Biographical Information about Albert M. Lea

Exploring the Prairie

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Who was this Lieutenant Lea? Born on a farm near Knoxville on July 23, 1808, Albert Miller Lea was next to the youngest child of a family of seven sons and a daughter. His father, named, Major Lea, was the son of a Baptist preacher who had come to Tennessee during the Revolution… Albert Miller Lea was sent to a school in Knoxville taught by a graduate of Yale, but at seventeen financial difficulties and poor health compelled him to withdraw and for a time he worked on the farm, clerked in a store, and taught Latin on the side.

In 1827 he secured an appointment to West Point (through Hugh L. White), graduating in 1831, fifth in his class of thirty-three, with the rank of brevet second lieutenant… Lieutenant Lea was assigned to the First Artillery, at Fort Gibson… In the summer of 1832, he worked on the survey of the Tennessee River and spent the following winter in Philadelphia preparing maps and reports.

…October 1834, he reported at Fort Leavenworth. There he was ordered to join Kearny's detachment of dragoons at Fort Des Moines. During the summer of 1835 he participated in the expedition up and down the Des Moines Valley and across the southeast corner of present-day Minnesota.

…Lieutenant Lea spent the early part of the following winter at Fort Des Moines, but secured leave of absence on February 1, 1836, and soon went east. His experience on the trip and his conversations with settlers, soldiers, and traders convinced him that the Iowa country had a bright future and he planned to have some part in it.

He made a trip up the Mississippi River, stopping at various locations to consider investments in land. At Burlington he bought four lots for $100, selling them later at $400. He declined an offer of a claim at what is now Muscatine for fifty dollars, and chose some land at the mouth of Pine Creek (about ten miles above Muscatine), where he and William Gordan, another Tennessean, laid out a town site…

…Lieutenant Lea was, however, interested in the whole area and publicity being now unknown a hundred years ago he decided that a book advertising the Black Hawk Purchase would be useful to prospective settlers and profitable to him. He wrote the text, secured permission to make a copy of his map which Kearny had sent to the War Department and in the summer of 1836, his Notes on Wisconsin Territory, Particularly with Reference to the Iowa District, was printed by H.S. Tanner of Philadelphia.

…Lea's book was a small paper-bound volume approximately three by five inches, containing 53 pages and folded map of the Iowa District about 18 ½ by 22 inches. The edition was a thousand copies which were to sell at a dollar a volume, but unfortunately, half the books were lost in shipment down the Ohio on a steamboat and only a few reached the West.

The undertaking was, therefore, a financial loss and not especially satisfactory as an advertising venture. The little book was not, however, entirely without effect. It contained an accurate and enthusiastic description of the region he had seen in 1835, and the name Iowa which he applied to the Black Hawk Purchase was adopted for the Territory and the State that contained that district.

Excerpts from : "Albert M. Lea," The Palimpsest, March 1935, pp. 69-79. Reproduced by permission of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

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