Answer: The origin of the “Key City” 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 – a railroad center located halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago to the east and the river towns on the Missouri River to the west.
But before we tell you more about the city of Dubuque, 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).
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.
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 Meskwaki people until his death on March 24,1810.
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 above).
In 1836, in preparation for Michigan statehood, another new territory was formed – Wisconsin Territory, with Belmont, Wisconsin serving as its capital.
When Iowa became a separate territory in 1838, the territorial capitol was moved, 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.
Whew. Did you follow all that? So now, back to Dubuque Mines…
(P-0273) 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 (see below), 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.
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 Mines, 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. When this land Julien Dubuque had worked so hard to develop was opened up for settlement by the United States Government, hundreds flooded into the area.
Above, on this 1835 map drawn by Lt. Albert M. Lea, is the northern region of Iowa District – Dubuque County. Note the city of Dubuque Mines with Catfish Creek – where Julien Dubuque first settled – and the large mining area called Lead Mines – including Galena, Illinois.
On May 11, 1836, John King published Iowa’s very first newspaper – The Du Buque Visitor. Click here to read the full story. 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.
In 1849, artist/entrepreneur Henry Lewis included Dubuque in his Upper Mississippi River Panorama (above left). Click here to read more. And in 1855, in his book, Iowa As It Is, N. Howe Parker gives a description of Dubuque (above right).
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.
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.
Meet Dubuque’s historian – Richard Herrmann – founder of the Herrmann Museum of Natural History in Dubuque and the man who initiated the construction of the Julien Dubuque memorial tower. Read Herrmann’s book – Julien Dubuque – His Life And Adventues.
Circa 1890 to 1910 – 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.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.