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Population, Education, Religion, and Social Issues, 1846-1868


The two decades following Iowa’s admission to the Union in 1846 as the 29th state may have been the most formative period in Iowa’s history.  New settlers from eastern states and Europe surged across the fertile prairies and created an agricultural powerhouse.  These new arrivals also brought their religious convictions and desire to provide education for their children. Because beliefs and social customs were not uniform among the newcomers, the period also saw the origins of the most significant political and social schisms—Catholic/Protestant, wet/dry, native-born/immigrant—that would animate Iowa for the next century.

   The news that Iowa was a state opened the floodgates to pioneers.  Iowa’s nickname, the Hawkeye State, was the work of two men in Burlington, James Edwards and David Rorer, who combined references to Chief Black Hawk of the recent Indian conflict and Hawkeye, the hero of popular James Fenimore Cooper novels.  In 1846, Iowa’s population stood at 96,088, heavily concentrated in the eastern third of the state. Only four years later, that number had almost doubled to 192,214, and the big push was just beginning. From 1850-1856, the Iowa population surged to 517,875, a 170% increase.  The Panic of 1857 created by failing banks and railroads slowed westward movement slightly but by 1860, the census counted 674,913 Hawkeyes. Only the far northwest corner was beyond settlement. The increase slowed during the Civil War but picked up quickly after the South’s surrender to hit 1,194,020 by 1870, over a million increase in the past fourteen years.


Railroad lines that began crossing the state in 1854 played a significant role in Iowa settlement, particularly in western Iowa.  The first line reached Rock Island, IL, across from Davenport in 1854 and Iowa City in 1856. In that year, Congress authorized a huge grant of public lands to four railroad companies to build trunk lines across the state.  Clinton, Davenport, and Burlington were the eastern terminals of lines that would end in Council Bluffs. The Illinois Central ran from Dubuque to Sioux City. Under the Federal grant, the lines would be given a section (square mile) on alternating sides of the road as they completed a designated number of miles.  The land could be sold to raise money to keep construction going. In all, the grants amounted to one-ninth of the total area of the state. The Civil War slowed construction, but the rail lines extended rapidly afterward. The North Western reached Council Bluffs in 1867 followed by the Davenport and Burlington lines two and three years later.  The Illinois Central was finished last in the race across the state. Once completed, the railroads promoted migration to Iowa from eastern states and from across Europe in printed materials in native languages. They were important in platting the locations of towns along their routes.

The settlement of Iowa was an orderly affair.  From the earliest years of the United States, the government required two steps before individuals could purchase Federal lands.  First, native Indian tribes had to sign treaties relinquishing their claim to the land. Next, the land had to be surveyed and offered for sale.  By 1850 the only remaining Indian lands within the Iowa borders was the far northwest corner of the state claimed by the Dakota (Sioux) tribes. A treaty in 1851 formally deeded the region to the United States.  

However, not all the Sioux immediately left the region.  In the cold winter of 1856-1857, a small band of Wahpeton Sioux attacked an outpost of white settlers on the banks of West Lake Okoboji and killed all but four women whom they took as captives.  Two of them perished in captivity while Mrs. Marble, 20, and Abigail Gardner, 13, were eventually released. The news of the attack, the Spirit Lake Massacre, created panic among white settlers in the area, and many fled to Fort Dodge for safety.  However, Iowa conflict between whites and Indians were rare.

The history of the Meskwaki tribe was very different.    In 1845, the final cession of Meskwaki land in Iowa was completed, and the tribe was directed to move to a reservation in Kansas.  Only about one-fifth of the tribe of 1,271 moved to a reservation in northeastern Kansas located near the headwaters of the Osage River.  The rest dispersed throughout their traditional lands in central Iowa and continued fending for themselves. In 1856, some members of the tribe pooled the money they received in annual annuities and sold some ponies.  Their request to purchase some 80 acres of land in Tama County was granted. With permission from Iowa Governor James Grimes, 76 tribal members settled on the land.  Eventually the Meskwaki settlement grew to 3,000 acres, which they own and govern collectively as a tribe.  

Lured by reports of cheap, fertile lands, the Ohio River Valley accounted for the largest segment of the new arrivals.  A look at census records shows families migrating from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and the Upper South with children born at regular intervals along the way.  They brought their politics with them. Early Iowa leaned Democratic in favor of low taxes and minimal government intervention. Since slavery north of Missouri had been forbidden by the Missouri Compromise in 1820, those who advocated the South’s “Peculiar Institution” (slavery) generally settled elsewhere.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sparked a sudden rush of migration as thousands of men followed the dream of striking it rich.  Sioux City and Council Bluffs on Iowa’s west border became the jumping-off point for those willing to cross the Great Plains. Many of the ‘49ers returned after several years—few burdened by the riches they had dreamed of—but the population movement had brought increased activity to western Iowa.

The era also saw the influx of immigrants from northern Europe and the British Isles.  Political upheavals, mandatory military service, high taxes, poverty, and religious persecution “pushed” many to seek better lives in the U.S, while cheap land, low taxes, and religious freedom were factors that “pulled” them to the American Midwest. From 1850 to 1860, the number of Iowans born abroad jumped from 20,969 to 106,077.  One out of every five or six Iowans was foreign born. Of these, the Germans and Irish supplied the greatest number. The 1860 census recorded 35,842 German-born Iowans and 40,124 Irish. Germans were heavily represented in Mississippi River towns like Dubuque and Davenport, in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and in western Iowa in Carroll and Audubon Counties.  The Irish also played a major role in early Dubuque and northeast Iowa. Immigrants the British Isles, Canada, Scandinavia, and Holland added to the newcomers. Immigrants often tended to settle with fellow countrymen and to establish their own churches, clubs, and newspapers. The first Czechs arrived in Cedar Rapids in 1852 and found work in the meat-packing plants.  They formed a strong ethnic conclave in the southwest corner of the city. The famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent the spring and summer months of 1893 among his fellow countrymen in the Czech community of Spillville in Winneshiek County in far northeast Iowa.  

While there were craftsmen, professionals, and many other occupations on the frontier, agriculture was by far the primary occupation of these new arrivals.  This accounted for a significant difference in the composition in early settlement of the state. The fur-trapping frontier of the Great Lakes, the cattle frontier of the Great Plains, and the mining frontiers of the Rockies and California were dominated by single men often not intending to settle there permanently. Iowa, however, was settled from its earliest days as a state by family units. Successful farming operations required a male-female partnership.  And those partnerships in an era when children were an economic asset were definitely building their economic assets. Iowa had one of the top birth rates in the nation. By 1860, one out of every three Iowans was under the age of ten.  

The presence of children had a profound effect on the social development of Iowa’s frontier.  The home, the family, and the church became the pillars of community life. Most early settlers carried with them a strong belief in the importance of basic education for their children.  Reading, writing, and the arithmetic were at the heart of the curriculum in the one-room schools that quickly followed settlement. The first schools were often informal arrangements among parents.  In 1858, however, the state passed the Free School Act that designated the property tax as the financial foundation of the education system. All property owners, with children or not, would pay for public education.  All children, regardless of family wealth, could attend public schools. Counties were divided into sixteen townships, each sixteen six miles square, and townships became school districts with power to build and maintain school buildings, hire teachers, and determine the length of the school year.  In Iowa, local control of schools became the norm.

One-room schools included students of all grade levels.  Most Iowa farm children had a school house no more than two miles from their home.  The teacher tailored curricula to individual students’ abilities. Textbooks were often whatever was available and were handed down for many years.  Memorization was heavily stressed. A teacher would give an assignment to a student who studied at his or her desk until called to the front to recite.  The teacher was responsible for keeping the school clean and building a fire before students arrived if the weather required it. Before the Civil War, males dominated the teaching profession, but when they were called away to the military, women took their place and quickly came to dominate the profession.  There were few requirements to become a teacher. Wages were very low, and teachers usually had to board with families of the students they taught, with little opportunity for a social life. Men had other employment options; women did not. Women usually taught for a few years and then married and began their own families.

For most before the Civil War, the one-room school was the end of formal education.  A few who wanted more might seek out a local private academy. There were usually not enough to justify a public high school supported by tax funds.  The first high school was organized in 1851 in Muscatine County. Tipton High School opened in 1856 and graduated its first class of thirteen students in 1858.

As the state and several church denominations opened higher education institutions at the college level to prepare students for careers in the professions and the ministry, they faced a shortage of students prepared for college work.  The few who had completed a curriculum at an academy or high school were not sufficient to sustain a college. The University of Iowa, beginning classes in 1855, sought to remedy the problem by opening its own University Preparatory Department to bring students up to college level.  The program ran for twenty years. Of course, that came at the expense of the very limited funding it had for university classes. It also came under criticism for serving primarily students in Iowa City at state expense and was called Johnson County High School. Other colleges had their own preparatory “feeder” programs.

In 1858, the legislature authorized a second public university, though this time with a mission different than a focus on producing doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.  The Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm in Ames was to provide college-level instruction in farming and the mechanical arts and to extend its outreach statewide to those engaged in these occupations.  The state anticipated Federal funding in the form of a large grant of public land which arrived in 1862 with the passage of the Morrill Act.

Churches were active in establishing a rich network of colleges directed toward their own youth.  Some were to be the source of ministers and priests in addition to the professions. Catholic schools tended to be restricted to either men or women while most Protestant schools were co-educational.  Loras College in Dubuque opened in 1839 as St. Raphael’s Seminary to train priests and included an academy for boys.  

Iowa Wesleyan University evolved from the Mount Pleasant Collegiate Institute.  In addition to Iowa Wesleyan, the Methodist Church aggressively supported higher education with four more colleges around the state to provide every Methodist child an opportunity to attend a Methodist College.  Cornell began offering classes in 1855, Upper Iowa emerged in 1857, Simpson in Indianola in 1850, and Morningside in Sioux City on the western border in 1896. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples, Lutherans, Baptists, Reformed, and Reorganized Latter Days Saints also established colleges.  

Not all early settlers had a religious affiliation.  In fact, strong ties to a local church congregation back home would have been a deterrent to migration.  Nevertheless, many early arrivals brought with them religious beliefs that sustained them through difficult times.  Because the government played no role in supporting paid ministers in any religious organization, churches depended on attracting members to survive. In addition to trying to maintain the allegiance of their own members, denominations competed with each other for members in what one historian has described as “the great free market of souls.” As a result of this outreach, church membership increased substantially through the 1800s.  

It was the Methodists who proved most effective in winning frontier converts.  Methodist ministers called circuit riders rode from one congregation to the next, thus multiplying the influence of the clergy.  On meeting days when they were absent, they appointed members of the congregation to conduct Bible study and to lead worship services.  The church developed a strong presence across southern and western Iowa that greatly influenced the politics and morality of those regions.  

Baptists had no central authority.  Each congregation was free to select its own pastor.  Many Baptist ministers pursued part-time jobs to sustain their families.  Presbyterians and Congregationalists shared a similar theology and often worshiped together until they had sufficient numbers to become independent.  Friends (Quakers) played an important role in the anti-slavery movement, including support for the Underground Railroad that helped escaping slaves reach safe havens in the North and Canada.  

The Catholic Church puts its emphasis on retaining Catholic families.  Their numbers swelled with the arrival of Catholic immigrants, especially newly-arrived Germans and Irish.  Ethnic rivalries within the church were a problem for church authorities as immigrants preferred a priest who was “one of their own”.  Sometimes the problem was solved by building separate churches within one community if the numbers were sufficient. 

Several denominations that were state-sponsored in Europe faced the competitive landscape in Iowa.  Scandinavian and German Lutherans provided pastors for their own as did the Dutch Reformed. Anglicans from Great Britain reunited easily with Episcopalians that had separated at the time of the American Revolution.   All of these denominations lagged behind the American evangelicals in making frontier converts but provided a cultural center for their own ethnic communities.

Iowa also became home to a small Jewish population.  Many Jews made a living as peddlars selling wares door to door in towns and countryside alike before opening stores.  Many clothing stores were owned by Jewish merchants who created a network across the state linked to distribution centers in Chicago.

The frontier also opened opportunities for unique religious organizations.  Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who dissented from the leadership of Brigham Young dropped out of the trek to Utah and sometimes became the first settlers in western Iowa.  Their church headquarters were eventually established in Lamoni where they sponsored Graceland College (now Graceland University). The Old Order Amish arrived in southeast Iowa in the 1840s.  The Amish were German Protestants persecuted for their religious beliefs, opposition to military conscription, and refusal to baptize infants as required by the Lutheran Church. They desired to withdraw from connections with the modern world and strongly emphasize farming as the principle occupation.  Their membership has grown steadily and today number around 7,000 in districts in southern and northeastern Iowa.

Also from German pietest origins, The Society of True Inspiration purchased land in Iowa County where they built seven Amana villages and eventually owned 26,000 acres of timber, farmland, pasture, and town sites.  Sometimes confused with the Amish, the Society originated in Germany and Switzerland where their beliefs also clashed with state churches. They too suffered persecution. In Iowa, they lived communally, prepared meals in communal kitchens, and followed occupations assigned them by the village elders.  All activities were under the control of the church which encouraged them to simplify their lives in order to devote themselves to religious contemplation.  

The Icarians were another communal organization.  It was a purely secular organization that practiced no organized religion.  Described as a utopian socialist movement, they were followers of economic theorist Etienne Cabet who forbade private ownership of property or anything but strictly personal items. After unsuccessful attempts to establish a successful community in Texas and Nauvoo, IL, they purchased land in Adams County where they established a colony near Corning In 1852.  Although weakened by several splits, it lasted until 1898.

Settlement of the new state moved rapidly westward from eastern Iowa to the far northwest corner of the state from 1846 to 1861 and the start of the Civil War.  Farm families broke fertile prairie on tens of thousands of acres to establish a stable agrarian society. While the population had diverse ethnic and religious origins, the underlying economic bonds that united the state were stronger than forces that might divide it.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Iowans rallied to support the Union cause and created a new sense of Iowa identity.