Iowa History Project






During the proceedings that resulted in the purchase of Louisiana from France, Robert Livingston, the United States minister to France, who had the matter in hand, said in a communication addressed to the French official that not for a hundred years would the American people attempt to settle the country west of the Mississippi.

Perhaps he said this in order to make France willing to accept a low price for the territory, by giving out the impression that the United States was not eager to buy.  It may be that Minister Livingston was sincere in his assertion.  Many of the foremost men in the Republic believed that we were undertaking too much.  They thought the Mississippi should remain the western boundary of the nation.

"We shall have enough to do to occupy this region," said they.

Such an opinion seems quite unwarranted, but how could the people of a century ago read the future?  How could they imagine that before fifty years had gone by the Mississippi Valley would be over-flowing, and that thousands of emigrants would be traversing the western plains and scaling the Rocky Mountains?  The world never dreamed of such prodigies of emigration as resulted form the opening of this continent of North America, and from the liberty offered to all mankind.

It did not take even fifty years to demonstrate that Louisiana Territory would be put to good use.  Following the purchase changes occurred with such rapidity that the map makers at Washington must have been kept very busy.

First, in March, 1804, about two weeks after Capt. Amos Stoddard announced at St. Louis the withdrawal of Spain and France and the establishment of United States authority, Congress divided the territory into two parts.  The southern portion, now about covered by the State of Louisiana, was named the Territory of Orleans.  The north portion was called the District of Louisiana.

The government of this District of Louisiana was place in the hands of the officers of Indiana Territory.  Indiana Territory was just across the Mississippi.  It had been formed in 1800, and was composed of the present States of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, the west half of Michigan and Minnesota east of the Mississippi.

However, within a year, in 1805, the District of Louisiana was given officials of its own.  When in 1812 the State of Louisiana was admitted into the Union, the District of Louisiana lost its title, and was re-christened the Territory of Missouri.

In 1821 the State of Missouri came into the sisterhood.  The United States was making splendid advancement.  One-fourth of Minister Livingston's one hundred years had not passed, and yet so many settlers had entered the new purchase that two States had been made.

When the State of Missouri was cut out of what was termed Missouri territory, the United States seems to have forgotten about what was left-that is, the section of the Territory remaining, northward.  This area, including the present States of Iowa and Minnesota, along the river, and the Dakotas and others, to the west, as not provided with officers.  No territorial government was afforded here.  There were no courts, and no laws save those made by the settlers among themselves.

Such a state of affairs prevailed until 1834.  During those thirteen years, from 1821 to 1834, the west bank of the Mississippi was receiving settlers.  In particular the lead mines at Dubuque attracted whites.  At Dubuque occurred an incident which forced the people at Washington to recognize the existence of the territory.

In May, 1834, Patrick O'Connor, a miner at Dubuque, shot George O'Keaf, another miner.  No provocation to the deed was apparent, and when O'Connor was asked why he committed the murder he replied:

"That is my business."

The enraged friends of O'Keaf wanted at once to hang O'Connor, but were prevailed upon to give the man a trial.  The court at Galena, Illinois, had given out word that it had no jurisdiction over the territory west of the Mississippi, so the Dubuque people were forced to depend upon their own resources.

The prisoner selected his attorney, and chose the jury.  The jury sat on a log, and heard the evidence.  The verdict brought in found for murder in the first degree, and fixed the penalty at death.  O'Connor was sentenced to be hanged at one o'clock on June 20.

During the month before the execution an effort was made to secure a pardon for the prisoner.  The governor of Missouri said he had no authority over the case.  President Jackson sent word that the laws of the United States had not been extended over the territory which included Iowa, and thus he could not interfere.  He suggested that the pardoning power rested in only the settlers who had formed the court.

At the time appointed O'Connor was hanged.  The proceedings of this impromptu court created much comment.  Congress looked into the matter, and soon Iowa was under the control of Michigan Territory.

Out of the Territory of Indiana the States of Indiana and Illinois had been made.  Indiana was admitted in 1816; Illinois in 1818.  In 1805 the Territory of Michigan had been set off.  With Indiana, Illinois and Michigan formed from Indiana Territory, there was left the northern quarter to be dealt with.  In 1823 Congress took this tract, lying north of Illinois, and between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, divided it into three counties, and attached it to Michigan Territory, which is to-day the State of Michigan.

Counties in those days were much larger than we now understand by the word.  Once all Illinois was but a county of Indiana Territory.  In 1829 all the land south of the Wisconsin River, north of Illinois, and between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan, composed a county, named by the Michigan Territory Legislature, Iowa County.  Here, in 1829, we first hear the name Iowa applied to a political division.

Thus the land east of the Mississippi was fairly well provided for in the way of government.  But all this time, since 1821, the country west of the river, and north of the State of Missouri, was obliged to get along as best it could.  Now the miners at Dubuque had directed attention to the condition of affairs.  Congress divided what are to-day Iowa, Minnesota west of the Mississippi, and the Dakotas east of the Missouri and White Earth Rivers, into two counties, Dubuque County and Des Moines (or, as it was then spelled, Demoine) County.  Dubuque County was all that region north of a line drawn from the lower end of Rock Island to the Missouri; Demoine County was the district south of the line.

These two counties were joined, for judicial proposes, to Iowa County east of the Mississippi.  As Iowa County was a part of Michigan Territory, the two new counties were attached to Michigan Territory.

Dubuque County and Demoine County were referred to as the Iowa District.  The name Iowa had at last passed to the west side of the Mississippi, where it finally became a permanent title.

Michigan Territory then covered a great deal of ground; too much, in fact.  So in 1836 Congress determined upon another Territory, and called it Wisconsin Territory.  This extended from Lake Michigan, north of Illinois, clear to the White Earth River in what is now North Dakota, with the southwestern boundary running from the White Earth River down the Missouri channel to the state of Missouri,.  Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and half of the Dakotas formed Wisconsin Territory.

Dubuque and Demoine Counties, which had been known as the Iowa District, now became Western Wisconsin.  In September, 1836, the population of this region of Western Wisconsin was 10,531.

The first legislature of Wisconsin Territory met at Belmont, in Iowa County, in the fall of 1836.  In 1837 Flint Hills, now Burlington in the State of Iowa, was the temporary capital of the Territory, and the Legislature of 1837 met here.  When a separate organization from that of Wisconsin Territory was asked for by the people of Western Wisconsin, Congress granted this request, and in 1838 a new Territory was made, and given the name Iowa Territory, suggested by the former name, Iowa District.

Iowa Territory was composed of the present States of Iowa, Minnesota west of the Mississippi River, and the Dakotas east of the White Earth and the Missouri Rivers.  The act of Congress approving the new division went into effect July 4, 1838.  The population of the Territory taken this year, was 22,860.  It had doubled in two years!


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