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 Iowa History

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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




The first white men to see Iowa land came by water.  Marquette and Joliet traveled in a canoe.  French trappers and trader, the next white men to come, also came by canoe.  Rivers were the only routes of travel that the first white men of Iowa knew.


Eastern Iowa has many rivers that flow into the Mississippi.  These rivers did much to bring settlers into the state.  The pioneers could follow the streams as they came to look for land.  If we can imagine Iowa as having no roads at all we can see why rivers were used so much.  Men could travel easily and swiftly in their canoes.  Flatboats could be loaded and floated downstream to market at small expense.  For a number of years before Iowa land was opened to white settlers, steamboats had been puffing up and down the Mississippi.  The Virginia had made the first steamboat trip up the great river to the site of St. Paul, Minnesota, as early as 1823.

River steamboats were built in Iowa.  Some of them were crude and clumsy affairs.  The N. L. Minburn was built at Iowaville in 1852-1853.  It made a number of trips on the Des Moines River and down to St. Louis.  It also made one long voyage up and down the Missouri.  The Minburn's last trip was to New Orleans, and it sank in the Gulf of Mexico.  The owners of the Minburn made money with it.

A bad accident happened to the steamer Dubuque in 1837.  One of its boilers exploded and twenty-two people were killed.  Accidents, however, did not happen often.


Great quantities of logs were "rafted" down the Mississippi in early days.  These logs were cut from the forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota and then floated down the river to the sawmills of Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, and other river towns.

Some of the most interesting times along the Mississippi were on days when large rafts came down the stream.   The largest rafts are said to have been more than five blocks long.  The average length was three blocks.

Steamboats and log rafts were not the only river travelers.  Settlers oftentimes loaded a barge or flatboat with their products and floated them downstream to a market.


To improve the rivers so that steamboats could travel on then was considered to be a very important thing,  Both Congress and the early settlers were interested in it.  In 1846, just before Iowa became a state, Congress passed a law by which the Territory of Iowa was given land for river improvement.  The law said that half of the land lying within five miles on each side of the Des Moines River, from its source to its mouth, should belong to Iowa.  The money which the state received when the land was sold was to be used to improve the Des Moines River.

The "Des Moines River Improvement" question for a time set the people of central Iowa wild.  While it was in its glory the boats did a good business.  An Ottumwa paper in June 1854 said, "Since our last issue the steamboats have had fine times on the Demoine.  The Globe, Sangamon, Col. Morgan, Julia Dean, Time and Tide, J. B. Gordon, and Alice have all made trips up, some of them going as high as Demoine.  All of them returned to the Mississippi with loads as heavy as they could bear."

The "Improvement" project proved a failure.  Politics entered into it and there is said to have been such scandal.


It was thought that steamboats would travel up and down the smaller rivers too.  When permission was given to build a toll bridge at Iowa City, the agreement stated that the bridge must be built so that it would not stop travel on the Iowa River.

Iowa City and other settlements on smaller rivers in eastern Iowa hoped to become river ports.  A number of towns were started along these rivers.  Those which later were fortunate enough to have a railroad come to them lived and grew.  Others, however, are only memories.

Steamboats on the smaller rivers in Iowa went as far as Fort Dodge on the Des Moines River, Iowa City on the Iowa River, and Waterloo on the Cedar River.  Regular trips, however, were made only on the Mississippi, the Missouri, and to Des Moines on the Des Moines River.


While the rivers made travel by water possible, they made travel by land difficult.  It was hard to cross the larger rivers in the covered wagons.  As travel became more common, ferries were started at certain places on the larger rivers.  Wagons, cattle, and horses were loaded on a ferry and taken across the river.  The owners of the ferries made money before bridges were built.  Shallow places ("fords") could be found in the smaller rivers where a wagon could be driven across the stream.  This was called fording the river.

Toll bridges later took the place of ferries.  A toll bridge is one where a fee, or toll, is charged for driving across it.  Many of them were built by private persons or companies.


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