An Overview of the Historic Period

by Carl A. Merry
© Copyright 1996 The University of Iowa. All rights reserved. 

The historic period began in Iowa with the European exploration of the midcontinent, as evidenced by their written records and artifacts. Many Indians possessed and traded European manufactured goods long before they ever set eyes on a French explorer, and the historic period for them began before actual contact. The presence of western Siouan and Algonquian Indians and fur-bearing animals, lead, and other natural resources was reported for the Upper Mississippi Valley as early as 1634 by Jean Nicolet, and confirmed by other western Great Lakes explorers in the decades that followed. The first recorded Europeans to venture into Iowa were Louis Joliet, Father Jacques Marquette, and the voyageurs who exited the Wisconsin River and paddled down the great Mississippi River in June of 1673. They traveled for eight days camping along the Iowa shoreline before visiting the Illiniwek (Illinois) Indians at the Illiniwek Village State Historic Site near the mouth of the Des Moines River, on the Missouri side. Jolliet-Marquette expedition journals indicated this summer village had nearly 300 lodges, laid out with streets. Archaeologists have recently begun excavations at this important early historic site. 

Prior to 1700 the Ioway and Oto, and possibly the Omaha and Ponca, occupied a large village at Blood Run National Historic Landmark in northwest Iowa along the Big Sioux River. Blue glass beads, iron knives, and brass kettles have been found in excavations there. A small Ioway village as it might have looked around 1700 can be visited at Iowa Living History Farms in Des Moines. Other Ioway villages and cemeteries from the earliest period of French contact have been excavated along the Upper Iowa River in northeast Iowa and in the lakes region of Northwest Iowa. Jesuit rings, gun parts, and glass beads show European influence while evidence of bison hunting, pottery-making, and pipestone working attest to the retention of traditional lifeways. 

Mining of lead for utilitarian and ornamental objects in northeast Iowa began in prehistoric times, and continued well into the 19th century. Due to its prominent visibility along the Mississippi River bluffs and ease of transport by boat or raft, Dubuque-area lead was mined and smelted by Indians and French fur traders. In the early 1690s, Pierre Le Sueur reported lead mining in the Dubuque area, and Nicholas Perrot excavated in mines south of the Wisconsin River. The lead region became recognized by other explorers as well, resulting in increasing visibility through depictions on dozens of maps through the 1700s. 

The Sauk, Meskwaki, and Winnebago Indians mined lead in the 18th century. Mine pits and caves, with ore smelted by log furnaces, were worked by the Indians as a summer revenue source by those who could not participate in the summer hunt. In some cases with men doing the mining and women doing the smelting, the Meskwakis earned large revenues that were used to purchase European and American trade goods. Throughout the 18th century, lead mining and smelting was integrated into the French, and later British and American, fur trade economy in the Upper Mississippi Valley frontier. Continuing production on an industrial scale ensured that some of the lead shot flying in the American Civil War derived from the Upper Mississippi lead region. 

Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian entrepreneur from Fort Michilimackinac (Michigan), received the gift of the use of a profitable lead mine from the Meskwakis in 1788. Eight years later, he applied for a 9 by 21 mile Spanish land grant, which was awarded by the Spanish Governor of Louisiana in New Orleans in 1796. Despite the region being widely known as "the Lead Mines'' or "Indian Diggings'' for generations, Julien Dubuque invented a new title in his application for the tract, calling it "Mines of Spain,'' now a state recreation area of the same name. The new title was part of a successful attempt to consolidate Spanish colonial protections, and to retain a monopoly against the developing British and American interests in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Two additional Spanish land grants were awarded in Iowa, Basil Giards's tract in northeast Iowa, and Louis Tesson's in the southeast, but none of the Spanish claims were ever recognized by the United States. 

Dubuque made a great deal of money during his 22-year monopoly in the mining and trading business, shipping furs north to Michilimackinac and lead south to St. Louis, but he also saw periods of recurring debt. By 1810 the enterprise consisted of a multi-ethnic community of several dozen French and Indian miners from Prairie du Chien, hundreds of Meskwaki Indians, and a widely dispersed site complex that included cultivated fields, livestock, a wharf, boats, blacksmith shop and forge, a mill, a smelting furnace, mining equipment, fur trade essentials, and several dwellings. Dubuque regularly made 300-mile float trips to St. Louis to sell raw materials including thousands of pounds of lead, at 3 to 5 cents a pound; to participate in fashionable French Colonial society; and return to the frontier with large quantities of goods for sale, and trade, and consumption. It has been estimated that Dubuque's income from lead mining was over $5,000 a year, a fabulous sum in the context of the barter economy of the Upper Mississippi valley at that time. Julien Dubuque died in 1810 after a long illness, whether from lead poisoning or not is unknown, and creditors and land speculators from St. Louis rushed in to try to claim the mines. But the Meskwakis stood firm and minimized the risk of further white encroachment by burning all of Dubuque's standing buildings. Dubuque himself was buried in a wooden tomb with viewing windows on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, which served for decades as a prominent landmark and curiosity along the river. An 1897 Gothic Revival monument stands on the hilltop today. 

The period from the 1760s through 1830s was a turbulent time that saw an antagonistic British and American presence challenging established French and Indian alliances in the Upper Mississippi and Missouri valleys. Regional conflicts stemming out of the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812 led to the breakdown of the French fur trade and barter economy and increased pressure from American encroachment. The Ioway Indians maintained a village in the 1750s and 60s in the Des Moines River valley near Iowaville, controlling a large horse and fur trading network. The Ioways traded with other Indians and Europeans over a large region. Numerous British gunflints and glass and ceramic artifacts have been recovered from Iowaville. 

Fort Madison, constructed in 1809, was the first U.S. Army outpost in the Upper Mississippi Valley. It was garrisoned by 50-60 troops. A succession of British-allied Sauk and Winnebago Indian attacks during the War of 1812 forced its abandonment in 1813. Archaeologists have recovered bronze buttons with First Infantry insignia, trade beads, and solid puddles of lead created when the fort was burned, and helped uncover the barracks and blockhouses. A reconstructed fort is built near the site in the city of Fort Madison. 

It was not until June 1, 1833, under the terms of the Treaty known as the Black Hawk Purchase, that legal non-Indian settlement in the Iowa Territory began in earnest. This opened a new chapter in Iowa history, an American land rush following a series of treaties pushing Indians westward beyond the Missouri River. By 1851 all Indian lands in Iowa had been ceded to the U.S. government. General Land Office surveys quickly divided up public lands for sale, and the eastern cities of Burlington, Davenport, Dubuque, and others rapidly grew. In Iowa Territory's first census of 1836, population swelled to 23,000. A new territorial capitol was established in Iowa City in 1839, and when statehood was announced in 1846 it became the first state capitol; ``Old Capitol'' is now a National Historic Landmark. Archaeological excavations at Plum Grove in Iowa City, the 1844 home of the first Governor of the Territory of Iowa, Robert Lucas, have aided the restoration of that Greek Revival building. 

The capitol was moved to the city of Des Moines in 1857 in order to be located in the center of the state, between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. Des Moines quickly became a center for the insurance industry. With the completion of the railroads after the Civil War, western Iowa cities such as Council Bluffs, Fort Dodge, and Sioux City began to prosper. The mid-19th century saw the expansion of natural resource industries such as lumbering, milling, coal mining, and stone quarrying. Archaeological studies of mills, milling towns, brick kilns, and other industrial sites have helped illuminate this aspect of Iowa history. In 1845 the Meskwaki Indians were officially moved to Kansas, but in 1856 a band returned to purchase land and their descendants reside today on the Meskwaki Settlement near the city of Tama, holding annual summer ``pow-wows'' open to the public. 

Future president Herbert Hoover was born in West Branch in 1874. West Branch features his birthplace cottage, a presidential library-museum, and gravesite. During the 19th century, a number of communal societies flourished for a time: Amana Colonies (Iowa County, founded 1855, now a National Historic Landmark); Communia (Clayton County, 1847-1856); Icaria (Adams County, 1860-1895); Phalanx (Mahaska County, 1843-1845); and Salubria (Van Buren County, 1839-1844). 

On April 1, 1865, the steamboat Bertrand navigating up the Missouri River struck a snag and sunk at De Soto Bend. It was loaded with supplies headed for the gold fields of Montana Territory when it went down with its cargo. Archaeologists excavated the site in 1969, and the well preserved cargo of tools, foodstuffs, mining equipment, and household goods is exhibited at the Bertrand Museum at the De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge north of Council Bluff. 

Following a rapid pioneer phase, a pattern of American midwestern agriculture became established after the Civil War that remains essentially in place today. Iowa farms initially produced wheat but later developed into major producers of corn, soybeans, cattle, and hogs. Rural agricultural communities, increasingly connected by rail, enjoyed the prosperity and suffered the recessions of boom-bust national economic cycles. Urban centers became increasingly interconnected with the national and international political economy via developing road, steamboat, rail, and air transportation networks, social and business ties, and involvement with the arts, religion, communications, education, and government. 

Historic archaeological evidence from Iowa demonstrates that the area has participated in the capitalist global economy for over 300 years. Artifacts from sites across the state include glass beads and gunflints on 1600s-era Indian archaeological sites; 1700s-era beaver tokens melted down from French or Spanish coin silver; smelting furnace remains of the 1800s Welsh and Cornish miners who brought advanced mining techniques to the lead region; and remains of farmsteads, townsites, and mills abandoned over the 19th and 20th centuries. Archaeology in Iowa holds tremendous potential to tell us much about historic agricultural, commercial, and industrial development of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri valleys. 

Iowa celebrates 150 years of statehood in 1996. For further information on Iowa's Sesquicentennial, please examine its home page at: Iowa Sesquicentinnial. Additionally, Iowa's Sesquicentennial will be featured in Washington, D.C., at the American Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Museum and Capitol Mall over the summer of 1996. Please visit it in the nation's capitol this summer. 

Suggested Reading

Vogel, Virgil J.
1983 Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.

Shank, Wesley I.
1979 The Iowa Catalog: Historic American Buildings Survey. University of Iowa
Press, Iowa City.

Folmar, J. K. (editor)
1986 "This State of Wonders'': The Letters of an Iowa Frontier Family, 1858-1861.
University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.

Andreas, A. T.
1875 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa. Andreas Atlas Company,
Chicago, Illinois.

Dawson, P., and D. Hudson (compilers)
1989 Iowa History and Culture: A Bibliography of Materials Published Between 1952
and 1986. Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Foley, D. E.
1995 The Heartland Chronicles. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society.
Published since 1951. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City.