"Notes on Iowa" 101: Albert Lea, Dragoons, and Other Basic Information

In 1835 Albert Lea and the Iowa Dragoons went on the journey that ultimately culminated in his "Notes on Wisconsin Territory, particularly concerning the Iowa District."


You might wonder: who was Albert Lea? Do Dragoons breath fire? How do the brown signs along Iowa roadways marked 'Dragoon Trail' between Fort Dodge and Pella relate? Let's take each question one at a time to get a better understanding of some basic things to know before exploring the project:


Albert Lea: First a man (who led one of three companies of the 1835 Iowa Dragoons Expedition), soldier, engineer, and topographer for the United States Army. Lea wrote the most extensive record of the 1835 journey up the Des Moines River through what became Iowa, and his notes help to provide insights into what the environment of Iowa was like prior to American settlement. During the expedition, Lea and the Dragoons got lost and ran into a large body of water now named for him in southern Minnesota. Both Albert Lea Lake and the City of Albert Lea stand as tangential relics of the 1835 Expedition.


Lea, like all people, represented human complexity. A native-son of Tennessee, Albert Miller Lea attended the United States Military Academy before becoming the Chief Engineer for the State of Tennessee in 1837. He eventually worked on the Missouri Border project for the United States government, and then moved on to a post as a brigadier general for the Iowa militia. After his time in Iowa, Lea returned to Tennessee where he attended engineering school before ultimately serving the Confederate States of America as an engineering officer in the American Civil War.


Lea's 'Notes on the Wisconsin Territory' represents a significant record into Iowa's environmental past. By combining the observations and summaries provided by Lea, contrasting them with other records, and then comparing the account to my own observations I hope to develop a better understanding of Iowa's environmental past.


A few years back, a friend and I started discussing how interesting following in the footsteps of the Iowa Dragoons Expedition of 1835 would be. The Expedition departed from First Fort Des Moines, near modern-day Montrose, on the Mississippi River and struck north-by-northwest roughly following the Des Moines River until the reached the vicinity of modern-day Boone. From there they struck east-by-northeast to Winona's Village in what is now Minnesota. On the return trip they went west, getting lost, discovering the lake the now holds Albert Lea's name, and eventually rejoining the Des Moines River and following it south. The records left behind constitute important knowledge of Iowa's environment prior to colonization. Lea went on to publish his observations in "Notes on the Wisconsin Territory, particularly with reference to the Iowa District." As a nod to Albert Lea, I have named this project 'Notes on Iowa.' Lea's map (below) helped to develop the route for the 2021 expedition.

Do dragoons breath fire? Well, no, not really, you are thinking of dragons although they play a role in the story as well. The United States Army's Dragoons served as a forerunner to eventual cavalry units. Dating back to 17th century Italy, Dragoons as a type of evolutionary infantry soldier who would sometimes find themselves mounted on horseback to move more quickly during battle. Dragoons gained popularity in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the name Dragoons derives from a type of firearm, called a dragon, carried by the French Army. French ruler Louis XIV utilized a policy in 1681 known as Dragonnades to intimidate Huguenots into accepting Catholicism or getting out of France.


Dragoons enter American history early: in early 1777 George Washington raised four regiments of Dragoons. The regiments disbanded following prominent roles in many of the most prominent battels of the American Revolution. By the War of 1812, a regiment of light Dragoons joined the United States military structure, and a second regiment came into brief existence during the conflict before consolidating into the Corps of Artillery in June of 1815.


Congress voted to form the 1st United States Dragoons on March 2, 1833, eventually sending them to what would become Iowa to keep peace on the frontier between Indigenous peoples and Americans entering the area, as well as to explore on expeditions like the one that took place in 1835. Dragoons looked like the painting below, and eventually ended up replaced by cavalry units by the time of the American Civil War.

In 1933, the State of Iowa opened a scenic and historic drive along the Des Moines River. The driving route from Fort Dodge to Lake Red Rock roughly follows parts of the 1835 Expedition and is marked by brown and black signs, similar to the modified 'Notes on Iowa' logo:


Parts of the 2021 'Notes on Iowa' Expedition will encompass the Department of Transportation driving route. If you have other questions, please use the contact form on the home page to help improve the information on this page.

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