Iowa: Its History and Its
The First White Men To Set Foot Upon Iowa Soil
and Mouth of the Wisconsin River
Of deep historic interest, but practically of no immediate influence on civilization, was the event of the 25th of June, 1673, the first recorded landing of the white man upon the soil now included within the limits of the State of Iowa.
On the 17th of June, the daring explorers, Marquette and Joliet with their five attendants, first saw the future Iowa as they floated in their canoes down the Wisconsin River and out into the Mississippi.
The priest, whose journal was fortunately preserved, gazed with rapture on the scene. The bluffs and wooded hills of what is now Clayton County filled him with a joy he vainly tried to express. Marquette was a keen observer. He noted the “high mountains” (bluffs ranging from three to four hundred feet high), the “beautiful land,” the current of the river “slow and gentle,” the gradual change from wooded mountains to treeless hills, the monster fish “with the head of a tiger,” “deer, cattle, bustards, and swans, without wings,” buffaloes, or “wild cattle scattered about the prairie in herds.”
For eight days the voyageurs floated down the great river “without discovering anything.” Then, on the 25th of June, something happened. The historian of the voyage makes this record.1
“We perceived,” added Father Marquette, “on the water’s edge some tracks of men, and a narrow and somewhat beaten path leading to a fine prairie. We stopped to examine it and, thinking that it was a road which led to some village of savages, we resolved to go and reconnoiter it. We therefore left our two canoes under the guard of our people, strictly charging them not to allow themselves to be surprised, after which Monsieur Jollyet and I undertook this investigation—a rather hazardous one for tow men who exposed themselves, alone, to the mercy of a barbarous and unknown people. We silently followed the narrow path, and, after walking about two leagues, we discovered a village
on the bank of the river, and two others on a hill distant about half a league from the first.”
This event—the first known conference on Iowa soil—is thought by Shea and Parkman to have occurred farther north than the mouth of the Des Moines River.2 Weld proves conclusively that the stream indicated on Marquette’s chart is the Iowa River and that the conference occurred within the present limits of Louisa County. Other authors hold, but without convincing proof, that the river mentioned is the Des Moines, and that the place of landing was not far from Montrose in Lee County.
This first contact on Iowa soil of Caucasian personality with that of the American Indian presents a memorable picture. Attracted by distant shouting, the astonished natives swarmed about their chiefs and the result of their hurried conference was the dispatching of four old men to meet the two invaders of their domain. Two bore pipes ornamented with feathers. As they approached they “raised the pipes to the sun—without, however, saying a word.” The strangers were escorted to the village and the day was spent in feasting, accompanied by speeches, songs and dances. That night the visitors were the head chiefs guests. Marquette enlarged upon the manners and customs of the Illini and then proceeded:
“On the following day, we took Leave of him, promising to pass again by his village within four moons. He Conducted us to our Canoes, with nearly 600 persons who witnessed our Embarkation, giving us every possible manifestation of the joy that Our visit had caused them.”
Thus hastily came and went the first great personalities contributory to Iowa history: one, half missionary, half explorer, imbued with the joy of gazing upon new lands and of picturing them as scenes for the future conquests of the Church; the other, man of science and explorer, who combined with the joy of discovery the satisfaction of charting new territory in the then almost unknown New World.
The First White Settlements in Iowa
It was a full century and a half after Marquette and Joliet set foot upon Iowa soil before any substantial effort was made by white men to possess the land between the Mississippi and the Missouri. The scattered tribes of Indians in possession of the land were nomads from the East. Like the whites who succeeded them, they made their way into the new country with little regard for those who had possessed the land before them. As the Doctor Salter has well said, “the idea of their owning Iowa by hereditary right, or by long occupation, is fabulous.”1
While France acquired by right of discovery a title to the region, the French government mad no attempt to reclaim the wilderness. French explorers who followed in the wake of Marquette and Joliet were traders and gold-hunters and had no conception of the vast wealth which lay undeveloped in the soil underneath their feet. The voyageurs who traversed the great rivers on its border discovered in this region only a profitable market for their wares in exchange for the peltries of wild beasts roaming over the prairies and herding along the streams.
The slender contribution made by the French to Iowa history is a tradition kept alive only by a few place-names, such as “Dubuque,” “Bellvue,” and “Bonaparte.”
The finger of Destiny pointed unmistakably toward the ultimate occupancy of the Spanish domain by English-speaking people.
But, nevertheless, the first white man to effect a permanent settlement on Iowa soil proved to be a French-Canadian operating under permit from the Spanish government. The first man to impress his personality upon the region west of the upper Mississippi was Julien Dubuque. A career so masterful calls for more than a passing mention, and therefore it has been outlined in a chapter by itself.
The career of Julien Dubuque closed in spring of 1810. That powerful personality withdrawn, the enterprises built up by twenty-two years of toil and scheming soon collapsed. All that was left of Dubuque’s claim was sold to satisfy St. Louis creditors, the Chouteaus, and all that was left to signalize his masterful career was his name and a cairn raised above his grave by the Indians loyal to his memory.
Not long after Dubuque’s death the St. Louis creditors sent an armed force to take possession of his estate. The Indians stubbornly refused to turn over the
mines, insisting that they had reverted to the original owners. The Chouteaus appealed to Congress for relief. Their title was disallowed. They appealed to the courts. The case lingered there until 1853 when the Supreme Court of the United States decided against their contention.
Meantime, the land involved in the alleged grant was steadily growing in value, and an embryo city, bearing the name of the first white settler in Iowa, in time sprang up within its limits.
In 1800 Spain conferred two other land grants, one to Basil Giard, who in 1795 preempted a tract on which the city of McGregor now stands; the other to Louis Tesson, who in 1799 located on land on which the town of Montrose, near the mouth of the Des Moines, was afterward located. The United States confirmed these grants.2 In time both were assigned to creditors.
In 1808 came Col. J. W. Johnson and established a post at Fort Madison. Four years later his post was burned. It was not rebuilt.
Other adventurous traders and settlers strove in vain to maintain themselves in the wilderness beyond the river. Soon after the French revolution, Chevalier Marois fled to America. In 1812 he married the daughter of an Ioway chief and established a trading post on the river, within the present limits of Clayton County, and there remained for several years.
In 1820 came another French trader, named Le Moliere, who established a post near the mouth of the Des Moines.3
The first permanent white settlement on Iowa soil after the coming of Dubuque was in 1820, when Dr. Samuel C. Muir, an army surgeon, built a log cabin on the site of the city of Keokuk. That this Scottish-American was a strong personality whose name is worthy of perpetuation, is evident from the circumstances attending his coming into the wilderness. Surgeon Muir was stationed at Fort Edwards, the site of Warsaw, Illinois, when the order came directing all army officers to separate themselves from their Indian “wives.” Muir had in good faith married a squaw who had borne him four children. In reply to the War Department, he said:
“May God forbid that a son of Caledonia should ever desert his child or disown his clan!”
Muir resigned his commission and, taking his family, sought a home beyond the Mississippi. His log cabin was the nucleus around which sprang up the settlement that took the name of the famous Indian chief, Keokuk.
1—The Iowa country was part of the vast region nominally under France from 1682-1770;nominally under Spain from 1770-1804. Salter, “The First Free State in the Louisiana Purchase.” pp. 28-29, 37.
2—American State papers, Public Lands, Vol. III, p. 332.
3—commonly written Lemoliere.
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