Iowa History

Although Native Americans have occupied what is now Iowa for 13,000 years, the written history of Iowa begins with the protohistoric accounts of Native Americans by explorers such as Marquette and Joliet in the 1680s. Until the early 19th century Iowa was occupied exclusively by Indians and a few European traders, with loose political control by France and Spain.[1][2] Iowa became part of the United States of America after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but uncontested U.S. control over what is now Iowa occurred only after the War of 1812 and after a series of treaties eliminated Indians claims on the state. Beginning in the 1830s American settlements appeared in the Iowa Territory, U.S. statehood was acquired in 1846, and by 1860 almost the entire state was settled and farmed. Subsistence frontier farming was replaced by commodity farming after the construction of railroad networks in the 1850s and 1860s. Iowa contributed a disproportionate amount of young men to fight in the American Civil War, afterwards they returned to help transform Iowa into an agricultural powerhouse, supplying food to the rest of the nation.[2] The industrialization of agriculture and the emergence of centralized commodities markets in the late 19th century and 20th centuries led to a shift towards larger farms and the decline of the small family farm, this was exacerbated during the Great Depression. Industrial production became a larger part of the economy during World War II and the postwar economic boom. In the 1970s and 1980s a series of economic shocks, including the oil crisis, the 1980s farm crisis, and the Early 1980s recession led to the collapse of commodities prices, a decline in rural and state population, and rural flight. Iowa’s economy rebounded in the 1990s, emerging as a modern mixed economy dominated by industry, commerce, finance and in which agriculture is a comparatively small component. Iowa’s population is now predominately urban and has been increasing since the 1990s at a faster rate than the U.S. as a whole, although rural flight continues to be a problem.


When the American Indians first arrived in what is now Iowa more than 13,000 years ago, they were hunters and gatherers living in a Pleistocene glacial landscape. By the time European explorers visited Iowa, American Indians were largely settled farmers with complex economic, social, and political systems. This transformation happened gradually. During the Archaic period (10,500-2,800 years ago), American Indians adapted to local environments and ecosystems, slowly becoming more sedentary as populations increased. More than 3,000 years ago, during the Late Archaic period, American Indians in Iowa began utilizing domesticated plants. The subsequent Woodland period saw an increase on the reliance on agriculture and social complexity, with increased use of mounds, ceramics, and specialized subsistence. During the Late Prehistoric period (beginning about A.D. 900) increased use of maize and social changes led to social flourishing and nucleated settlements. The arrival of European trade goods and diseases in the Protohistoric period led to dramatic population shifts and economic and social upheaval, with the arrival of new tribes and early European explorers and traders.

Early Historic American Indians

Before 1673, the region had long been home to many American Indians. Approximately seventeen different American Indian tribes had resided here at various times including the Ioway, Sauk, Meskwaki (called Fox in many sources), Sioux, Potawatomi, Oto, and Missouri.

In 1673 the Frenchmen J. Marquette and L. Joliet visited Iowa. The French then considered the region to be part of their American possession ‘Louisiana’, or ‘New France’. In the Treaty of Paris (1763), the French ceded Louisiana to Spain; in the secret Third Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), the Spanish returned Louisiana to France; in 1803 the French sold Louisiana to the United States. The Potawatomi, Oto, and Missouri Indians had sold their land to the U.S. federal government by 1830 while the Sauk and Meskwaki remained in the Iowa region until 1845. The Santee Band of the Sioux was the last to negotiate a treaty with the federal government in 1851.

The Sauk and Meskwaki constituted the largest and most powerful tribes in the Upper Mississippi Valley. They had earlier moved from the Michigan region into Wisconsin and by the 1730s, they had relocated in western Illinois. There they established their villages along the Rock and Mississippi Rivers. They lived in their main villages only for a few months each year. At other times, they traveled throughout western Illinois and eastern Iowa hunting, fishing, and gathering food and materials with which to make domestic articles. Every spring, the two tribes traveled northward into Minnesota where they tapped maple trees and made syrup. Fort Madison was constructed in 1808 to control trade along the Mississippi, and to prevent the reoccupation of the area by the British; Fort Madison was defeated in 1813 by British-allied Indians during the War of 1812 and was the site of Iowa’s only true military battle. The Sauk leader Black Hawk first fought against the U.S. at Fort Madison.

In 1829, the federal government informed the two tribes that they must leave their villages in western Illinois and move across the Mississippi River into the Iowa region. The federal government claimed ownership of the Illinois land as a result of Quashquame’s Treaty of 1804. The move was made but not without violence. Black Hawk, a highly respected Sauk leader, protested the move and in 1832 returned to reclaim the Illinois village of Saukenuk. For the next three months, the Illinois militia pursued Black Hawk and his band of approximately four hundred Indians northward along the eastern side of the Mississippi River. The Indians surrendered at the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin, their numbers having dwindled to about two hundred. This encounter is known as the Black Hawk War. As punishment for their resistance, the federal government required the Sauk and Meskwaki to relinquish some of their land in eastern Iowa. This land, known as the Black Hawk Purchase, constituted a strip fifty miles wide lying along the Mississippi River, stretching from the Missouri border to approximately Fayette and Clayton Counties in Northeastern Iowa.

Today, Iowa is still home to one American Indian group, the Meskwaki, who reside on the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County. After most Sauk and Meskwaki members had been removed from the state, some Meskwaki tribal members, along with a few Sauk, returned to hunt and fish in eastern Iowa. The Indians then approached Governor James Grimes with the request that they be allowed to purchase back some of their original land. They collected $735 for their first land purchase and eventually they bought back approximately 3,200 acres (13 km²).

Iowa’s first American settlers

The first official American settlement in Iowa began in June 1833, in the Black Hawk Purchase. Most of Iowa’s early settlers came from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. The great majority of newcomers came in family units. Most families had resided in at least one additional state between the time they left their state of birth and the time they arrived in Iowa. Sometimes families had relocated three or four times before they reached Iowa. At the same time, not all settlers remained here; many soon moved on to the Dakotas or other areas in the Great Plains.

The settlers soon discovered an environment different from that which they had known back East. Most northeastern and southeastern states were heavily timbered; settlers there had material for building homes, outbuildings, and fences. Moreover, wood also provided ample fuel. Once past the extreme eastern portion of Iowa, settlers quickly discovered that the state was primarily a prairie or tall grass region. Trees grew abundantly in the extreme eastern and southeastern portions, and along rivers and streams, but elsewhere timber was limited.

In most portions of eastern and central Iowa, settlers could find sufficient timber for construction of log cabins, but substitute materials had to be found for fuel and fencing. For fuel, they turned to dried prairie hay, corn cobs, and dried animal droppings. In southern Iowa, early settlers found coal outcroppings along rivers and streams. People moving into northwest Iowa, an area also devoid of trees, constructed sod houses. Some of the early sod house residents wrote in glowing terms about their new quarters, insisting that “soddies” were not only cheap to build but were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They did not praise the bugs, the smells, or the ever-present dirt, dampness and darkness.

Settlers experimented endlessly with substitute fencing materials. Some residents built stone fences; some constructed dirt ridges; others dug ditches. The most successful fencing material was the osage orange hedge until the 1870s when the invention of barbed wire provided farmers with satisfactory fencing material.

Transportation: railroad fever

As thousands of settlers poured into Iowa in the mid-19th century, all shared a common concern for the development of adequate transportation. The earliest settlers shipped their agricultural goods down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, Louisiana, but by the 1850s, Iowans had caught the nation’s railroad fever. The nation’s first railroad had been built near Baltimore in 1831, and by 1860, Chicago, Illinois was served by almost a dozen lines. Iowans, like other Midwesterners, were anxious to start railroad building in their state.

In the early 1850s, city officials in the river communities of Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, and Burlington began to organize local railroad companies. City officials knew that railroads building west from Chicago would soon reach the Mississippi River opposite the four Iowa cities. With the 1850s, railroad planning took place which eventually resulted in the development of the Illinois Central, the Chicago and North Western Railway, reaching Council Bluffs in 1867. Council Bluffs had been designated as the eastern terminus for the Union Pacific, the railroad that would eventually extend across the western half of the nation and along with the Central Pacific, provide the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. A short time later a fifth railroad, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, also completed its line across the state.

The completion of five railroads across Iowa brought major economic changes. Of primary importance, Iowans could travel every month of the year. During the later 19th and early 20th centuries, even small Iowa towns had six passenger trains a day. Steamboats and stagecoaches had previously provided transportation, but both were highly dependent on the weather, and steam boats could not travel at all once the rivers had frozen over. Railroads also provided year-round transportation for Iowa’s farmers. With Chicago’s pre-eminence as a railroad center, the corn, wheat, beef, and pork raised by Iowa’s farmers could be shipped through Chicago, across the nation to eastern seaports, and from there, anywhere in the world.

Railroads also brought major changes in Iowa’s industrial sector. Before 1870, Iowa contained some manufacturing firms in the eastern portion of the state, particularly all made possible by year-around railroad transportation. Many of the new industries were related to agriculture. In Cedar Rapids, John and Robert Stuart, along with their cousin, George Douglas, started an oats processing plant. In time, this firm took the name Quaker Oats. Meat packing plants also appeared in the 1870s in different parts of the state: Sinclair Meat Packing opened in Cedar Rapids, Booge and Company started in Sioux City, and John Morrell and Company set up operations in Ottumwa.

The railroads also created a significant demand for coal. Coal mines were quickly opened and expanded wherever the new railroads passed through areas with coal exposures. The Chicago and North Western Railway encouraged development of mines in Boone and Moingona. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad encouraged similar deveopment in Mystic, Iowa and neighboring coal camps. Where railroads did not have direct access to sufficient coal, long branch lines were built into the coal fields. The Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway built a 66 mile branch to What Cheer in 1879, and the Chicago and North Western built a 64 mile branch to its mines in Muchakinock in 1884. By 1899, Iowa’s coal mines employed 11,029 men to produce almost 5 million tons of coal per year.

The Civil War

Iowa became a state on December 28, 1846 (the 29th state), and the state continued to attract many settlers, both native and foreign-born. Only the extreme northwestern part of the state remained a frontier area.

Iowa supported the Union during the American Civil War, voting heavily for Lincoln and the Republicans, though there was a strong antiwar “Copperhead” movement among settlers of southern origins and among Catholics. There were no battles in the state, but Iowa sent large supplies of food to the armies and the eastern cities. More than 75,000 Iowa men served, many in combat units attached to the western armies. 13,001 died of wounds or (two-thirds) of disease. Eight thousand five hundred Iowa men were wounded. The draft was not used in Iowa during the Civil War because Iowa had twelve thousand more men than the quota.

The political arena

The Civil War era brought considerable change to Iowa and perhaps one of the most visible changes came in the political arena. During the 1840s, most Iowans voted Democratic although the state also contained some Whigs. During the 1850s, however, the state’s Democratic Party developed serious internal problems as well as being unsuccessful in getting the national Democratic Party to respond to their needs. Iowans soon turned to the newly emerging Republican Party. The new party opposed slavery and promoted land ownership, banking, and railroads. The political career of James Grimes illustrates this change. In 1854, Iowans elected Grimes governor on the Whig ticket. Two years later, Iowans elected Grimes governor on the Republican ticket. Grimes would later serve as a Republican United States Senator from Iowa. Republicans took over state politics in the 1850s and quickly instigated several changes. They moved the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines, established the University of Iowa and they wrote a new state constitution. During the Civil War, many Democrats supported the anti-war Copperhead movement.

From the late 1850s until well into the 20th century, Iowans remained largely Republican. Only once, in 1889, did Democrats elect a governor, Horace Boies who was reelected in 1891. Their secret was winning increased support from the “wet” (anti-prohibition) Germans. Historically, the Democrats were strongest in German areas, especially along the Mississippi River. Thus, the German Catholic city of Dubuque continues to be a Democratic stronghold. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Scandinavians (and Quakers) were overwhelmingly Republican.

Several Republicans took leadership positions in Washington, particularly Senators William Boyd Allison, Jonathan P. Dolliver, and Albert Baird Cummins, as well as Speaker of the House David Henderson.

Women put women’s suffrage on Iowa’s agenda, particularly the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In keeping with the general reform mood of the latter 1860s and 1870s, the issue first received serious consideration when both houses of the General Assembly passed a women’s suffrage amendment in 1870. Two years later, however, when the legislature had to consider the amendment again before it could be submitted to the general electorate, interest had waned, opposition had developed, and the amendment was defeated. Finally, in 1920, Iowa got woman suffrage with the rest of the country.

Iowa: home for immigrants

Following the Civil War, Iowa’s population continued to grow dramatically, from 674,913 people in 1860 to 1,194,020 in 1870. Moreover, the ethnic composition of Iowa’s population also changed substantially. Before the Civil War, Iowa had attracted some foreign-born settlers, but the number remained small. After the Civil War, the number of immigrants increased. In 1869, the state encouraged immigration by printing a ninety six page booklet entitled Iowa: The Home of Immigrants. The publication gave physical, social, educational, and political descriptions of Iowa. The legislature instructed that the booklet be published in English, German, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish.

Iowa’s rich farmlands and prosperous cities succeeded in attracting more immigrants. Germans constituted the largest group, settling in every county, but especially along the Mississippi River. The great majority became farmers, but many also became craftsmen and shopkeepers. Dubuque and Davenport were their centers. Moreover, a few edited newspapers, taught school, or headed banks. The largest groups were Iowa Synod Lutherans, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, along with some Methodists and Baptists. Germans exhibited the greatest diversity in occupations, religion, and geographical settlement.

Iowa also attracted many other people from Europe, including Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, and many emigrants from the British Isles. After 1900, people also emigrated from southern and eastern Europe. In many instances, immigrant groups were identified with particular locations and even occupations. The Scandinavians, including Norwegians, who settled in Winneshiek and Story Counties; Swedes, who settled in Boone County; and Danes, who settled in southwestern Iowa; were largely associated with farming. The Dutch made two major settlements in Iowa, the first in Marion County, and the second in northwest Iowa.

Many southern and eastern immigrants, particularly Italians and Croats, went into coal mines scattered throughout central and southern Iowa. Beginning around 1925, however, the Iowa coal industry began to decline. By the mid-1950s only a few underground mines remained in the state.

The majority of African Americans who migrated to Iowa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries also worked as coal miners. Before the Civil War, Iowa had only a small African American population, but in the 1880s that number increased considerably. The first large-scale hiring began when the Consolidation Coal Company brought in large numbers of African Americans as strike breakers in 1880. In later decades, however, coal companies hired African Americans as regular miners.

Vast changes

In 1917, the United States entered World War I and farmers as well as all Iowans experienced a wartime economy. For farmers, the change was significant. Since the beginning of the war in 1914, Iowa farmers had experienced economic prosperity. Along with farmers everywhere, they were urged to be patriotic by increasing their production. Farmers purchased more land and raised more corn, beef, and pork for the war effort. It seemed that no one could lose as farmers expanded their operations, made more money, and at the same time, helped the Allied war effort.

After the war, however, Iowa farmers soon saw wartime farm subsidies eliminated. Beginning in 1920, many farmers had difficulty making the payment for debts they had incurred during the war. The 1920s were a time of hardship for Iowa’s farm families and for many families, these hardships carried over into the 1930s.

As economic difficulties worsened, Iowa farmers sought to find local solutions. Faced with extremely low farm prices, including corn at ten cents a bushel and pork at three cents a pound, some Iowa farmers joined the Farm Holiday Association. This group, which had its greatest strength in the area around Sioux City, tried to withhold farm products from markets. They believed this practice would force up farm prices. The Farm Holiday Association had only limited success as many farmers did not cooperate and the withholding itself did little to raise prices. Farmers experienced little relief until 1933 when the federal government, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, created a federal farm aid program.

In 1933, native Iowan Henry A. Wallace went to Washington as Secretary of Agriculture and served as principle architect for the new farm program. Wallace, former editor of the Midwest’s leading farm journal, Wallace’s Farmer, believed that prosperity would return to the agricultural sector only if agricultural production was curtailed. Further, he believed that farmers would be monetarily compensated for withholding agricultural land from production. These two principles were incorporated into the Agricultural Adjustment Act passed in 1933. Iowa farmers experienced some recovery as a result of the legislation but like all Iowans, they did not experience total recovery until the 1940s. It should be noted that Iowa’s only Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Norman Borlaug was launched in his researches in plant genomics by funding and research through Iowa State University developing strains of rice in Mexico and which emanated from the work of Henry Wallace. Wallace and Borlaug’s work helped create the now internationally significant agricultural concern Pioneer Hi-Bred a division of DuPont. The jury is still out on all developments long term in the manipulation of foods for higher productivity, there are those who aggressively object to the manipulation of the genetic codes of the agricultural substrate, but it is certainly a very significant development in human agricultural history.

Since World War II, Iowans have continued to undergo considerable economic, political, and social change. In the political area, Iowans experienced a major change in the 1960s when liquor by the drink came into effect. During both the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Iowans had strongly supported prohibition, but, in 1933, with the repeal of national prohibition, Iowans established a state liquor commission. This group was charged with control and regulation of Iowa’s liquor sales. From 1933 until the early 1960s, Iowans could purchase packaged liquor only. In the 1970s, Iowans witnessed a reapportionment of the General Assembly, achieved only after a long struggle for an equitably-apportioned state legislature. Another major political change was in regard to voting. By the mid-1950s, Iowa had developed a fairly competitive two-party structure, ending almost one hundred years of Republican domination within the state.

In the economic sector, Iowa also has undergone considerable change. Beginning with the first farm-related industries developed in the 1870s, Iowa has experienced a gradual increase in the number of business and manufacturing operations. The period since World War II has witnessed a particular increase in manufacturing operations. While agriculture continues to be the state’s dominant industry, Iowans also produce a wide variety of products including refrigerators, washing machines, fountain pens, farm implements, and food products that are shipped around the world.