Iowa History Project






For eight years, from 1838 to 1846, Iowa remained a Territory.  Long before it was even a Territory, Missouri on the south and Illinois on the east were settled and admitted into the Union.

The Indians were being pressed westward by the whites and were losing their homes east of the Mississippi.  Finally they were pushed into what is now Iowa, and given reservations here.  Until 1833 they were practically the sole owners of Iowa.  For over a century and a half after civilization penetrated the Mississippi Valley - ninety years of French control, forty years of Spanish, and thirty of United States - Iowa was allowed to be a wilderness, traversed only occasionally by fur traders and army detachments.

The land was considered as belonging to the Red Man.  Whites were required to obtain permission from the Indians before trapping and trading could be indulged in this territory.

June 1, 1833, five years before Iowa Territory was made, the first section of country within the present limits was thrown open for settlement.  The Indians had opposed the government, and had created trouble that led to a short war called the Black Hawk War, and as a penalty a tract of land was taken from them.  

This was the strip known as the Black Hawk Purchase, so named because Black Hawk was the chief who conducted the Indian forces in the war.  The Black Hawk Purchase extended along the west side of the Mississippi River from the north boundary of Missouri north to the Upper Iowa River.  The Upper Iowa River is in the northeast corner of Iowa, and must not be confounded with the Iowa River in the southern half of the State.  Therefore this tract extended from Missouri nearly to Minnesota.  It was fifty miles wide at the ends, and forty in the middle.

Over this area of six million acres poured the settlers.

The treaty transferring the land was made at the spot where now stands the city of Davenport.  On Rock Island, opposite the point, was Fort Armstrong, garrisoned by United States soldiers.  Cholera was raging there, so it was impossible to have the treaty conference occur in the fort.  The council was held in a  large tent on the west bank of the river.  The United States was represented by General Winfield Scott and Governor John Reynolds of Illinois.  Keokuk, Pash-e-pa-ho, Black Hawk and other prominent Sac and Fox chiefs represented the tribes.

The scene of this first transfer of Iowa land from Indians to settlers was inspiring.  The Indians were clad in their brightest colors, and their whitest deer skin; but their clothes were by no means more brilliant than the uniforms of the soldiers, at that time gay and gilt and glittering lace.  Rough hunters and trappers, mingling with the swarthy braves, crowded to watch proceedings.  Below flowed the beautiful Mississippi, its banks rich in autumn foliage.

The council was concluded on September 21, 1832.  The treaty was ratified in February, 1833, and on June 1, following, the Black Hawk Purchase was turned over to the settlers.

The United States agreed to pay to the Indians, each year for thirty consecutive years, twenty thousand dollars, and assume debts which had been accumulating for seventeen years.  These amounted to forty thousand dollars, due to Davenport and Farnham, Indian traders.

The government gave to the widows and children of the Sac and Fox braves killed in the Black Hawk War, cattle, salt, pork, flour, and corn, in considerable quantities.

The Indians had lived for many years on the banks of the Mississippi, and hated to leave scenes so endeared to them.  So the United States allowed them to retain four hundred square miles of territory in the purchase.  This ground was about what is now Louisa County.  Through it flowed the Iowa River.  The tract was termed the Keokuk Reserve, because Keokuk was the principal chief of the Sacs, here.

In the Black Hawk Purchase the United States, at request of the Indians who wanted to show their friendship, set apart a section of land at the head of the first rapids, above Rock Island, for Antoine Le Claire, a noted interpreter.  This section is now occupied by the town of Le Claire.  Where Davenport stands another section was set apart for Le Claire's Indian wife.

The announcement that the government had acquired land which would be given over to settlement excited much interest among the whites who were then living across the river, in Illinois.  They had heard of the marvelous loveliness of the country to the westward, and were eager to try their fortunes here.  Some impatient ones had endeavored to establish their cabins in the territory while it was yet Indian property, but had been driven out by the soldiers, and with their friends were waiting another opportunity to take up claims - this time under government protection.

By June 1, 1833, the Indians had quietly withdrawn to the banks of the Iowa River.  On the day appointed the whites hastened in, treading on the heels of the former owners of the country.  Thus Iowa's future began to assume definite form.

When, July 4, 1838, the act of Congress organizing Iowa Territory went into effect, the settlers had spread beyond the Black hawk Purchase.  The four hundred square miles saved for the Sacs and Foxes had been bought by the government, and another strip of land bordering the purchase on the west had been obtained.  The Indians had been forced away from the Mississippi, into the interior.

A great tide of people was surging into Iowa.  The New Lands, as the Territory was popularly known, attracted settlers clear from the Atlantic coast.  So rapidly did the population increase that in 1840 Statehood was talked of.

At this time the most thickly settled portion of the Territory was along the Mississippi, and in width fifty or sixty miles.  North of Dubuque the country was but sparsely occupied.  Clayton County had been organized in 1837.  In 1840 the population of Iowa Territory was about 42,000.   In 1844 it was 82,500.

In 1840, when the people were called upon to vote on the question of Statehood, they had a majority against the proposed petition.  In 1842 the topic was again agitated, and again voted down.  The settlers voting "no" said that the laws of the United States and of a Territory were good enough, and that Statehood was unnecessary.  They were of the opinion that expenses would be greater under a State government.

But in 1844 the Territorial Legislature again asked the citizens to signify whether they wished a convention for the purpose of drawing up a constitution.  This time those in favor of Statehood carried the day.  In October, 1844, a constitutional convention met at Iowa City, the capital of the Territory.  A constitution was prepared.  Had it been  approved by Congress Iowa to-day would be larger than it is.  It would include a portion of Minnesota.

This constitution in 1844 fixed the eastern, western and southern boundaries practically as they now are.  The northern boundary, on the other hand, was a line connecting the mouth of the Big Sioux or Calument River, at the Missouri, with the sharp bend in the St. Peter's, now the Minnesota River, in the present State of Minnesota; the St. Peter's from this point to the Mississippi was to complete this boundary.  Iowa would be a different shape, and the northwest corner would have been cut off, had the boundaries selected in 1844 been allowed to stand.

But Congress in March, 1845, not only rejected the proposed limits, but offered suggestions that were a radical change from those of the constitutional convention.  Congress presented for the approval of the people of the Territory a new western boundary which passed from north to south on a line about forty miles west of Des Moines.  The northern boundary was on a line with the juncture of the Blue Earth and St. Peter's Rivers, in Minnesota.  Had Congress prevailed, Iowa to-day would be but little more than half as wide from east to west as it is, and would extend thirty miles farther north, into Minnesota. 

Then ensued a warm discussion.  The settlers were divided on the question of boundaries.  Those in favor of the constitution of 1844, as amended by Congress, claimed that the western portion of the Territory was as uninhabitable as a desert, and would prove a burden to any State.  The rumor went about  that a committee sent out to look for a location for the capital and to see into the country beyond the Des Moines River, returned, with the advice that the capital be  established at about Oskaloosa, saying that forty miles beyond Fort Raccoon (now Des Moines) the region was not fit for settlement!  Some of the settlers maintained that if the suggestions of Congress were not accepted the people would be given nothing.

A campaign of education set in.  The opponents of the proposed boundaries put stump speakers into the field, who demonstrated to the settlers the worth and importance of the Missouri Slope.  "Westward the course of empire takes its way" was the war cry.  It won, for the constitution, as amended, was defeated in April, 1845.

The Territorial Legislature asked the people to vote again, this time not on the whole constitution, but simply on the portions that did not deal with boundaries.  At this election, in August, 1845, the constitution was once more defeated, by a  close vote of 7,656 to 7,233.

In May, 1846, another Territorial convention assembled, to discuss the boundary problem.  It deliberated for fifteen days, and finally selected the limits that to-day confine the State of Iowa.  Congress approved of the work.  The constitution, practically the same as that of 1844, save as to boundaries, was to the popular vote August 3, 1846, and was adopted by a vote of 9,492 to 9,036.

The census of 1846 gave Iowa a population of 102,388.  Ansel Briggs, the first State governor, was elected October 26, 1846.  The first State general assembly met at Iowa City, November 30, in this year, and in December Governor Briggs took the oath of office.  The act of Congress, admitting Iowa into the Union, was passed December 28, 1846.

At this time there were some thirty counties, forming the eastern third of the present State.  Many towns were spelled according to the Indian way, as Ouskaloosa, Ottumwah, Keosauque.  Des Moines city was Fort Raccoon.

Only a few Indians were in the limits.  Some bands of Sioux roamed in the northwestern corner, and the Musquakies were in Tama County.

Iowa was given over to the whites.  Civilization had conquered.


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