out by the army, also starting from St. Louis, but a year later. Pike was to explore the Mississippi River to its source and to select suitable places for the erection of forts to secure the newly purchased territory. Lewis and Clark were instructed to follow up the Mississippi River to its source, and if possible to explore the country over to the Pacific Coast. They, like Pike, were instructed to meet the Indians and explain their mission and to cultivate their friendship by giving them presents. They held a council at a point along the great bluffs on the Missouri River about opposite from the present site of Council Bluffs. Other places were visited by the same expedition; among them was Sioux City, during the month of August 1805.

Early Iowa Settler

Early Iowa Settler

Other settlements were later made within the interior of the state along the Des Moines, Iowa and Cedar Rivers. Many of these earliest settlements were made by fur trading companies, among which were the American, the Green Bay, and the stations controlled by the Chouteaus of St. Louis. Pierre Chouteau, Sr., established a trading post where the city of Ottumwa now stands. In 1838, the agency for the Sac and Fox  Indians was located where Agency City now stands, and General Joseph M. Street was placed in charge. Settlements gradually spread to the north, and in 1843 a fort was built on the spot where Des Moines now stands. The fort was at first called Fort Raccoon and was under the command of Captain James Allen; later the name was changed to Des Moines. Fort Clark was another early settlement, made in 1850, and later became Fort Dodge at the suggestion of General Winfield Scott. Such forts were established all over the central and western parts of the territory to give protection to the pioneer settlers as they gradually claimed the soil from the  Indians. Most of them continued as forts only long enough to assure a peaceful settlement by the

Territorial Government:

Ansel Briggs, First Iowa Governor

Ansel Briggs, First Iowa Governor

When the colonies won their independence from England with the close of the Revolutionary War, they also won the title to the country lying between their western boundaries and the Mississippi River. Seven states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia — claimed these western lands as parts of their colonial areas. Six of the states had no western lands and they declared these lands lying to the west ought to be ceded to the Federal Government, and owned by the states in common, as they had all fought for a common cause during the war and all ought to share equally in the lands taken from England. The states without lands won their demands by refusing to adopt the Articles of Confederation until the other states consented to give up their western land claims.

Mississippi River at Lansing, Iowa

Mississippi River at Lansing, Iowa

As early as 1780, it was evident the Federal Government would eventually become the owner of this great area commonly known as the Northwest. Three years later, Congress began to consider plans of the government for the people who were rapidly settling in this region. On April 23, 1784, an Ordinance was passed by Congress providing for a temporary government, but, the provisions of that first Ordinance were not satisfactory to many people and no settlements were made under it. The subject was debated in Congress for four years longer before any definite action was taken. Finally, on July 13, 1787, another Act, known as the Northwest Ordinance, was passed by the Congress of the Confederation and provided a territorial government for the territory northwest of the Ohio River.

An act making Iowa a separate territory was passed by Congress on June 12, 1838, which included the present State of Iowa and parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Congress reserved the right of dividing the territory into two or more territories at its own discretion. The act also vested the executive power and authority in a governor, who was to be appointed by the President of the United States with the consent of the Senate and was to hold office for a period of three years unless sooner removed by the President. It also provided for other territorial officers.

The boundary line between the Territory of Iowa and the State of Missouri soon became a matter of dispute and Congress was called upon to settle the question. On June 18, 1838, Congress passed an act providing for a commission to ascertain the proper division line and to mark it.

On December 28, 1846, Iowa was admitted to the Union as the 29th state.

First State Capitol in Iowa

First State Capitol in Iowa

Iowa, as both territory and state, has had three capital cities. When Wisconsin was first organized as a separate territory in 1836, there was a rivalry between the Mississippi River towns for the seat of government. A vote of the people finally decided the matter in favor of Madison, now the state capital of Wisconsin.

The provisional law accepting the choice of the people was so drawn up as to provide a temporary capital at Burlington until a suitable building could be provided at Madison. The capital was to remain at Burlington until March 4, 1839. The first territorial legislature decided to locate the permanent capital farther west and provided for a commission to select a site. The commission finally decided on a site on the banks of the Iowa River in Johnson County, now occupied by Iowa City. On April 3, 1841, Robert Lucas, as governor, issued a proclamation changing the capital from Burlington to Iowa City, where it remained throughout the territorial period. The capital remained at Iowa City after became a state, but as settlements extended westward the feeling grew that the capital ought to be located nearer the center of the state.

The Iowa Capitol in Des Moines, by Carol Highsmith

The Iowa Capitol in Des Moines, by Carol Highsmith. Image available for photo prints HERE.

Des Moines was at that time the only town in the central portion of the state of any considerable size and it was selected to be the permanent capital. In November 1857, the capital was removed to Des Moines and the records, furniture, and equipment of the offices of state were drawn across the country on bob-sleds and placed in the new building in that city. “The capitol building was in the midst of heavy woods, with squirrels, quail, and grouse abundant. Along Four Mile Creek, to the east, were wild turkeys, and an occasional elk and deer. There were no sidewalks near the capitol. Hazel brush was dense. Not far off was a pond containing muskrats. The only bridge across the river was a pontoon structure. The East Side, the side on which the capitol then, as well as today, was located, had about 30 houses. Muddy lowlands stretched between the capitol and the river.” The temporary capitol building at Des Moines was a three story structure and resembled a modern school building rather than a state capitol. The present beautiful capitol was begun in 1873 and finished 12 years later at a cost of more than three million dollars.

By Charles Henry Meyerholz, 1912. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander, updated October 2019.

About This Article: The Early History of Iowa was excerpted from the book History and Government of Iowa, by Charles Henry Meyerholz, Educational Publishing Company, 1912. However, the text is not verbatim, as it has been heavily edited and truncated.

Also See:

Iowa Mainpage

Alexander MacGregor & The Historic Rivertowns of McGregor and Marquette

Iowa Photo Galleries

Native Peoples of Iowa