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The Territory of Iowa


When the Black Hawk Purchase opened a triangle of fertile land in eastern Iowa to white settlement, the surge was on into what would become the first free state carved from the Louisiana Purchase.  The first census was taken in 1836 and already recorded 10,531 American settlers.  Only two years later, an 1838 tabulation more than doubled the previous figure with 22,589.  The numbers continued to grow exponentially.  In 1840, it was 43,112.  As two new tracts of Indian lands in central Iowa were opened for settlement, the numbers soared. By 1846, the year Iowa entered the Union as the 29th state, census takers tallied 96,088 Iowans.

In Dorothy Schwieder’s impressive Iowa history survey, Iowa: The Middle Land, she dives deeper into those statistics.  Males outnumbered females in territorial Iowa, typical of the frontier, and those under 21 outnumbered those over.  Statistics from Dubuque County report that households averaged just under five person.  Unlike some frontiers, like the fur-trapping frontier of the Great Lakes, the cattle frontier of the Great Plains or the mining frontiers of California, Alaska, or Colorado, Iowa after the initial wave of settlers never had an overwhelming predominance of single males.  Iowa soon became a farming frontier, and 19th C. farming was a male-female partnership.  Women’s work was essential to the survival of the family and the success of the farm.  One result of those male-female partnerships was an abundance of children.  Rural families where children could contribute to the family labor pool even at an early age tended to be larger than urban families.  On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, census records show that one-third of Iowans were under the age of 10.  The presence of children in early Iowa promoted the early development of schools, churches, and social stability that were often lacking in western communities heavily dominated by transient males.

Underlying this population boom was a script written by Congress for settlement of Federal lands in the west.  From its earliest days, the U.S. had established important assurances for pioneers.  They were not abandoning their rights as American citizens by moving west.  Their new homes would not be in colonies of the original thirteen states but would enter the Union on an equal footing when their populations justified it, culminating eventually in full representation in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and a voice in the selection of a President.  The U.S. government provided for orderly surveys of western lands and opened land offices where settlers could purchase legal titles to their new holdings.  It even provided for the support of local schools through the sale of public lands even before most Eastern states had not established free public schools for their own children’s education.  When it came time to write constitutions for the new territories or states, the borrowed freely from documents of established states.  Early Iowans looked forward to taking their place as a free state in a growing Union.

Iowa’s evolution from its first days as part of the Louisiana Purchase to statehood involved a number of administrative changes, but in practice, for the first thirty years, they meant little because there was no need for government oversight.  When the U.S. took over the trans-Mississippi lands from France, Congress created the Territory of Orleans, including the city of New Orleans, which evolved into the State of Louisiana.  The rest of the whole expanse was labeled the Territory of Missouri with Captain William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame as its first governor headquartered in St. Louis.  When Missouri was carved out as a state on its own in 1820, the remainder of the unincorporated land west of the Mississippi had no appointed administration for thirteen years until it was attached in 1834 to the Territory of Michigan.  The addition was a far-ranging jurisdiction including future states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.  As Michigan began the dance toward statehood, the western portion of the territory was split off to become the Territory of Wisconsin with the lands across the Mississippi designated as the District of Iowa.  One concrete development at this stage was the creation of two large counties in Iowa, DuBuque County and DeMoine County.  These would later be divided into many smaller counties of a more traditional size.  Burlington was named as one of two capitals of the Wisconsin territory.  The legislature met there only a couple times before, in 1838 with the population of the Iowa region growing rapidly, Congress created the Territory of Iowa as a separate entity. 

In comparison with the boundaries of the future state, the Territory of Iowa was huge.  It extended through most of western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas, lands that were not then opened to white settlement.  The “Act to divide the Territory of Wisconsin and to establish the territorial government of Iowa” defined the boundaries this way:

“From and after the 3d day of July next [1838] all of that part of the present Territory of Wisconsin which lies west of the Mississippi River, and west of a line drawn due north from the head waters of said river to the territorial line, shall be constituted a separate territorial government by the name of Iowa.”

Following the example of eastern states, the territory had a legislative body of two houses: the Council and the House of Representatives.  The former had thirteen members who served two-year terms; the latter twenty-six with one-year terms.  The judicial branch was composed of a three-judge Supreme Court with four-year terms, three district courts, probate judges, and local justices of the peace.   While the Iowa Territory had no vote in Congressional affairs, it was allotted a delegate to represent the state’s interests who could speak on the floor but had no vote.  The delegate was elected by the voters in the state for a two-year term.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlined three steps to reach statehood.  A newly created territory had all offices appointed by the President.  Step Two was when the population reached 5,000 white male voters, and it could elect a legislature and its delegate to Congress.  Iowa was far beyond the required minimum when it won territorial status.  On July 4, 1838, the day Congressional action officially designated the emergence of the Territory of Iowa, it already boasted 22,859 residents. The next goal toward full statehood was to reach 60,000 when a territory could apply for full statehood.

Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, was President when the Territory of Iowa was created.  To the winner belong the spoils, and in keeping with the practice of the times, Van Buren appointed Democrats to fill available offices.  Robert Lucas, the former governor of Ohio, was the President’s pick as Iowa’s first territorial governor.  Lucas came with solid credentials.  After several terms in the Ohio legislature, he twice won election to the governorship of that state. A good party man, Lucas chaired the first Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1832. His experience there successfully negotiating a boundary dispute with Michigan would serve Iowans well when a similar controversy arose over the boundary line with Missouri during his Iowa tenure. 
Robert Lucas First Governor of Iowa Territory 1838-1841
First Governor of Iowa Territory, 1838-1841

Dr. Schwieder provides an interesting note on Iowa’s first “First Family.”  Lucas’s wife, Friendly Lucas, chose to stay in Ohio for two years with their two youngest children while Robert and three older children took up residence in Iowa.  In 1840, when Lucas’ term as governor ended, the couple built a home on the outskirts of Iowa City call Plum Grove where they lived until their deaths, his in 1853 and Friendly’s in 1873.  The home is now a historic site managed and interpreted as a museum by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Lucas proved to be an administrator with strong opinions and the willingness to push them.  His first challenge came from the Territorial Secretary William Conway who died after only a year in office.  Upon receiving notice of his appointment by the President, Conway hurried to Iowa and began issuing directions under the claim that he was “Acting Governor” until Lucas arrived.  Conway issued a proclamation calling for elections and pushed for Davenport to become the territorial capital.  Lucas moved quickly to assert his authority and announced that Burlington would be the capital.  Later, Lucas clashed with the legislature over his veto power when he approved payment of expenses that legislative officers had incurred and other items.  In return, a majority in both houses, abetted by the ambitious Secretary Conway, petitioned President Van Buren to remove Lucas.  Lucas sent a defense to the President, and the President chose not to respond to either, leaving Lucas in office.

Iowa’s first governor opposed gambling and the use of alcohol and announced in his 1838  inaugural address that he would appoint no one to office who did either.  In doing so, he introduced for the first time the issue of alcohol regulation that would be a contentious issue in Iowa politics for over a century.  He also created legislative and judicial districts and filled government offices, created a system for common schools and roads, and promoted a prompt survey and sale of government lands.

The first Iowa legislature met in Burlington in November, 1838. By modern standards, many of the representatives were remarkably young.  Over half of the House members were under 35 and over half of the Senate were under 40.  The youngest House member was only 22 years old, the future Iowa governor and U.S. senator, James Grimes.  A second governor, Stephen Hempstead, was 26.  Nevertheless, they accomplished an ambitious agenda.  Although few had had legislative experience, they accomplished a remarkable agenda.  They approved a legal code for civil and criminal practice, organized a militia, approved a system of taxes, and established a system for common schools.  They also located the state penitentiary in Ft. Madison and the capital in Iowa City. 

In addition to the alcohol question, the territorial legislature also addressed civil rights, and here, by modern standards, the record is less admirable.  To discourage African-Americans from coming to Iowa, the legislature required a bond of $500 from blacks as security for good behavior and to guarantee they would not a financial burden on the territory.  Any black who failed to post such a bond could be arrested and hired out for labor.  Slaveholders could come into the territory and demand the assistance of local peace officers to apprehend and return escaped slaves.

On another race issue, however, the Iowa Supreme Court distinguished itself in the Ralph Case.  Charles Mason as Chief Justice and Associate Justices Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson heard the case.  A Missouri slaveowner had agreed to allow Ralph to come to Iowa to earn $500 to buy his freedom.  After a few years in Dubuque, Ralph was unable to earn that amount and his owner contracted to have him returned to Missouri.  He was arrested and held in handcuffs.  Ralph’s friends petitioned, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.  In a unanimous decision, the three-member court ruled that since Ralph was not a runaway and Iowa did not permit slavery, the slaveowner had no right to have him returned into bondage.  The ruling came twenty years before the notorious Dred Scott decision by the United States Supreme Court on the eve of the Civil War that declared slaves were property without rights, that slave owners could take their property anywhere regardless of local laws, and that Congress had no authority to regulate the practice. 

Another controversy marked Lucas’ short tenure as Iowa’s first governor.  Iowa shared its southern border with Missouri, but where that line actually ran was not clear.  The law stated that the border ran from a point on the Missouri River to “the rapids in the Des Moines River.” Unfortunately, there were several rapids that might fit that description.  When Missouri officials from Clarke County attempted to tax residents who claimed they were Iowa citizens, the controversy escalated rapidly to a point that Missouri raised a militia and moved it into the disputed territory.  When both Lucas and the Missouri governor, Lilburn Boggs, cast the issue as a battle for the honor of their respective states, it looked for a few days as if there could be actual combat.  Cooler heads prevailed, a committee was appointed with representatives from both sides, and a resolution turned the matter over to Congress and eventually to the Supreme Court.  The Court ten years later decided where the intended “Rapids” were and a line was surveyed, and Missouri and Iowa peacefully resolved the dispute.  When the Missouri militia was in Iowa, some bored volunteers cut down a tree with a honeybee swarm, and the whole episode was named “the Honey War.”

While settlers pushing across the Mississippi in the 1830s had much to learn about the terrain, especially of the vast prairie grasslands, they knew that they were not leaving the protection of the United States nor giving up their U.S. citizenship.  In due time, Iowa would become a full and equal state along with those already admitted into the Union.  The land filled up quickly and for most, their decision to move proved to be a good one.  Local governments, schools, towns, and local services and markets soon provided the farming population with what they could not produce at home.  The “Land Between Two Rivers” developed a solid base of support and looked forward to a bright future.

For Further Reading

Leland Sage, A History of Iowa  (ISU Press, 1974)   
Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: the Middle Land (ISU Press 1996)
Iowa Biographical Dictionary – Robert Lucas   
Iowa Biographical Dictionary – James Clarke
Iowa Biographical Dictionary – John Chambers
Iowa Territory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iowa_Territory
Benjamin Gue,  History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Volumes 1-4  (State Historical Society of Iowa)