Building the Dome of the Iowa Capitol, 1880

The Path to Statehood

The Northwest Ordinance

Early in its history the U.S. Congress set up an orderly way for western lands to become states. Senators and representatives in Congress remembered how unhappy the American colonists were under Great Britain’s rule. They were so unhappy that they fought the American Revolution to become free of Great Britain. 

One of the most important acts that Congress passed was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It set up a system of government for the territory that became the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. It was a model for other U.S. territories to follow when they wanted to become states.

When the American Revolution ended, the United States owned the land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes. Because this area was beyond the borders of the original 13 states, it became the responsibility of the federal government.

Many settlers were moving west. Congress knew that the settlers would need a government in their new home. A plan for setting up a government was made. 

Until the population of an area reached 5,000 voters, the region was a district. At this time, only free white males were voters. It was ruled by a governor and three judges. The settlers did not vote for them. The president appointed them. 

When the population reached 5,000 the settlers could elect their own legislature. The area was called a territory. The governor, however, was still appointed, not elected by the voters. The territory could also elect a representative to Congress. The representative could speak on issues in Congress but had no vote. When the population reached 60,000 the territory could apply for full statehood.

Iowa Follows the Law

Iowa’s path to statehood followed the steps laid out in the Northwest Ordinance. In 1834 the land that would become Iowa was attached to the Michigan Territory. In 1836 as Michigan prepared for its own admission as a state, Iowa was transferred to the Wisconsin Territory. 

With more and more settlers crossing the Mississippi River, a separate Iowa Territory was formed on July 4, 1838. Its boundaries stretched far north of the current border. It went into Minnesota and the Dakotas. Because the population had already reached 22,859 the settlers had the right to elect their own legislature. 

Governors Are Appointed

President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, appointed Robert Lucas as Iowa’s first territorial governor. Burlington became the first capital. In 1840 William Henry Harrison, a member of the Whig Party, became president. He appointed another Whig, John Chambers, Iowa’s second territorial governor. The territorial capital was moved to Iowa City. 

Both Lucas and Chambers urged Iowans to push for statehood. But many settlers were in no hurry. As long as Iowa was a territory, the federal government paid the costs of much of the government. If Iowa became a state, the settlers’ taxes would pay for much of the government. Early settlers did not want to see their tax bills increase. Iowans in the Whig party were happy to have a Whig president appoint the governor. They feared that the Democrats would win an election for governor if Iowa became a state.

Interest in Statehood Increases

In 1844 the nation elected James K. Polk president. Because Polk was a Democrat, Iowa soon got a new territorial governor, James Clarke. By this time the population had increased to over 75,000. There was growing interest in the statehood question. With more people to share the cost of government, fears of rising tax bills were not such an issue. 

Iowa Territory and Slavery

During these years the issue of slavery was deeply dividing the United States. Slavery was forbidden in the Iowa territory. But Iowans could not escape the national debate. 

A plan in the United States Senate had been worked out. There would be an equal number of senators from the free states in the North and the slave states in the South. Every time a new slave state was added, a new free state had to be admitted. 

That meant that if Iowa entered the Union, it needed to find a match from the South. Florida was available, but if Iowa waited there might not be another slave state available for some time. When Florida became a state in 1845, the pressure was on Iowa.

Slavery Affects the Size of Iowa

Slavery shaped the debate over Iowa statehood in a second way. Iowans originally proposed borders for the state that made Iowa larger than it is today. The northern border stretched up to include Minneapolis/St. Paul in Minnesota. But representatives of northern states wanted smaller borders for Iowa. That would leave more land for additional “free” states west of the Mississippi. 

They wanted a western border for Iowa about 60 miles east of the Missouri River and slightly north of the current Minnesota border. Iowans refused to accept that plan. Finally a plan was worked out giving Iowa its current shape. 

The State of Iowa

Iowans wrote and approved a state constitution. Congress approved it. On December 28, 1846, President James K. Polk signed a law making Iowa the 29th state.

Almost 60 years after the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Iowa completed all the requirements for statehood. Iowa citizens could vote for president. They could elect senators and representatives to Congress. They had a state legislature. They could elect their own governor and judges. 

While the details of each state’s history varied, the process after 1787 was the same. American settlers knew that they were not leaving their citizenship behind when they moved into the western territories. 


  • Sage, Leland. A History of Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1974.
  • Wall, Joseph. Iowa: A Bicentennial History. New York, New York: Norton, 1978.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.


Before an area can become a state, it must first be designated as a district and then a territory. What are the benefits of statehood?

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