Native land cessions, 1824 – 1851. Illustrations by author.
Iowa lands were not settled all at once. As native tribes ceded their holdings and moved further west, the federal government set a date for each area of “public domain” to officially open for settlement. Land could not be purchased until federal surveyors completed their work, but settlers could move onto the land and stake their claim.
Dragoons patrolled areas still in the hands of local tribes. Theoretically,anyone who crossed the line into unauthorized areas were expelled. In practice, quite a few eager beavers made forays into soon-to-open regions and scouted out preferred locations. Some managed to evade detection and got a head start on their claim.
“New Purchase” central Iowa, 1842
Consider this example. A large swath of central Iowa was scheduled to open for settlement on 1 May 1843. In the preceding months hundreds of settlers massed along the “line,” waiting for the midnight opening. Imagine the tension and excitement for your ancestor:
“Those expecting to make settlements on the “New Purchase” were forbidden to come on the reserve until the time of its delivery into the hands of the government by the Indians, 1 May 1843. Dragoons were stationed all along the border, whose duty it was to keep the whites out of the country until the appointed time. For some weeks previous to the date assigned, settlers came up into the new country, prospecting for homes, and were quietly permitted to cross the border and look around, so long as they were unaccompanied by wagon and carried no ax. This latter weapon was sometimes place without a handle in the knapsack of the traveler and an impromptu handle fitted in by a penknife, when necessity called for its use.
“During the last few days of April the dragoons relaxed their strict discipline and an occasional wagon slipped in through the brush. The night of April 30th found some scores of newcomers on the ground, who had been prospecting the country, who had decided mentally what claims they would make, and had various agreements among themselves. These settlers were mostly along or near the Des Moines river, it then being thought that prairie land was not half so desirable as the river and timber country.
“As it neared midnight on the morning of May 1st, settler after settler took his place upon the border of his claim with his bunch of sharpend stakes and lantern, or his blazing torch, and when it was thought twelve o’clock had arrived there was some lively surveying by amateur engineers in the dark. The claims were paced off, and strange to say there were few cases of dispute, the matter having been pretty generally understood in the preceding day.” 
This scenario played out over and over again as each new region opened—and not just in Iowa! Continue reading