Lead was a natural resource that became very important to the lives of many Iowans. From the Meskwaki's to the European settlers, lead played a role in Iowa's history. Both groups used the ore to make their lives better. But the story of lead in Iowa's mining history was short-lived. In time the story ended with the decline of lead mining completely.
Native American Secrets
Native Americans along eastern Iowa and western Wisconsin had been using unrefined lead (or ore) for years without knowing how to cast it. By grinding up the iron ore into powder and mixing it with water, they would create a black paint used for body and face decoration. During the 1700s, French explorers found out about the plentiful veins of lead ore. They taught the Native Americans how to melt the ore and shape it into things like crosses, fish net sinkers, cooking utensils, tools and statues of animals.
The Native Americans were secretive about the location of their mines. The Meskwaki (Fox) did well for themselves by trading chunks of lead ore to the French and English traders for things the Indians needed, such as guns and knives. The traders would take the ore, smelt it (melt it to remove impurities) and produce lead shot. (The small round pellets were used as ammunition for rifles.) Lead shot were then traded back to the Indians.
The Native Americans knew how important lead was to the Europeans and guarded their treasure. Julien Dubuque, a French trader, was the exception. He was a French-Canadian who came to the area in the 1780s to work the fur trade. He traded with the Meskwaki (Fox), but he also learned from them and became friends with them. He even married the great Chief Peosta's daughter.
The Mesqwaki trusted Dubuque and they told him about the well-guarded lead mines in Meskwaki territory. Realizing Dubuque’s business savvy, the Meskwaki leaders gave him control of the mines. He worked with the Native Americans to scout new sites, and with their help the “Mines of Spain” flourished. Working with the tribe, he successfully ran the mines until his death in 1810. The mines should have been returned to the Mesquakie, but as often happened in history, the valuable land and the mines were taken over by the United States Army.
The Secret's Out
Soon everyone knew about the mines and lead mining began in earnest in the 1820s. By the boatload, settlers came up the Mississippi River to claim the rich veins, establish mines, build smelters and produce lead. Similar to the California Gold Rush of 1849, the Lead Rush brought throngs of people from the East coast and Europe. By 1829 over 4,000 mining permits had been issued. Because the land belonged to the United States Army, miners had to agree to return ten percent of the lead back to the government’s arsenal. Still, the miners managed to make a very decent living.
The End of an Era
When the surface deposits became harder to find, miners had to dig deeper. Soon crevices turned into shafts. They kept digging deeper and deeper until they reached the same level as the river and the rest of the water table. Their task was similar to removing water from a hole dug in a sandy beach—there was no sense digging deeper because the water kept seeping in. The process of removing water from the mines took too much time and money. As the cost started to outweigh the profits, lead mining began to die out.