Prairie History Detective

Activity 6

Exploring the Prairie

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In this activity you will have the opportunity to explore two important historical documents written by Albert M. Lea describing his travels through eastern Iowa in 1835. From the information found in these documents you can take your own online expedition to explore Iowa in 1835.


Photographer: Kristie Burns

…Both wood-land and prairie, thus far, are exceedingly fertile, the soil being a black loam based upon clay. The trees are usually oak and hickory, and the woods are free from under-growth; and no stone is to be found, except siliceous pebbles and granitic boulders

……Beyond Lake Hahawa, about 10 miles, we crossed a river, called by the Indians, Ioway;…and as the name, Ioway, is irrevocably fixed on that part of the river below the junction, it is proposed to give that name to the larger branch, and to call the smaller branch Buffalo river, form the game found upon it. Where we crossed it, it is about 30 yds wide, 4 ft deep, and clear, though in freshet; has a gentle current, gravelly bottom covered with moss, low banks, and but little timber bordering on it. It is probably navigable for small boats, as far as the mouth of the Otter creek

……After passing this river, we found an almost continuous succession of swamps, for 14 miles, the prairie being scarcely interrupted by a tree. Traversing then a few miles of dryer ground, we came to a high ridge, where we found a Sioux Fort, made by excavating a series of holes, large enough to contain several men, and arranged in an elliptical form, outside of which, when used, skins are stretched on stakes, fixed in the ground, to intercept the view and the missiles of the enemy……Limestone bluffs present themselves occasionally on either bank. No falls or rapids, are known in the river;…The trees are luxuriant, and consist of walnut, ash, elm, oak, maple, & c. The soil is remarkably fertile, and but little of the timbered land, except near the mouth, is flooded in times of freshets…

  • Here are some examples from Excerpts from Iowa District of the Wisconsin Territory written by Lea in 1836. Note that this piece is organized topically and includes information related to eastern Iowa's climate, soil, plant life, rivers, land formations and animal life:

…The Climate is such as would be naturally expected in this latitude. The thermometer does not range more widely here than in similar latitudes east of the Allegheny mountains; nor perhaps as much so, as in those districts beyond the influence of the sea-breeze, from some quarter of our broad prairies almost as refreshing as that from the ocean. We are exempt, too, from the effects of the easterly winds, so chilling and so annoying along the Atlantic sea-board; but in lieu of them, we have frequently could blasts from the prairies, sufficiently annoying to the traveler, when the mercury is at zero

…The larger GAME will, of course, soon disappear from the settlement; but at present there is a great deal of deer, some bear, and some buffalo within reach. Turkies, grouse, and ducks will long be abundant; and of Fish there can never be any scarcity. Every stream is filled with them; and among them may be found the pike, the pickerel, the catfish, the trout, and many other varieties. Immense quantities are taken about the several Rapids, where they may be easily speared…

Online Student Expeditions

  • Albert Lea had a fiancé who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. Compose a letter from Albert M. Lea to his fiancé Miss Ellen Shoemaker whom he married on May 5, 1836. What might he have told her about his trip? How might he have described the Iowa prairie?
  • Explore History of the U.S. Postal Service to identify how his letter would have reached Miss Shoemaker in Baltimore. What did postage stamps of the day look like?
  • Lea mentions several Indian names while describing eastern Iowa in 1835. Go to the American Memory collection to further explore and investigate the background information regarding these Indian names: Opanoose(Appanoose), Keokuk, Mahaska, Ioway.
  • Lea was exploring the area in eastern Iowa acquired by the United States government following the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the subsequent Black Hawk purchase. Write a memoir from the perspective of Chief Black Hawk or another important Indian leader. How would they have viewed Lea's prairie expedition of 1835 differently from that of Albert M. Lea?
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