Our Iowa Heritage: Three Hundred Years of Iowa Maps.

The Many Maps of Iowa.

Symphony of Iowa – Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1935) created this breath-taking oil painting of an eclectic group of Iowa pioneers looking over this beautiful land we call Iowa. Indeed… Iowa – This is the place. Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing murals.

Until 1838, when Iowa became its own U.S. Territory, the Hawkeye State was always part of another land. When it belonged to the Native Americans, our 35.7 million acres were divided up by tribes. When the French came exploring in 1673 and 1682, claiming this new land for King Louis XIV, Iowa became part of Louisiana (New France). In 1769 to 1801, the French gave most of Louisiana over to Spain (New Spain), with Napoleon recovering it for France (1801-1803) before selling the whole package to the United States for $15 million.

(P-0197) Welcome to Iowa!

Here’s a brief timeline of what happened next for Iowa…

  • 1803. Part of the Louisiana Purchase.
  • 1804. Part of the District of Louisiana, administered by Indiana Territory, governed from St. Louis.
  • 1805. Part of the Territory of Louisiana, with the capital in St. Louis.
  • 1812. Part of the Territory of Missouri, with the capital still in St. Louis.
  • 1821. Missouri attains statehood, so Iowa is left without official jurisdiction (“unorganized”) until 1834.
  • 1833. The Black Hawk Purchase is opened to white settlers.
  • 1834. Part of the Territory of Michigan, with the capital in Detroit.
  • 1836. Part of the Territory of Wisconsin, known as the District of Iowa with two counties: Dubuque and Des Moines. The capital was first located in Belmont, Wisconsin, but moved on a temporary basis to Burlington, Iowa in 1837, while a new capitol building was being built in Madison City, Wisconsin.
  • 1838. Becomes the Territory of Iowa, which Included all of present-day Iowa, Minnesota, and parts of the Dakotas. The capital remained at Burlington, Iowa, but relocated to Iowa City in 1841.
  • 1843. Iowans call for a Territorial Constitutional Convention to begin statehood process.
  • 1844. A Territorial Census is taken in preparation for statehood. Statehood is voted down by Iowans due to boundary issues with Congress.
  • 1846. Iowa attains U.S. statehood with the capital at Iowa City, which was moved to Des Moines in 1857.

This webpage will attempt to give you a look at some of the most important maps the good people of Iowa have used over the years to explore our beautiful land. Let’s start with our Native American friends, who were residents here long before any Europeans came to disrupt their way of life…

Native American Iowa.

Below are two early maps of Iowa (circa 1700’s) identifying the numerous Native American tribes who have lived here over the centuries. The map on the right indicates 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.

Click here to read more about these true Native Iowans.

The French Iowa 1673-1769, the Spanish Iowa 1769-1801, and back to the French Iowa 1801-1803.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet became the first white men to explore the northern waters of the Great River (Mississippi – which means Father of Waters). In 1682, Rene Robert Cavelier and Sieur de La Salle retraced much of Marquette & Jolliet’s footsteps, claiming all this land of the Mississippi River valley, including Iowa, for the King of France. In the early 1700’s, the French attempted to draw up maps of this expansive region called Louisiana (see maps below).

Click here to read more about Marquette & Jolliet’s 1673 Expedition.

1707 map of the New World by Pieter van der Aa – charts out the discoveries made by Marquette and Jolliet in their 1673 adventure. As you explore the map, note that “north” is located to the left, providing a horizontal view of the Mississippi and its tributaries, and covers territories from Lake Michigan and the northern reaches of the Mississippi in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
1718 – Guillaume (William) De L’Isle’s “Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi” is an example of French cartography at its height. It was widely circulated in Europe and remained in print for years, either copied exactly or used as a base map. As a result of its accurate representation of the lower Mississippi and the surrounding areas, De L’isle’s map became a source map for all succeeding maps of the Mississippi River. The map is centered on the Mississippi River and the interior of what would later become the continental United States. It spans the area from the bottom of Lake Superior in the north to the point at which the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico in the south; the map also extends from the Atlantic coast, where numerous European settlements had been made, and westward to the Rocky Mountains.
Here is a close up of De L’Isle’s map featuring parts of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

1803-1805 Iowa and the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark, and Zebulon Pike.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson made the purchase of a lifetime. For $15 million dollars, the United States now owned the Louisiana Purchase. Iowa, of course, belonged to this massive land deal.

Click here to read more about the Louisiana Purchase.

When Lewis & Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Purchase (1804), they had several crude maps to help plot out their journey. The most accurate was the one pictured above: The Upper Mississippi and Missouri produced in 1795 by Antoine Pierre Soulard – created for Spanish officials in St. Louis nearly a decade before Lewis and Clark made their journey.
This close-up shot of Soulard’s 1795 Map shows the Mississippi River (far right) with the Des Moines River flowing into it, followed by two additional tributaries located north of the Des Moines.

Below is Meriwether Lewis’ revised version of Soulard’s map, created at the end of their journey in 1806.

Here is Meriwether’s 1806 map – up close, again showing the Upper Mississippi with more details (probably taken from Zebulon Pike).

Many know about the Lewis & Clark Expedition (from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean), but less know about Zebulon Pike and his similar assignment to explore the northern section of the Louisiana Purchase, traveling up the Mississippi River, looking for its headwaters. One of the most valuable long-term assets of Pike’s 1805-1806 expedition was the mapping of the Great River’s many tributaries. This information (see charts below) was invaluable for those who settled in Iowa over the next thirty years.

Zebulon Pike’s 1805-1806 Expedition.

While Julien Dubuque came to Catfish Creek in 1788, all the other major Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois cities located today on the Mississippi River were first settled based on these maps drawn up by Pike and his team.

Click here to read about Julien Dubuque and his 1788 settlement on the Great River.

Click here to read about Zebulon Pike and his 1805-1806 Expedition up the Mississippi River.

1805-1821 Iowa and the Louisiana/Missouri Territory.

The Eighth Congress of the United States on March 26, 1804, passed legislation entitled “An act erecting Louisiana into two territories, and providing for the temporary government thereof,” which established the Territory of Orleans (present day Louisiana) and the District of Louisiana (everything north of the 33rd parallel) as organized incorporated U.S. territories. On March 3, 1805, Congress passed legislation changing the District of Louisiana into the Louisiana Territory, effective July 4, 1805, with St. Louis as its capital. When Louisiana became a state in 1812, the name was once again changed, this time to Missouri Territory.

Missouri Territory in 1814.

1821-1834 Iowa and the “unorganized” territory.

For thirteen years (1821-1834), Iowa was seen as “unorganized” territory by the U.S. government, but that certainly didn’t mean there wasn’t much activity in the region!

The green section of the map above represents the “un-organized” territory of 1821-1834.

It was during this time, when fur-traders and other brave entrepreneurs made their way into Iowa, developing working relationships with the Sauk and Fox tribes, first along the Mississippi and then, pushing westward on the Great River’s tributaries: the Des Moines, the Skunk, the Iowa, and the Cedar Rivers.

1823 Map of the Upper Mississippi River Valley – The Steamboat Virginia. In 1823, the Virginia made the first steamboat trek on the Upper Mississippi. Here is a map of that journey.

Above is a map of Iowa in 1833 – just prior to the Black Hawk Purchase opening to white settlers.

1833 Iowa and the Black Hawk Purchase.

While Iowa was still “unorganized” territory, the Black Hawk Purchase (following the 1832 Black Hawk War) opened on June 1, 1833, giving white settlers legal access to six million acres of rich new land on the west side of the Mississippi. As a result, many new Iowa communities began to blossom, especially along the banks of the Mississippi.

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.

1834-1836 Iowa, the Michigan Territory, and Lieutenant Albert M. Lea.

For a short time (1834-1836), the “unorganized” territory that included Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas was adopted into the existing Michigan Territory (Michigan and Wisconsin), with Detroit as the capital (see map below).

It was during this time (1835) when a 27-year old Tennessee lieutenant named Albert M. Lea traveled up and down the Des Moines River valley with a Regiment of U.S. Dragoons. Their assignment was to map out this uncharted prairie the Sauk and Fox tribes called kiowa. The expedition was a success, but it wasn’t until Lea published his notes in book form (1836), calling this land The Iowa District, when Americans united around the name “Iowa” when describing this beautiful land west of the Mississippi River.

In the back of his 1836 publication, Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase, Lieutenant Albert M. Lea included a large fold-out map of The Iowa District. This map is invaluable in giving us a look at Iowa as it was unfolding in 1835, two years after the Black Hawk Purchase was opened up to white settlers.

For more info about Lea’s 1835 exploration, click here.

The Black Hawk Purchase on Albert Lea’s 1836 map. As you can see on the map, Iowa District was divided into two counties: Dubuque in the north, Des Moines in the south.

1836-1838 Iowa and the Wisconsin Territory.

“The Entire Territory of Wisconsin. As Established by Act of Congress. April 10, 1836.”

In 1836, in preparation of Michigan becoming a state (1837), the massive territory west of the Wolverine State was renamed Wisconsin Territory, with Belmont, Wisconsin being named as the capital. In 1837, as a new capitol building was under construction in Madison City, the territorial capital was temporarily moved to the growing river community of Burlington, Iowa.

Iowa Territory by Samuel E. Morse and Samuel Breese – published within Morse’s Cerographic Maps.

The Wisconsin Territory was divided into two districts: Wisconsin was one, with the other being called, as Albert Lea wrote about it in his book, “The Iowa District” – a region which also included Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas, covering about 194,000 square miles of land. The population of The Iowa District was 10,564.

1838 – Joseph Nicollet came to America in 1830 after training as an astronomer in Paris. He soon won the confidence of the Corps of Topographical Engineers (precursor of the U.S. Geological Survey) and between 1838 and 1839 he led two expeditions to the region between the Missouri and upper Mississippi Rivers. His surveys produced the superb “Map of the Hydrographie Basin of the Upper Mississippi River,” which served as the primary source for further explorations and was the only good source of Indian names of landscape features of that region up to that time. It was Nicollet who formally approved of Albert M. Lea’s name of “Iowa” for the territory formed in 1838.

Iowa Territory 1838 – 1846.

(S-0006) 1838-1938 – Iowa Territory Centennial. Issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Iowa Territory, this stamp pictures the Old Stone Capitol building in Iowa City.
1838 Iowa
L. Judson – “Iowa – A Sectional Map of the Black Hawk Purchase with a part of Illinois and Wisconsin” – 1838. Judson’s map is the first separately published map of Iowa – showing the eastern part of the territory and the early towns being settled. Judson also issued a smaller scale map of Iowa and Wisconsin in the same year, and several maps of parts of Wisconsin, and towns in Wisconsin and Michigan. He also issued maps of Iowa City and Bloomington (Muscatine) in 1839.

On July 4, 1838, the growing Iowa District of the Wisconsin Territory was finally recognized as a separate territory, giving Iowans a whole new status of citizenship with their own territorial legislature. President Martin Van Buren appointed the former Ohio governor, Robert Lucas to oversee the new territory as its first governor. Lucas arrived by steamboat in Burlington in August of 1838, with one of his first moves being a relocation of the capital to a more centrally-located setting that would better reflect the growing population base of the territory.

Click here to see more Territorial Maps of Iowa from 1838…

1839 Map of Iowa Territory from John Plumbe’s book, “Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin.” One of the earliest works published west of the Mississippi advocating immigration, Plumbe’s book provides us with an early overview of Iowa Territory. In the back of his book, Plumbe included a large fold-out map (see below).

Click here to read more about John Plumbe.

John Pulmbe’s map of the surveyed section of Iowa Territory in 1839.
Illustration by S. Briggs – appeared in June 1963 Palimpsest magazine.
1839 – the surveyed section of Iowa Territory – published by J.H. Colton.
1840 – the surveyed section of Iowa Territory – published by J.H. Colton.
1841 J.B. Newhall’s Map of Iowa – Compiled From the United States Surveys, Exhibiting the boundaries of Counties, Township-lines, Ranges, Prairies and Timber Lands; The location of Cities, Towns, Indian Villages, Post and Steam Boat Routes.
1841 Public Survey – State Historical Society of Iowa.
Iowa Territory map by H.S. Tanner published by Carey & Hart in 1841 within Tanner’s Universal Atlas. As you can see the “surveyed” section of Iowa Territory was very small compared to the entire territory that extended into Minnesota and the Dakotas.
1845 – A new map of Iowa: accompanied with notes by W. Barrows – Cincinnati: Engraved & published by Doolittle & Munson, 1845.
(M-0036) Circa 1845 – Sketch of the Public Surveys of Iowa Territory map. In my office hangs a very rare survey map of Iowa Territory dating back to about 1845. Click here for more information.

In 1844, Iowans finally agreed to pursue statehood, writing a proposed state constitution and presenting it to the U.S. Congress. The application was accepted but only on the condition of boundary lines that would have made the map of Iowa quite different than it is today. Read more about this failed attempt at statehood here.

1846 Iowa Statehood.

(S-0042) 1846-1946 – Iowa Statehood Centennial. Issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Iowa Statehood.

After a dismal failure to achieve statehood in 1844, the people of Iowa Territory requested from the territorial governor, James Clarge, that an updated proposed constitution for statehood be written. A second Iowa Territorial convention gathered in Iowa City in May 1846 and approved this State Constitution on May 18, 1846. The Governor signed it on Sept 9, 1846 and it was then read to the U.S. House by Augustus C. Dodge on Dec 15, 1946, with President James Polk signing it into law on December 28, 1846, making Iowa the 29th state of the Union. Click here for more information about Iowa Statehood.

U.S. Map in 1845 (with Iowa shown as a state – which occurred in 1846).
1846 Map by Samuel Augustus Mitchell – prior to statehood in December.
1850 – Sectional map of the state of Iowa, compiled from the United States surveys also exhibiting the internal improvements, distances between towns & villages, lines of projected rail roads &c. &c.; drawn and published by Guy H. Carleton, Dep. Sur. U.S.
(M-0037) Map No. 2. Sketch of the Public Surveys in Iowa. An original surveyor’s map of Iowa as filed in Dubuque on October 21, 1852 by George B. Sargent, Surveyor General. Click here for more information.

Native Iowans and Our Iowa Heritage.

Between 1832 and 1851 all Native American lands had been “traded” away. But fortunately, that’s not the end of the story! In 1857, a small number of determined Native Iowans from the Sauk & Fox tribes returned to buy back about 6,000 acres, establishing, what is today known as, the Meskwaki Nation in Tama County in East Central Iowa. To our Native Iowan brothers and sisters, thank you for the kiowa (this is the place) heritage we share with you today! We are all richer because you have come back home! Click here to read the full story.

In August 2021, a very rare J.H. Colton map (New York City) of Iowa came up on Ebay. Published in 1854, this fold-out map (14′ x 17″) was contained in a nice leather binding. An expensive map in its day, it went for $360 – which probably is a low price considering its great value. Beautiful!

1855- Map of Iowa exhibiting the townships, cities, villages post offices, railroads, common roads & other improvements by Edward Mendenhall.
A beautiful map of Iowa published in 1857 by Charles DeSilver. Note that Des Moines is now shown as the state capital.

1881 Iowa – Railroads by Iowa Railroad Commissioners.
1902 Map of Iowa by Dodd Mead & Company.
Iowa Prairie Chronicles in Picture – a map of Iowa by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing murals.
1938 – Iowa Highway Road Map – Territorial Centennial Edition.
1951 – Iowa Highway Road Map click here to see more details.

Iowa Today.

We certainly hope you’ve enjoyed this graphic tour of the State of Iowa via maps made over the last 300+ years. In closing, here’s an intriguing pic (below) of Iowa’s current ninety-nine counties overlaid on Guillaume (William) de L’Isle’s 1718 map. Though the Missouri River is off by a few dozen miles (see southwest corner) and the counties are scrunched together just a bit east to west, I’d say not too bad for a map drawn from scratch over 300 years ago!

Iowa – 300 + years of maps.

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

Source for multiple Iowa maps – Old Maps Online

Looking Backward on Hawkeyeland, William J. Peterson, The Morrell Magazine, Dec. 1946

Guillaume Delisle, Wikipedia

1718 – Delisle publishes map of Louisiana, savagesandscoundrels.org

Soulard’s Map of 1795, Meriwether Lewis, Yale University Library

Governing the Frontier, Alice Hoyt Veen, Prairie Roots Research, December 15, 2016

Louisiana Territory, Wikipedia

Missouri Territory, Wikipedia

Michigan Territory, Wikipedia

Wisconsin Territory, Wikipedia

State Shapes – Iowa Caucus Edition, Library of Congress

Misc. Maps of Iowa, John L’s Old Maps

Joseph Nicollet and His Map, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 45 – Number 8 – Spring 1981, p 667

Iowa. A sectional Map of the Black Hawk Purchase with a part of Illinois And Wisconsin, L. Judson, David Ramsey Map Collection, 1838

Iowa and Wisconsin Territory 1844 Map, Morse & Breese, hearthstonelegacy.com

Iowa Territory 1844 Map, H.S. Tanner, hearthstonelegacy.com

Boundaries of Iowa proposed by the Iowa Constitutional Convention of 1844, Minopedia

U.S. Congress’ Proposed Map of Iowa – 1844, Benjamin F. Gue, WikiSource

Illustration of Iowa Territory 1838, J. Briggs, Palimpsest, Volume 44 Number 6, June 1963

Map of the Mississippi River from its source to the mouth of the Missouri, Zebulon Pike, 1811, Library of Congress

A new map of Iowa: accompanied with notes by W. Barrows, 1845, Library of Congress

Sectional map of the state of Iowa, compiled from the United States surveys also exhibiting the internal improvements, distances between towns & villages, lines of projected rail roads &c. &c.; drawn and published by Guy H. Carleton, Dep. Sur. U.S., 1850, Library of Congress

Map of Iowa exhibiting the townships, cities, villages post offices, railroads, common roads & other improvements, Edward Mendenhall, 1855, Library of Congress

Iowa Cessions Map, Wikipedia

Railroads of Iowa, 1881, Library of Congress

1938 Iowa Highway Road Map – Territorial Centennial Edition, 1938, University of Iowa Digital Library

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