Iowa: The Discovery 1673-1803.

Did You Know? the audio version

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet embarked in two canoes on an expedition to explore the Mississippi River. Marquette was especially useful during the voyage, as he knew several First Nation languages, thus he was able to gather valuable information from local tribes as they made their way through the wilderness. BTW: the word Mississippi comes from the Algonquian language and means Father of Waters

Once they reached the Big Daddy – June 17, 1673 – these two explorers traveled south all the way to the mouth of the Arkansas River (see map below). On that trip, Marquette and Joliet became two of the first Europeans to ever set foot on the eastern shores of the beautiful land we now call Iowa.


In the early 1700’s, the French attempted to draw up maps of this expansive region they called Louisiana.

Here’s a 1707 map of the New World by Pieter van der Aa, charting out the discoveries made by Marquette and Jolliet in their 1673 adventure. As you explore the map, note that “north” is located to the left, providing a horizontal view of the Mississippi and its tributaries, and covers territories from Lake Michigan and the northern reaches of the Mississippi in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
Guillaume (William) De L’Isle’s “Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi” is an example of French cartography at its height. It was widely circulated in Europe and remained in print for years, either copied exactly or used as a base map. As a result of its accurate representation of the lower Mississippi and the surrounding areas, De L’isle’s map became a source map for all succeeding maps of the Mississippi River. The map is centered on the Mississippi River and the interior of what would later become the continental United States. It spans the area from the bottom of Lake Superior in the north to the point at which the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico in the south; the map also extends from the Atlantic coast, where numerous European settlements had been made, and westward to the Rocky Mountains.
Click here to read more about how these early French maps led the way to more mapping of Iowa.
Here is a close up of De L’Isle’s map featuring parts of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.
In 1849, artist/entrepreneur Henry Lewis developed his Mississippi River Panorama. Click here to read more about this fascinating story.

(M-0003) Omaha, Nebraska: Iowa Day – September 21, 1898. This rare souvenir pin pictures the Iowa State Building on the Exposition fairgrounds. 

The 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held to further the progress and development of natural resources west of the Mississippi River. Held in Omaha, Nebraska, the exposition opened on June 1, 1898, and ran for five months. More than 4,000 exhibits showcased social, economic, and industrial resources of the American West. The expo wasn’t a financial success overall, but it did revitalize Omaha, a community that had been devastated by drought and depression. Over 2.6 million people attended the expo, which featured the Indian Congress, the largest Native American gathering of its kind. Over 500 members representing 28 tribes camped on the fairgrounds and introduced Americans from the East to their way of life. Reenactments of the explosion of the battleship Maine also fueled patriotism and support for the Spanish-American War.

As we discussed in our earlier post, the first “Iowa-themed” stamps in Our Iowa Heritage collection date back to 1898. In the last chapter we looked at the 4-cent Native American stamp in the nine-set commemorative collection issued in conjunction with the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha. Here, let’s look at the 1-cent, the 2-cent, and the $2 stamps from that same series: honoring Father Jacques Marquette, Louis Jolliet and The Father of Waters.

(S-0010) (S-0077) Father Marquette is featured on this 1-cent commemorative issued in 1898, and again in 1998.

(S-0011) (S-0077) Farming in the West is featured on the 2-center in 1898, and on the $2 reprint in 1998.

(S-0077) A Mississippi River Bridge is featured on the very rare $2 stamp in 1898, and on the 2-center reprint in 1998.

(C-0008) This U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1968 to, once again, honor the French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette who, with Louis Jolliet, explored the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
(C-0009) Issued in 1966 to publicize the 5,600-mile Great River Road, this U.S. commemorative postage stamp celebrates the then largely single-lane highway following the Mississippi River from New Orleans, through the nation’s heartland (Iowa) to Ontario, Canada. This is much of the same land first explored by Marquette and Jolliet in 1673. Today, the development of this same Great River Road in Iowa is now called The Avenue of the Saints, running from St. Paul, MN, through Iowa, to St. Louis, MO. Click here to read more about this famous roadway and how it came about.
(C-0010) The Mississippi-Missouri River System is the longest in the US, stretching more than 3,700 miles. America’s great Westward Expansion relied heavily upon the Mississippi-Missouri river system. The Wonders of America stamp series features forty American natural and man-made superlatives – the tallest, the loudest, the oldest, the longest, the deepest, the largest, the windiest, the hottest, the fastest – to create a colorful set of stamps.

(L-0118) In 2022, the USPS issued a set of 10 stamps commemorating The Mighty Mississippi. Here’s the sheet that features the ten states that border the Father of Waters – Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and of course, Iowa! The Iowa stamp – as seen on the FDC – appropriately features a Mississippi River steamboat!

Click here to read more about Iowa and the early maps that helped settlers find their way across this beautiful land.

As noted earlier with Father Marquette and explorer Louis Jolliet, much of the early exploration of the “West” was done by the French. In 1682, Rene Robert Cavelier and Sieur de La Salle retraced much of Marquette & Jolliet’s footsteps, claiming all this land of the Mississippi River valley, including Iowa, for the King of France. That explains the French names given to so many cities around the upper Midwest. Cities such as Des Moines, IA, Des Plaines, IL,  Joliet, IL,  Marquette, WI, and Dubuque, IA are just a sampling of these French names.

But in 1803, the fledgling nation in the east called the United States of America decided to enter into this westward exploration. President Thomas Jefferson made a huge land purchase, paying France $15 million dollars for 530,000,000 acres of uncharted land just west of the Mississippi River. This land was called the Louisiana Territory and included what is today, the State of Iowa. Click here to read more…

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

Looking Backward on Hawkeyeland, William J. Peterson, The Morrell Magazine, Dec. 1946

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