Our Iowa Heritage: Dubuque & The West 1788-1838.


Q: Do you know why Dubuque is nicknamed The Key City?

A: The origin of the nickname was credited to an 1854 issue of the Miners’ Express, where it was used in a fifty-page advertisement to boast of the city’s advantages over other Iowa communities. The basis of the name was said to reflect Dubuque’s geographic location halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago and the river towns along the Missouri River. It was also used to indicate that Dubuque had more railroads (at the time) than other Iowa cities.


June 1, 1833 – The Locked Door Opens & Dubuque Is The Key.

On June 1, 1833, a large strip of land running alongside the western shores of the Mississippi River (see map above) opened up for homesteading. It was called the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832, and Dubuque, the first European community that formed here, was located about 55 miles south of the spot where Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet, in 1673, paddled their canoes from the Wisconsin River into what the Algonquian tribes called, the Father of Waters.


Pre-1788: The Meskwaki Tribe.

Before we tell you more about Dubuque in 1833, allow us to take you a bit further back in The Key City’s history. As we discussed in earlier posts, the first true settlers on this beautiful land we call Iowa were not European. Indeed, it’s very likely that when Marquette and Joliet first visited these eastern shores of Iowa in 1673, they met the Meskwaki Tribe: Fox people who located their village at the mouth of Catfish Creek, just south of where the Julien Dubuque Monument now stands. From this site, the Meskwaki tribe successfully traded both fur and lead with French voyagers from long before our American Revolutionary War (1776).

(P-0220) Julien Dubuque and Potasa, the Meskwaki Princess.

1788 – 1810: Julien Dubuque & The Lead Mines of Spain.

In 1788, one of those French-Canadian fur traders, named Julien Dubuque, decided to make Catfish Creek his new home. When he first arrived, the Meskwaki leaders, knowing the importance of lead to Europeans (for making bullets, etc.), kept the location of this treasure a secret. But Julien was a one determined man, and slowly, as he developed a working relationship with the Meskwakis, Dubuque won their trust. Eventually, this clever businessman was invited in on the region’s lead deposits, and working hand-in-hand with the tribe, they together, mined the lead successfully, making Julien into one wealthy, and thus, one very influential man up and down the Big River.

Lead was discovered in present-day Iowa in 1781.

In 1796, Dubuque secured a land grant from the Governor of Spain, who resided in New Orleans at the time. This grant gave Dubuque permission to work exclusively, on behalf of Spain, (who claimed the Louisiana Territory in 1769 before trading it to France in 1801) a 189-square mile area he named “The Mines of Spain.” All the while, Julien, a French-Canadian, remained friends with the Meskwakis until his death on March 24,1810. When Dubuque died, his friends buried him with tribal honors beneath a log mausoleum at the site where the current Dubuque monument now stands. Soon after Julien’s death, this bountiful area became known to all as Dubuque Mines.


Above, on this 1835 map drawn by Lt. Albert Lea, is the northern region of Iowa District (Dubuque County). Note the city of Dubuque (1833) with Catfish Creek (where Julien Dubuque first settled), and the large mining area called Lead Mines (including Galena, IL).

Click here to read more about Iowa and the early maps that helped settlers find their way across this beautiful land.

1810: Territorial Change Is-A-Comin’ for Iowa.

On the day Julien Dubuque died in 1810, the land where he is buried was part of the vast northern district of the Louisiana Territory (with St. Louis as the capital city), purchased from France by President Jefferson in 1803. But over the next two decades, the land we now call Iowa bounced around like a young dog without a home.

In 1812, Louisiana (or the Orleans district of Jefferson’s 1803 land purchase) became a state. So, to avoid confusion, the northern portion of the territory, with Iowa included, was now renamed Missouri Territory. But in 1821, when Missouri was admitted into statehood, that left the remainder of the territory officially “un-organized” – a political orphan until 1834, when the portion of region that laid east of the Missouri River was combined into an enlarged Michigan Territory which included today’s Michigan and Wisconsin (see map below).


In 1836, in preparation for Michigan statehood, another new territory was formed – Wisconsin Territory, with Belmont, WI serving as its capital until Burlington, Iowa took over in 1837, remaining the capital city of Wisconsin Territory until Iowa became its own separate territory in 1838.

Whew. Did you follow all that? So now, back to Dubuque.

Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).

1833 – Dubuque Mines in officially “un-organized” territory. 


When the land Julien Dubuque had worked so hard to develop was opened up for settlement by the United States Government in 1833, hundreds flooded into the area. By 1837, the City of Dubuque was officially chartered, permanently cementing the name into American history as one of the oldest white settlements west of the Mississippi River.


Today, the Julien Dubuque Monument, built in 1897, sits high above the Mississippi River and provides the landmark for the old Mines of Spain. It provides a scenic vista of the 1380-acre Mines of Spain park, the city of Dubuque, the Mississippi River Valley, and Illinois.

1836 – The Du Buque Visitor – Iowa’s First Newspaper.

On May 11, 1836, John King published Iowa’s very first newspaper – The Du Buque Visitor. Click here to read the full story.

1933 – Celebrating Dubuque’s Rich Heritage.


The Oldest Log Cabin still standing in Iowa.  In 1827, another French-speaking, Canadian-born fur trader named Louis Arriandeaux built a large log cabin in Dubuque Mines, at what is now the corner of Second and Locust Streets. In 1834, as settlers were flooding into the area, Arriandeaux decided to make a quick profit, selling his house to William Newman for about seventy dollars in goods (i.e. a horse, a saddle and tack) and, as far as anyone knows, rode off into the western sunset. Believed to be the oldest structure in Iowa, the Newman cabin was the scene of the first Catholic Mass celebrated in Dubuque.


(C-0016) In 1933, as part of Dubuque’s Centennial Celebration (see above postal cover), the Newman Cabin was moved to Eagle Point Park, and in 1967, it was moved once again to the grounds of the Mathias Ham House, where it has been skillfully restored and authentically furnished. The marker at the present site reads:

Oldest log cabin in Dubuque County. About 1827. Occupied by the pioneer settler William Newman. 1834.


One quick sidelight: the Mathias Ham House is a beautiful 19th-century home that is on the National Register of Historic Places.The house was designed by John F. Rague and built for local businessman and lead miner Mathias Ham in 1857. Rague also designed the original state capitol building at Springfield, Illinois and the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City, Iowa. Click here to read more about Dubuque’s most renowned architect.

1828IowaTerritoryMap 3

Iowa Territory in 1838. Prior to 1838 when Iowa was still a part of the massive Wisconsin Territory, Dubuque, being centrally located, became a “Key City,” sitting smack-dab in the middle of the most populated part of the territory. When Iowa became a separate territory in 1838, the territorial capitol was moved from nearby Belmont, Wisconsin, first to Burlington, and then to Iowa City. All the while, Dubuque, over the next century, became an important city (The Key City) for commerce and transportation for people in three states: Iowa, Wisconsin, and nearby Illinois.


(C-0017) Circa late 1840’s – One of the oldest postal covers in our collection, and, of course, it’s postmarked in Iowa’s oldest city – Dubuque. This letter was hand stamped in Dubuque, IA on September 27, and was charged 5 cents in postage. Being Iowa’s oldest city also meant that Dubuque hosted Iowa’s first post office as well (1833).

Read more about “stamp-less” mail and how postage rates were determined.


(C-0214) This postal cover is postmarked in Dubuque on January 5, 1872 and addressed to James N. Stark, Esq. in Kingston Centre, Ohio (Delaware County). The sender is C. S. Stark, a relative, who is writing back home to the large Clark family there. James, obviously a very organized man, noted on the envelope that he received the letter on January 9 and answered it on January 12, 1872. Records show that James was the first postmaster in Olive Green, Ohio, appointed in 1860. While we don’t know much about C.S. Stark in Dubuque, we do know that James N. Stark was born January 26, 1823 in Delaware County, married (1845) Charlotte S. Harrison (1819-1902) and had seven children. James died May 6, 1899 in Mansfield, Ohio and both Charlotte and James are buried there.

(C-0262) Here’s yet another postal cover (circa 1872), more than likely written by C.S. Stark (see above) while he was in Dubuque. This letter is addressed to another family member, G.L.W. Stark, who is living in Evanston, Illinois.

(C-0238) Here’s a turn-of-the-century postal cover postmarked in Dubuque on January 24, 1901 and headed for Wesel, Germany but apparently was re-directed to Speyer, Germany – 180 miles south of Wesel. Speyer is on the Rhine River in Rhineland-Palatinate, very close to the area where George F. Boller lived before coming to America in 1816.

(C-0018) This cover is very rare indeed. While Des Moines was picked as the First Day of Issue City for the Iowa Territorial Centennial Stamp issued on August 24, 1938, Dubuque really had more significance in Iowa Territorial history. Fortunately, a wise and historically-aware stamp collector got this cover postmarked in Dubuque on that same day!


Circa 1890 to 1910 – Dubuque – The Key City. Here’s a couple of nice postal covers from Dubuque featuring beautiful etched cachets of: 1) The Dubuque Times  2) The Julien House on the back side of the envelope. The third pic is a penny-postcard featuring the remodeled Julien Dubuque Hotel. In 1839, travelers’ first sight as they crossed the Mississippi River into Dubuque was the Waples House on the corner of 2nd and Main. In 1854, the hotel was enlarged, remodeled, and renamed the Julien House, after the city’s namesake Julien Dubuque. This reconstruction doubled the hotel’s capacity. In 1889, the old section of the hotel was remodeled in order to complement the new addition. Shortly before the turn of the century, the City of Dubuque rivaled Chicago in size and was fast becoming an important center for trade and commerce. The Julien was the focal point of this bustling economy, hosting famous guests such as Abraham Lincoln, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Mark Twain. In 1913, the hotel was ravaged by a fire, which left little in its wake. Construction of the current Hotel Julien began at once and by 1915, was open once again for business.

(P-0006) This colorful postcard from the turn of the century features “Campers” standing on the shore of the Mississippi. To this day, Dubuque, Iowa’s oldest city, remains a scenic place!
1910Dubuquescene 2 2

Click here to read more about William J. Petersen, Iowa’s own Mr. History, nicknamed Steamboat Bill, from Dubuque.


(C-0170) In 1996, Dubuque was named the First-Day-of-Issue city for the new Iowa Statehood Sesquicentennial stamp, finally getting the recognition Iowa’s Key City deserves.


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

Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens: Part II The Indians Chapter 1, IowaGenWeb

Iowa As It Is – A Gazetteer for Citizens and Handbook for Immigrants, N. Howe Parker, 1855

The Mines of Spain website.

James N. Stark, Find-A-Grave

James N. Stark, WikiTree.com

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