The Iowa History Project





Although the beginning of the settlement of the present State of Iowa dates June 1, 1833, when the Black Hawk purchase was thrown open by the government, the settlers who came in then were not the first white people to live within the borders.  For some years before 1833 Indians had permitted other whites-namely Frenchmen-to dwell on Iowa soil.  Trappers and hunters were they, and representatives of great fur trading companies.  Also, military posts established throughout the country of the Upper Mississippi Valley, in Iowa as elsewhere, were garrisoned by soldiers, who added to the white population.

Therefore when the Black Hawk Purchase was invaded by eager settlers, already Eastern Iowa had a small contingent, not Indians.

Julien Dubuque had lived and died in Iowa before the country had even been thought of as a home for civilization.  He crossed into Iowa in 1788, and so far as records show he was the first white man to take up a residence here.  He was alone among the Indians, and for all we know was then the only white person north of what is now Missouri and between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains.

Dubuque was born in 1762, in the district of Three Rivers, about sixty miles above Quebec, Canada.  During those days the spirit of adventure was in the air.  Everybody traded with the Indians, everybody sought new country and new fields to conquer, and everybody encountered hardships in forest and on stream.  Right at the doors of the men of the eighteenth century lay unknown regions.  A continent containing all kinds of wonders was each boy's front yard.  Dubuque, when only 23, started out to see what he could find in this vast playground.

He went to Prairie du Chien, above the mouth of the Wisconsin River.  Prairie du Chien originally meant "dog prairie."  This point occupies a prominent place in the history of the settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley.  For a long time it was a trading station of the British, and in the War of 1812 the Americans tried in vain to hold a fort built here by the government.  At this trading post young Dubuque stopped, in 1785, and began to traffic with the Indians across the Mississippi, where McGregor, Iowa, now is.

A squaw, one of the wives of Peosta, a Fox warrior, had found lead in the ground near here, and Dubuque heard about it from the Indians he met.  The Foxes dug out lead ore, and used the metal in trading and for bullets, etc.  Dubuque believed that he ought to have a hand in this, and in 1788 he succeeded in obtaining from the Indians the sole right to work the lead mines.

This was a fine thing.  He immediately moved over the river, and settled in the camp of the Kettle Chief, or Chief Kettle, a prominent Fox.  This village was at the mouth of Catfish Creek, two miles below the present city of Dubuque.

The Frenchman took with him ten companions, French-Canadians, to help him.  The treaty by which the Foxes gave him the mining property was singed at Prairie du Chien September 22, 1788, and it is probable that the new owner lost no time in crossing and taking possession.

Dubuque built himself a cabin, planted corn, and in other ways made himself comfortable in the village.  He erected a mill to be run by horse power, and constructed a furnace in which to smelt the lead he mined, and prepare it for market.

Twice a year he loaded his goods onto several boars, and went down the Mississippi to St. Louis.  He usually was accompanied by Fox chiefs and braves, as well as by French employes.  His arrival in St. Louis always created quite a stir, for he was looked upon as a great and wealthy trader from a wild country.  He was regarded with much curiosity and admiration, and balls were given in his honor.

Having sold and traded his goods, he loaded what he had received onto his boats, and the fleet proceeded up the river to the mines.  We can picture to ourselves the appearance to this flotilla, going and coming.  The chiefs and braves we may be sure put on their gayest paint and feathers, and their proudest mein.  They had not lived so close to civilization that they had been made dissipated by liquor and gambling, and so they were fine specimens of the Red Man.

Dubuque himself was a small man, but stout and wiry, with black hair and eyes.  He was very courteous and polite, and his manners were extremely gallant, especially when in St. Louis he met some ladies.  Living among the Indians as they did, he and his French companions dressed in buck skins-leggins and shirt and moccasins-and wore round caps of fur, maybe with a feather sticking jauntily up from one side.  Long, flintlock rifles, and belt with knife and hatchet, and powder horn slung across the shoulder, completed the costume.

The boats would be loaded high with lead and furs, and doubtless when they swept swiftly down the lonely river toward St. Louis the Frenchmen sang a merry song, after the fashion of the race.  Leaving St. Louis the furs and lead would be replaced by powder and salt and many other things that could not be procured so easily at Prairie du Chien, not forgetting beads and trinkets used in trading with the Indians.

When the Dubuque fleet arrived at St. Louis, and when it left, salutes were fired from rifles by the Indians, to add impressiveness to the occasion.

Dubuque lived in the village nearly twenty-two years.  He mined and traded steadily, and beyond that we know nothing of his adventures.  His white employes were overseers, smelter, etc., and the mining was done by the Indians themselves.  Dubuque kept a rude general store, where he exchanged cloth and beads and whatever else he thought best, for furs and lead.  Only the old men and the women did the mining, the braves considering it undignified to work.  Mining was carried on in a very simple fashion.  The Indians dug into the hills as far as they could, and bore away the ore in baskets.

Dubuque claimed that the Indians sold him the land where he mined, and that he paid for it in goods.  But the Foxes maintained that they only gave him a permit to mine.  In 1796, after he had been west of the Mississippi for eight years, he asked the Spanish government, which then owned Louisiana Territory, to transfer to him the title to all this tract and to some additional country not mentioned in his treaty with the Indians.  Baron de Carondelet, governor of Louisiana, at Orleans, granted the request.  Dubuque called his mines "The Mines of Spain."

When Dubuque died the Indians would not let anybody else work the mines, because, they said, no white man had a right there, and Dubuque had been there only by special permission.  The treaty, which is still in existence, seems to support this claim by the Foxes.

Dubuque was not a good business man, evidently, for he became so indebted to Auguste Chouteau, an important store keeper at St. Louis, that in 1804 he conveyed to the merchant a great extent of land, in order to cancel some of the obligations.

When he died the remainder of the land was to become the property of Chouteau or his heirs.

So in time Choutear's heirs demanded from the government the possession of much ground where Dubuque city now is.  The case was not decided until 1853.  By this time settlers were occupying the territory, and Iowa was a State.  The supreme court determined the Indians had not sold Dubuque the land, and that it was not his to dispose of, and that the settlers could stay.  This created much rejoicing.

Dubuque died a bankrupt, poor in spite of the fact that he seems to have had unusual opportunities to become rich.  His mines were a fine success, he was in the midst of the Indians of a fur country, and the savages trusted him.  They looked upon him as a great medicine man.  His influence over the Foxes and over the Winnebagoes, across the river, was extraordinary.

He was reputed to be a magician.  Once he frightened the Foxes by telling them he would set the creek on fire.  He instructed some of his men to pour oil on the water above the village, and when the inflammable coating floated down to a point opposite the cabins he touched a match to it.  The water appeared to blaze up, which so frightened the Indians that they ever after regarded Dubuque with awe.

Dubuque was named by the Indians "Little Cloud."  Evidently he had quite an establishment at the village, for when Lieutenant Pike ascended the Mississippi in 1805 Dubuque welcomed him by a salute from a cannon.

In March, 1810, Dubuque died, in the village of the Foxes.  The Indians mourned him deeply, and treated his body with highest honors in their power.  Chiefs and warriors from all the tribes to which he was known gathered and escorted his remains to the grave.  Women followed, singing funeral songs.  At the grave the chiefs spoke, detailing his virtues and praising them.  Then sorrowfully the Indians left him in his rude resting place.

His burial occurred on the crest of a bluff projecting 200 feet above the Mississippi, and situated a short distance north of Kettle Chief's village.  The Indians erected over the grave an enclosure, with stone sides and a wooden roof.  At one end was a cedar cross ten feet high, said to have been made by Dubuque.  The arms were inscribed thus, in French:

"Julien Dubuque, miner of the mines of Spain; died March 24, 1810, aged 43 1/2 years."

It is believed the age is an error, and that he was forty-eight.  Beside him was buried a principal chief, who asked this favor.  For many years the indians thought Dubuque would return and dwell with them again.  As long as possible the Sacs and Foxes visited the grave every year, and other tribes whenever they could, and each Indian threw onto the spot a stone.  Finally there was quite a heap of small stones here.


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