Tama County IAGenWeb
Population History

Written by William Haloupek.


The region now known as Iowa has been inhabited for at least 13,000 years. It is difficult or impossible to determine which tribes lived in which areas at which times. Estimates of Native American population numbers before 1900 vary widely. Part of the problem is that, by the time anyone started counting them, the populations were already greatly in flux, due to warfare, disease and forced migration.

The population of what is now the Continental United States, in 1492, has been estimated as low as 1 million, and as high as 10 million. At that time, most of the people in the Western Hemisphere lived in what we now call Mexico and Central America. The Tama County population was probably in the 1,000-2,000 range. I would offer a wild guess, that the population fluctuated between 0 and 2,000 for 13,000 years before 1492.


At the start of the 19th Century, what is now central Iowa, including Tama County, was inhabited by the Iowa Tribe (also spelled Ioway, but they called themselves Baxoje), for whom the state was named. In 1803 the US bought a large amount of land, including all of Iowa, from Napoleon, Emperor of France, in a deal called the Louisiana Purchase. The Iowa people were visited by Lewis and Clark in 1804. Their 1760 population has been estimated at 1,100. Decimated by smallpox, the Iowa Tribe was forced onto reservations in Kansas and Nebraska in 1824-1836.

By 1900, the Native American population of the US had fallen below 250,000. At the same time, the total US population had grown to more than 76 million. Tama County grew from near zero in 1850 to over 5,000 in 1860, and almost 25,000 in 1900. Whatever else you can say about the different cultures, one key aspect of the European "invasion" was that a very sparse native population was replaced by a much denser white population. With 25,000 people in 720 square miles, Tama County had a population density of 35 people per square mile, in 1900. This would hardly be considered crowded, by modern standards, but it was much more crowded than it had ever been in pre-Columbian times.

Mesquakie Indians responsible for the establishment of the Meskwaki Settlement at Tama, Iowa in 1857.

The Fox Tribe (they call themselves Meskwaki), had originated along the Saint Lawrence River, in what is now Ontario. They were coerced, encouraged, and pressured to move westward, and lived in Iowa from 1830 to 1843, when they were ordered to move to a reservation in Kansas. Many refused to leave, and in 1851 a law was passed allowing them to purchase land in Iowa. In 1857 the Meskwaki bought some land in Tama County, where many of them (1,327 in the 2010 US Census) still live. They now own one of the largest casinos in the Midwest, in Indian Village Township, between Montour and Tama. From Chapter III in The History of Tama County, 1883:

As to the present condition of the Indians, the following, which is an extract from
the report by U. S. Agent Geo. L. DAVENPORT, in August, 1881, treats at length:
"According to the census taken of this tribe last winter, they number
91 men, 104 women, 77 girls and 83 boys. Population in all 355."

The section of Iowa containing Tama County was opened for pioneer settlement in 1845, but the first permanent settlers did not arrive in Tama County until 1849. From Chapter IV in The History of Tama County, 1883:

According to the dates given the historian, the first to locate in the territory
now comprising Tama county, with a view to secure a permanent home, was the
Vandorin party, who came from Henry county, and settled in York township May 21, 1849.
The principal part of the little colony was William Riley Vandorin, his wife Rachel
and two children. With them came two hired men, James Vandorin and Isaac McKern;
Ephraim Whittaker also came with his wife and two children.

The two hired men went back to Henry County, and Ephriam Whittaker built a cabin about 5 miles from the Vandorins. Thus Tama County had two first families: the Vandorin family of four, in York Township, and the Whittaker family of four, in Salt Creek Township. Settlers came by the hundreds at first, and then by the thousand, reaching 5,285 by 1860.

The Wilkinson family settled in Salt Creek Township, in 1849. The family consisted of the mother and six grown offspring: Anthony, Robert, William, Rebecca, Jane and Mary. Isaac and Martha (Greer) Asher and their 9 children had settled in Marshal County in 1847, where a 10th child was born. The family moved to Indian Village Township, Tama County, in November 1849. The 8 people listed in the 1850 US Census for Tama County were members of the Asher family.

Anthony Wilkinson, b. 28 July 1817, in Donegal, Ireland

The 1852 Iowa State Census lists 52 families, and the 1854 Iowa State Census lists 229 families, in Tama County. See the Census page.

The 1875 Business Directory provides some insight into the population in the first 25 years of settlement. Although it lists each business, including farms, and some have more than one owner, it also lists nativity and year settled in Tama County, which would apply to the owners individually. Also, those few businesses that had more than one owner were generally the ones that didn't include nativity and year settled. For simplicity, we count each business as one person, without too much error. There are many caveats one should make before using these data to draw any conclusions. However, it is of interest to see how the numbers come out.
Of the 751 businesses listed, at least 502, or about two-thirds, were farms.

The Wilkinson brothers, Robert, Anthony and William, had come to Tama County in 1849, and were still farming in 1875. The Directory for Salt Creek Township lists A. Wilkinson in Section 20, and W. Wilkinson in Scetion 29, but misses a large estate in Section 19, under the name Robt. Wilkinson.

Settlement by Year

The graph shows the number of businesses owned in 1875, by people who came to Tama County in each year, from 1849 to 1974. It appears that early settlement of Tama County occurred in two waves. As one might expect, settlement slowed during the Civil War years. What may be surprising is that the first wave had begun to subside years before the start of the War, and the second wave began well before the end of the War. The low in 1871 may represent the time when all the land had been claimed, under the Land Act.

Settlers' Nativity

This shows the number of businesses whose owners were born in each state and foreign country. The vast majority were born in US states to the east of Iowa, from Massachusetts to Illinois. There were 21 from Canada, and the rest were born in Western Europe. Only 10 came from Bohemia; in another two decades, Tama County would be flooded with Bohemian immigrants, and even more from Germany and the rest of Europe. (The bar marked USA represents all US states besides those already listed.) The data:

KY8Gen US2Total foreign171
NJ8Total US547Total718

There were 5 business owners in 1875 who had been born in Iowa, and one, Chester Guernsey, was born in Tama County, 1856. He would have been 19 years old, and owned his own farm.

As the US Census data shows, the European population increased dramatically in the second half of the 19th Century, raching a maximum of almost 25,000 in 1900, and slowly declined to less than 18,000 today.


US Census Data for Tama County, Iowa. Data obtained from State Library of Iowa

The US Census did not include Native Americans until 1890, and even then, it only included those that were taxed.

In addition to the federal censuses, Tama County was included in most of the censuses conducted by the state of iowa. The totals for the state censuses before 1880 are listed in Chapter VI of The History of Tama County, 1883:


Cities in Tama County

Dozens of cities and towns have come and gone in Tama County. Take a look at Hamlets and Villages that no longer exist in Tama County Iowa.

This map from 1916 shows the townships in their current configuration. Note: the town of Berlin is now called Lincoln. There are currently 21 townships and 12 "cities" in Tama County. The city population totals, according to the latest data from the Iowa League of Cities are shown below.

ChelseaSalt Creek267
GladbrookSpring Creek945
MontourIndian Village249

The sum of the city populations is 10,909, about 61% of the current population. The remaining 39% live in rural areas.

Surrounding Area

Tama County Neighbors

in 1850
in 1900
in 2010
Black Hawk13532,399131,090

In 1850, the counties to the south and east of Tama were well populated. By 1900, the population had leveled somewhat. In the period from 1900 to 2010, there was a mass migration from rural areas to cities, and the Waterloo/Cedar Falls metropolitan area, in Black Hawk County, grew to be the largest in the area. The cities of Newton, in Jasper County, and Marshalltown, in Marshall County, also showed growth. Demographically, present day Tama County can be described as a mainly rural area, just south of Waterloo.

Page updated 12 Jul 2013 by Tama County Coordinator.