Iowa History

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Millions of acres of land sold by the Burlington & Missouri River Rail Road Company in 1872
United States > Iowa > Iowa History

Local history books for Iowa’s counties, cities, and towns contain biographical and historical information. Some have information on families back to the 1600s. The information about individuals may include age, birth date, birthplace, county origins and boundaries, death information, divorce, ethnicity, historical background, immigration date, names of living relatives, wife’s maiden name, marriage information, naturalization information, occupation, parents’ names, childrens’ names, names of other family members, place of previous residence, religion, and information about social activities.


The following important events in the history of Iowa affected political jurisdictions, record-keeping, and family movements.

  • 1673:  French explorers, Jolliet and Marquette, were in the region of Iowa.
  • 1762:  The land was ceded to Spain.
  • 1788:  The first white settlement (for lead mining) was established in Iowa, but it was abandoned in 1810.
  • 1800:  The land was returned to France.
  • 1803:  The United States acquired the area from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
  • 1803–32:  The Iowa area remained Indian land and was not open to legal settlement.
  • 1808:  Fort Madison was built by the United States Army. Iowa’s area was included in the Illinois Territory in 1808 and in the Missouri Territory in 1812 through 1821. It was not under any territorial government from 1821 to 1834.
  • 1830:  Potawatomi Indians ceded land
  • 1831:  Sauk and Fox Indian tribes moved to Iowa from Illinois.
  • 1832:  The Black Hawk War took place.
  • 1833:  The first permanent white settlements were made in eastern Iowa. Between 1833 and 1851 a series of treaties extinguished Indian claims to the land.
  • 1834:  Congress attached the area to the Michigan Territory.
  • 1834:  Half Breed Tract
  • 1836:  Iowa was transferred to the Wisconsin Territory.
    The Ioway Indians 1844
  • 1836: Keokuk Indian Reserve
  • 1838: (June 12,) The Iowa Territory was established. It included all of present-day Iowa, Minnesota, and parts of North and South Dakota.
  • 1846: Potawatomi Indians ceded land
  • 1846: (December 28,) Iowa, with its present boundaries, became a state.
  • 1850–60:  The population of Iowa nearly tripled as immigrants poured in from the older midwestern states and Europe.
  • 1857:  (March) Spirit Lake Massacre, Dickinson County, Iowa
  • 1851: (July 28,) Indians turned over all their land in Iowa and most of their territory in Minnesota.
  • 1861–65:  Over 75,000 Iowans served in the Union armed forces during the War.
  • 1867:  The first railroad was built from the Mississippi River to Council Bluffs.
  • 1873:  Iowa, known as the Hawkeye State and the Corn Capital of the World
  • 1893–1930s:  State experienced financial depressions.

Historical Content

Histories are great sources of genealogical information. Many contain biographical information about individuals who lived in the area, including:

  • Parents' names
  • Maiden names of women
  • Place of birth, death, or marriage
  • Occupation
  • Migration
  • Military service
  • Descendants

Local Histories

Some of the most valuable sources for family history research are local histories. Published histories of towns, counties, and states usually contain accounts of families. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. You can also find lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials. Even if your ancestor is not listed, information on other relatives may be included that will provide important clues for locating your ancestor. A local history may also suggest other records to search. Local histories are extensively collected by the Family History Library, public and university libraries, and state and local historical societies. A bibliography of Iowa county histories is at the beginning of the following book:

  • Biographical Index to the County Histories of Iowa [1]
  • A Bibliography of American County Histories [2] [3]
  • United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress [4] [5]
  • History of Western Iowa, Its Settlement and Growth, [6] full text available on Google Books

State Histories Useful to Genealogists

Good genealogists strive to understand the life and times of their ancestors. In this sense, any history is useful. But certain kinds of state, county, and local histories, especially older histories published between 1845 and 1945, often include biographical sketches of prominent individuals. The sketches usually tend toward the lauditory, but may include some genealogical details. If these histories are indexed or alphabetical, check for an ancestor's name. Some examples for the State of

  • History of Iowa from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century [7]

An important bibliography that mentions books and articles about every major aspect of Iowa’s history is:

  • Iowa History Reference Guide [8]

There is an unusual set of records dealing with Iowa’s history from 1827 to 1857:

  • Territorial Papers of Iowa, 1838–1852 [9] Many aspects of Iowa’s state, local, and family histories are treated in these records. For example: military pension applications, military academy cadet applications, court records (1827-1845), land office records, Virginia warrant scrip, muster rolls giving enlistment town or city (1837-1857), military post records listing sick, wounded, and dead, Bureau of Indian Affairs records, Indian treaties, commissions for judges, marshals, attorneys, surveyors, and postmasters.
  • Iowa history and culture : a bibliography of materials published between 1952 and 1986 [10]
  • Iowa History Reference Guide [11]

You may wish to consult the following sources for more information about Iowa:

  • Ancestry’s Red Book [12] Contains bibliographies and background information on history and ethnic groups. Also contains maps and tables showing when each county was created.
  • Iowa History Reference Guide [13] This bibliography includes sections about American Indians, immigration, land, government, courts, military, schools, churches, businesses, history, and biographies. It is arranged by subject and has an index.
  • Iowa History and Culture: A Bibliography of Materials Published Between 1952 and 1986 [14] This book supplements the book mentioned above. For a supplement covering 1987–1991, see the Annals of Iowa (1993).

United States History

The following are only a few of the many sources that are available:

  • The Almanac of American History, [15] [16] This provides brief historical essays and chronological descriptions of thousands of key events in United States history.
  • Dictionary of American History, Revised ed [17] [18] This includes historical sketches on various topics in U.S. history, such as wars, people, laws, and organizations. A snippet view is available at Google books.
  • Webster's Guide to American History: A Chronological, Geographical, and Biographical Survey and Compendium [19] [20] [21] This includes a history, some maps, tables, and other historical information.

To find more books and articles about Iowa 's history use the Internet Google search for phases like "Iowa history." Family History Library Catalog Surname Search lists many more histories under topics like:




  1. Morford, Charles. Biographical Index to the County Histories of Iowa. Baltimore, Maryland: Gateway Press, 1979. (Family History Library book 977.7 D32m)
  2. Filby, P. William. A Bibliography of American County Histories. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1985. (FHL book 973 H23bi)
  3. Worldcat
  4. Kaminkow, Marion J. United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress. 5 vols. Baltimore: Magna Charta Book, 1975-76. (FHL book 973 A3ka.)
  5. Worldcat
  6. Western Publishing Company; History of Western Iowa, Its Settlement and Growth Published by Western Publishing Company, 1882, Original from the New York Public Library, Digitized Jan 24, 2008, 568 pages
  7. Gue, Benjamin F. History of Iowa from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. 4 vols. New York, NY: Century History Co., 1903. (Family History Library book 977.7 H2g; film 1036164 items 1–4)
  8. Petersen, William John. Iowa History Reference Guide. Iowa City, Iowa : State Historical Society of Iowa, c1952
  9. United States. Department of State. Territorial Papers of Iowa, 1838–1852. Washington, DC: The National Archives, 1988. (Family History Library films 1601629–730)
  10. Compiled by Patricia Dawson and David Hudson. Iowa history and culture : a bibliography of materials published between 1952 and 1986 Ames, Iowa : State Hist. Soc. of Iowa, c1989
  11. Petersen, William John. Iowa History Reference Guide. Iowa City, Iowa : State Historical Society of Iowa, c1952
  12. Eichholz, Alice, ed. Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1992. FHL book 973 D27rb 1992; computer number 594021)
  13. Petersen, William John. Iowa History Reference Guide. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1952. FHL book 977.7 A3p; computer number 241027.
  14. Dawson, Patricia and David Hudson. Iowa History and Culture: A Bibliography of Materials Published Between 1952 and 1986. Ames, Iowa. State Historical Society of Iowa, 1986. book 977.7 H23d; computer number 523059
  15. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. The Almanac of American History. Greenwich, Conn.: Bison Books, 1983. FHL book 973 H2alm
  16. Worldcat
  17. Dictionary of American History, Revised ed., 8 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976. (FHL book 973 H2ad.)
  18. Worldcat
  19. Webster's Guide to American History: A Chronological, Geographical, and Biographical Survey and Compendium. Springfield, Mass.: G&C Merriam, 1971. (FHL book 973 H2v)
  20. Limited view at Google Books
  21. Worldcat
  22. Writings on American History By American Historical Association, Library of Congress, United States National Historical Publications Commission, Published by KTO Press, 1921 FHL book 973 H23w
  23. Worldcat
  24. History of Iowa, Dorothy Schwieder, professor of history, Iowa State University