Our Iowa Heritage: Ancient Iowa – Exploring The Land.

So, what was Iowa like before our Native American brothers and sisters arrived?

When did these Native Iowan tribes arrive and who were they?

To answer questions such as these, we go, not to historians, but to archaeologists. In a very informative chart (above and below), the Office of the State Archaeologist offers a wonderful overview of this beautiful land we call Iowa, dividing our history into two distinct periods:

1) Iowa’s Historic Period – Post-1673.

In 1673, the first white explorers set foot on Iowa soil. It’s this time frame (1673 to the present) where 99% of Our Iowa Heritage stories come from. Click here to read more.

2) Iowa’s Pre-Historic Period – Pre-1673.

Iowa’s pre-historic period goes all the way back to 11,500 B.C. or further! Wow!

Iowa historian, Benjamin Shambaugh offers his overview on this earliest age of Iowa.
For a Timeline of Ancient Iowa – click here.

Brrr – the end of the Ice Age in Iowa.

Today’s Johnson County is marked with the red X. For a Timeline of Ancient Iowa – click here.

Archaeologists believe that the first inhabitants of what is now the state of Iowa were Paleo-Indians, the earliest ancestors of Native Americans. They probably occupied ice-free land during the time when the Des Moines lobe was covered by glaciers, up to 14,000 years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of settlement, however, dates from about 8,500 years ago. These were hunters and food gatherers who existed at the subsistence level, enduring the periodic droughts that continue to plague our region today. Even after the advent of sedentary agriculture in western Iowa about 800 A.D., entire villages occasionally disappeared.

(M-0002) 2017 Effigy Mound U.S. Quarter – In northeastern Iowa (across the river from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin), effigy mound builders occupied settlements from about 300 A.D. until the 17th century. Most of the early Native Americans were of the Siouan language family, although Algonquian-speaking tribes often displaced them in the eastern sections of Iowa via bloody conflicts.
Iowa in 1798. This map indicates several Native Iowan tribes, including Pawnee (Panis/Panibousa), Ioway (Aiaouez/Aioureoua and Paoute/Paoutaoua), Dakota (Sioux), and Omaha (Maha). On the Illinois side of the Great River lived the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki/Mesquakie) tribes.

Over the centuries of the Pre-Historic Period, many different tribes, speaking various different languages inhabited Iowa. Click here for a descriptive overview.

Exploring Native Iowan History in Johnson County, Iowa.

Kiowa – in the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) language, kiowa means “this is the place.” Read more here.

Since Our Iowa Heritage focuses primarily on Iowa City, Johnson County, and other related eastern-Iowa subjects, allow us, now, to limit our conversations to Johnson County.

Johnson County, as you know, is simply a man-made title, designated in 1837, and given to a piece of land that is located in the east-central portion of the state we now call Iowa. Statistically speaking, Johnson County, Iowa is composed of 623 square miles, with 614 of those square miles being land, and 9.1 square miles (1.5%) being water.

Since its inception in 1837, many successful archaeological digs have occurred in Johnson County. In a 2014 interview, Bill Whittaker, a project archaeologist in the Office of the State Archaeologist, suggested that our county is home to over 200 archaeological sites, more than any other area in Iowa. Coralville, for example, is called such, because of its rich deposit of fossilized coral from the Devonian Period, first discovered in the 1860’s. The Edgewater Park Site in Coralville is a 3,800-year-old archaeological site along the Iowa River, and is the oldest site in Iowa with evidence of domesticated plant use.

Archaeological Digs along Sand Road and the Iowa River.

One area of specific archaeological interest for Johnson County historians is the strip of land running alongside the shore of the Iowa River, just south of present-day Iowa City.

A third village (not pictured above), led by Chief Totokonock, was twelve miles south of Iowa City on Sand Road at the mouth of the English River, just west of today’s Lone Tree.

In 1832, there were two Meskwaki tribes living in, what is now Iowa City. Chief Poweshiek and Chief Wapashashiek settled near the Iowa River on familiar summer hunting grounds located near Sand Road (see map above). The largest community, headed by Poweshiek, was about five miles south of today’s Pentacrest. Just north of Poweshiek’s camp was a second village led by Wapashashiek. It’s estimated (when adding in Chief Totokonock’s village to the south), that there were 1,500 Meskwaki people in Johnson County during this time frame.

Sand Road – Johnson County’s oldest trail.

Prior to 1837, when a 40-mile wagon road was cut westward from Bloomington (Muscatine) to Napoleon (Johnson County’s first white settlement), there were two primary “roads” for fur-traders to get in and out of Johnson County. The first, of course, was the Iowa River, which empties into the Mississippi near today’s community of New Boston, IL; and the second was this Native American trail running north/south along the eastern shore of the Iowa River. Today, a good portion of that road near Napoleon Park (see maps below) is called Sand Road – named for the sand and gravel quarry developed here in the 1970’s.

The sand and gravel quarried by S & G Materials (from 1975 to 2005) was deposited here during that last glaciation period we mentioned earlier (14,000 years ago). As the ice sheet that covered the Des Moines Lobe melted, massive floods water carried gravel and sand down the river basin, leaving 20 feet of it in Johnson County, making a base for a floodplain forest which included oak, walnut, and pecan trees. 4,000 years later, at the beginning of the Holocene period, more normalized flooding occurred, depositing an additional 15 feet of finer sediment on top the gravel and sand – known today as the rich black soil of Johnson County, some of the best growing soil on the North American continent.

In recent years, archaeological digs along the Iowa River have uncovered countless treasures ranging from century-old Native American relics (see above) to more modern finds, like coins and pottery shards dating from the early to late 1830’s, when Iowa City was first taking shape.

In Cynthia Peterson’s 1997 archaeological report on the area, Peterson notes “The placement of the Meskwaki villages, and the trading posts, and an Indian trail (which later became Sand Road) that predates 1833, were all factors in the eventual location of the capital of Iowa Territory at present-day Iowa City.”

Our Iowa River – Iowa City – 3/4 Grooved Ground Stone Axe Head.

(M-0118) Native American axes found in Iowa can date as far back as 3,000 to 5,000 BC, and were a primary tool for chopping or pounding. To facilitate hafting, axes were grooved, either completely around the four faces of the tool, or on three of the four faces. These groove patterns thus give rise to the terms “full” and “three-quarter” grooved axes. The 3/4 groove is used to attach the handle which may be T-shaped and attached by wrapping rawhide around the groove and the T-shaped portion of the handle. Another form of hafting is using pliable wood to wrap around the groove to form a handle, and securing the handle with rawhide wrapping.  Ground stone axes are made from a variety of stone materials, including quartzite, basalt, granite, slate, or sandstone. The raw material (e.g., a stone slab or a cobble) is pecked to form the basic shape, ground with a coarse stone block to refine the shape, and sharpened by grinding with a finer stone.

In 2021, we secured an amazing Native American artifact that, according to its previous owner, a reputable Native American artifact dealer in Racine, Wisconsin, was discovered “in a field near the Iowa River in Iowa City.” This dealer secured this 3/4 grooved ground stone axe directly from the “Dubuque Collection” of the museum curator of the Philadelphia Mineralogical Society, Professor Harold W. Arndt (1892-1979), Department of Geology, Bryn Mawr College. Arndt also served as the president (1953-1960) of the Delaware County Institute of Science in Media, Pennsylvania.

Sadly, there is no paperwork remaining with our artifact, just the records of its previous owner, so everything I just said here about this beautiful piece must be spoken using the words… “seemingly” or “supposedly.” I checked with an artifact specialist here at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and he gave me this honest evaluation…

(The axe) looks like a fine specimen of a slanted ¾-grooved axe. Is it ancient? Probably, but there is actually no way to tell other than context, which as you report is absent other than hearsay. How old is it? Also impossible to determine without context. Is it from Iowa? Maybe, but even if in fact from the “Harold Arndt collection (Dubuque)” you are right to use the words “seemingly” and “supposedly.”

He did also say that “fakes” are much more common with arrow heads or smaller stone pieces, since the smaller the item, the easier it is to reproduce. But our axe head is huge, measuring 6.87” x 4.5” x 2.76″, weighing 6 lbs 4 oz, so as the expert says, it’s very likely that this axe is the real deal, dating back many centuries.

Did this axe once belong to the Meskwaki tribes of Johnson County? Was it carved from stone pulled out of the Iowa River? We’ll never know for sure, but for what its worth, I love this reminder of those days so many centuries ago when Native Iowan farmers did their work using amazing tools such as this!

Hats off to our Native Iowan friends. Truly, Iowa’s first farmers on this beautiful land.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa’s Archaeological Timeline, University of Iowa

Geological, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa,1893, pp 2-4

Archaeology Bug Bites City, Ian Murphy, The Daily Iowan, March 28, 2014

Sand Road/Sand Lake/Glacial History, Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, Sarita Zaleha, Iowa City Parks

JH911-0002, Office of the State Archaeologist Photographs

Archaeological site 13JH1448, Johnson County, Iowa, Office of the State Archaeologist Photographs

Ground Stone Artifacts, Series in Ancient Technologies, Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa 

Philadelphia Mineralogical Society, April 1, 1937, American Mineralogist, GeoScienceWorld

Harold W. Arndt (1892-1979), The Mineralogical Record

Harold W. Arndt – Meteorites, Delaware County Daily Times, Chester, PA, June 27, 1964, p 26

3/4 Grooved Axes, Gilcrease Museum

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Click here for a numerical INDEX to all of the U.S. postage stamps, postal cards, and coins in our collection…