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Iowa Article: "The March of the Dragoons" by J.G. Lucas

Recommended Citation Lucas, J. G. "The March of the Dragoons." The Annals of Iowa 27 (1945), 85-96. Available at:

In J.G. Lucas’s 1945 article a basic summary of the 1835 Iowa Dragoons Expedition focuses on the basic details of the march. Three companies under the command of Stephen W. Kearny left ‘Old Fort Des Moines’ in order to explore the Des Moines River Valley, impress Indigenous peoples of the region with the military power of the United States, and complete a treaty with Wabasha.

Notably, Lucas highlights the reality that Albert M. Lea, who would go on to provide the most significant account of the expedition, initially did not have charge of Company I. Instead, Captain Jesse B. Browne stood poised to lead the company prior to coming down with an illness immediately prior to the departure date. Kearny decided not to wait, and Lea took on the command.

The article provides a wealth of basic information about people and places, especially commanders within the expedition, members who chose to stay in Iowa after their military service, and specific places. For instance, the author detailed the initial survey, naming, and settlement of Boone.

Lucas also alludes to important environmental observations easily drawn from the records left behind by the Iowa Dragoons, specifically when he discusses the scarcity of meat on the lower-Des Moines River as the Expedition returned toward Old Fort Des Moines. The early American presence in the region paired with concentrations of Indigenous peoples to tax local game populations for the first time in the time-period. The trend would accelerate and continue throughout the 1800s.

“The United States dragoons who in 1835 marched up the Des Moines river valley and across Iowa, starting from the old Fort Des Moines in Lee County, near the present town of Montrose, for the purpose of making a treaty with Wabasha, an important Sioux Indian chief whose village was located near the present city of Winona, in Minnesota, left a permanent impression on the history of the valley…” (85)

“The expedition consisted of three companies of the First Regiment of Dragoons, B, H, and I, and was under the direct command of Col. Stephen W. Kearny. The company commanders where Capt. Nathan Boone, Capt. E.V. Sumner, and Lieut. Albert M. Lea.” (85)

“The fact that Lieutenant Lea was placed in the command of his company and thus played an important part in this notable chapter of Des Moines valley history making, was due to one of those unavoidable incidents of life which constantly occur. His superior, Capt. Jesse B. Browne, was taken ill at the fort just before the date on which the expedition was to leave, and rather than delay, Colonel Kearny reached the conclusion that Lieutenant Lea should assume the captain’s responsibilities.” (85)

“Largely as a result of the expedition Boone county, the city of Boone and Boone river were named after Captain Boone…” (86)

“The first Boone county settler was Chas. W. Gaston, who was a member of Lieutenant Lea’s command.” (86)

“Another direct result of the expedition was an inspection made by Colonel Kearny of the territory at the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers as the site for a fort.” (86)

“In 1833 he (Kearny) was made lieutenant-colonel of the First Regiment of United States dragoons, a branch of service just instituted, and stationed at St. Louis. Later, with three companies of his regiment, he was sent to old Fort Des Moines in Lee County, Iowa, and while there led the expedition…” (86)

“In 1836, a year after the expedition, he was promoted to colonel of the regiment and his headquarters moved to Fort Leavenworth.” (86)

“Captain Nathan Boone was the youngest son of Col. Daniel Boone, the noted Kentucky pioneer…Captain Boone entered the army young in life and from 1833 to 1848 served under Colonel Kearny.”

“He (Boone) was the surveyor of the forty-mile-wide strip of land known as the Neutral Strip in northern Iowa, purchased by the government from the Sioux, and Sac and Fox tribes in 1830. The purpose of the government’s purchase was to settle boundary lines and thus prevent friction between the tribes mentioned. This Neutral Strip extended east from the right fork of the Des Moines river.” (87)

“Lieutenant Albert M. Lea was both a soldier and a civil engineer professionally. Albert Lea, Minn. is named after him, and the expedition from old Fort Des Moines in 1835 was one of two expeditions across the state in which he participated. He kept a diary of the expedition...and wrote a small book describing Iowa and his experiences. The diary was given as a present to C.W. Gaston, Boone county’s first white settler and a member of his company, and was retained by Mr. Gaston all his life…This diary was published in the Journal of Iowa History and Politics in July, 1909.” (88)

“Captain Browne, while not a member of the expedition, figured prominently in Iowa history. Whether the illness which prevented his presence with the expedition up the Des Moines river valley resulted in the belief that he should retire from army life, or he preferred a career as a civilian, is unknown. In any event the following year, in 1836, when old Fort Des Moines was abandoned, he resigned his commission and located at the promising little city of Keokuk.” (88)

“In 1835 old Fort Des Moines, in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, was on the fringe of Iowa civilization, and the territory traversed by the dragoons on this trip was entirely unsettled by whites except by a few trappers and an occasional white renegade. It is noticeable that Lieutenant Lea’s day-by-day diary makes no mention whatever of meeting white men on the entire trip except while at Wabasha’s village in Minnesota. He did, however, frequently refer to small bands of Indians which the expedition contacted.” (89)

“The route of the expedition followed the divide between the Des Moines and Skunk rivers, taking advantage of the terrain. The three companies represented a body of 300 men, and in additional a small group of Indians numbering six to eight, who went along as guides, scouts and unters, with a pioneer character named Francis Labashar as interpreter.” (89)

“They of course carried in wagons and on pack animals all the accoutrements necessary for an extensive military expedition, and a large quantity of such necessary foods as flour, salt, etc. Each company organization included cooks and kitchen equipment as a fundamental military requirement. They expected to find an abundance of game along the way, and from Lieutenant Lea’s diary these expectations were fully realized.” (89)

“Anyone who lived in Iowa before tiling and other improvements will have no trouble realizing that such an expedition as this would find the going difficult at times. Lieutenant Lea’s diary shows that some days they made but four miles; on others, they made twenty-six.” (89)

“The first week it rained incessantly, and the force made no great progress. On June 14 they passed Keokuk’s village on the Des Moines river ‘a few miles to our left,’ and came up through the corner of what is now Jasper county about the site of the present city of Colfax.” (89)

“On June 21 they camped in what is now northern Boone county near what is locally known as Mineral Ridge, close tot he edge of the timber extending out from the Des Moines river. On the twenty-third they reached the vicinity of the mouth of the Boone river, in what is now Hamilton County, and from there took a northeasterly course to Wabasha’s village.” (90)

“The dragoons were not much impressed with the Sioux. Lea said’ They are mostly a dirty, thieving race, living in the most abominable filth.’ In comparing them with the Sac and Fox, he declared the latter ‘clearly and decent in appearance.’” (90)

“The expedition took a different course on the return trip. They marched a westerly way, but got off their route. On July 29 they found themselves north of a lake and could see no possible route around it. It is generally agreed now that the lake was Lake Unasska in Brown county, Minn. The following day they ran across a body of Indians, and from them learned that they had been following the St. Peter River, thinking it was the Iowa. Thus they discovered they were no nearer their home destination than they were at Wabasha’s village over on the Mississippi.” (90)

“After getting their geography straightened out, they found their way around the lake and traveled south and west until after crossing the west fork of the Des Moines river near the southeast corner of Palo Alto County, thence marching south on the west side of the Des Moines river.” (91)

“They reached the juncture of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers where the city of Des Moines is now located on August 8. On the next day Colonel Kearny made investigation of the availability of the locality for a fort. The colonel was anxious to complete his task as quickly as possible, because rations were getting scarce.” (91)

“So, on the morning of August 10 the troops effected a march crossing over the Raccoon river and the same day marched fifteen miles. The last pork available was served the men on the evening of the tenth. On the fifteenth they came to Appanoose or Iowa town on the right bank of the Des Moines, and on the 16th crossed the Des Moines river and visited Keokuk’s town. The Indians at both villages were ‘apparently living in comfort and neatness, and growing in wealth.’” (91)

“The fact that food - particularly meat - was scarce on the last leg of the expedition leads to the supposition that game was more plentiful in the northern portion of the state. In the north central section of the state they saw for the first time a herd of buffalo, and the soldiers joined in a buffalo hunt. They also killed a large number of deer and at least one elk. Lieutenant Lea’s diary tells of the capture of one buffalo calf, but does not say what was done with it.” (91)


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