History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/1/4

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THE next expedition sent to the valley of the Mississippi was led by Cavalier de La Salle. He was a young and ambitious Frenchman who had recently come to New France; a man of great courage and robust constitution. He was highly educated and well equipped for the work. Governor Frontenac heartily cooperated with La Salle in his plans to explore the river to its mouth.

The expedition embarked on Lake Frontenac (Ontario) on the 18th of November, 1678. When it reached Niagara Falls the weather had become so cold that it was necessary to go into winter quarters. In the spring reinforcements came, and among them was Father Louis Hennepin, a daring Franciscan friar, who had been a missionary among the Indians. As the vessel could not proceed beyond the falls, another had to be built, detaining the explorer for six months. On the 7th of August, 1679, they reëmbarked and reached Green Bay on the 8th of October.

Collecting a load of furs, La Salle sent his vessel back with them and set out with thirty-five men for the Illinois River. Sixty miles below he erected a fort and opened trade with the Indians. Here the party remained until March, 1680, when a company of seven, led by Father Hennepin, was sent down the Illinois River to explore the upper Mississippi Valley. These men ascended the river in a canoe for 800 miles, past the eastern shore of Clayton and Allamakee counties in Iowa as well as the States of Wisconsin and Minnesota. They reached the falls above the present site of St. Paul, and gave them the name of St. Anthony.

Father Hennepin with five men then started down the river intending to explore to its mouth, passing along the entire eastern borders of Iowa. Arriving at the mouth of the Arkansas, and learning that it was still a long distance to the Gulf, he returned to the posts on the Illinois, and soon after sailed for France. There he published a glowing account of the regions he had visited, naming the country Louisiana. Hennepin and his party traveled in all a distance of more than three thousand miles and discovered a large tract north of Wisconsin, but he did not explore the Mississippi to its mouth as he claimed after the death of La Salle, who completed this enterprise in 1682.

The river had been named by Marquette “Conception”; by Hennepin the “St. Louis,” and by La Salle “Colbert,” for the French minister.

On the 27th of March the party reached the mouth of Red River, and on the 6th of April arrived at the Mississippi delta. Sending D'Antray down the east, Truly down the middle, La Salle followed the west channel, all in time reaching the Gulf of Mexico. He here took formal possession of the great valley in the name of his sovereign, Louis XIV, thus securing to France Louisiana.[1]

The fate of this first explorer of the lower Mississippi was a sad one. In 1685 he organized a party of two hundred and eighty persons to found a colony near the mouth of the Mississippi, to hold the territory of Louisiana for France. Not knowing the longitude of the mouth of the river, the fleet sailed too far west and landed the colonists near the Colorado in the present limits of Texas. The fleet then returned to France. After two years of hardship, sickness and suffering La Salle started with a small party to try to reach the nearest settlements in Illinois, and while in the wilderness was treacherously assassinated by some members of his own company. His body

was left unburied in the forest. A few of his devoted friends hunted down and killed the murderers and finally reached the Illinois settlements.

The colonists thus left to their fate nearly all died from disease and Indian raids. Finally the survivors were overcome by the natives, captured and reduced to slavery. In 1690 the few who were alive were rescued by a Spanish expedition sent out to destroy the French colony. In 1682 La Salle wrote a lengthy account of Father Hennepin's exploration of the upper valley, and in it makes the first mention of the Ai-o-un-on-ia (Iowa) Indians, and from this tribe our State takes its name.

In 1684 Louis Franguelin published the best map that, up to that time, had been made of Louisiana, which comprised all of the French possessions south, and west, and northwest of the great lakes. On this map first appeared the two rivers bearing their present names, “Mississippi” and “Missouri.”

The Ontavus Indians living along the valley of the great river, called it the Mis-cha-si-pi, and posterity has united in preserving the beautiful Indian name, with a slight change in the orthography.

For forty years French settlers were slowly entering the Mississippi Valley, while trappers, fur traders and missionaries penetrated remote regions exploring the rivers of the territory lying west of the Mississippi. It was from these pioneers that many of our Iowa water courses received their first names, several of which have been retained.

Twelve years elapsed after the disastrous attempt of La Salle to plant a colony in the lower Mississippi Valley, before another movement was made by the French to establish settlements in that region. In 1699 D'Iberville, a distinguished French naval officer, collected a colony at San Domingo for settlement in Louisiana. The company landed west of Mobile Bay, where the ships and most of the settlers remained. D'Iberville, with a party of sailors,

started in small boats westward along the coast in search of the mouth of the Mississippi. Ascending one of the channels, they met a band of Indians, among whom they found various articles which had been given them by La Salle in 1682. Some time later a letter was found in possession of the Indians written April 20, 1685, to La Salle by De Tonti, who was searching at that time for the lost French colony. They also fond a Spanish coat-of-mail that must have been taken from De Soto's army one hundred and sixty years before.

After exploring the country along the river for some distance, D'Iberville selected a place for his colony eighty miles east of where New Orleans stands, on the north coast of Biloxi Bay. This was the first permanent settlement established in the lower Mississippi Valley.

From here D'Iberville and his younger brother, Bienville, examined the valley of the Mississippi as far north as Natchez. On the bluff where that city now stands the commander selected a site for the future capital of the French possessions. The Natchez Indians, a powerful nation, had made some progress toward civilization. Fire was the emblem of their divinity, and the sun was their god. In their principal temple a fire was kept continually burning by their priests. D'Iberville concluded a treaty of peace with the Natchez chief, with permission to found a colony and erect a fort. From this place the French commander explored the Red River Valley for more than a thousand miles.

In 1702 Lesueur, a French explorer, with a party of adventurers ascended the Mississippi River, past the entire eastern boundary of Iowa. They went northward to the mouth of the St. Peter and up that stream to the Blue Earth, and there erected a fort. This was probably the first attempt to take formal possession of the region now embraced in the States of Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas.

In 1705 Frenchmen traversed the Missouri to the

Kansas River and built a fort at the mouth of the Osage. In 1710 the first African negroes were taken into the new French colony and slavery was established in Louisiana.

After the death of D'Iberville, his brother, Bienville, became Governor of Louisiana. In 1717 the entire trade of the Mississippi Valley was granted by a charter from the French king to the “Western Company” for twenty-five years. The absolute control of the French possession was by this grant turned over to the corporation, even to the selection of its Governor and all military officers, the command of its forts, vessels and armies. The company was bound to introduce into Louisiana, during the period of its charter, six thousand white settlers and three thousand negro slaves. Bienville was chosen Governor of the whole province. He at once founded a city and established a colony on the banks of the Mississippi.

The shores were low, flat and swampy for more than a hundred miles from its mouth, but the Governor selected a site where New Orleans now stands for the capital, and proceeded to clear the dense forest that covered it. He laid out the city and gave it the name it now bears. The first cargo of slaves, direct from Africa, was landed on the west bank of the river opposite the new city in 1719. It consisted of five hundred men, women and children, forcibly torn from their homes, transported in a slave ship, and sold out to the colonists at an average price of one hundred and fifty dollars each.

From 1756 to 1762 war was waged by England against France for the conquest of Canada, and all of the French possessions in the Mississippi Valley. After a conflict in which the colonists and many tribes of Indians took part, the English armies succeeded in wresting Canada from the French, and in 1763 a treaty of peace was concluded by which England secured all of the French territory east of the Mississippi River, except a region east of New Orleans. The king of France at the same time, by a secret treaty, ceded to Spain all of the remainder of

Louisiana, embracing the entire country west of the Mississippi to its remotest tributaries, including Iowa and all north to the source of the river.

Thus after nearly a century from the time France became the owner of Louisiana, its entire possessions were surrendered and its French inhabitants became the unwilling subjects of England and Spain.

The French settlers in the Mississippi Valley were, for the most part, small farmers, supplying nearly all of their wants by the products of the fertile soil. They were simple in their habits and lived in peace with the Indians. In religion they were devoted Catholics. There were no public houses, as every house entertained travelers. Lawyers, courts, prisons and instruments for punishment were unknown, as were crimes and quarrels for which they are maintained. In village schools the children acquired a limited education, but sufficient for their simple lives. Priests were almost the only well educated men among them. They did not enter into political contest, but cheerfully accepted the government of the King, as one that must not be questioned. Worldly honors were troubles they never desired. Without commerce, they knew nothing of the luxuries or refinement of European countries. There were no distinctions of rank and wealth. They were free from envy, avarice and ambition. The wives of the household had entire control of all domestic affairs, and were the supreme umpires in settling all disputes. They exercised a greater influence than in any other civilized country. Agriculture was almost the only occupation, where every man had his herd of cattle, ponies, sheep and swine; and each was his own mechanic.

Thus lived the first settlers in the Mississippi Valley for more than a hundred years. But when their country was surrendered to English rule, many left their peaceful homes along the Illinois, the Mississippi and Wisconsin, so strong was their affection for France and its government.

During the time that Iowa had been under the dominion of France, no towns had been laid out or permanent colonies established. Fur traders, within its limits, hunters, trappers and missionaries had ascended the Des Moines, the Iowa, the Cedar, Wapsipinicon and the Missouri. Their cabins had been built in the beautiful groves; but the Indian nations that occupied the State when Columbus discovered America still held undisputed possession. No record has been left of the French traders and missionaries who for a century visited the “beautiful land” and named many of its water courses. They made no war on the natives, but mingled with them in friendly intercourse. Little can ever be known of the history of the inhabitants during all the years which elapsed from 1492 up to 1800.

One consideration which led to the early exploration of the valleys of the Mississippi and Missouri and their tributaries, was the importance of the fur trade in all of that region. As early as 1667 the Hudson's Bay Company had been organized by English capitalists. The principal business was dealing in buffalo, elk, bear and deer skins and furs in the British possessions of North America. The company sent its hunters, trappers and traders far north into the Arctic regions, as well as south through Canada, and westward to the Pacific Coast. Its operations grew to such magnitude, and its profits became so large, that the stock of the company was sold at a premium of two thousand per cent. The visions of rich gold mines that had lured the first Spanish adventurers into the far west, had gradually faded away. New sources of wealth were sought by those who were yearly penetrating the wilderness of America.

A strong rivalry grew up between the English and French over the fur trade, and it was one of the chief causes leading to the war with French and Indians on the frontier. French traders had pushed their traffic up the rivers of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and

Minnesota, more than a hundred years before these States had an existence on the map. These pioneers acquired their first knowledge of the lakes and rivers from the Indians with whom they traded. Rude maps were made from the information thus gained.

In 1762 a fur company was organized in New Orleans for the purpose of extending the profitable traffic among the Indians of the region lying between the upper Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Pierre Laclede was one of the projectors and took charge of establishing trading posts. He stopped at St. Genevieve, where a French colony settled in 1755. He also landed on the west shore of the Mississippi, about eighteen miles below the mouth of the Missouri, to establish a trading station. While here he was impressed with the spot as a favorable site for a town, and on the 15th of February, 1764, he caused a plat to be made, naming it St. Louis in honor of Louis XV, then king of France, little suspecting that his trading post was destined to become one of the great cities of America.

Louisiana had already been ceded to Spain by that weak monarch for whom the new town was named, but the disgraceful act had not been made public. England was extending its settlements in the Illinois country lately wrested from the French. The French settlements in that region were largely confined to the east side of the upper Mississippi, and the Illinois rivers.

The acquisition of this country by the English was very distasteful to its French inhabitants. When Captain Stirling of the British army took command of Fort Chartres in 1765, in order to extend the government of Great Britain over the country, many of the citizens abandoned their homes and moved to the French settlements of St. Genevieve and St. Louis. The French population of the whole Illinois country at the time it passed under English rule, was about five thousand. Nearly one-half of this number refused to become British subjects and joined their own countrymen on the west side of the

Mississippi. Ten years later the population of Kaskaskia had become reduced to about one hundred families, and Kahokia to fifty. This region received but few immigrants from the English provinces while it was under British rule, but remained an isolated French settlement in the heart of a wild country surrounded by Indians, and unreconciled to the hated English Government. Its only means of communication with the civilized world was by canoes or bateaux to Detroit or New Orleans. The military government that was arbitrarily extended over these people, who had braved every danger and endured all the hardships inseparable from making homes in that remote but beautiful and fertile territory, was despotic and oppressive.

When the English colonies in America united in the determination to free themselves from British rule, the people of the Mississippi Valley were not slow to make common cause with them.

In 1777 George Rogers Clark, a gallant young Kentuckian, projected a military expedition to aid the patriots of the far west. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, of Virginia, secured authority for young Clark to raise troops and seize the British frontier posts. Speedily enlisting one hundred and eighty young backwoodsmen, who were expert riflemen, fearless and injured to hardships, he embarked on the “Ohio” and finally arrived at Kaskakia. This town was on the west bank of Kaskaskia River, five miles from its mouth, about sixty-five miles south of St. Louis and was the oldest settlement in Illinois.

Colonel Clark surprised the English garrison occupying the town and seized the place. He followed up his brilliant success by capturing Kahokia and Vincennes. The French population of these places was greatly rejoiced over the expulsion of the English and cordially cooperated with Colonel Clark.

When Lieutenant-Governor Hamilton, the English commander at Detroit, heard of the capture of these places, he

started with an army of British and Indians to “punish the rebels.” He determined to recover the Illinois towns, and carry the war into Kentucky. He recaptured Vincennes[2] and sent a force to destroy Colonel Clark's little army. But that young officer was on the alert, made a bold dash upon Fort Vincennes, where General Hamilton was in command, and captured the post, taking the British general prisoner, seizing his stores, baggage and army equipments.

But the English made yet another effort to recover possession of the Mississippi Valley. An army of fourteen hundred was speedily equipped with Indian allies to march on St. Louis. The citizens sent a special messenger to Colonel Clark for aid. The fearless young commander did not hesitate, but selecting five hundred of his best men hastened to the relief of the besieged town. The citizens were making a gallant defense against overwhelming numbers and anxiously watching for the arrival of their friends. Suddenly the sharp report of hundreds of rifles smote the Britishs army in the rear. The Indian allies, who had a wholesome fear of the young American commander, were panic stricken and fled in terror, soon followed by the British, and St. Louis was saved.

Colonel Clark had a fort erected at the “Falls of the Ohio,” where Louisville was subsequently built. In the spring of 1780 he built Fort Jefferson on the Mississippi below the mouth of the Ohio. Natchez had been taken from the British and Colonel Clark now held the entire upper Mississippi Valley, from Illinois to the Spanish boundary. If he could have been reinforced by two thousand men, he was confident that he could have captured Detroit and expelled the British from the entire northwest. But the American armies were so hard pressed by the British in the Atlantic colonies, that it was impossible to reinforce him. But he had by his foresight, skill and

courage already wrested the West from the English, never again to pass under the dominion of a foreign nation.

The Virginia Legislature inscribed a memorial of Colonel Clark's brilliant achievements upon its records and granted to each soldier to his army two hundred acres of land.[3]

The first English adventurers found their way into the upper Mississippi Valley in about 1766. They were lawless hunters and trappers and there is little doubt that they extended their traffic with the Indians up several of the Iowa rivers. From this crude beginning developed finally the great Northwest Fur Company, which in 1806 had extended its trade from the St. Lawrence to Hudson's Bay; and from headquarters on the west shore of Lake Superior, their hunters, trappers and traders penetrated the west as far as the Rocky Mountains, embracing Iowa and Minnesota in their range.

At the close of the war of the Revolution, Great Britain relinquished to the United States its possessions east of the Mississippi River, from its sources to the 31st parallel of latitude, and with it free navigation of the river to its mouth as derived by previous treaties with France and Spain.


  1. Near the mouth of the river, La Salle erected a column and a cross upon which the following inscription was made: Louis the Great, King of France and Navarre, reigning April 9th, 1682.
  2. Fort Vincennes, or St. Vincent as the French named it, was on the Wabash River, one hundred and fifty miles from its mouth. It was on a direct line from Detroit to Kashkashis. The entire region northwest of Ohio was commanded by these posts.
  3. George Rogers Clark was a brother of Captain William Clark who was one of the commanders of the Lewis and Clark exploring expedition of 1804; and who was appointed by President Jefferson Governor of Missouri Territory. One of Col. Clark's soldiers in his western campaign was John Todd who became a prominent citizen of Kentucky and was the great uncle of Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln.