Early Explorers

In the late 1600s European explorers began paddling up and down the Mississippi River, passing along Iowa’s eastern border. The first two major expeditions were by Frenchmen. In 1673 Louis Jolliet led a crew down the Fox River from Lake Michigan. They crossed over to the Wisconsin River and sailed southwest into uncharted territory. Father Marquette, a Catholic priest who accompanied the expedition, kept a diary. On June 17 he recorded that the group reached the mouth of the Wisconsin River where it flows into the Mississippi. Across the river were high bluffs covered with heavy forests. Today that site includes Pike’s Peak State Park near the town of McGregor. 

Marquette and Joliet in Iowa

The Marquette and Joliet expedition were the first Europeans to visit Iowa. They came ashore on the west bank of the Mississippi farther downstream and met some Illinois Native Americans. The men continued down the Mississippi until they were certain that the river flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Pacific Ocean. Fearing conflicts with the Spanish, the expedition turned around and returned to Canada to report their findings.

French Land Claims

Begining in 1669 René-Robert-Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, better known simply as La Salle, explored the areas from Quebec, Canada, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. There, in 1682, he raised a French flag and claimed all of the Mississippi River basin for France. That included all the land from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. He named the region Louisiana for the French king, Louis XIV (Louis the Fourteenth). 

Claiming this huge territory for France did not mean that the French wanted to live there. A claim was a warning to other European nations to stay away. It did not mean that the French wanted the Native Americans to leave. It declared that France would not tolerate settlers from other countries living there or trading with the Native Americans. European claims meant very little to the Native Americans living there at the time, although they would become important in the future. 

Trappers and traders began exploring the rivers that fed into the great Mississippi. The French established some trading posts along the river that would grow into towns and then cities. The names of these outposts reflect their French roots—St. Paul, Prairie du Chien (Prairie of the Dog) and St. Louis. 

British and French at War

In the 1700s Britain and France fought with each other as they attempted to establish worldwide empires. The British established colonies along the east coast of North America while the French settled along the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Both nations wanted to control the fur trade around the Great Lakes. In 1756 a war broke out between these two rivals. Fearing the loss of the entire region, France secretly transferred its claim to the lands west of the Mississippi (including Iowa) to Spain. With a final British victory in 1763, France gave up claim to lands in North America, but it prevented Britain from extending its empire across the continent.

Julien Dubuque's Lead Mines

In the 1780s a young Frenchman named Julien Dubuque learned that there were rich deposits of lead ore on the west side of the Mississippi near Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin. Lead was valuable because it was used to make ammunition for guns and cannons. The Meskwaki Indians owned the land. In exchange for gifts the Meskwaki allowed Dubuque to live among them and to mine the ore. Dubuque set up lead mines near the location of the city that bears his name. Women and old men from the Meskwaki tribe dug the lead ore from the ground. Dubuque and his French assistants melted the ore and poured it into metal bars called “pigs.” The pigs were floated down the Mississippi and sold in St. Louis, along with furs. When Dubuque died, he was buried near his Iowa home.

The American colonies revolted against Britain in 1776. With their victory in 1781 a new nation emerged—the United States—that was not part of any European empire. Its original boundaries extended west to the Mississippi River. In 1803 the United States nearly doubled its size with the purchase of the land from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. France, who had reclaimed the land from Spain, sold this huge tract for $15 million. 

Lewis and Clark

To learn more about the area, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to sail up the Missouri River and on to the Pacific Ocean. They set out from St. Louis in the spring of 1804 with 29 men and Captain Lewis’s dog, Seaman. Their orders were to record information about Indian tribes living in the area, the best places for forts and trading posts, native plants and animals, and the land. By summer they were traveling along the river’s twists and turns on Iowa’s western border. Charles Floyd was a sergeant in the expedition. Near the site of present-day Sioux City, Charles became very sick. On August 20 he died and was buried in a gravesite overlooking the river. He was the only man to die on the expedition. 

Lewis and Clark pushed up to the mouth of the Missouri in present-day Montana. There they portaged their supplies to the headwaters of a river flowing west to the Pacific. On November 7, 1805, they got their first glimpse of the Pacific. Clark wrote in his diary: “Ocean in view! O! The joy!” The crew headed back in the spring of 1806 and arrived in St. Louis in September. They had traveled over 8,000 miles. They became national heroes and the information they brought back encouraged many more to head west.

Exploring Iowa—the Land of Strawberries and Cream

In 1805, while Lewis and Clark were still out west, another American military officer set out to visit the northern stretches of the Mississippi. Zebulon Pike left St. Louis and explored both sides of the great river, past Iowa and into central Minnesota. He too identified key points for forts and trading posts.

In the early summer of 1835, a small group of soldiers on horseback explored the valley of the Des Moines River as far as present-day Des Moines and then up to Ft. Dodge. Modern highway signs mark their route as the Dragoon Trail. They took along a cow to provide milk and cream as they traveled. One day, their horses rode through beds of ripe wild strawberries so thick that their hooves were stained bright red at the end of the day. That night the soldiers picked heaps of berries for supper and feasted on strawberries and fresh cream. To some Iowa was a land of milk and honey. To those early soldiers it was the land of strawberries and cream! 

Rivers were the early highways bringing explorers, trappers, traders and then settlers to Iowa. It would be almost 150 years after Marquette and Joliet sailed down Iowa’s eastern border before white settlers began moving inland to farm Iowa’s incredibly rich topsoil. Because Iowa is indeed “the land between two rivers”—the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers—the river borders were familiar long before settlers knew what lay in the interior.