Like a prairie fire pioneers swept across the frontier, filling the land so quickly that by 1845 Iowa approached eligibility for statehood. Admitted as a free state in December 1846, Iowa served to balance Florida’s entry as a slave state.

Did statehood conclude the frontier era of Iowa? No. There was plenty of land left for settlement; the 1846 map defined Iowa’s new boundaries, but her internal organization remained incomplete. Another decade would pass before the last county, Hamilton, was formed.

Even county development did not truly draw to a close Iowa’s frontier era. Not until the years following the Civil War, when the railroad stretched its fingers across every part of the state, connecting farmers to eastern markets, goods and services, could Iowa finally say “done” with pioneer days.

From her earliest native inhabitants, to trappers, traders and adventurers; and finally to the American pioneers whose ambitions and ideals shaped a new state, Iowa continues to be the peaceful, prosperous, and beautiful “land between two rivers.”

Counting Iowa’s people

1838 Wisconsin territorial census, District of Iowa, Van Buren County, unstated township; Secretary of State, State Historical Society, Des Moines.

Territories and young states counted their populations early and often—a growing population meant more federal resources, better legislative representation, and a path to statehood. From territorial days through 1925, Iowa regularly counted her people. Earliest years were purely statistical, naming only the head of household. County response was limited. Here’s a run-down of census years for territorial Iowa.

Wisconsin Territory: District of Iowa

  • 1836 Wisconsin territorial census:
    Des Moines & Dubuque Counties

No preprinted forms were used. The stated purpose was to determine legislative apportionment. Information was collected by county sheriffs, who were requested to report their findings by 1 May 1838:

Name of heads of white households
No. males under 21
No. males over 21
No. females under 21
No. females over 21
Total Continue reading

A Timeline of Counties

Iowa began organizing counties in 1834 while part of Michigan Territory. Du Buque and De Moine counties embraced the legally settled area of eastern Iowa. These were subdivided into additional jurisdictions as the population grew. With each newly opened region, population swept west, and more counties organized.

Willard Barrows and Doolittle & Munson, A New Map of Iowa: accompanied with notes by W. Barrows (Cincinnati: Doolittle & Munson, 1845); Library of Congress ( : accessed 6 Jan. 2016).

To find your ancestor, it’s important to know when their home counties formed, if the boundaries or name changed over time, and the names of any parent counties. Your search for records may need to expand to surrounding counties or other jurisdictions. Continue reading

Land Office Records

Territorial lands were considered “public domain,” that is, the property of the United States. The federal government distributed the land to individuals, companies, and states. Eligibility was spelled out through a series of Congressional acts. Although many early grants were awarded for military service, the majority of Iowa lands were sold on a cash basis, usually for about $1.25 per acre.

The process of purchasing federal land involved several steps. Each step created paperwork. Cash sales were straightforward, but even simple transactions generated “land entry files” which should include:

  • application identifying the desired land parcel
  • warrant authorizing an official survey
  • survey establishing legal boundaries and creating an official description of the property
  • patent (certificate) transferring ownership from the government to your ancestor

Amasa Hoit land application, certificate no. 20381, Mahaska Co., Iowa

The application may include your ancestor’s original signature, or his “x.” You never know what else might be included. The good news is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has preserved these documents and they are available to researchers.

Search the Bureau of Land Management website for your ancestor’s name. Be sure to search spelling variants. Or if you are sure of the location, the federal patent should be recorded in the county courthouse. Either way, you will need the entry file number, or certificate number, to order the original file from the National Archives. Continue reading

Dividing the Land

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.” [1]

This scenario played out over and over again as each new region opened—and not just in Iowa! Continue reading

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