top of page

Primary Source: "Notes on the Wisconsin Territory, particularly with Reference to the Iowa District"

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

"Notes on Wisconsin Territory, with a Map"

By Albert M. Lea, United States Dragoons

Henry S. Tanner, 1836

Source Accessible at:

Albert Lea's summary of the 1835 Dragoons Expedition across the "Iowa District" served as the initial stimulus for the entirety of the "Notes on Iowa" project. Lea's 'notes' provides unique insights into the natural environment of Iowa at the time of American entry into the space. Although French explorers, British traders, and other individuals also left behind records of the area, Lea's account provides a unique look into Iowa's natural past.

The following are specific sections of text from the document that provide specific insights into Iowa's environment and past (primary source summaries will focus primarily on providing boiled-down quotes from the specific sources, to allow you, the reader, an opportunity to interpret):

"Information from surveyors, traders, explorers, and residents. The whole route of the dragoons during the summer of 1835, as designated on the map, was meandered with a compass, and the distances estimated by the time and rate of travelling them; and in like manner, the Des Moines river was reconnoitred from Racoon river to the mouth, and the route thence to Rock-Island, by the west side of tbe Mississippi." (3)

"To the Author, from the Hon. Geo. W. Jones, Delegate in Congress from the Territory of Wisconsin. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, Washington City, April 26th, 1836. . A. M. LEA, MY DEAR SIR, … The country which you have described, is undoubtedly not surpassed as a farming and mining country, by any in the known world; and the manner in which you have set forth its advantages, must ensure to your work an extensive circulation. The numerous applicants that have come to me from the east, the south, and the west, for Information in relation to this country. I take pleasure in referring to your notes, with the hope that you will very soon publish them to the world. You have said much for the country, but I do not believe you could have said too much in commendation of its fertility and natural resources."

"This country has been alternately in the possession of various tribes of Indians, but last in that of the Sauks and Foxes, of whom it was obtained by treaty at the close of the Black-Hawk War, in 1832. General Scott was one of the commissioners appointed by the President to make this treaty; hence the District under review has been often called "Scotts Purchase:' and it is sometimes called the "Black-Hawk Purchase;" but from the extent and heauty of the Iowa river which runs centrally through the District, and gives character to most of it, the name of the stream being both euphonious and appropriate has been given to the District itself." (122)

"THE CLIMATE is such as would be naturally expected in tbis latitude. The thermometer does not range more widely here than In similar latitudes east of the Allegheny mountains; nor perhaps as much so, as in those districts beyond tbe Influence of the sea-breeze; for here, we have every tlay a breeze, from some quarter of our broad prairies almost as refreshing as that from the ocean. We are exempt, too, from tbe effects of the easterly winds, so chilling and so annoying along tbe Atlantic seaboard; but in lieu of tbem, we brave frequently cold blasts from the prairies, sufficiently annoying to the traveller, when the mercury is at zero. The prevailing winds are from the southwest. I bave known tbe wind at Rock-Island, to remain constant in tbat quarter for three weeks successively, and it is said to have so remained during six weeks at Prairie du Chien." (122/8)

"The Winter is generally dry, cold, and bracing; the waters are all bridged with ice; the snow is frequently deep enough to afford good sleighing, and it is considered the best season for travelling, by those who are able to bear exposure to a cold atmosphere. The winter usually commences about the 1st of December, and ends early in March; though in the southern part of the District, we often have fine pieasant weather in mid-winter. There is never so much snow, even as far north as Prairie du Chien, aa to interrupt the travelling; and as every prairie is a high road, we scarceiy feel the obclusion of the icy season." (123/9)

"The Spring is any thing but what we have been taught to expect from that usually delightful season. It is a succession of rains, blows, and chills: and if the sun happen to shine, it does so gloomily, as if boding a coming storm. The whole country becomes saturated with, water; the low lands are overflowed; the streams are swollen; and locomotion is rendered difficult except by water. But as this means of travelling is greatly facilitated and extended by the fioods, we even contrive to pass comfortably enough the six weeks of rain, and fog, and wind that changes the freezing winter into the warm and genial summer. We have no gradual gliding from cold to warm; it is snowy^—then stormy—then halmy and delightful. There is great difficulty in planting and sowing the grains of the Spring; and sometimes even after the seeds are in the earth, the rains are too great to admit of proper culture. But with experience in the clim-ate, the agriculturists will iearn to adapt themselves to its requirements, and be able to assure themselves of crops worthy of the soil they have to cultivate." (123-4/9-10)

"The Summer is generally of sufficient warmth to produce rapid vegetation; and yet it is seldom oppressively hot. I have, in fact, ridden through grass six feet high, in the month of July, when, for weeks together, I scarcely experienced the sensation of excessive heat. During this season, the appearance of the country is gay and beautiful, being clothed in grass, foliage, and flowers. Of all the seasons in the year, the Autumn is the most delightful. The heat of the summer is over by the middle of August; and from that time till December, we have almost one continuous succession of bright clear delightful sunny daj's. Nothing can exceed the beauty of Summer and Autumn in this country, where, on one hand, we have the expansive prairie strewed with flowers still growing; and on the other, the forests which skirt it, presenting all the varieties of colour incident to the fading foliage of a thousand different trees." (124/10)

"THE SOIL is generally about two feet deep, and is composed of clay, sand, and vegetable mould. Much of it is too tenacious of water for the most convenient production of such grains as are planted in the Spring. It is of a dark brown colour near the surface, and gradually becomes lighter and lighter in descending, till it imperceptibly passes into a yellowish clay, which, in turn is based upon a blue marl, containing pebbles, and which always affords good water when penetrated. This latter stratum is found from fifteen to thirty feet below the surface in the upland prairies, so that it is only necessary to sink a well to that depth to obtain excellent water wherever it may he wanted. This is the general character of the soil of the higher prairies. In the bottom lands along the rivers, the soil is more sandy, and is little affected by excessive rains, except such portions as are liable to be overflowed. The low grounds are peculiarly adapted to the growth of Indian corn, and the elevated lands to the growth of small grain; though the yellow maize of the North succeeds remarkably well on the coldest soils of our dry prairies." (125/11)

“The general appearance of the country is one of great beauty. It may be represented as one grand rolling prairie, along one side of which flows the mightiest river in the world, and through which numerous navigable streams pursue their devious way towards the ocean.” (125/11)

“All of these rivers, creeks, and lakes, are skirted by woods, often several miles in width, affording shelter from intense cold or heat to the animals that may take refuge from the contiguous prairies. These woods also afford the timber necessary for building houses, fences, and boats.” (125/11)

Could I present to the mind of the reader that view of this country that is now before my eyes, he would not deem my assertion unfounded. He would see the broad Mississippi with its ten thousand islands, flowing gently and lingeringly along one entire side of this District, as if in regret at leaving so delightful a region; he would see half a dozen navigable rivers taking their sources in distant regions, and gradually accumulating their waters as they glide steadily along through this favoured region to pay their tribute to the great "Father of Waters;" he would see in-numerable creeks and rivulets meandering through rich pasturages, where now the domestic ox has taken the place of the untamed bison; he would see here and there neat groves of oak, and elm, and walnut, half shading half concealing beautiful little lakes, that mirror hack their waiving branches; he would see neat looking prairies of two or three miles in extent, and apparently enclosed by woods on all sides, and along the borders of which are ranged the neat hewed log cabins of the emigrants with their fields stretching far Into the prairies, where their herds are luxuriating on the native grass; be would see villages springing up. as by magic, along the banks of the rivers, and even far in the interior; and he would see the swift moving steam-boats, as they ply up and down the Mississippi, to supply the wants of the settlers, to take away their surplus produce, or to bring an accession to this growing population, anxious to participate in the enjoyment of nature's bounties, here so liberally dispensed.” (126/12)

“I have known the sod of the prairie to be simply turned over, the seed harrowed in, and thirty bushels per acre to be harvested. But the usual crop, after the first, is from twenty-five to forty bushels per acre with negligent farming.” (127/13)

“The larger game will, of course, soon disappear from the settlement; but at present there is a great deal of deer, some bear, and some buffalo within reach. Turkeys, grouse, and ducks will long be abundant; and of fish there can never be any scarcity. Every stream is filled with them; and among them may be found the pike, the pickerel, the catfish, the trout, and many other varieties.” (128/14)

“The population of the whole district, exclusive of Indians, was about sixteen thousand, at the end of 1835, a time little more than two years after the first settlement was made. During the year 1835, the chief part of this population arrived; and there is every indication of a vast accession during the year 1836. Indeed large portions of the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri seem to be about to emigrate to this region. There are now here emigrants from all these States, and every other state in the Union, as well as many foreigners. Whole neighborhoods are moving from Indiana and Illinois to this land of promise.” (128/14)

“The population of the surrounding country is very various, whites on one side, and Indians on the other. That of Wisconsin and Illinois, being immediately east of the northern part of the District, is very similar to that already described as belonging to the District itself. These people take their tone from the active and enterprising people of the northern and eastern States; whilst those of the more southern part of Illinois and of Missouri, partake much more of the character of the Middle States.” (128/14)

“On the west and north, are the Sauk and Fox, and the Sioux tribes of Indians. These people have become so much reduced in number, and are so perfectly convinced of their utter inferiority, that they will never have an idea of again making war upon our settlements. Their proximity will indeed by rather an advantage to the District than otherwise, as a profitable trade may be carried on with them.” (128-9/14-15)

“It is now clearly understood what improvement it takes to constitute a claim to any portion of these lands; and a claim to a farm, regularly established, is just as good, for the time being, as if the occupant had the Government patent for it. An emigrant comes into the country; he looks around him, and finds a situation that pleases him; here, he says ‘I will make an improvement;’ and forthwith he goes to work, builds a house, fences a piece of ground, ploughs and plants it; he stakes out his half a section of land, one quarter section probably being woodland, and the other quarter being prairie; and then his home is secure from trespass by any one whatever, until the Government shall think proper to prefer its claims.” (133/19)

“The Des Moines River and its tributaries afford fine lands, well diversified with wood and prairie, as far up as I am acquainted with them, some fifty miles above the ‘Upper Forks.’ There is much that is inviting in the general character of the country bordering on the Des Moines; level meadows, rolling woodlands, and deep forests, present themselves by turns. The soil is usually rich and productive; and when there are no natural springs, there is no difficulty in obtaining water, by digging, at almost any point in the highland-prairies.” (138/24)

“Having specially reconnoitered the Des Moines river during the summer of 1835, I can speak of it more confidently than any of the other smaller rivers watering the District.” (138-24)

“From Racoon river to the Cedar, the Des Moines is from 80 to 100 yards in width, shallow, crooked, and filled with rocks, sand-bars, and snags, and is impetuous in current at high water; yet it is certain that keel-boats may navigate this portion of the river, being 96 miles, during a great part of the spring and fall; and it is not impossible that even steam-boats may run there.” (138/24)

“But from the Cedar river to the Mississippi, except a few miles near the mouth, there is no obstruction to the navigation of the Des Moines in a tolerable stage of water. For four months of the year, boats of two and a half feet draught, will perform this distance of 170 miles without difficulty. The width is from 150 to 250 yards except a few miles above the mouth, where it is only from 80 to 100 yards wide; its bed is perfectly smooth and flat; and the bottom is generally a thin coating of sand and gravel over a blue limestone rock, until you descend within the influence of the back water from the Mississippi, where there is much alluvial deposit with many snags. By the removal of a part of these snags and a few loose rocks above, every thing will be done for the navigation that can be done without augmenting the supply of water. The first rapids that occur in the river, above the mouth, are those near the lower end of the Great Bend. There is a ledge of limestone rock running across the river here; but the chief obstruction in caused by loose rocks lodged upon this ledge. The cief rapids between the Racoon and the mouth, are some 40 miles above Cedar river. Here is considerable fall for several miles, a sudden pitch of several inches, many large loose rocks, and a very sudden bend, altogether making a difficult pass in the river.” (139/25)

“It is about seventy-five miles from the mouth, by water, to the Indian boundary. The lands, on both sides of the river, throughout the greater part of this distance, are exceedingly fertile, and many of them are covered with forests of the finest walnut, oak, ash, elm, and cherry; and back of these wooded bottoms are extensive prairies, both flat and rolling. The settlements have long since, that is in the fall of 1935, extended along the river entirely up to the line, and are beginning to spread out on either side, especially towards the head waters of Sugar creek.” (139/25)

“Fort Des Moines. There is a good landing here, a fine site for a town, and some good farming lands around. Being situated just at the head of the rapids, it is the most convenient place for the larger boats to change their freight to and from the smaller boats that take it over the rapids. It is said to have been on the site of an old French village; and there are some remains of such a settlement. This spot is at present occupied by a detachment of the United States Dragoons; but it is probable that the post will soon be abandoned; and then it will be subject to occupation, as are other Half-Breed lands.” (35/149)


bottom of page