Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Saturday, June 26, 2010
by Kristin Buehner

On the Trails of the Dragoons

PORTLAND — LEWIS and CLARK opened the way, but the exploration of North Iowa actually began with the United States Dragoons.

"The first expedition through central Iowa was in 1820," said Mike VOGT, curator of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

A second expedition occurred in 1824 to 1825.

But the best known was in 1835, an expedition by the First Regiment of the Dragoons that was chronicled by Lt. Albert M. LEA, for whom the city of Albert Lea was later named.His little book, "Notes on the Wisconsin Territory; Particularly with reference to the Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase (1832)," is credited with giving the state of Iowa its name. "He really made people aware of the resources in Iowa," VOGT said. "He's credited with encouraging the settlement of the state."

Iowa did not become a state until December 1846.

The dragoons, lightly armed mounted infantry, were authorized by Congress in 1833. Forerunners of the U.S. Cavalry which was established in about 1853, "they could cover a lot of ground," VOGT said.

The term "dragoon" is taken from the French word “dragonieres,” which dates to the mid-16th century, VOGT said.

The name was taken from "dragon," a short long-bored musket carried by these early soldiers. The soldiers in Iowa would also have carried sabers, VOGT said.

The Dragoons played an important part in opening the Iowa frontier, establishing what are now known as the Dragoon Trails. Their mission in the summer of 1835 was to trace the Des Moines River as it then existed, starting and ending at Fort Des Moines, then located near present-day Montrose, VOGT said.

Their goal was to explore and survey the area northward into what is now southeastern Minnesota, noting pertinent information about the flora and fauna. The expedition was headed by Lt. Col. Stephen Watts KEARNY.

The area, then part of the Wisconsin Territory, was occupied by Indians, VOGT said.

"Most of central Iowa still belonged to the Sauk and Fox," he said. "A good chunk of North Iowa belonged to the Sioux."

A map signed by Lea and contained in his book shows the northernmost tier of Iowa as being in neutral ground, however.

Clear Lake and rivers such as Lime Creek and the Shell Rock River are named on the map, as is the route used by the expedition and the dates they arrived at each point.

The Dragoons' exploration of North Central Iowa occurred around June 26, according to the map. History buff Mitchell MARSH of Dougherty said the expedition crossed what is now the Winnebago River a few miles southeast of Mason City. He figures it would have been at present-day Portland. They also crossed the Shell Rock River in the vicinity of Rock Falls.

In his book, LEA wrote, "The general appearance of the country is one of great beauty. It may be represented as one great rolling prairie."

A native of Tennessee, LEA described the "transparent" waters of the creeks and rivers, noting that they are "skirted by woods."

But three-fourths of the Iowa territory was treeless, he observed.

"Taking this District all in all, for convenience of navigation, water, fuel and timber; for richness of soil; for beauty of appearance; and for pleasantness of climate, it surpasses any portion of the United States with which I am acquainted."

The soldiers found wild strawberries, buffalo, deer, turkey, grouse, ducks and prairie chickens for food.

LEA, who commanded one of the companies of soldiers, also reported that four rattlesnakes were killed in his tent one night.

A few settlements had been established along the Mississippi, but Lea talked about the future.

"Large portions of the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri seem to be about to emigrate to this region. ... Whole neighborhoods are moving from Indiana and Illinois to this land of promise."

The Dragoon Trails can be traced today by following the Dragoon Trail signs marking a 200-mile corridor along the Des Moines, Boone and Raccoon rivers.

Military exhibit at Camp Dodge

JOHNSTON — An exhibit about the impact of the military on what later became the state of Iowa is planned in the fall at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, located at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

Information about the early forts — there were 12 that garrisoned federal troops from 1808 to the 1860s — will be included, said museum curator Mike VOGT.

Information about the dragoon trails, military roads and relations with Native Americans will also be featured.

"The purpose is to interpret the story of Iowa's military past and Iowa’s veterans who played a role in that past," VOGT said.

~ ~ ~ ~

Read More About It

The 1st U.S. Dragoons, the country's first mounted infantry regiment, made their historical march during the summer of 1835 to scout Iowa after the 1832 Black Hawk Purchase and put the area under the control of the U.S. government. This march lead to the establishment of outposts from present-day Fort Dodge and Webster City through Des Moines to Pella and Knoxville.

The State of Iowa opened the Dragoon Trail in 1933. It is a scenic and historic 200-mile drive along the Des Moines River, following the 1835 Dragoon march. Signposts along the way designate "Dragoon Trail."




~ ~ ~ ~

Lt. Albert Miller Lea

One morning in June, 1835, there was a great stir at old Fort Des Moines, which, you remember, had been built near the site of TESSON'S apple orchard. Three companies of mounted soldiers [150 men with supply wagons], called dragoons, were starting out on a long march northward into Minnesota. Their leader was Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts KEARNY.

[The expedition started out on June 7, 1835. One of the members of the unit was officered by Captain Nathaniel BOONE, Son of Daniel BOONE, along with Lt. Albert LEA and Lt. TURNER. Lt. LEA served as ordinance officer and voluntarily assumed the duties of topographer, using his watch and compass to guide him.]

The first part of their journey was up the valley of the Des Moines River. There were no roads and no houses anywhere. The horses of the dragoons walked over the green grass and flowers which covered the prairie at this season.

There were many wild strawberry plants, and the juice from the ripe berries reddened the hoofs of the horses. How the men enjoyed eating the strawberries for they had had no fresh fruit for a long time. Deer, turkeys, grouse, ducks, and prairie chickens were shot for meat.

Sometimes it stormed and the prairie sod became so soft that the horses could not go very fast. There were a great many mosquitoes to torment the men and horses. There were rattlesnakes, too; so picking strawberries was not altogether a pleasant task. Lieutenant Albert M. LEA, who commanded one of the companies, says that four rattlesnakes were killed in his tent in one night.

They were supposed to go up the Des Moines Valley until they reached the spot where the Racoon River joins the Des Moines, but they missed the place. Then they turned northeast and went toward the upper Mississippi. By the last week in June they had reached what is now the boundary line between Iowa and Minnesota.

It was about this time that they saw a herd of buffaloes. What a chase there was then! The buffaloes could run very fast and the dragoons had hard work getting near enough to shoot them. Finally they killed six or seven of the buffaloes. Then they stopped to roast some of the fresh meat. One day a dragoon caught a little buffalo calf and the men had great fun playing with it.

Finally they reached WABASHA'S village of Sioux Indians, where Colonel KEARNY made a treaty with the chief. This was near the present site of Winona, Minnesota.

[The unit appeared in Freeborn County, Minnesota, on the morning of July 28, 1835, in the northwest portion of the county. That night they made camp near the north shore of the lake which now bears LEA'S name. LEA, in later years, stated that a fox had run through the column of soldiers while he was sketching the lake, thus, he designated it as Fox Lake.

After a rest of about two weeks, Colonel KEARNY led his men back to the Raccon Forks of the Des Moines River. From this point the main body of the dragoons continued their march down the valley of the Des Moines to Fort Des Moines, where they arrived late in August.

Colonel KEARNY wanted to know something abut the Des Moines River, too. So he ordered Lieutenant Albert M. LEA to go down the river in a canoe and to report on the distance and the depth of the river in different places. His only companions were a private soldier and an Indian.

Soon after Lieutenant LEA got back to Fort Des Moines he resigned from the army. He had decided to write a book describing the country over which the dragoons had marched. This book was printed at Philadelphia in 1836. It was called "Notes on the Wisconsin Territory; Particularly with Reference to the Iowa District, or Black Hawk Purchase."

This was a very long name for a book of only fifty-three pages. LEA also included a map in his little book. A thousand copies were printed. Five hundred of these seem to have been lost on a steamboat on the Ohio River. Where the others went we do not know, but less than twenty of these books can now be found.

LEA'S book is interesting because in it the name Iowa was first used for the territory now included in the State of Iowa. Where did Lieutenant LEA get the name Iowa? He tells us in the book that he took it from the name of the Iowa River.

We do not know for certain how the Iowa River got its name, but it may have been named from the Iowa tribe of Indians. Years afterwards Lieutenant LEA decided that the name should have been spelled Ioway; but by that time Congress had created first the Territory of Iowa and then the State of Iowa, so no change in the spelling was made.

You may be interested to know something more about the man who named Iowa.

Albert Miller LEA was born July 23, 1808 at Lea Springs, near Nashville, Granger County, Tennessee. Following his graduation fom Knoxville College [one of the college's youngest graduates], LEA entered the Military Academy at West Point, [graduating fifth] in the Class of 1831 LEA was a Lieutenant in the First United States Dragoons when they crossed Iowa in the summer of 1835.

LEA spent three years going to various parts of the country on topographical and scientific assignments for the U.S. government. This included the Great Lakes vicinity to teh Gulf and from what is now Oklahoma to Tenneesee. After completing an assignment of paying the Nebraskan Indians, LEA was assigned to the then newly established army pot, Fort Des Moines. At the time, this part of Iowa was a part of the Michigan Territory.

In 1838, two years after the printing of the book which gave Iowa its name, Lieutenant LEA came back to Iowa Territory as one of the men to fix the boundary between Missouri and the Territory of Iowa. [At this time, LEA was interested in developing a tract of Iowa land. When this enterprise was not successful, he went to Washington, D.C. where he held the position of chief clerk for the War Department. For a time he was the Secretary of War, then was a professor of mathematics at the Univeristy of East Tennessee.] Later he spent several years as an engineer.

LEA married his first wife, Ellen SHOEMAKER, and the couple were the parents of one son, Edward.

When the Civil War began he joined the Confederacy and served for four years in the Confederate army as a Colonel. [In the final Battle of Gaveston, January 1, 1863], LEA was aboard a Confederate boat which rammed the Union boat, the Harriett Lane. The two boats locked together. Shouting out "Cowards won't follow me!" Major Leon SMITH, the Confederate commander, leapt aboard the Harriett Lane. Needing no additional urging, SMITH'S men rushed out from behind their cotton bales with guns blazing. Commander Mayhew WAINWRIGHT of the Harriett Lane lay dead upon the deck. WAINWRIGHT'S second in command, Edward LEA, lay dying. Upon seeing his son bleeding on the deck, LEA rushed to his side, saying "Father is here." Then LEA prayed over his son. It is rumored that a short truce was declared to give Edward LEA a Masonic funeral by the members of the Order from both the Union and Confederate sides. Edward LEA is now buried in Galveston's Episcopal Cemetery.]

[Following the death of his first wife, LEA married in Baltimore, Maryland, to Catherine Daisy HEATH. The couple had three children: Eliza or Lyda (sometimes spelled "Lida") who never married; Alexander McKie who married and had a daughter, Katie; and, Albert LEA II who married and had three children. Albert Miller LEA'S father was Major LEA (a name, not a title), born May 21, 1771, and died July 16, 1822. Albert's grandfather, Luke LEA, was the son of the emigrant, James LEA of LEA Hall on LEA River, Surrey, Cheshire, England.]

When the war ended he moved to Corsicana, Texas, where he died [January 16] 1890, [and was buried in Oakland Cemetery].

Although Albert M. LEA named Iowa, his own name appears in Minnesota rather than in Iowa. The city of Albert Lea, Minnesota, was named for him, and there is also a Lake Albert Lea in Minnesota.

'Read More About It' Sources:

iagenweb.org/history/soi/soic10.htm  "Albert M. Lea and the Naming of Iowa." Stories of Iowa for Boys and Girls Chapt. X. iagenweb's Iowa History Project


Transcriptions by Sharon R. Becker, May of 2011


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