The Book That Gave Iowa Its Name.

Did You Know? the audio version.

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.

The Black Hawk Purchase (yellow on the above map) opened up 6 million acres of land from the southern tip (near Ft. Madison) of present-day Iowa to about 70 miles north of Dubuque. The treaty was made by General Winfield Scott and the Governor of Illinois, John Reynolds, at what is now Davenport, Iowa, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. The agreement was ratified February 13, 1833, and officially went into effect on June 1, 1833, when the territory became the first section of what is now Iowa to be opened for settlement by United States citizens or European/Americans. Click here to read more about Iowa and the early maps that helped settlers find their way across this beautiful land.
Historian J.G. Lucas reports on the 1835 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.

A Regiment of Dragoons refers to a company of horse-mounted soldiers, and dates back to the end of the Revolutionary War, when George Washington needed a mounted branch of the military. By 1777, Washington had four fully-trained Dragoon regiments who participated in the most important battles of the war, from Brandywine to Yorktown. After Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 exploration, Regiments of U.S. Dragoons were often assigned to explore the uncharted Louisiana Purchase, make treaties with Native Americans, build and occupy forts for protection, and accompany pioneers as they moved west.

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 1838, Albert Lea was commissioned by President Martin Van Buren to survey the Iowa/Missouri border – a precursor to The Honey War of 1839. Read more here.

Wisconsin or Michigan Territory? Which is it? In 1836, this is the book that Albert Lea produced. But, don’t be confused with the long title that states “Wisconsin Territory.” When Lea and the Dragoon Regiment traveled the Iowa District in 1835, Iowa belonged to Michigan Territory. But in 1836, in preparation for Michigan statehood, the remaining section of the territory was renamed Wisconsin Territory. Read more here.

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.

Historian Benjamin F. Shambugh states it clearly…

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.

Click here for more details about Lea’s little book and view the beautiful map that accompanied it.
Was Albert Lea the first Iowa pioneer to use the Sauk word – IOWA?

DYK-April 10, 2023

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

Albert Miller Lea,

Albert Miller Lea, Ruth Gallaher, Palimpsest Volume 16-Number 3, March 1935, Article 2

The Naming of Iowa, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Palimpsest Volume 16-Number 3, March 1935, Article 3

Iowa in 1835, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Palimpsest Volume 16-Number 3, March 1935, Article 4

The March of the Dragoons, J.G. Lucas, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 27-Number 2, Fall 1945, p 85

An Expedition Across Iowa in 1820, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 10-Number 4, 1912, p 343

Dragoon Trail Historical Site Marker No. 7, Daniel Newcomer, Clio Website, June 7, 2015

On the Trails of the Dragoons, Kristin Buehner, The Mason City Globe-Gazette, June 26, 2010

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Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…