A Brief Cultural History of Iowa

by Shirley J. Schermer, William Green, and James M. Collins 

© Copyright 1995 The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.


The Paleoindian period in North America dates to about 9,500-7,500 B.C. Paleoindians in Iowa encountered vastly different environments than those of the recent past. The climate was cooler and wetter than present averages. In north central Iowa, Paleoindians lived in recently deglaciated landscapes covered by boreal and conifer-hardwood forests, shifting through time to elm- and oak- dominated woodlands. Woodlands predominated in most of the state as well, and prairie, if present, was very limited. 

The Clovis complex is the earliest well defined archaeological culture currently known in North America. Clovis and other fluted projectile point styles were made during the first two-thirds of the Paleoindian period, and Dalton and unfluted point forms date to the latter one-third of the period. Aside from these lanceolate (lance-shaped) points, defining characteristics of the Paleo-Indian period include distinctive butchering tools, extensive use of exotic chert types, and specialized lithic technologies. Fluted and unfluted point forms have been recovered as surface finds from upland and valley locations throughout Iowa. 

Paleoindian peoples were extremely mobile, hunting various animals including now-extinct large mammals such as mammoth, mastodon, and giant bison. Most Paleoindian sites so far located in the United States are large mammal kill sites, and little is known of other site types. No Paleoindian base camps have yet been documented in Iowa. To date, the best documented fluted point site in Iowa is a plow-disturbed cache of Clovis points known as the Rummells-Maske site in Cedar County. 


The Early Archaic period (7,500-5,500 B.C.) is viewed as a somewhat transitional period between cultures relying on big game for subsistence and those with a more rounded forager adaptation. Environments changed relatively quickly, as deciduous woodlands, mixed with prairies in western areas, became established over most of the state. Populations probably depended on bison in western Iowa and on deer and elk in eastern Iowa. These large mammals were supplemented by smaller game and by increasing use of plant foods. Settlement types included somewhat permanent base camps and seasonally occupied resource procurement camps. Excavated sites, such as the Cherokee Sewer site, suggest local populations were small and that they were tied to a seasonal round of resource exploitation. Representative artifacts include medium to large spear points, often with serrated and beveled blade edges. 

The Middle Archaic period (5,500-2,500 B.C.) is so poorly known in Iowa that it has normally been lumped with the Early Archaic. Cultural adaptations may have been similar, but environmental conditions became increasingly arid throughout the period. The Middle Archaic period corresponds to the warmest and driest postglacial period, commonly referred to as the Atlantic episode, or the Hypsithermal. Human populations throughout the Midwest gravitated to the wetter river valleys, and because of this, Middle Archaic sites are often deeply buried and difficult to locate. During the Hypsithermal, great masses of silt filled river valleys, and alluvial fan development was rapid. Many Middle Archaic sites are buried in these alluvial sediments. 

By the Late Archaic period (2,500-500 B.C.) the Midwest was becoming a fairly crowded place with the incidence of intergroup encounter rising sharply. This situation resulted in similar subsistence strategies over broad areas, but also in increased territoriality, local differentiation in artifact styles, and development of intergroup trading networks. The end of the dry Hypsithermal resulted in increased stability of the resource base and made many previously unsuitable areas attractive for settlement. Population levels appear to have increased substantially, and a somewhat sedentary lifeway as well as construction of large ossuaries (multiple-interment cemeteries) are documented for this period. The use of communal cemeteries reinforces the interpretation that populations were becoming more sedentary. 


The Woodland tradition (500 B.C.-A.D. 1000) was characterized by improved technologies, such as ceramic production and horticulture, leading to an overall increase in productive efficiency, and by the construction of burial mounds. Although these characteristics originated during the Archaic, only after 500 B.C. did they come together and become adopted over a wide area. 

Woodland peoples refined their hunter-gatherer adaptations, making heavy use of fish and clams in majorriver valleys, and continuing to exploit deer and bison. Dependence on cultivated plants increased. Native plants often thought of as weeds today were grown for their nutritious seeds. Woodland farmers developed domesticated varieties of some of these native grain crops long before corn or beans became important. Climatic conditions approached modern averages, landform development stabilized in most places except in flood plains and stream channels, and vegetation patterns were much like the forest-prairie mix documented by nineteenth-century land surveys. 

Early Woodland settlements (500-100 B.C.) in the Midwest were small and seasonally occupied. Early Woodland subsistence patterns in Iowa are not well known, but they probably involved broad-based procurement of mammals, birds, and aquatic species. Early Woodland peoples built large burial mounds similar to some in Ohio, and they interacted with groups throughout the Midwest, as evidenced by artifacts made of exotic raw materials. The typical Early Woodland spear point was a straight stemmed or contracting stemmed point, and pottery of the period includes both a thick, flat- bottomed type (500-300 B.C.) and a thinner, bag-shaped type often decorated with incised lines in geometric patterns (300-100 B.C.). Early Woodland sites are relatively common in the Mississippi Valley but are difficult to identify in central and western Iowa. Perhaps groups on the eastern Great Plains retained an Archaic lifestyle during this period. 

The Middle Woodland period (100 B.C.-A.D. 300) is noted for its refined artworks, complex mortuary program, and extensive trade networks. Middle Woodland communities throughout the Midwest were linked by a network archaeologists refer to as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. Trading involved materials such as Knife River flint from North Dakota and obsidian from the Yellowstone Park area. Also exchanged through the Hopewell network were artifacts of marine shell, copper, mica, and several pipestones, as well as high quality ceramic vessels and possibly perishable materials which have not survived archaeologically. Elaboration of the mortuary program and social stratification indicate increased levels of social and political complexity. However, most Middle Woodland peoples probably lived in small communities or farmsteads, focusing their subsistence economy on food resources in large river valleys and tending gardens of squash, tobacco, and native grain crops such as marshelder and goosefoot. Typical Middle Woodland tools included broad, corner-notched spear points and finely made, thin blades. 

By Late Woodland times (A.D. 300-1000) the continent-wide exchange of exotic goods declined but interaction between communities and tribes continued. Population levels apparently increased rapidly. In some parts of Iowa, Late Woodland peoples aggregated into large, planned villages, but in most of the state settlements continued to be small and generally became more dispersed across the landscape. Uplands and small interior valleys became settled or more heavily utilized. Late Woodland peoples introduced the bow and arrow into the Midwest. Continued native crop horticulture and diversified hunting and gathering provided the subsistence base through most of the period. Corn was introduced to many groups after around A.D. 800 but did not form a staple crop until the Late Prehistoric period. 

Mound construction was generally simpler than in the Middle Woodland period, but regular aggregations for ritual and other purposes are probably reflected in the Late Woodland mound groups found throughout the state. Groups of linear, effigy, and conical mounds in northeastern Iowa form a distinctive element of the Effigy Mound Culture (A.D. 650-1000). The living sites of Effigy Mound peoples show a seasonal settlement pattern involving fish and shellfish collection during warm seasons in the main river valleys, nut harvesting in uplands in the fall, and winter use of rockshelters. Effigy Mound populations may have lived in dispersed groups in the interior of northeast Iowa during much of the year, coalescing regularly in the Mississippi valley to exploit the vast array of seasonally available resources. The effigy mound groups along the Mississippi bluff line may have signified the territories of loosely related nuclear or extended family units which met seasonally and merged into a larger social unit. 

Late Prehistoric 

The Plains Village pattern appeared in Late Prehistoric times (A.D. 1000-1650) marking the beginning of a distinctive adaptation to the tall grass prairie/short grass plains ecotone of South Dakota, Nebraska, western Iowa, and southern Minnesota. Improved corn varieties, garden surpluses, new storage methods, earthlodge houses, and a complex social organization were common to these Late Prehistoric villagers. Bison meat was a common item in the diet, and hides were processed for clothing, robes, and coverings for tipis and lodges. Bison bones were modified into a variety of tools such as scapula hoes, used in gardening and digging. 

One of the earliest of the Plains Village cultures was Great Oasis. Great Oasis culture developed from the local Late Woodland culture around A.D. 1000. Great Oasis sites are found over a wide area in the eastern Great Plains. Villages were situated on low terraces above the flood plains of rivers and streams, and on lake shores. Large, permanent villages may have been occupied by the entire popu lation throughout the fall, winter, and spring. Smaller, temporary campsites were used for seasonal procurement of resources. During the summer a communal bison hunt or the establishment of small campsites for horticultural purposes may have led to temporary abandonment of the large settlements. 

Mill Creek, a northwest Iowa culture of this period, is part of what prehistorians refer to as the Initial variant of the Middle Missouri tradition. Mill Creek villages appear as deep midden deposits on terraces above the Big and Little Sioux rivers and their tributaries. Many of the well planned, compact villages were fortified with log palisades, and encircling ditches. Within the villages were individual earthlodges with large internal storage pits. Mill Creek people were semisedentary horticulturalists who grew a large amount of corn along with the native crops, possibly using ridged-field agriculture. It is likely that, as with other Plains Village groups, a communal bison hunt was conducted on one or more occasions during the year. Mill Creek people maintained connections, possibly through trade, with major prehistoric centers in the Mississippi valley, such as the famous site of Cahokia near St. Louis. 

The Central Plains tradition consisted of cultures in Kansas, Nebraska, western Missouri, and southwestern Iowa. Many Central Plains sites were settled farming communities whose residents built substantial earthlodge houses. The archaeological remains of communities along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, southwestern Iowa, northwestern Missouri, and northeastern Kansas are grouped into what is called the Nebraska phase. Any relationships between the prehistoric Nebraska phase and historic tribes are unclear, although the historic Pawnee may have roots in the Central Plains tradition. Over 80 Central Plains earthlodges have been recorded in the Glenwood locality, Mills County. They represent a fully-developed expansion of Nebraska phase people into southwestern Iowa around A.D. 1050-1250. Glenwood settlements were individual farmsteads or small clusters of earthlodges dispersed along ridge summits, low terraces, and valley wall slopes in the Loess Hills and adjacent landforms. 

During the Late Prehistoric period the Oneota culture dominated much of eastern Iowa as well as extensive parts of central and northwestern Iowa. Oneota peoples lived throughout the Midwest between around A.D. 1050 and 1700. Oneota villages were large and permanent or semipermanent. Houses varied in form from small, square or oval single-family dwellings to longhouses with many families. The subsistence economy was based on fishing, hunting, plant collecting, and agriculture. Distinct Oneota groups occupied widely separated regions of Iowa. Each group, or phase, occupied a core locality where villages were densely packed on the landscape. These core areas are surrounded by huge territories that were probably used for hunting, gathering, and other resource procurement. Although the various phases appear to have been generally autonomous, there was probably a great deal of interaction and socio-political cohesion among them. Oneota complexes are ancestral to several midwestern tribes such as the Iowa, Oto, Missouri, and Winnebago. 

Historic Indians and Euro-Americans 

Several Oneota sites in northeastern and northwestern Iowa bridge the prehistoric and historic eras (A.D. 1640-1700). Early French trade goods such as glass beads, finger rings, and gunflints are found at sites dominated by native-made material. In Iowa the term "protohistoric'' denotes this period, when European goods were arriving and other influences were felt but before European peoples started to make extensive written records of the area. 

Indian groups residing in or using portions of Iowa seasonally in protohistoric times included the Iowa, Oto, Omaha, perhaps the Missouri, and the Middle and Eastern Dakota. These groups were essentially sedentary, but elements of their populations made wide-ranging seasonal forays for hunting and warfare. 

After around 1650, European competition for tribal alliances and trade, and European diseases, drastically changed the structure of and relationships among Indian groups. Tribal population declined and white dispossession of traditional territories became common. In Iowa, the tribes mentioned above gave way to Great Lakes groups including the Sauk, Mesquakie (Fox), Winnebago, and Potawatomi. Perhaps the best known of these groups among Iowans is the Mesquakie

The name Mesquakie means "people of the red earth." Oral history indicates a tribal origin in the lower Great Lakes. At the time of earliest French contact, the Mesquakies had recently moved from Michigan to Wisconsin. In the early 1700s French pressure forced the tribe into Illinois. By 1750, the Mesquakies considered Iowa their homeland, and they established priority rights to the Iowa River valley by 1800. Further pressured by white incursion into Iowa, the Mesquakies ceded Iowa lands in 1804, 1832, 1836, 1837, and 1842. Most Mesquakie people continued to live in villages in the Iowa River valley, moving farther up river with each land cession. Some Mesquakies remained in Iowa even after the "official" removal of Indians from Iowa in 1845. In the 1850s, the Mesquakies residing in Iowa and those returning from western reservations purchased land in Tama County, and the Mesquakie settlement was legally founded. 

European-sponsored enterprises affecting Iowa in the early Historic period included the fur trade and, in northeastern Iowa, lead mining. In 1762, the area that is now Iowa came under Spanish rule. The Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, Dubuque County, is a portion of Julien Dubuque's original land grant which he received from the Spanish government in 1796. The Mesquakie Indians, who moved into the area in the mid-1770s, allowed Dubuque to mine for lead in what they considered their territory from 1788 to Dubuque's death in 1810. Two other Spanish land grants were given to private individuals-one to Basil Giard in what is now Clayton County and one to Louis Tesson in what is now Lee County. The United States obtained Iowa as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and soon thereafter President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. They traveled up the Missouri River in 1804, meeting with the Oto and Missouri tribes and hunting in the Loess Hills. In 1809, Fort Madison was built, followed by Fort Armstrong at Rock Island, Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, and Fort Atkinson in Winneshiek County. In 1833, much of eastern Iowa was opened for non-Indian settlement and by 1850, small towns were scattered across the state. Early settlements were along rivers, especially in eastern Iowa. By 1870 railroads had spread across the state, and river transportation declined in importance. 

Most of Iowa's cities and towns were established by the mid-1800s. Farms covered the state, and industries such as coal mining flourished. By the time of statehood in 1846, the character of modern Iowa had been formed by events of its most recent history. 



Anderson, Duane C.
1975 The Development of Archaeology in Iowa: An Overview. Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 82:71-86.

McKusick, Marshall (editor)
1971 Prehistoric Investigations. Report 3. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.


Agogino, George A., and W. D. Frankforter
1960 A Paleo-Indian Bison Kill in Northwestern Iowa. American Antiquity 25:414-415.

Anderson, Adrian D., and Joseph A. Tiffany
1972 Rummels-Maske: A Clovis Find Spot in Iowa. Plains Anthropologist 17:55-59.

Frison, George C.
1991 Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. 2nd ed. Academic Press, San Diego.

Graham, Russell W.
1982 Clovis People in the Midwest: The Importance of the Kimmswick Site. The Living Museum 44(2):27-29.

Wheat, Joe Ben
1967 A Paleo-Indian Bison Kill. Scientific American January:44-52.


Anderson, Duane C., and Holmes A. Semken, Jr. (editors)
1980 The Cherokee Excavations: Holocene Ecology and Human Adaptations in Northwestern Iowa. Academic Press, New York.

Anderson, Duane C., Michael Finnegan, John Hotopp, and Alton K. Fisher
1978 The Lewis Central School Site (13PW5): A Resolution of Ideological Conflicts at an Archaic Ossuary in Western Iowa. Plains Anthropologist 23:183-219.

Fisher, Alton K., W. D. Frankforter, Joseph A. Tiffany, Shirley J. Schermer,and Duane C. Anderson
1985 Turin: A Middle Archaic Burial Site in Western Iowa. Plains Anthropologist 30:195-218.

Phillips, James L., and James A. Brown (editors)
1983 Archaic Hunters and Gatherers in the American Midwest. Academic Press, New York.


Benn, David W.
1980 Hadfield's Cave: A Perspective on Late Woodland Culture in Northeastern Iowa. Report 13. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Benn, David W. (editor)
1990 Woodland Cultures on the Western Prairies: The Rainbow Site Investigations. Report 18. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Brose, David S., and Nomi Greber (editors)
1979 Hopewell Archaeology: The Chillicothe Conference. Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.

Farnsworth, Kenneth B., and Thomas E. Emerson (editors)
1986 Early Woodland Archaeology. Center for American Archeology Press, Kampsville, Illinois.

Logan, Wilford D.
1976 Woodland Complexes in Northeastern Iowa. Publications in Archaeology 15. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,Washington, D.C.

Mallam, R. Clark
1976 The Iowa Effigy Mound Manifestation: An Interpretive Model. Report 9. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City. 
1976 The Mound Builders: An American Myth. Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 23:145-175. 
1984 Some Views on the Driftless Area in Iowa. Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 91:16-21.

Theler, James L.
1987 Woodland Tradition Economic Strategies: Animal Resource Utilization in Southwestern Wisconsin and Northeastern Iowa. Report 17. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Tiffany, Joseph A., Shirley J. Schermer, James L. Theler, Douglas W. Owsley, Duane C. Anderson, E. Arthur Bettis III, and Dean M. Thompson
1988 The Hanging Valley Site (13HR28): A Stratified Woodland Burial Locale in Western Iowa. Plains Anthropologist 33:219-259.

Mill Creek and Great Oasis

Anderson, Duane C.
1981 Mill Creek Ceramics: The Complex from the Brewster Site. Report 14. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City. 
1987 Toward a Processual Understanding of the Initial Variant of the Middle Missouri Traditions: The Case of the Mill Creek Culture of Iowa. American Antiquity 52:522-537.

Dallman, John E.
1983 A Choice of Diet: Response to Climatic Change. Report 16. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Tiffany, Joseph A.
1982 Chan-Ya-Ta: A Mill Creek Village. Report 15. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Glenwood (Central Plains)

Anderson, Adrian D.
1960 The Glenwood Sequence: A Local Sequence for a Series of Archaeological Manifestations in Mills County, Iowa. Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 10(3).

Blakeslee, Donald J. (editor)
1978 The Central Plains Tradition: Internal Development and External Relationships. Report 11. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Brown, Lionel
1967 Pony Creek Archaeology. Publications in Salvage Archaeology No. 5. River Basin Surveys, Smithsonian Institution, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Gradwohl, David M.
1969 Prehistoric Villages in Eastern Nebraska. Publications in Anthropology 4. Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln.

Green, William
1991 The Paul Rowe Archaeological Collection: A Key to Central Plains Prehistory. Plains Anthropologist 36:79-85.

Green, William (editor)
1990 Glenwood Culture Paleoenvironment and Diet: Analysis of Plant and Animal Remains from the Wall Ridge Earthlodge (13ML176), Mills County, Iowa. Research Papers 15(6). Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Zimmerman, Larry J.
1977 Prehistoric Locational Behavior: A Computer Simulation. Report 10. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City. 
1977 The Glenwood Local Sequence: A Reexamination. Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 24:62-83.

Oneota and Ioway

Anderson, Duane C.
1973 Ioway Ethnohistory: A Review (Parts 1 and 2). Annals of Iowa 41:1228-1241, 42:41-59.

Harvey, Amy
1979 Oneota Culture in Northwestern Iowa. Report 12. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Henning, Dale R.
1970 Development and Interrelationship of Oneota Culture in the Lower Missouri River Valley. Missouri Archaeologist 32:1-180.

McKusick, Marshall
1973 The Grant Oneota Village. Report 4. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Mott, Mildred
1938 The Relation of Historic Indian Tribes to Archaeological Manifestations in Iowa. Iowa Journal of History and Politics 36:227-314.

Straffin, Dean F.
1971 The Kingston Oneota Site. Report 2. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.

Wedel, Mildred Mott
1959 Oneota Sites on the Upper Iowa River. The Missouri Archaeologist 21(2,4). 
1961 Indian Villages on the Upper Iowa River. Palimpsest 42:561-592. 
1981 The IowayOto, and Omaha Indians in 1700. Journal of the Iowa Archaeological Society 28:1-13.