Governing the Frontier

Iowa’s territorial governance changed as regions of the Louisiana Purchase were opened, settled, and organized into states. Although the federal government ultimately administered the frontier, day-to-day governance rested in various territorial jurisdictions.

Iowa District, Wisconsin Territory

Henry J. Abel, “The Entire Territory of Wisconsin, As Established by Act of Congress, April 10, 1836,” Map of the Settled Part of Wisconsin Territory compiled from the Latest Authorities by Aug. Mitchell (Philadelphia: J.H. Young, 1838); digital image, Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Map Collection ( : accessed 1 January 2016).

Knowing which “territory” Iowa was part of at any given time helps trace the records that document your territorial ancestor. Iowa was included in the following jurisdictions during the territorial era:

  • 1803. Louisiana Purchase
  • 1804. District of Louisiana, administered by Indiana Territory, governed from St. Louis
  • 1805. Territory of Louisiana. Capital at St. Louis
  • 1812. Territory of Missouri. Capital at St. Louis
  • 1821. Missouri attains statehood. Iowa remains without official jurisdiction until 1834.
  • 1834. Territory of Michigan. Capital at Detroit
  • 1836. District of Iowa, Territory of Wisconsin. Capital at Belmont, Wisconsin; secondary capital at Burlington, Iowa
  • 1838. Territory of Iowa. Includes all of present-day Iowa, parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota. Capital at Burlington, Iowa, moved to Iowa City 1841
  • 1846. Iowa attains statehood. Capital at Iowa City, later moved to Des Moines

Of course, legal settlement in Iowa did not begin until 1833; if your ancestor was here earlier, he may have been trapping, trading, soldiering, or living “off the grid!” Continue reading

Indians, Traders & Soldiers

Frontier Forts of Iowa: Indians, Traders, and Soldiers, 1682 – 1862, edited by William E. Whittaker. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009. Softcover, 277 pages. Illustrated. Bibliography and index.

Evidence demonstrates at least fifty-six frontier forts guarded Iowa lands as early as the seventeenth century and as late as the 1860s. These outposts maintained spheres of influence with native peoples and foreign governments. They kept frontier peace between local tribes and buffered the transition from native to white population. Some fortifications were little more than earthworks or a few buildings; others were built with more sophistication. Time and purpose guided construction. Continue reading

Dragoons Keep the Peace

Transition from a Native American population to federal domain took place through a series of treaty cessions beginning with U.S. purchase of the southeast corner of present-day Lee County in 1824. The Black Hawk War of 1832 and subsequent treaties/purchases took place over a number of years, with the final cession taking place in 1851 in northern Iowa.

Native land cessions, 1824 – 1851. Map by author.

Federal troops kept the process peaceful, creating a series of small forts, blockhouses, and posts across the state. Dragoons (cavalry soldiers) manned these outposts, protecting white settlers from local tribes and protecting the various tribes from each other.

Territorial fortifications. Illustration by author.

Evidence of these early fortifications is scattered; some have disappeared completely. Some, such as Fort Dodge and Fort Atkinson have been preserved or reconstructed; others, such as the site of Des Moines no. 1, are marked with commemorative plaques. If your ancestor was a dragoon on Iowa’s frontier, evidence for their service may be may be found in federal records. Continue reading

First Line of Defense

Defending the frontier became increasingly important in the years following the Louisiana Purchase. British incursion into American fur trade and British encouragement of Native American resistance to the westward push of settlement prompted establishment of the first United States military post on the upper Mississippi River. The site selected in 1808 was named Fort Madison in honor of President James Madison. It was the first true military installation in Iowa.

Old Fort Madison. All photographs by author.

Fort Madison served two important missions: it operated as a trading post, or “factory,” encouraging business and friendly relationships with local tribes; and it functioned as a deterrent to British influence. Initially commanded by Lt. Alpha Kingsley, the fort was garrisoned primarily by troops of the 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment. These “regular army” soldiers tended to be older than wartime volunteers, and although their numbers fluctuated, the fort averaged around seventy-five full-time soldiers.

View from a gun port

Trade with regional Winnebago, Sauk and Fox Indians was mostly peaceful, but under the leadership of pro-British Sauk warrior Black Hawk, tensions and suspicions on both sides multiplied. The War of 1812 sealed the fate of Fort Madison. In September 1812 hostile war parties of Sauk and Winnebago besieged the fort, killing and mutilating a soldier who ventured beyond the safety of the stockade. The following July a war party killed several more soldiers and continued harassment of the fort. In November 1813 post commander Lt. Thomas Hamilton ordered the fort abandoned and burned.

Old Ft. Madison entrance

Reconstructing the Past

The City of Fort Madison in 1983 received grant monies to begin construction of a replica of old Fort Madison near the original site. Today, most major buildings have be recreated as an interpretive center open to the public. You can see what Army life was like and learn more about the fur trading era. Moreover, substantial research has documented the lives of these frontier defenders. You just might find your own ancestral soldier at this first line of defense.

Special thanks to Dr. Eugene Watkins and the staff of Old Fort Madison for their hospitality and insights into this historic era of territorial Iowa. Continue reading

A New American Frontier

Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, 4 vols. (New York: Century History Co., 1903), 1:58

Iowa lands became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The federal government lost little time in exploring this vast new American Frontier. Most of us are familiar with the 1804 expedition of Captain Lewis Meriwether and Lt. William Clark. Their trek up the Missouri River provided early information about western Iowa. More expeditions followed.

Mindful of European influence, the federal government authorized military exploration for the purpose of establishing an American presence and securing rights to Indian trade. Lt. Zebulon Pike’s 1805 expedition probed the Mississippi River country of eastern Iowa and established early outposts near present-day Burlington.

Illustration by author.

Lt. Stephen Watts Kearny led a series of expeditions beginning with an 1820 trek that crossed Iowa lands diagonally from near Council Bluffs to present-day Winona, Minnesota. Kearny was accompanied by “regular army” soldiers of the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment. Subsequent journeys in 1824, 1826, and and 1835 established routes along major rivers and older Indian trails. These would serve as pathways to the interior for the rush of pioneer settlement soon to come. Continue reading

Two Friends

Besides Louis Honoré Tesson, two other French-Canadians enjoyed the bounty of Spanish land grants in Iowa. Julien Dubuque settled in present-day Dubuque County about 1785. He operated the “Mines of Spain,” lead mines, worked largely by local natives, and established a trading empire. His land grant, procured in present-day Dubuque County from the Spanish government in 1796, was twenty-one miles long and nine miles wide. [1] Financial troubles later caused Dubuque to deed a large portion of his holdings to a St. Louis creditor; by the time of his death in 1810, Dubuque was bankrupt. The city and county named for him are a lasting legacy to this adventurer.

Julien Dubuque Spanish land grant tract map [1]

Julien Dubuque Spanish land grant tract map [1]

Dubuque’s friend, Basil Giard, received almost 7000 acres across the river from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He settled his family near the site of present-day McGregor in Clayton County and brought some of the land under cultivation. [2] Dubuque and Giard maintained possession of their Iowa properties until their deaths, Dubuque in 1810, Giard in1817, but legal claim to their lands became problematic when the United States purchased Louisiana Territory in 1803. Continue reading

Fruit, Furs, and Faith

Commemorating Louis Honore Tesson.

Commemorating Louis Honore Tesson. Photographs by author,

Tucked into the southeast corner of the state where the Des Moines River meets the Mississippi, traces of the past still linger in Lee County. In 1799 one of Iowa’s earliest pre-territorial white inhabitants, French-Canadian Louis Honoré Tesson, settled his family here in Iowa country.

The Mississippi valley had long been a contested area, with British, French and Spanish vying for domination of the rich fur trade and control of the great river’s highway to the gulf. French defeat by the British brought the vast Louisiana Territory under Spanish control, but it would take more than a treaty to keep the pesky Americans from intruding and competing for trade. The Spanish sought to cement their rule through a series of land grants to private individuals who would promote Spanish interests on the frontier. Continue reading

Resources for Iowa’s Frontier Traders

Trappers & tradersMany resources exist to help you learn more about your frontier trader. Here are a few to get you started:

Campbell, Marjorie Wilkins. The North West Company. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1957. Available online, Internet Archive.

Chicago History Museum, Research Center. American Fur Company records, 1816 – 1947. Textual and microfilm. Continue reading

Iowa’s First Europeans

the Des Moines River, Van Buren County, Iowa

Morning mist along the Des Moines River,
Van Buren County, Iowa. Photograph by author.

Long before Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase, and long before Lewis and Clark’s famous journey up Iowa’s western border Missouri River, Europeans explored, trapped, and traded in the “land between two rivers.” Most of us are familiar with the journeys of La Salle, Marquette and Jolliet, but they were soon followed by other adventurers.

Between 1673 and 1803, the central part of the North American continent was controlled by France and Spain. They, along with the British, vied for supremacy in the lucrative Native American fur trade. Fur was king, and traders expanded spheres of national influence as they crisscrossed the vast western frontier. Continue reading

Native Peoples

Native American tribes associated with Iowa belonged to two major families:

  • Chief Black Hawk

    Chief Black Hawk

    Sioux (Dakotahs) family included related tribes Ioway, Omahas, Winnebagoes, Osages, Sisseons, Missouris and Otoes. These tribes migrated from the eastern Great Lakes region to present-day central and northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, and the Dakotas.

  • Algonquin family consisted of the Illinois, Sauk (Sac), Fox (Meskwaki), Chippewas, Attouays and Pottawattamies. These tribes occupied northern Missouri and southern Iowa.

The state of Iowa derives its name from the Ioway tribe, who migrated to southeastern Iowa in the late 1700s, settling in the vicinity of present-day Davis, Van Buren and Wapello counties. They were pushed out of these lands by other tribes in the 1820s and moved into central and southwestern Iowa. Between 1820 and 1840, the tribe ceded its lands in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri and relocated to reservations in Kansas and Nebraska. Continue reading