Like most Iowa summers, it was hot, humid and sticky. And that humidity can be a killer, especially if you’re from the north. But the sticky weather was no problem for Lieutenant Albert M. Lea, a good ‘ole boy from Tennessee, in his army barracks preparing this day to head out on his next assignment.
Lea was born near Knoxville in 1808, entered West Point at age 19, and graduated fifth in a class of thirty-three in 1831. His specialty was engineering and he had just been assigned by the U.S. Army to the new Fort Des Moines (1834), located near the mouth of the Des Moines River in Iowa District of Michigan Territory, about half-way between St. Louis and the mining town of Dubuque.
Fort Des Moines (#1) was located near the southeast tip of the Iowa District, where the Des Moines River meets the Mississippi. Today, in this same spot, stands the small Lee County community of Montrose. Some historians believe that Lee County was named after Lieutenant Albert Lea, but if it is, the founders misspelled his name!
In 1833, the Black Hawk Purchase opened six million acres of land west of the Mississippi River for settlement by whites. Many pioneers began pouring across the Mississippi River, and by 1835, Lieutenant Colonel Stephan W. Kearny had been assigned to lead three Regiments of U.S. Dragoons to explore the land just west of the Black Hawk Purchase for eventual settlement. Lt. Lea was assigned to be a company commander in this expedition.
Colonel Steven W. Kearney (above left) was in charge of the 1835 Expedition, but it was not Kearney’s first go-round exploring the Iowa District. In 1820, Kearny and Andrew Talcott led a Regiment of Dragoons (“15 soldiers, 4 servants, an Indian Guide, his wife & papoose, with 8 mules and 7 horses”) from Fort Missouri (near Council Bluffs) through Iowa to where Minneapolis/St. Paul is today.
This summer mission of 1835 was to trace the Des Moines River as it then existed, starting and ending at Fort Des Moines, then located near present-day Montrose, Iowa. Three companies of Dragoons moved northwest, traveling on land between the Des Moines and Skunk Rivers until reaching present-day Stratford in Webster County. From there, the trip continued north and east to Lake Pepin, WI (on the upper Mississippi River), back to Deer Creek and Lizard River (near Ft. Dodge) before arriving back at Fort Des Moines on August 19th.
All along this nearly two-and-a-half month journey, Lt. Albert M. Lea (for whom the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota was later named) was there, chronicling the adventure, noting pertinent information about the flora and fauna, and offering a few entertaining stories as well. According to his notes, the soldiers often feasted on wild strawberries, buffalo, deer, turkey, grouse, ducks and prairie chickens. But, Lea also reported that one night he killed four rattlesnakes who were attempting to share his tent!
Lea often wrote of the beautiful land he was experiencing first hand. “The general appearance of the country is one of great beauty,” Lea wrote, “it may be represented as one grand rolling prairie.” A native of Tennessee, Lea described the “transparent” waters of the creeks and rivers, noting that they are “skirted by woods,” (yet) “three-fourths of the Iowa District (is) treeless.” “Taking this District all in all,” Lea penned, “for convenience of navigation, water, fuel and timber; for richness of soil; for beauty of appearance; and for pleasantness of climate, it surpasses any portion of the United States with which I am acquainted.”
Albert Lea was so impressed with the Iowa District, when the team returned to Ft. Des Moines, he decided take a temporary leave from his duties. Historian Ruth Gallaher tells about this part of Lea’s story…
In an earlier post, we gave you the Native American stories that surround our state’s name – IOWA. And it’s true, when the earliest European/American settlers started coming into this “Beautiful Land,” the words, “kiowa” (this is the place) and “Ioway” (the tribe) were being used. But, it wasn’t until 1836, when Albert Lea started circulating his little book with the long title, when folks back east started to identify this “prairie land” in Wisconsin Territory by using the name – Iowa District – Lea had used throughout his writings.
And, as they say on Madison Avenue – a little advertising can go long way in selling your product! For the proud citizens of the Hawkeye State, in 1836, Albert Lea of Knoxville, Tennessee became our biggest voice.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
The Book That Gave Iowa Its Name, editor Benjamin F. Shambaugh, 1935 reprint of Albert Lea’s 1836 book “Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase,” State Historical Society of Iowa