Iowa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Defined by the Mississippi River on the east and the Missouri River on the west, Iowa is a rolling stretch of lush, green prairie with rich, black soil and ample rainfall for growing crops.

History of Iowa

Defined by the Mississippi River on the east and the Missouri River on the west, Iowa is a rolling stretch of lush, green prairie with rich, black soil and ample rainfall for growing crops. The fertility of the earth and the lack of trees make for excellent farmland, and as a result, Iowa has been and remains a state focused on agriculture.

Early History

The Paleo-Indians, nomadic hunters and gatherers, lived in the Iowa region more than ten thousand years ago. They were followed by other nomadic Indians and the mound builders. The Ioway, who controlled most of Iowa in the seventeenth century, left their name to the state and to one of its rivers but gave up all claim to land in the state in 1838, settling in Kansas and Nebraska. About seventeen different tribes are believed to have lived in what became Iowa.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and explorer-mapmaker Louis Jolliet entered the Mississippi River from the Wisconsin River and gazed on Iowa, the “land across the river.” They went ashore on June 25, finding members of the Illini tribe, who probably actually lived on the east side of the Mississippi. In 1682 France claimed all the lands along the Mississippi River, and in 1803, in the Louisiana Purchase, the United States bought the land from France. The following year, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis traveled up the Missouri River searching for a waterway that would take them to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1812, Iowa became part of the Territory of Missouri. Eight years later, Missouri became a state, and in 1834, the Territory of Michigan was expanded to include Iowa. In 1838 the Territory of Iowa was created.

The Indians

The U.S. government pushed the Sauk and the Mesquaki (Fox) Indians out of western Illinois and into Iowa, where the Sioux already lived. In 1832, Chief Black Hawk, a respected Sauk leader, sought to reclaim his tribe’s land on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. For three months, in what is known as the Black Hawk War, the Illinois militia pursued Black Hawk, chasing him to the mouth of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin, where he gave up. In a treaty signed on September 21, 1832, the Mesquaki and Sauk were required to relinquish a strip of land along the Mississippi River and vacate the land by June 1, 1833. Large numbers of white settlers began to move into Iowa, pushing the Indians farther west or into Missouri. In 1842, the Sauk and Mesquaki signed a treaty agreeing to leave Iowa by May, 1845. By 1851 the Sioux had also been forced to give up all land in Iowa. In 1856, a few Mesquaki negotiated with the governor of Iowa to buy back a portion of their former land in modern-day Tama County, eventually buying back about 3,200 acres.

White Settlement and Statehood

In 1838, 23,000 people settled on land in the newly established Territory of Iowa, buying the land for $1.25 an acre. The first settlers were primarily of northern European ancestry. Many were families who had lived in eastern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, or Ohio, and many were originally from Germany. The 1840 census showed Iowa to have a population of 43,000, exclusive of American Indians. By 1846 the population of Iowa had reached 96,088. Iowa became the twenty-ninth state of the Union in 1846.

Industry, Education, and Religion

In the early 1850’s, railroad companies sprung up in Iowa. The Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska line became the first railroad to cross the state, in 1867. Soon tracks crisscrossed Iowa, providing year-round transportation to markets and giving birth to new industries such as an oat-processing plant that would come to be known as Quaker Oats.

Early settlers soon established township elementary schools, but high schools were not common until after 1900. State officials created the University of Iowa in 1855 to provide traditional and professional education, Iowa State College of Science and Technology (later Iowa State University) in 1858 for agricultural and technical training, and Iowa State Teachers’ College (later University of Northern Iowa) in 1876 for teacher training. Many religious groups, including Congregationalists, Roman Catholics, and Methodists, which had come to the state beginning in the 1830’s, founded private colleges.

Although major religious denominations usually set up churches across the state, smaller religious groups tended to settle in specific areas. The Quakers settled in West Branch and Springdale, the Reorganized Church of the Latter-day Saints (a Mormon offshoot) in Lamoni, and the Mennonites in Johnson and Washington Counties. From 1855 to 1865, a group of German Pietists established the seven cities of Amana in Iowa County. The residents of the Amana Colonies practiced communal living for about eighty years. The Amana name lives on in refrigerators, air conditioners, and microwaves, although the colonies sold the business in 1937.

The Civil War

The biggest change the Civil War brought in Iowa was to create a one-party state. At the beginning of Iowa’s statehood, the state was largely Democratic, although it contained some Whigs. However, many Iowans opposed slavery, and Iowa would later become an important station in the Underground Railroad. The identification of the Democratic Party with a proslavery stance, among other issues, caused many Iowans to turn to the new Republican Party. By the mid-1850’s, the state was solidly Republican and would stay that way through the first half of the twentieth century.

After the outbreak of the war, Iowans quickly responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops. During the course of the war, the state sent 70,000 soldiers, of whom 13,001 died and 8,500 were seriously wounded. Iowans fought at Wilson’s Creek to keep Missouri in the Union, accompanied Ulysses S. Grant to Vicksburg, and participated in William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea.


The population of Iowa grew from 674,913 in 1860 to 1,194,020 in 1870. The state encouraged immigration from northern Europe and attracted many Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Hollanders, as well as people from the British Isles. Many of these immigrant groups created rural neighborhoods with distinct ethnic identities and churches. The coal mines in central and southern Iowa, which promised immediate employment and required few skills, drew people from Italy and Wales and large numbers of former slaves, who formed camps near the mines.

Farming and Economic Growth

By the 1870’s, Iowa had become blanketed by small towns and family farms, connected by railroads. Farmers were raising cattle and hogs and increasingly corn instead of wheat. Scientific research led to the introduction in the early 1900’s of soybeans, which eventually became second only to corn in terms of acreage and value. During World War I, farmers prospered, but after the war ended and farm subsidies were eliminated, farmers began to experience difficulties in paying off the money they had borrowed during boom times. A group of farmers formed the Farm Holiday Association, which attempted to withhold farm products from the market in order to force prices up, but the association’s efforts had little impact.

Native Iowan Henry A. Wallace became secretary of agriculture under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. He believed that farmers would prosper if production was restricted and farmers were compensated for withholding land from production, and he incorporated these ideas into the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, part of the New Deal. In 1926, Wallace and a partner founded what became Pioneer Seed Company, the first commercial company to produce hybrid seed corn, which led to increased yields and a more uniform plant that made mechanization of the harvest much easier. By 1944, nearly all corn planted in Iowa came from hybrid seed.

Farmers prospered when World War II and the Korean War boosted corn prices and again in the 1970’s, when land prices rose and many farmers borrowed money to expand their operations. In the 1980’s, however, land prices crashed, and many farmers lost their farms, initiating a trend away from family farms and toward farming corporations. In 1985 the Iowa legislature introduced legislation designed to help troubled farmers deal with creditors and keep their farms. In the 1990’s, the family farm was challenged on another front as large-scale hog-producing corporations moved into the state, driving down hog prices and forcing small hog producers out of business.

Although agriculture dominates Iowa’s economy, the state has also supported business and manufacturing operations, some of which are farm related. Major concerns include farm implement producer John Deere, the washing machine and appliance company Maytag, Winnebago motor homes, the Sheaffer Pen Company, and Iowa Beef Processors. In 1991 Iowa legalized riverboat gambling, creating a somewhat controversial source of revenue.

Middle America

Iowa is largely rural, an assemblage of small towns and family farms. In 1994 the state’s population reached 2.8 million, and the population of its largest city, Des Moines, was 193,422. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, and to a lesser extent in the 1990’s, the state became the focus of national attention early in each presidential election year during the Iowa caucuses. These early tests of presidential strength provided boosts to some candidates, including Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George Bush in 1980. Although the state is not a microcosm of the nation, its reputation as Middle America–a stable place where family values dominate–lends weight to its preferences. As more and more farm corporations are formed and the number of family farms decreases, the nature of Iowa, its character and makeup, which reflect this rural dominance, may undergo a transformation.

Categories: History