Coralville – Taming The Iowa River.

As we write this post, the City of Coralville, Iowa – located just north & west of Iowa City – is celebrating its Sesquicentennial – 1873-2023 – 150 years since being incorporated as a community in Johnson County.

As you might imagine, the name – Coralville – was given to this city, in 1866, because of its massive collection of fossilized coral that was discovered in the limestone underneath the mills that had been built along the Iowa River. More on that story later, but for now, if you really want to know about Coralville, we need to go back a few more years than 150. Actually, let’s travel back 3,800 years to…

Where Coralville’s Iowa River Landing is located today, archaeologists have discovered, what is called the Edgewater Park Site – the oldest archaeological dig in Iowa with evidence of domesticated plant use. This means that the fossilized plant remains that have been recovered from this site indicate that the Late Archaic people – hunters and gatherers who camped here – were in the early stages of adapting domesticated plants for food purposes. In other words, these Native Iowans – camping in Coralville – were Iowa’s earliest pre-farmers, learning the elementary lessons of how it might be possible to garden along the Iowa River – at least 3,600 years before John Gilbert and the first Johnson County pioneers arrived on the scene! That, my friends, is a lot of Coralville history!

The Edgewater Park Site is a 3,800-year-old Late Archaic Culture campsite situated along the Iowa River in Coralville – near today’s Iowa River Landing. Excavations here have revealed a small encampment of two hearths and areas for faunal and stone tool production. Lithic analysis reveals that the site occupants probably traveled along the Iowa River from the north center of the state and were engaged in late-stage tool manufacture and maintenance. Floral analysis indicates the site occupation occurred during the warm half of the year and that the occupants utilized a plant called ‘little barley’ – a non-local plant which was later cultivated, and ‘barnyard grass’ – a local plant that was also later cultivated. This site is interpreted as a short-term, late warm-season occupation of people migrating down the Iowa River, possibly towards winter encampments in what is now the southeast part of the state. Pictured above are a copper knife, spearpoints, awls, and spud, from the Late Archaic period, found in Wisconsin, 3000–1000 BC. Read more about ancient Iowa here.

So now, let’s fast forward about 2,000 years to…

Nearly one thousand years ago, a people more heavily dependent on agriculture began to emerge – taking what they had learned about plants from previous generations and practicing those farming concepts here in Iowa. These native tribes included such groups as the Glenwood and Mill Creek Cultures in western Iowa and the Oneota Culture in eastern Iowa. And most historians, today, believe that the Oneota people were the direct ancestors of the Ioway (Báxoje) Tribe – who successfully cultivated the land here in Johnson County well into the 1700’s.

A Native American map of Iowa from the 1700’s includes Pawnee, Ioway, Dakota and Omaha.

Elders in the Ioway (Báxoje) Tribe have said that before white people came, no other nation could put a moccasin inside the land between the Missouri River and Mississippi River without the Ioway knowing about it. See-Non-Ty-A (below left) was an Iowa Medicine Man, and Watchemonne (below right) was an Ioway Chief in 1837. Read more about the Ioway Tribe here.

We’ve discussed elsewhere the rich Iowa heritage of the Meskwaki (Sauk & Fox) Tribes, but we can’t discuss the history of Coralville without mentioning these brave men and women led by Chief Poweshiek (above). As we mentioned earlier, at the time of the American Revolution, the Mississippi River Valley (see map below) was lush prairie-land occupied by several Native American tribes: the Meskwaki (Fox), the Sauk, the Sioux, and the Ioway. All of these tribes, at one time, used the Great River and its many tributaries for transportation and other life-giving resources. By the 1820’s, the Ioway Tribe had moved further westward in Iowa, while the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) people began moving from their camps in Illinois, settling across eastern Iowa. Poweshiek was one of three tribal leaders who regularly brought his people to the shores of the Iowa River – in today’s Johnson County – where they would hunt and fish throughout much of the summer months.

This is a map created by artist George Catlin (1835) and it represents the land of Iowa and the tribes living here around 1833, after The Black Hawk Treaty.

In 1833, the Black Hawk Purchase (yellow on map below) opened up 6 million acres of land located directly west of the Great River. In the process, Poweshiek and his people were pushed permanently westward into what would become (in 1837) Johnson County.

The large bends in the Iowa River made for strategic spots where the Meskwaki would build dams (see below) – using them as a fruitful place for fishing. It was during this short season (1832-1839) when pioneers from the East begin trickling into the area, and for the most part, built peaceful relationships with Chief Poweshiek and his Meskwaki tribe.

As settlers from back East began pouring into Johnson County – now the governmental center of the new Iowa Territory – the Iowa River became the focal point for the entire community. In the early 1840’s, not only did the river provide the only reliable form of transportation – accessible roads weren’t readily available until the mid-1840’s – but the river was also the only way of producing power for farm-related machinery. So, just as the Native Iowans built fishing dams made of stones near the large bends in the Iowa River, so the early Johnson County pioneers built wooden dams, using the rapids to power grist mills – sifting & grinding the rich harvests of corn and other crops being grown on the fertile Iowa soil.

– Mill #1 – 1841 – David & Joshua Switzer on Clear Creek.
– Mill #2 – 1843 – Walter Terrell on the Iowa River – East Bend.
– Mill #3 – 1844 – Iowa City Manufacturing Co. on the Iowa River – West Bend.

Here in Johnson County, there were three major dams and grist mills built between 1841 and 1844. The first was built in 1841 on Clear Creek, close to where it empties into the Iowa River in today’s Coralville. The second was actually approved in 1840, but was not finished until Walter Terrell built his dam and mill on the Iowa River in 1843 – located just north of Iowa City – what is today, directly in front of the Mayflower Apartments. Read more here. Below you’ll find the historical records surrounding these earliest Johnson County dams & mills – as gathered by local historians in 1883…

Read more about Walter Terrell and the first dam & grist mill on the Iowa River.

In 1843, approval was given to Iowa City’s founding father – Chauncey Swan – and a group of investors calling themselves The Iowa City Manufacturing Company to build a second dam and mill on one of the large bends of the Iowa River – this time about two and one-half miles northwest of Iowa City. Interestingly, the location for this new dam was chosen because it was further north of Iowa City than Terrell’s mill – meaning it would not impede with any steamboats coming up the Iowa River from the Mississippi. At the time, it was hoped that steamboats would become a primary means of transportation in eastern Iowa. Read more here.

Completed in January 1844, this new dam and grist mill – the largest in Iowa Territory – soon became the birth place of today’s Coralville. So, there’s a review of the first 3,800 years of Coralville history, now let’s take a peek at its more recent history over the last 200 years… Click here!

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

Iowa’s Archaeological Timeline, University of Iowa

Archaic period (North America), Wikipedia

The People, The Place: Native Americans in Iowa, University of Iowa Libraries

Edgewater Park Site, Wikipedia

Buried history: Local authors work to protect past, Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 27, 2015

Coralville history, various authors, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 310-311, 592, 728-731

Mills and Livestock, Clarence R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, 1912, pp 412-423

Coralville, Iowa, Wikipedia

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