Iowa: Its History and Its
Soldier of Fortune—Adventurer—Trader—Miner—Prototype of the Modern Captain of Industry—The First White Man to Effect a Settlement on Iowa Soil.
The story of Julien Dubuque’s active and adventurous career reads like a historical romance. It develops a most interesting personality—ambitious, bold, daring, resourceful, grasping, far-seeing, abounding in initiative, and yet passing out of life
into history in an atmosphere of tragic gloom, his vaulting ambition having sadly o’erreached itself.
Julien Dubuque was born of Norman parents on the 10th day of January, 1762. His birthplace was the village of St. Pierre les Brecquets, County of Nicolet, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, about twenty leagues above Quebec. Tradition has it that he was of mingled French and Spanish ancestry.(1) The fact that his claim rested upon a Spanish land grant and that he named his Iowa possessions “The Mines of Spain,” in memory of the government to which he declared his allegiance, may be the only foundation for the tradition.
The family name was variously spelled “Duboe,” “Dubueq,” and “Dubuque”—but never “Du Buque,” as it sometimes appears. The only signature thus far discovered—an agreement and statement of account signed by Joseph Chouteau and the subject of this sketch—is plainly “Julien Dubuque.”(2)
Julien’s great-grandfather, Jean, came from the Parish of Trinity, Diocese of Rouen, France, and was married to Marie Hotet in Quebec in 1668. His son, Romain, was born in 1671, and married Anne Pinel in 1693. His son, Noel Augustin, father of Julien, was born in 1707, and married Marie Mailhot in 1744, and died in 1783, about the time his son left home for the West.
The boy Julien was educated in the parish schools and at Sorel, and was able to express himself well both with tongue and pen.
Julien Dubuque’s advent in the little village of Prairie du Chien was early in the year 1785. In 1788, Dubuque, the roving adventurer, settled down to the serious business of life. He was twenty-six years of age and was looking for a permanent settlement. His opportunity came on the 22d day of September of that year. At a council of chiefs and braves of the Fox Indians, held in Prairie du Chien, he obtained from the Indians a grant which transformed the adventurer into the miner and trader.
At this grant forms the basis of a contention ultimately carried to the Supreme Court of the United States, it may be well to examine it. Translated from the French, it appears that the Foxes agreed to “permit Mr. Julien Dubuque, called by them ‘Little Night’ [La Petite Nuit], to work at the mine [near Kettle Chief’s village a short distance south of the present city of Dubuque] as long as he shall please, and to withdraw from it, without specifying any term to him; moreover, that they sell and abandon to him all the coast and the contents of the mine discovered by the wife of Peosta, so that no white man or Indian shall make any pretension to it without the consent of Mr. Julien Dubuque; and in case he shall find nothing within he shall be free to search wherever he may think proper to do so, and to work peaceably without anyone hurting him, or doing him any prejudice in his labors. Thus we, chief and braves by the voice of all our villages, have agreed with Julien Dubuque, selling and delivering to him this day, as above mentioned, in the presence of the Frenchmen who attend us, who are witnesses to this writing.”
This document raises the question: Did Dubuque intend to clothe the agreement in language susceptible of two interpretations—one which should be regarded by the suspicious Indians a s a permit; the other which might be interpreted by a friendly Spanish official as a sale? Or did Dubuque, unversed in legal phraseology and not having in mind at the time any such ambitious scheme of land ownership as that which later filled his imagination, content himself with undisturbed possession with the privilege of buying?
Prior to the execution of this contract, Dubuque and his followers had established themselves at Little Fox Village and made a study of the crude mining in process there. Discovering that the river bluffs in the vicinity of Catfish Creek were rich in galena, or lead ore, he proceeded to acquire an influence over the natives. He made numerous presents, learned their language and adapted himself to their ways of living flattering their vanity. He is said to have resorted to tricks of necromancy, claiming to be possessed of supernatural power.
The most popular tradition which has come down to us is that on one occasion when the Indians refused to accede to some demand, he threatened to set Catfish Creek on fire, and leave their village high and dry. They still denied him; so one night his associates emptied a barrel
of oil—or turpentine—on the water, above the bend, and when it had floated down to the village, Dubuque set fire to it. In a few moments the entire creek was apparently in a blaze. The terrified Indians made haste to concede all Dubuque had asked—and supposedly by the exercise of his will, the fire went out! Another tradition is that Dubuque claimed immunity from snakebites and was wont to handle the reptiles without fear, and that he benevolently doled out an antidote for snake-poisoning.
His tenure thus established by agreement, Dubuque settled down to his undertakings—the development of mines and smelting works, the extension of his trade with the Indians, the supplanting all traders in his field and the development of a monopoly in the carrying trade on the Mississippi between Catfish Creek and St. Louis.
His ambition rapidly grew with his prosperity and he became anxious to obtain a title from the Spanish government which should entirely extinguish the title of the Indians to all that region in which he was operating, or might in future operate. So he prepared, with great care and with a courtier’s obsequiousness, a petition to Baron Carondelet, governor of Louisiana, praying for a title to a tract of land seven leagues up and down and along the west bank of the Mississippi, and extending three leagues into the interior, representing that he had bought the land, paying the Indians in goods at its full value at the time of the agreement, and that monuments were placed soon after indicating the land included in the purchase.
Dubuque’s petition is a characteristic document. Without republishing it in full, et us note certain phrases which reveal the courtier. He represents himself as a “very humble petitioner” who “by his perseverance has surmounted all the obstacles as expensive as they were dangerous” to the development of the mines. He has named the property the “Mines of Spain” “in memory of the government to which he belonged.” The “very humble petitioner prays your excellency to have the goodness to assure him the quiet enjoyment of the mines and lands” which he claims he “has bought” from the Indians. “I beseech that same goodness which makes the happiness of so many subjects, to pardon me my style, and be pleased to accept the pure simplicity of my heart in default of my eloquence. I pray heaven, with all my power, that it preserve you, and that it load you with all its benefits; and I am, and shall be all my life, your excellency’s very humble, and very obedient, and very submissive servant,
“J. Dubuque.” (3)
This plaintive petition brought the desired response from the governor. The only restriction put upon the petitioner was that Dubuque should keep his hands off the Indian trade monopolized by “Don Andrew Todd,” to whom Carondelet referred the case for investigation, and who at the time held a valuable license from the governor to trade with the Fox Indians!
It is interesting to note the relations existing between Chouteau and Dubuque on the 12th of November, 1804, the date of the statements of account to which Dubuque’s signature is affixed.
The first statement shows a transfer of 72,000 arpents of land as a basis for credit, leaving a balance due Dubuque amounting to $4,855.82, half of the balance to be paid in 1805, of which $200 was payable in deer skins at the current price, and the remainder to be paid “in merchandise, taffetas or the country’s productions.” The second statement, rendered September 14, 1806, showed an indebtedness of Chouteau to Dubuque to the amount of $1,282.49, “payable in the same terms and conditions” as previously agreed upon.
1—Given credence by Judge Lucius H. Langworthy, a pioneer of Dubuque County, in an address delivered in 1855.
2—Data relative to Dubuque’s family and early life supplied by the late M. M. Ham in the Annals of Iowa of April, 1896.
3—Through the kindness of col. Pierre Chouteau, son of Auguste Chouteau, the pioneer merchant of St. Louis, Curator Aldrich was, years ago, given the loan of the only then known signature of Julien Dubuque, a facsimile of which is herewith given:
Meantime, Dubuque had cleared the land, built a commodious log house, opened new mines and extended the old, erected a horse-mill and a smelting furnace—all in the vicinity of what is now known as Dubuque Bluff, where the pioneer’s remains now lie. The actual mining was chiefly done by squaws and old men. The brave were above work, but not averse to profiting by the labor of others. Dubuque’s white followers, now augmented from two to ten, served him as overseers, smelters and rivermen. The mining was primitive. No shafts were sunk. Drifts were run into the hills and the mineral was carried out in baskets and deposited in the smelting furnace. No gunpowder was used. The pick and crowbar, hoe and shovel, were employed instead of the engine and the complicated and costly machinery of modern mining.
After securing a confirmation of his title from the governor of Louisiana, Dubuque redoubled his activities. He soon obtained complete control of all the lead mines on both sides of the river. He “built and operated furnaces. He conducted extensive prospecting parties. He controlled the boats which carried the product down the river to market. In gaining absolute supremacy over the lead industry he displayed remarkable talent. For whatever lead ores he purchased he established the rate. In market he fixed the price of the refined product. By 125 years he anticipated the policies of the Guggenheims and the American Smelting and Refining Companies.” (4)
Dubuque made two river trips to St. Louis every year, exchanging his lead for goods for his Indian trade. The traders and people of St. Louis received the well known trader with much consideration, an his biennial visits were events in the little frontier city.
James G. Soulard, of Galena, was the son of a prominent citizen of St. Louis. This pioneer has left with us perhaps the best picture obtainable of “the first white man in Iowa.” Mr. Soulard describes Julien Dubuque, as he appeared in middle life, as “a man below the usual stature, of black hair and eyes, wiry and well-built, capable of great endurance, and remarkably courteous and polite, with all the suavity and grace of the typical Frenchman. To the ladies he was always the essence of politeness.” Mr. Soulard well remembered that on the occasion of one of Dubuque’s visits, a ball was given in his honor, attended by all the prominent people of the place. It was held in a public hall, in the second story of a building, and he as a small boy had crowded in to see the sights. At one point of the festivities M. Dubuque took a violin form one of the performers and executed a dance to the strains of his own music, which was considered a great accomplishment and was received with tremendous applause.
An impressionistic picture of Dubuque comes down to us from the journal of Maj. Zebulon M. Pike, the discoverer of the source of the Mississippi River in Itasca Lake. Major Pike had been instructed by General Wilkinson, in general terms, to report on mining conditions, etc. and Mr. Ham is authority for the statement that President Jefferson had given him definite instructions “to find out all he could relative to M. Dubuque, his life among the Indians, the extent and situation of his mines, the amount of lead produced, and the like.”
On the 1st day of September, 1805, Lieutenant Pike landed from his keel-boat at the mouth of Kettle Chief’s Creek.
In his “journal of a Voyage from St. Louis to the Source of the Mississippi, performed in the years 1805 and 1806,” Major (then Lieutenant) Pike writes of his meeting with Dubuque as follows:(5)
“Sunday, 1st September.—Embarked early, with the wind fair; arrived at the lead mines at 12 o’clock.”
Recovering from a brief but severe attack of fever, he resumes:
“I dressed myself, with an intention to execute the orders of the general [Wilkinson] relative to this place. We were saluted with a field piece and received with every mark of attention by Monsieur Dubuque, the proprietor. There were no horses at the house, and as it was six miles to the mines, it was impossible to make report from actual inspection. I proposed, in consequence, ten queries, on the answers to which my report was formed.
“Dined with Mr. D., who informed me that the Sioux and Sauteurs were as warmly
4—Keyes, “Spanish Mines, etc.” Annals of Iowa, October, 1912.
5—“Exploratory Travels Through the Western Territories of North America, etc.” London, 1811, p. 13.
engaged in opposition as ever; that not long since the former had killed fifteen of the latter, who, in return, killed ten Sioux…”
Here ends the reference to Dubuque. The impression left upon the reader’s mind by these extracts the is that Dubuque was determined that Lieutenant Pike should not visit his mines. To that end he pleaded inability to convey his guest to the mines, exaggerated the distance to be covered in order to reach them, and made much of disturbed conditions existing between rival tribes in the vicinity.
Not feeling very well, Lieutenant Pike contented himself with his series of questions which Dubuque was doubtless pleased to answer—thereby ridding himself of an inquisitive guest. The two parted with the utmost cordiality, and on his way up the river the lieutenant at his leisure read the answers. Though Lieutenant Pike mentions ten queries, the English translation includes only eight.(6) The questions and answers are as follows:
“1. What is the date of your grant of the mines from the savages?
“Ans. The copy of the grant is in Mr. Soulard’s office at St. Louis.
“2. What is the date of the confirmation by the Spaniards?
“Ans. The same as to query first.
“3. What is the extent of your grant?
“Ans. The same as above.
“4. What is the extent of the mines?
“Ans. Twenty-eight or twenty-seven leagues long, and from one to three broad.
“5. Lead per annum?
“Ans. From twenty to forty thousand pounds.
“6. Quality of lead per hundredweight of mineral?
“Ans. Seventy-five per cent.
“7. Quality of lead in pigs?
“Ans. All he makes, as he neither manufactures bar, sheet-lead or shot.
“8. If mixed with any other material?
“Ans. We have seen some copper, but having no person sufficiently acquainted with chemistry to make the experiment properly, I cannot say as to the proportion it bears to the lead.”
The unsatisfactory answers given to the first three questions—the only vital questions—coupled with the evident intention of Dubuque to deter the explorer from personally inspecting his mines, made a decidedly unfavorable impression upon his guest, for he is quoted as referring to the master of the mines as “the polite but evasive M. Dubuque”!
On the 24th of March, 1810, at the early age of forty-eight, the restless spirits of Julien Dubuque found rest in death. It is said, though apparently without any well-authenticated foundation, that his death resulted from pneumonia caused by undue exposure. Judge Langworthy in 1854 declared that Julien Dubuque “died a victim of his vices,” but the statement lacks verification.
The Indians, whose confidence Dubuque had managed to retain to the last, were filled with consternation when apprised of his death. Though he had juggled with them in the matter of a title to their lands, his shrewdness and worldly wisdom, his affability and his occasional resort to the apparently supernatural, enabled him to retain to the last his powerful hold upon their respect and admiration. There seems to be some foundation for the long prevalent impression that Dubuque married a squaw.(7) But the fact remains that he left no heirs and no claimant to his estate.
The Foxes buried Dubuque with funereal honors as became a chief. Their chiefs vied with one another for the honor of carrying his body to the grave. They joined in chants and their orators bemoaned heir loss and sounded his praises. For many years afterward they were wont to visit his grave and make contribution of stones to the cairn erected over his remains.
6—Annals of Iowa, April, 1896.
7—George H. Catlin says: “He married a Fox woman, Potosa.” Smithsonian Reports, 1885, Part 2, p. 237.
There was a tradition among the Foxes that he would some day reappear among them and resume his former place as their counselor and guide.
The burial place chosen by the Indians was one befitting the adventurous spirit of their lost leader. It is a high and precipitous cliff rising some two hundred feet above the river valley, about tow miles south of the city, across Catfish Creek and near the site of Little Fox Village, his Iowa home.
A tomb, partly of rock and partly of wood, was erected over the grave, and this was surmounted by a cedar cross, bearing the inscription, “Julien Dubuque, miner of the Mines of Spain, died March 24, 1810, aged forty-five years and six months.” Near the tomb was the grave of an Indian chief who died not long after his death, leaving with his survivors a request that he be buried near his friend. On the authority of George Catlin, it has been accepted as fact that Dubuque himself had written the inscription which was graven upon his tombstone; but the baptismal register in Canada dates his birth January 10, 1762, instead of September 24, 1764, as the inscription would indicate. The baptismal date is doubtless correct. As the inscription gives the date of Dubuque’s death it must have been written by another than himself.(8)
In 1897 the citizens of Dubuque decided to erect a monument to the memory of the man whose name their city bears. To that end they purchased several acres of land, including the bluff on which Dubuque’s body had been buried. There they erected a monument to his memory. The design of the monument took “the form of a circular tower of stone, thirty-eight feet in height.” Its base “contains a sarcophagus quarried from the stone of the neighboring hills, in which was placed a walnut casket containing the skeleton, which was found well preserved, of Julien Dubuque.” (9)
Under the auspices of the Dubuque County Early Settlers Association, dedicatory services were held on Sunday, October 31, 1897, on which occasion a commemorative address was delivered by the Hon. James H. Shields.
Concerning this veritable man of mystery, who for twenty-two years dominated the Indians and whites alike on both sides of the Upper Mississippi, Mr. Ham well says:
“He left no family, no connections, no papers, no business relations, none of those things that usually keep alive the memory of a man.” And yet his impress upon his time was deep and lasting and his undertakings on Iowa soil constitute one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Iowa.
It will be recalled that in 1796 Dubuque named his property “the Mines of Spain.” Though Spain soon after turned over its possessions to France, and France to the United States, the pioneer held on to the name to the last, and it was engraved upon his tomb. But, after his personality was withdrawn, the mines became known as “Dubuque’s,”; and in the early thirties when a village began to grow up in that vicinity, the name of the first white resident in Iowa was given the village. Later, when the village became a city, it was incorporated under the name “Dubuque.” The Christian name Julien was long attached to the principal hotel in the city, though fire had several time burned the building to the ground. Dubuque Township and Dubuque County also commemorate the pioneer’s successful attempt at permanent settlement.
The death of Dubuque was followed by one of the most complicated cases that ever reached the court of last resort. The case in outline,(10) exclusive of much documentary evidence mad part of the record, covers forty printed pages. The conditions leading down to the bringing of the suit were, briefly as follows:
Dubuque somehow became deeply indebted to that pioneer master of finance, Auguste Chouteau. Pressed for settlement, in October, 1804, the debtor conveyed to the creditor seven undivided sixteenths of all the land included in his claim—said to be about seventy-three thousand three hundred and twenty four acres. In further protection, the shrewd merchant obtained an agreement that in case of Dubuque’s death, the remaining nine-sixteenths
8—Mr. Richard Herrmann, of Dubuque, a student of his city’s early history, is of the opinion that the cross and the inscription were placed there by Frenchmen about 1825.
9—From “The Mines of Spain,” by Judge Oliver P. Shiras. Annals of Iowa, April, 1902.
10—Reported in 16 Howard.
should go to Chouteau, or his heirs. In may, 1805, Dubuque and Chouteau jointly filed their claim with the Government for possession.
At about this time Lieutenant Pike visited Dubuque and found him singularly unwilling to impart information relative to his mines.
In September, 1806, a majority of the board of land commissioners sustained the claim of Dubuque under the Spanish Grant and held that therefore the grant was entitled to recognition by both France and the United States, under the terms of the treaties duly ratified by the three governments.
The report of the commissioners was by Secretary Gallatin made the subject of an adverse report to President Jefferson, wherein the secretary held that the Spanish Grant had not conformed to the rules of the Spanish government relative to land grants, and therefore it was not an independent and completed grant.
Years passed, and no further effort had been made to obtain recognition of the Dubuque-Chouteau claim. Meantime the region in question was slowly filling with settlers.
Then came the Black Hawk war, ending in the defeat of the Indians at Bad Axe, in August, 1832. The battle was soon followed by a treaty, signed by General Scott and Governor Reynolds for the Government, and by Keokuk and a number of minor chiefs, for the Sacs and Foxes, whereby the Indians ceded to the United States, as a requital for the injuries inflicted by the war, all the lands lying along the west bank of the Mississippi including the land which had been claimed by Dubuque.
The Indians were given till June, 1833, to vacate. But the immigration prior to that date was too strong to be prevented.
The fast-increasing value of the land in and about the village of Dubuque aroused the dormant claim of the Chouteaus. An agent was sent to the mines near Dubuque was sent to the mines near Dubuque with authority to execute miners’ leases.
On the retirement of the Indians there was a rapid inrush of settlers. In 1836 the Government directed the sale of lots in the Town of Dubuque designated as “Mineral Lots,” including the area supposed to be underlaid with lead ore. The settlers already on the land bid in the lots at a fixed price previously agreed upon among them. One of the purchasers was Patrick Molony, afterward defendant in the celebrated case of “Chouteau vs. Malony.”(11)
Meantime, the claimants, having made several ineffectual appeals to congress, consented to a submission of their claim to a United States court. Accordingly, action of brought by Henry, son of Auguste Chouteau, in the Dubuque District Court, against one of the purchasers of the “Mineral Lots,” setting forth that the Chouteau claim was a valid title to the land in fee, and therefore, Molony’s title, direct from the Government, was invalid.
Justice Dyer held in favor of the defendant; and by writ of error the case was carried to the Supreme Court. Not until December, 1853, was a decision reached. Reverdy Johnson appeared for the plaintiff and Thomas S. Wilson and Platt Smith for the defendant Judge Wilson in his recollection says:
“Mr. Johnson made a powerful speech for the appellant; one which surprised and alarmed Mr. Smith and myself, as we did not think that so good an argument could be made in so weak a case.”
There were a number of grounds for the repudiation of the Dubuque-Chouteau claim—the lack of evidence of a sale, or a purpose to sell, by the Indians at Prairie du Chien; a lack of conformity to Spanish law and rules governing grants of land. “The true point here,” read the decision, “is not what he [Dubuque] meant to ask for, but what he had a right to ask for under his contract with the Indians and what the governor [Carondelet] meant to grant and could grant under that contract.
The court held that by treaties the title had passed from Spain to France and from France to the United States, and from the Indian occupants by treaty to the united States, and that by acts of congress authorizing the laying off of lots in the Town of Dubuque, and by the public sale of same, the title to the land in dispute had passed to the purchasers at such sale.
The decision was hailed with delight by every owner of property located within the
11—Stiles, Annals of Iowa, July, 1912.
district in question, for had the decision of the lower court been reversed many would have been ruined and many families would have been homeless.
It is interesting to note in this connection the question raised by an eminent jurist.(12) After a careful and exhaustive study of the case, Judge Shiras concludes with this suggestive comment:
“But while it is the fact that the grantees of Dubuque failed to maintain a title under him to the land in question, is it not also a fact that Dubuque personally maintained his claim to ownership and enjoyed all the benefits thereof, both living and dead?”
“From the time of the execution of his agreement with the Indians in 1788, until his death in 1810, he lived upon the premises, carrying on his mining and trading operations thereon without let or hindrance, and to the exclusion of all other white men.”
The Judge then philosophizes on the vanity of vanities—the land-lust which burns out the hearts of many:
“When he died he was given sepulture on one of the most sightly spots within the domain claimed by him, and after an undisturbed repose of more than three-quarters of a century, his right to the possession of all of Mother Earth that can be held even by the greatest of her sons, after death, has been assured to him through the action of the citizens of Dubuque.”
12—Annals of Iowa, 1902.
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