The Naming Of Iowa – Antoine Le Claire Or Albert Lea?

Antoine Le Claire vs. Albert Lea – Will the original Iowa-namer please stand up?

In our first entry of this website, we discuss, in detail, both the origins and the meanings of those Native American words that have been associated with our state’s name – IOWA. We won’t rehash, here, the debate over which tribe gave us the word, nor will we entertain here the claims that our state’s name means “Beautiful Land” or “Sleepy Ones”. In truth, all serious historians today believe the most accurate records point to the use of the word – IOWA – finds its origins in the Sauk word ‘kiowa’ – which literally translates as “This is the place.”

In a letter written to the Iowa historian – T.S. Parvin – in 1860, one of Iowa’s earliest settlers – Antoine Le Claire – confirmed that the Native American definition for IOWA is, indeed, “This is the place”.

Now that we’ve established that IOWA means “This is the place” – the big question remains…

Which early pioneer first took the Sauk word – IOWA – and began applying it to this beautiful land we now call Iowa?

You can read more here, but in 1835, Lieutenant Albert Lea joined with Colonel Steven W. Kearney in an extensive expedition through this new land that had been acquired from the Sauk and Fox tribes – in what was known, at the time, as the Black Hawk Purchase. The following year – 1836 – Lea published an amazing book that included one of the very first detailed maps of the area. He named his book (below left) – Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase – and throughout his writings he referred to this new land west of the Mississippi River as The Iowa District. It’s Lea’s repetitive use of the word – IOWA – in his book that was unique to most of those reading about this new land on the western side of the Big River.

In 1935, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Lea’s expedition, Iowa’s famed historian – Benjamin Shambaugh – and the State Historical Society of Iowa reprinted Albert Lea’s ground-breaking book. It was Shambaugh’s very strong opinion that it was the vast popularity of Lea’s book – released in 1836 – that prompted the citizens of our nation to begin calling this beautiful land – IOWA. As a matter of fact, Shambaugh was so convinced of that fact, he named his 1935 Lea reprint – The Book That Gave Iowa Its Name (above right).

Click here to view the detailed map of Iowa that were included in Lea’s 1836 book.

Now, while Shambaugh, in 1935, was absolutely correct in suggesting that it was the popularity of Albert Lea’s 1836 book that gave the Sauk word – IOWA – wings, it appears that, way back in the 1850’s, a big controversy arose across the Hawkeye State over this very issue of who first utilized the Sauk word – IOWA. Allow me, here, to explain the rhubarb, and in the process, offer you a second option – one that many, back in the day, preferred over and above our explorer-turned-author – Albert Lea…

In the 1850’s, Iowa – now, the 29th state in the Union – was growing like a weed. As we’ve describe elsewhere, one of Iowa’s very first historians – Theodore S. (T.S.) Parvin (below right) – played a very important role in those days serving as Iowa’s first “official” librarian – establishing, from his office in Bloomington/Muscatine, well-documented records of Iowa’s earliest days. Interestingly, hidden away in an obituary for Parvin’s son – Newton R. Parvin – published in the Davenport Daily Times in 1925 (see below left), we find a paragraph at the end of the article that mentions the early Iowa pioneer – Antoine Le Claire – disputing the common belief that Albert Lea was the first white man to popularize the word – IOWA.

As you can see from the above paragraph, it’s apparent that both T.S. Parvin and his son, N.R. Parvin – who was born in 1851 and continued his father’s work well into the early 20th century – believed that the Iowa pioneer – Antoine Le Claire – was using the Sauk word, IOWA, long before Lea ever “thought of” publishing it in his 1836 book. And, as proof of that belief, the Parvin’s – as founders of Iowa’s Masonic Library – had a hand-written letter, drafted by Le Claire on March 10, 1860 – just one year before his death in 1861!

Curious to find that aforementioned letter, I contacted the Grand Lodge of Iowa Masonic Library and Museum in Cedar Rapids, and Assistant Grand Librarian – Julie Wells – was kind enough to send me this copy you see below…

To put our letter in context – it’s apparent that during the 1850’s, as historian T.S. Parvin was attempting to hunt down the earliest origins of the word – IOWA – Lt. Albert Lea – author of the popular 1836 book, and Davenport’s founder – Antoine Le Claire – both known to be rather boastful men – were telling others that they were the first white man to utilize the Sauk word in describing Iowa. It’s our guess that Parvin – being a strict fact-finder – was eager to get to the truth, so on March 9, 1860, Parvin apparently wrote Le Claire, seeking a bit of clarification. As you can see from his response (below), Le Claire failed to show any proof that he was the first to use the word – IOWA, but he did leave us with a very clear fact that IOWA does, indeed, mean “This is the place.” So, here’s the text of Le Claire’s 1860 letter. Note that we have added punctuation, etc. to better clarify its reading.
Davenport – March 10, 1860
Mr. T.S. Parvin – Muscatine, Iowa
Dear Sir. Yours of the 9th inst
(instant/of current month) came to hand. “Iowa” means this – a tribe of Indians (Sauk) were in search of a home – or hunting, in fact, wandering – and when they reach a point they admired, and (it) was all they wished – they say…
“Iowa” “This is the place.”
Where the meaning is derived.  Respectfully. Ant. Le Claire

Before we try to bring some conclusion to our question of who was the first white man to utilize the Sauk word – IOWA – in describing our state, allow me to tell you a bit more about this rather large personality – and man – Antoine Le Claire of Davenport, Iowa.

Without going into the full history, suffice to say that Antoine Le Claire – who homesteaded in – what is today – Scott County (Davenport) in 1833, was personally involved in the day-to-day events that shaped Iowa’s earliest history. Like Julien Dubuque – who is considered Iowa’s first white settler (1785) – Le Claire was a French-Canadian – born in 1797 in present-day St. Joseph, Michigan, then in the Northwest Territory. His father, François Le Claire, came into the Americas with Lafayette, and his mother was the granddaughter of a Pottawatomie chief. So, unlike Dubuque – who carried 100% French DNA, Le Claire was known to others as a half-breed – belonging to a unique group of Americans who were often treated very poorly by both the European White and Native American cultures. Undeterred by the racism, Antoine, as you’ll see in his story, eventually used his diversity to his advantage.

Sometime prior to the War of 1812, Antoine’s father, Francois, opened a trading post in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he worked with several Native American tribes. When the war broke out, François – being French – was captured by the American territorial militia at a trading post in Peoria, Illinois, and despite the fact that he supported the Americans, he was held as a prisoner in Alton, Illinois until the war’s end. Meanwhile, the young 18-year-old Antoine met up with General William Clark, who was impressed with Le Claire’s faculty with languages – speaking English, French, Spanish, and a dozen Native American dialects. Clark sent Antoine off to school for some refinement in his languages and then recruited him to join the U.S. militia, where he was immediately assigned to Fort Armstrong (1818), becoming the interpreter for Col. George Davenport.

A short time later, Antoine moved to Peoria, where he met and married Marguerite Le Page – another half-breed – in 1820. Marguerite was born in 1802, in Portage des Sioux, St. Charles County, Missouri, and was the daughter of a French-Canadian and the granddaughter of the Sauk Tribal Chief – Acoqua. After living in Peoria for a short season, the Le Claires also spent some time in Arkansas where they observed the lifestyles of Native Americans before moving back to Fort Armstrong in 1827.

On September 21, 1832, at the end of the Black Hawk War, Le Claire served as an interpreter at the peace treaty signing, where the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) sold a huge amount of territory west of the Mississippi River to the United States government. Because Antoine & Marguerite were well-respected by the Native Americans, and connected through blood-lines, they were given four parcels of land – two by the Pottawattamie Tribe on the Illinois side of the river where present-day Moline is situated; the third and fourth by the Sauk/Fox Tribes. Both on the west side of the river, the first lay at the head of the Rock Island Rapids (today’s LeClaire, Iowa), and the other was designated specifically for Marguerite by the Sauk Tribal Chief Keokuk. This land was the location of the Meskwaki village and was the place where the 1832 peace treaty was signed. Keokuk stipulated that in order to keep the land, the Le Claires must build a house on this land, so, after the United States Congress approved the peace treaty in 1833, Antoine built a house on the spot (pictured below), known as the Treaty House.

Read the full story of how & where the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi was built.

As Black Hawk Territory opened up to white settlers – June 1833 – Le Claire was named the first Postmaster and the Justice of the Peace for the entire region! His jurisdiction included responsibility for resolving disputes between Native Americans and white settlers, and his hands-off, and more peaceable approach to problems was appealing to both parties. In 1834, Antoine established the area’s first ferry service across the Mississippi River, and eventually became an investor in the development of railroads across Iowa. Read more here.

Honoring one of Davenport’s founding fathers, and the man who donated his home to serve as The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad’s first depot, the M&M’s first steam locomotive – ferried across the Mississippi River in 1854 – was named for Antoine Le Claire. Read more here.

Which, now, brings us back to Antoine Le Claire’s claim that he was the first Iowan to use the Sauk word – IOWA – to define the land that was, at first, simply called The Black Hawk Purchase. As you can probably discern by reading his story, with Antoine serving as a trusted translator for all of the earliest communications with the Sauk, Fox, and Pottawattamie tribes, Le Claire would certainly be in a time and place where using the Sauk word – IOWA – could have occurred at least two or three years before Lea wrote his book in 1835. It’s also interesting that as a translator, Antoine was the one trusted comrade called upon by the Sauk War Chief Black Hawk when he decided to write his memoirs (see below) in 1833. Read more here.

All in all, I’m siding with the Parvin family here. I believe that it’s very likely that Antoine Le Claire – being the trusted translator and true friend of the Sauk and Fox tribes – would certainly be a great candidate to be the first person to use the Sauk word – IOWA – as early as 1832 or 1833. Lea, on the other hand, while not the first to use it, certainly played an important role in taking the name and giving it wings through his writings in 1835/1836. So, as I see it, Le Claire comes in #1, with Lea landing at a close second!

Antoine & Marguerite – it’s you we need to applaud in giving us the name that we all know so well today – All IOWA thanks you!

Antoine Le Claire (December 15, 1797 – September 25, 1861)
Marguerite (LePage) Le Claire (October 16, 1802 – October 18, 1876)

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

Antoine Le Claire, Wikipedia

N.R. Parvin Mourned By Iowa Masons, Davenport-Rock Island-Moline Daily Times, January 17, 1925, p 1, 2

Autographed letter from Antoine LeClaire to Theodore S. Parvin regarding American Natives in Iowa, 1860,

Antoine Leclaire, the First Proprietor of Davenport, Rev. Charles Snyder, The Annals of Iowa Volume 23, Issue 2, Fall 1941, pp 79-117

First settlers of Davenport, Treaty of 1833, History of Iowa, History of Chickasaw and Howard Counties, W.E. Alexander, Western Publishing Company, 1883, p 46-47

Life of Black Hawk – Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Antoine LeClaire,1834, p 5

The Old/Original Antoine LeClaire Homestead/Residence/Treaty House/Railroad Depot, SCblogger, January 25, 2019,

Marguerite LePage Le Claire, Find-A-Grave

Antoine Le Claire, Find-A-Grave

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