Iowa History

Iowa (state, United States)

Iowa (ī´əwə), midwestern state in the N central United States. It is bounded by the Mississippi River, across which lie Wisconsin and Illinois (E); Missouri (S); Nebraska and South Dakota, from which it is separated by the Missouri and the Big Sioux rivers, respectively (W); and Minnesota (N).

Facts and Figures

Area, 56,290 sq mi (145,791 sq km). Pop. (2010) 3,046,355, a 4.1% increase since the 2000 census. Capital and largest city, Des Moines. Statehood, Dec. 28, 1846 (29th state). Highest pt., 1,670 ft (509 m), Osceola co.; lowest pt., Mississippi River, 480 ft (146 m). Nickname, Hawkeye State. Motto, Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain. State bird, Eastern goldfinch. State flower, wild rose. State tree, oak. Abbr., IA


Iowa is bordered on two sides by rivers; the Mississippi separates it on the east from Wisconsin and Illinois, and the Missouri and the Big Sioux separate it on the west from Nebraska and South Dakota. The state is bounded on the north by Minnesota and on the south by Missouri. Iowa is an area of rich, rolling plains, interrupted by many rivers. The terrain is low and gently sloping, except for the hills in the unglaciated area of NE Iowa, the steeply sloping bluffs on the banks of the Mississippi, and the moundlike bluffs on the banks of the Missouri. The rivers of the eastern two thirds of Iowa flow to the Mississippi; those of the west flow to the Missouri. The original woodlands, which included black walnut and hickory, were destroyed by lumbering and land clearing in the 19th cent., and present wooded sections are covered only with second or third growths of timber. Only 0.1% of Iowa, the lowest total in the 50 states, is owned by the federal government.

Historically typical of Iowa was the prairie. Covered a little more than a century ago with grass higher than the wheels of the pioneers' prairie schooners, or covered wagons, the prairies gave way to fields of corn and other grains. Wildflowers still brighten the roadsides, but few areas of the original grassland remain, and several prairie preserves have been established. The former habitat of wild turkeys, prairie chickens, and quail, Iowa abounds with migratory geese and ducks and the imported ring-necked pheasant and European partridge, all of which are hunted in the autumn.

Des Moines is the capital and largest city. Other major cities are Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and Sioux City.

Iowa's climate is continental—northwest winds drive the mercury down below 0°F (-18°C) in winter, and in the summer hot air masses bring oppressive heat; there are violent thunderstorms, hail, and occasional droughts. Floods have periodically inflicted great losses of life and property, necessitating control measures. In the devastating midwestern flood of 1993 all 99 counties of Iowa were declared disaster areas. Overall, the average annual rainfall in Iowa is 31 in. (78.7 cm), and, since most of this falls in summer, soil is often washed away. Iowans have had to fight erosion with modern plowing and planting practices, control of water flow, and reforestation. Still, Iowa has some of the most fertile agricultural land (about 70% of the state's area is cropland) in the world.


The deep, porous soil yields corn and other grains in tremendous quantities, and the corn-fed hogs and cattle are nationally known. In 1997, Iowa led the nation in the production of corn, soybeans, hogs, and pigs, and ranked in the top 10 in the raising of cattle. Other major crops are hay and oats. Iowa has in recent years taken in the second highest farm income of any state.

Agriculture also benefits the state's chief industry, food processing, and in Sioux City and Cedar Rapids many factories process farm products. Nonelectrical machinery, farm machinery, tires, appliances, electronic equipment, and chemicals are among the other manufactures. Cement is the most important mineral product; others are stone, sand, gravel, and gypsum. Mineral production is small, however. Communications, finance, and insurance industries are especially important in Des Moines.

Government and Higher Education

Iowa's constitution was adopted in 1857. The governor is elected for a term of four years. The general assembly, or legislature, has a senate with 50 members and a house of representatives with 100 members. Iowa is represented in the U.S. Congress by two senators and four representatives. The state has six electoral votes. Terry Branstad, a Republican, served as governor from 1983 through 1998, when Democrat Tom Vilsack was elected. Vilsack was reelected in 2002, and was succeeded by fellow Democrat Chet Culver, elected in 2006. Culver lost to Branstad in 2010. Branstad was reelected in 2014 but resigned in 2017 to become ambassador to China; Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds succeeded him.

Among the educational institutions in Iowa are Iowa State Univ. of Science and Technology, at Ames; the Univ. of Iowa, at Iowa City; Grinnell College, at Grinnell; Cornell College, at Mount Vernon; Drake Univ., at Des Moines; Univ. of Northern Iowa, at Cedar Falls; and the Univ. of Dubuque, Loras College, and Clarke College, at Dubuque.


European Incursions into Native Lands

In prehistoric times, the Mound Builders, a farming people, lived in the Iowa area. When Europeans first came to explore the region in the 17th cent., various Native American groups, including the Iowa, reputedly the source of the state's name, occupied the land. The Sac and Fox also ranged over the land, but it was the combative Sioux who dominated the area. In 1673 the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet traveled down the Mississippi River and touched upon the Iowa shores, as did Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, in 1681–82. The areas surrounding the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers were profitable for fur traders, and a number of Iowa towns developed from trading posts.

Late in the 18th cent. a French Canadian, Julien Dubuque, leased land from Native Americans around the Dubuque area and opened lead mines there. After his death they refused to permit others to work the mines, and U.S. troops under Lt. Jefferson Davis protected Native American rights to the land as late as 1830. However, their hold was doomed after the United States acquired Iowa as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

In 1832 the Black Hawk War broke out as the Sac and Fox, led by their chief, Black Hawk, fought to regain their former lands in Illinois along the Mississippi River. They were defeated by U.S. troops and were forced to leave the Illinois lands and cede to the United States much of their land along the river on the Iowa side. Within two decades after the Black Hawk War, all Native American lands in the region had been ceded to the United States. Meanwhile, a great rush of frontiersmen came to settle the prairies and take the mines.

Territorial Status

Slavery was prohibited in Iowa under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which excluded it from the lands of the Louisiana Purchase north of lat. 36°30′N. Included in the Missouri Territory prior to 1821, Iowa was subsequently part of Michigan Territory and Wisconsin Territory. By 1838, Iowa Territory was organized, with Burlington as the temporary capital. In the following year, Iowa City became the capital. The Iowans quickly built a rural civilization like that of New England, where many of them had lived. Later, immigrants from Europe, notably Germans, Czechs, Dutch, and Scandinavians, brought their agricultural skills and their own customs to enrich Iowa's rural life, and a group of German Pietists established the Amana Church Society, a successful attempt at communal social organization. A system of public schools was set up in 1839, and efforts made soon thereafter resulted in the establishment of a number of colleges and universities.

Statehood, Railroads, and Reform Movements

Iowa became a state in 1846, and Ansel Briggs was elected as the first governor. In 1857 the capital was moved from Iowa City to Des Moines. In that same year the state adopted its second constitution. Iowa prospered greatly with the beginning of railroad construction, and the rivalry between towns to get the lines was so fierce that the grant of big land tracts to railroad companies was curtailed by legislative act in 1857. Two years earlier the state's first railroad line was completed between Davenport and Muscatine along the eastern border. Before and during the Civil War, Iowans, generally owners of small, independent farms, were naturally sympathetic to the antislavery side, and many fought for the Union. The Underground Railroad, which helped many fugitive slaves escape to free states, was active in Iowa, and the abolitionist John Brown made his headquarters there for a time.

Iowa's farmers prospered after the Civil War, but during the hard times that afflicted the country in the 1870s they found themselves burdened with debts. Feeling oppressed by the currency system, corporations, and high railroad and grain-storage rates, many of Iowa's farmers supported, along with other farmers of the West, the Granger movement, the Greenback party, and the Populist party. The reform movements had some success in the state. Granger laws were enacted in 1874 and 1876 regulating railroad rates, but these laws were repealed in 1877 under pressure from the railroad companies. By the end of the 19th cent., times improved, and the agrarian movements declined. Farm units grew larger, and mechanization brought great increases in productivity.

Modern Iowa

Much of Iowa's society may still resemble that depicted in the paintings of Grant Wood, an Iowan, but the state's industrial economy as well as other elements of modernization have altered this image. While on a visit to the United States in 1959, Nikita S. Khrushchev, then premier of the Soviet Union, was invited to a farm in Iowa to observe part of the U.S. farm economy. The volatile nature of agricultural prices combined with a steady decline in manufacturing has made Iowa susceptible to economic recession. This was especially true in the 1980s, when Iowa was second in the United States in outmigration with a 4.7% decline in population.

Notable Iowans

Among Iowa's colorful native sons were Buffalo Bill Cody, labor leader John L. Lewis, and baseball player–evangelist Billy Sunday. Other public figures associated with the state are James Wilson, U.S. secretary of agriculture for 16 years (1897–1913), and the noted members of the Wallace family—Henry Wallace, Henry Cantwell Wallace, and Henry Agard Wallace. Herbert C. Hoover and Harry L. Hopkins were born in Iowa. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, which contains Hoover's birthplace, childhood home, and grave, and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library are at West Branch.


See H. Hahn, Urban-Rural Conflict (1971); M. M. Rosenberg, Iowa on the Eve of the Civil War (1972); R. B. Talbot, Iowa in the World Economy (1985); O. J. Fargo, ed., Iowa Geography (1988), "History of Iowa" series; D. Schwieder et al., Iowa: Past to Present (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Iowa History: Selected full-text books and articles

Ioway to Iowa: The Genesis of a Corn and Bible Commonwealth By Irving Berdine Richman The State historical Society of Iowa, 1931
The Iron Horse and the Constitution: The Railroads and the Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment By Richard C. Cortner Greenwood Press, 1993
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Iowa Rate Fight"
Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest By Deborah Fink; Jack Temple Kirby University of North Carolina Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Who's Francisco?: Race/Ethnicity and Rural Iowa Workers"
The Civil War Generation: Military Service and Mobility in Dubuque, Iowa, 1860-1870 By Johnson, Russell L Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, No. 4, Summer 1999
The Trans-Mississippi West (1803-1853): A History of Its Acquisition and Settlement By Cardinal Goodwin D. Appleton, 1928
Librarian's tip: Chap. VIII "Early American Settlements of Iowa and Minnesota"
"Overrun with Free Negroes": Emancipation and Wartime Migration in the Upper Midwest By Schwalm, Leslie A Civil War History, Vol. 50, No. 2, June 2004
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Henry A. Wallace of Iowa: The Agrarian Years, 1910-1940 By Frederick H. Schapsmeier; Edward L. Schapsmeier Iowa State University Press, 1968
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