History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/1/2

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DURING the period of melting glaciers the surface of the earth was again occupied by plants and animals. Soon after these appeared we find the first evidences of man's advent upon this portion of the earth. Professor Aughey's discovery of arrow points in undisturbed beds of loess at various places in Iowa and Nebraska, indicates with certainty the presence of man soon after the melting of the glaciers. Horses appeared about this time and were used for food, as is clearly shown by the finding of skulls crushed in a manner that could only come from the blows of an implement similar to the stone ax. These axes are found in the same deposit with the skulls, both in this country and Europe, showing that man appeared on both continents during the same geological period.

What sort of people were the first inhabitants of Iowa is a question that must ever be of interest. It is generally believed by archaeologists that remains of two distinct prehistoric races have been found in the Valley of the Mississippi.

The first human skulls discovered resemble those of the gorilla, having the thick ridges over the eyes and an almost total absence of forehead, indicating a low degree of intelligence. Similar skulls have been found throughout the different countries of Europe, indicating that the first inhabitants of the earth known to ethnologists were lowbrowed, brute-like, small-bodied beings, who were but a grade above the lower animals. Skulls of this type have been found in Illinios, Wisconsin, as well as in Johnson, Floyd, Chickasaw and Dubuque counties of Iowa.[1]

The first inhabitants of Iowa and the Mississippi Valley of which we have any evidence are called the “Mound Builders.” Stone and copper implements found indicate that they had made progress in the scale of intelligence. Whether they cultivated the soil, erected comfortable dwellings and built towns is not known; but that they made cloth is proven by samples found in mounds, strangely preserved through the innumerable ages that have elapsed. The numbers, color, habits, customs and forms of government of these people, as well as the manner in which their mounds were constructed, the purpose for which these enduring earthworks of various forms

HOI 1903 Volume 1 Fig 2 mound.jpg
Fig. 2—mound opened on the bank of the iowa river in which was found a stone vault containing the skeleton of a “mound builder” with a pottery vessel by him

were used, and a thousand interesting details of the history of these inhabitants of Iowa must forever remain unknown. Whence they came, how long they possessed the land, from what cause they were exterminated, are problems that will never cease to have an absorbing interest to succeeding races and generations. We can only call them the “Mound Builders,” in absence of almost all knowledge of their history.

Evidences of the work of these people are found in many of the eastern states and as far south as Tennessee in great abundance. The mounds are numerous along the Mississippi Valley in Iowa, extending from Dubuque at

intervals through Jackson, Clinton, Scott, Muscatine, Louisa and other counties. Many of these when opened are found to contain skeletons partially preserved, with various implements, vessels, pipes and ornaments. One opened near Dubuque disclosed a vault divided into three cells. In the central cell was found eight skeletons sitting in a circle, while in the centre of the group was a drinking vessel made of a sea shell. The whole chamber was covered with logs preserved in cement.

Some very interesting mounds were found on the Cook

HOI 1903 Volume 1 Fig 3 mound.jpg
Fig. 3—mound opened on the cook farm near davenport

farm, near Davenport, which were opened by Rev. Mr. Gass in 1874. There were ten mounds in the group, about two hundred and fifty feet back from the river. Several of them were opened and found to contain sea shells, copper axes, hemispheres of copper, stone knives, pieces of galena, mica, pottery and copper spools. Many of the axes were wrapped with coarse cloth, which had been preserved by the copper. The pipes were of the Mound Builders' pattern, some of which were carved with effigies of birds and animals. One bird had eyes of copper, another had eyes of pearl, showing much delicacy of

manipulation and skill in carving. Twenty copper pipes and eleven copper awls were taken from these mounds.

All of the mounds contained skeletons and ashes; two contained altars of stone. In one, tablets were found upon which were hieroglyphics representing letters and figures of people, trees and animals.

In the mound represented in the accompanying illustration, not far below the surface, two skeletons were found. Below these were layers of river shells and ashes several feet in thickness. Beneath these three mature skeletons were lying in a horizontal position, and between them was the skeleton of a child. Near them were five copper

HOI 1903 Volume 1 Fig 4 map.jpg
Fig. 4—MAP OF SECTION OF COOK FARM

axes wrapped in cloth, stones forming a star, carved pipes, several bears' teeth and a broken lump of ochre.

In a mound opened by Rev. Mr. Gass west of Muscatine slough, in 1880, there was found a carved stone pipe, a carved bird, a small copper ax and a pipe carved in the shape of an elephant. Another pipe was discovered in that vicinity shaped to represent a mastodon.

The section of a map here presented shows the location of the mounds on the Cook farm where these interesting relics were discovered.

Similar evidences of the ingenious and skillful work of that prehistoric race have been found over a wide range


Maps of Mounds in Eastern Iowa - History of Iowa.jpg
MAP OF MOUNDS IN EASTERN IOWA
(Work of the Ancient Mound Builders.)


of country, showing conclusively that these first inhabitants of Iowa, of which anything is known, must have made considerable progress in some of the arts of civilized people.

Their mounds extend as far west as the Little Sioux River, and the Des Moines Valley is especially rich in these evidences of occupation by the “Mound Builders.” At one point a few miles above the city of Des Moines, on a bold bluff of the river, are many acres covered with their mounds. At other points are found well preserved earthworks laid out on high bluffs, evidently for defense. There is, near Lehigh, in Webster County, an elaborate system of these earthworks commanding a view of great extent.

The lines of these works can easily traced and in many places huge trees have grown up in them. There are evidences that these people cleared forests, graded roads, wove cloth, made stone and copper implements, exhibiting great skill in these works which have survived them. If they were of the same race with the inhabitants of Central America, who erected the massive structures found in ruins on that portion of the continent, their civilization must have become well advanced. It is not improbable that as these antiquities are further explored, additional light will be thrown upon the history of this race of people who preceded the Indians in America. That they existed in great numbers, and through a period of many thousand years, cannot be doubted. That they were assailed by warlike invaders coming upon them from the north and west is generally believed. That the earthworks found along the rivers were erected as protection against enemies there can be little doubt.

How long they resisted the invaders can never be known, The terrible conflicts may have lasted through several generations, as they were gradually dislodged from their strongholds and forced southward. They may have slowly perished before the resistless onslaught of the invaders until the remnants of the once numerous race

became the hunted “cliff dwellers,” who sought a last refuge in the sides of the deep gorges where some of the cliff houses have been preserved, It is generally believed that the remote ancestors of the North American Indians were the conquerors of the “Mound Builders.”

The discovery of America by Columbus was followed by an era of adventure, and successive expeditions for conquests in the new world, in which the nations of Europe vied with each other for supremacy. Visions of rich gold fields, vast empires of fertile lands for planting colonies and enlarging the domain of the nations of the old world, stimulated the spirit of adventure and opened unlimited fields for the acquisition of wealth and official rank and power. No scheme was too visionary to enlist men and money to launch it. Spain was at this time one of the powerful nations of Europe. Her countrymen led in all of the most daring expeditions. Her navigators were the most courageous of that period. Her armies were renowned for their valor. Her religious leaders were as zealous as they were cruel and unscrupulous. Her noblemen were ambitious for wealth and increased power.

All of these elements now united in race for discovery and conquest in the unexplored regions of the far West. Then followed an era of cruelty that rivaled the most inhuman raids of the Dark Ages. As new lands were discovered, they were overrun by reckless adventurers, the inhabitants were robbed and enslaved with as little restraint as though they had been wild beasts. Spain, by virtue of discovery, claimed all of the region lying south of a line running west from Manhattan Island. It was held under the name of Florida, and extended south to include Mexico. The West India Islands and all south of Mexico to Brazil was also claimed by Spain. But north of the Gulf of Mexico and in the far West was a vast region yet wholly unexplored.

In 1528 Panfilo Narvaez, a Spanish nobleman, was appointed by Charles V. Governor of Florida. He was

given authority to wrest it from the Indian inhabitants and rule over it. He fitted out an expedition with five ships and four hundred soldiers, with implements to found a colony. On the 12th of April his fleet anchored in a bay on the coast of Florida, and he took formal possession of the country by proclamation in the name of the Spanish King. Leaving his fleet with instructions to the commander to find a good harbor and then to return to Havana for supplies for the colony, Narvaez, with three hundred selected officers, plunged into the wilderness to conquer the Indians and Seize their possessions. He began war upon them, burning their villages, killing the inhabitants and carrying off their provisions. The natives soon discovered that they should exterminate the invaders, or themselves, or themselves be exterminated. The tribes turned upon the Spanish army, lurked in ambush among the tangled underbrush by day and made fierce attacks by night, giving their enemies no rest. For more than five months the Spanish army wandered through the forests and dismal swamps, subsisting upon fish and game, with such corn as they could find in the deserted fields. The Indians retreated before the invaders, burning their own villages and destroying their provisions.

Narvaez now realized the desperation of his situation, and followed a large river southward hoping to reach the sea and open communication with his fleet. The Spanish were on the verge of starvation, and in this extremity, some clumsy boats were built, by means of which they hoped to reach the Gulf of Mexico. From battle and dismal, one-third of the army had perished. Narvaez, in his desperation, took the best boat, and, deserting his army, lost his own life in a storm. The survivors were now reduced to five men, of whom Alvar Nunez was the leader. They returned to the main land, and for years wandered about subsisting upon fish, game and wild fruit. They searched in vain for a settlement. They passed the mouth of the Mississippi River, were captured by the

Indians and enslaved. They were traded from one tribe to another and carried almost to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They were the first men to ever see the white prairies of the West. After ten years spent in the wilds of the interior, Nunez reached a Spanish settlement, the only survivor if the expedition. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was the full name of this first white man who transversed the future territory of Louisiana.

The fate of Narvaez and his companions did not discourage other adventurers. Hernando de Soto was one of the most daring of Pizarro's officers in the conquest of Peru. Upon the story of Nunez, and the strange lands he had traversed in his ten years' wanderings, he determined to lead an expedition into that region, which he believed to be rich with gold. He hoped to rival Pizarro's achievements and win fortune and fame. He was a favorite of the King and easily secured the appointment of Governor of Cuba, with a grant of an indefinite amount of land in eastern Florida.

He soon raised an army of more than one thousand men. It was made up largely of nobles, cavaliers, soldiers of fortune and ambitious young men. He embarked his army in ten vessels which he had purchased and equipped. Priests, scientists, artisans, and miners were secured, and three hundred and fifty of the best drilled soldiers of Spain were added to the expedition. Live stock and farm implements were taken to found a colony. Chains, fetters and bloodhounds were provided to be used in enslaving the Indians. The soldiers were equipped with helmets, shields and coats of mail for protection in battle. The expedition sailed from Havana on the 12th of May, 1539, amid the booming of cannon and a profusion of gay flags. All were in high spirits in anticipation of wealth, glory and the easy conquest of Florida. Monette, in his history of the Mississippi Valley, says:

“They were a band of gallant freeboaters in quest of plunder and fortune; an army rendered cruel and ferocious by avarice, ready to march to

any point with slaughter where they might plunder Indian villages supposed to be sorted with gold and other riches.”

Upon landing they at once entered into the forest, and for a year wandered among the trackless woods and swamps of eastern Florida and southern Georgia. They encountered savage resistance from the fierce Seminoles, who made a desperate struggle for their homes and freedom. The captives who were forced to act as guides craftily led the Spaniards through tangled forests and amid impassable swamps, where by day and night the Indian warriors assailed them.

The first winter was spent in the Appalachee Country; and early in the spring De Soto pressed on through northern Georgia and Alabama, encountering the Cherokees. In the lower Alabama Valley the Indians had gathered a large army to resist the advance of Spaniards. During the battle which was here fought, De Soto lost heavily, and most of his baggage was burned. He turned northward into upper Mississippi and encountered severe winter storms while camped on the Tallahatchee. The Indians harassed the army, killing men and horses, capturing clothing, armor, and other property. The Spaniards had slaughtered men, women and children, tearing them with savage bloodhounds, burning their villages and seizing all provisions. Now the time of retribution was at hand. The Indians gave the invaders no rest. In a battle fought in April, 1541, the Spaniards lost heavily, and retreated westward through an uninhabitated region of forests and swamps. They finally reached the banks of a large river, where they found and Indian village named Chisca. They stood on the low shore and gazed upon the largest river they had ever seen. Its swift current was sweeping southward with irresistible power, bearing upon its turbid water great trees. They named it the “Rio Grande” and encamped upon its eastern shore, to rest and better care for the sick and wounded. The nights were made hideous with the war-whoop and increasing

attacks. The invaders were now on the defensive and fighting for existence. After several days of continuous battle, De Soto ordered a retreat northward along the river banks, followed by the ever present foe. Reaching a prairie country where a better defense could be made, it was decided that the only hope was to cross the river beyond the attacks of the Indians. The order was given to the mechanics to build boats sufficient to carry the army across.

Their situation was still full with perils. De Soto now seemed to realize it. The search for gold had brought no results, and all energies were now concentrated upon extricating the survivors. To retreat meant financial ruin to all who had embarked their fortunes in the expedition. The order was given to resume the march westward. The point where the army crossed the river is supposed to have been near the northwest corner of the State of Mississippi. The route led through trackless forests, swamps, deep ravines, over rocky hills, among thorns and tangled thickets so dense as to obscure the sunlight.

They at length emerged upon a vast treeless plain stretching westward as far as the eye could reach. Game was found for food, but there was no appearance of gold or inhabitants. But still they pushed on westward in sheer desperation, until the barren plains were finally reached, and here, for the first time, De Soto abandoned hope. He saw that further search for gold was useless. His men were exhausted with their long marches, scarcity of food, continuous warfare with the Indians and increasing sickness. Of the thirteenth hundred men who started out in his command, less than six hundred survived. The bones of seven hundred of their comrades were bleaching along the line of their march. Nearly all of their horses and their riders were struggling along on foot. The sick and wounded were daily dying for want of suitable care and medical attendance. He no longer commanded a conquering army, but was

conducting a hopeless band of fugitives to escape from an avenging and relentless enemy.

The only plan that seemed to offer a chance for extrication from the perils which encompassed them was to return to the “Rio Grande,” as they called it, and construct some buildings to better care for the disabled, build boats, send a portion of the command down the river to the Gulf of Mexico in search of an aid, while the others defended themselves, in rude fortifications, from the Indians. They followed down the valley of the Arkansas River to its junction with the Mississippi, selected a site for the army, encountered in constructing vessels from green trees were almost insurmountable. The Indians assailed them day and night, while decease was rapidly thinning their ranks.

De Soto was finally prostrated with fever, and in his delirium raved wildly over the failure of all of his plans. Death came and forever ended all his schemes and ambition. His followers gathered sadly about his silent form, while the priests chanted a solemn requiem—the first ever heard in the valley of the Mississippi—over the remains of the departed commander. In order to conceal his death from the Indians, the body was enclosed in a cavity hewn in a green oak log. He was wrapped in his military cloak, and the rude coffin rowed into the middle of the river and sunk beneath its waters. Thus his last resting place became the great river of the continent, and for all time he will live in history as its discoverer.

When the vessels were completed the army was reduced by three hundred and fifty, including the sick. They descended the river, the first White man to navigate the waters. Reaching the gulf, they landed on an unsettled coast and wandered for months on the verge of starvation. Finally the survivors, two hundred and fifty in number, reached a Spanish settlement in Mexico.

Spain was entitled to hold all of the region which the armies under Narvaez, Nunez and De Soto had traversed.

It embraced territory which has since found eight states of the American Union. But so disastrous had been the fate of the explorers that no considerable portion of it was ever occupied by Spanish colonists.

In 1564 Admiral Coligny, of France, sent three ships to Florida to establish colony. A settlement was made near St. Mary's River, and no effort was spared by kind treatment to win the friendship of the natives. Members of the colony in 1565 explored the country westward in search of gold as far as the Mississippi River, but no permanent settlement was made in its valley. Through the missionary zeal of the Jesuits, the French had extended a chain of posts up the St. Lawrence River far westward and around the great lakes. Bancroft says of his brotherhood:

“The history of their labors is connected with the origin of every celebrated town in the annals of French America. Not a river was entered, not a cape turned, but a Jesuit led the way. Although certain privation and suffering were their lot, and martyrdom might be the crown of their labors, they ventured into the remotest regions and among the most warlike tribes.”

In 1634 Jean Nicolet, a French explorer in the Northwest, penetrated the forests beyond Lake Superior and about the Fox River. It was thought by some that he descended the Wisconsin River to its confluence with the Mississippi, and was the first discoverer of its headwaters. But a careful tracing of his account of the country through which he traveled, by recent historians, satisfies them that Nicolet never penetrated the country as far as westward as to reach the Mississippi River.

In 1669 Father Claude Allouez, a French missionary, explored the Canadian forests west to Lake Superior. Here he learned from some remote Indian tribe that there was a great river in the distant west called by them the “Mes-a-sip-pi,” or “Great River.” They said no White man had been seen in the valley through which it flowed. The country westward extending to the river was

described by the Indians as beautiful meadows covered with grass, and abounding in wild game. In the Indian language “Mis-sis” signifies meadow, and the word “sepe” a river; hence we have “Mississippi,” as some early French explorers wrote it, signifying “River of the Meadows.”

The French at first supposed that the “River of the Meadows” flowed toward the Pacific Ocean and would afford the long sought direct route to china and India. The people of western Europe had for nearly a hundred and fifty years been hoping to find a direct route by water across the new continent, and it was long believed that it would be reached through this “Great River,” often mentioned by explorers.

The Jesuit revelations given by Father Claude Dablon in 1607, in an account of the Illinois Indian, says:

“These people were the first to come to Green Bay to trade with the French. The are settled in the midst of a beautiful country away southwest toward a great river named Mis-sis-se-pi. It takes its rise far in the north, flowing toward the south, discharging its waters into the sea. All of the vast country through which it flows is of prairie without trees. It is beyond this river that the Illinois live, and from which are detached the 'Mus-co-tins,' which signifies a land of trees.”

It does not appear to have been suspected by any of the early French Explorers that this river, so often told of by the Indians, was part of the “Great River” discovered by De Soto more than one hundred and thirty years before.


  1. Several skulls of this low type may be seen in the collection of the Academy of Science at Davenport.