The First Iowans to Use the Rivers

Indians Needed Rivers

The first Native Americans came to Iowa by following the river valleys. Many of the things they needed to survive could be found by the rivers and streams. A village located next to a stream always had plenty of water for cooking and drinking. Natives used the trees along the shores for building shelters and canoes. They used the stone and clay found along some river banks to make ceremonial pipes and paint.

Indians traveled on the rivers to move between villages or to go on long hunting trips. The river valleys were full of the animals they needed for clothing and food. The beaver with its thick coat lived in the streams. Thousands of ducks and geese stopped at the marshes as they migrated. Fish grew to great size in the rivers, and freshwater clams lay on the muddy bottoms. Deer and buffalo came to the water's edge to drink.

Although the river valleys were good hunting places, the Indians took only what they needed to survive. Indians believed that all parts of nature had souls or spirits, and people had to cooperate with those spirits. Indians told myths and legends about the rivers and streams. Some tribes buried their dead near the rivers. On the bluffs along the Mississippi and Turkey rivers, the Indians made the mounds in the shapes (or effigies) of animals.

An End to a Way of Life

The Indian way of life depended on the rivers. But in some ways the rivers ended the Indians' way of life. Rivers made it easier for white explorers to travel to Indian lands. Some explorers were friendly, like Julien Dubuque. He was searching along the Mississippi for deposits of lead. The Mesquakies welcomed him and let him mine the lead. Nearby on Catfish Creek Julien Dubuque began the first permanent white settlement in Iowa.

Rivers brought European and American fur traders to the Indians. Trappers and voyageurs paddled canoes full of furs down river to the traders. Boats carried the iron tools, blankets and guns that the Indians accepted in trade. The fur trade brought the Indians things they needed and wanted. But it also changed their way of life.

A New Use for Rivers

Europeans and Americans used rivers in their struggle to control the land. They built forts along the rivers. They talked tribes into giving up sections of land, and rivers were often the boundaries of the sections. The tribes were forced to move beyond the river. They were told they could never cross the boundary again. Thousands of settlers poured into the land that had been the Indians' homes. Some came in covered wagons pulled by oxen. Some settlers came in steamboats or flatboats on the rivers.

The rivers brought change to the Indians and the land now called Iowa. But many of the Indians' names for the rivers and streams in Iowa stayed the same. Explorers translated the words into English or spelled the Indian words in various ways. But the names of rivers still remind us of the Indians that lived here and the explorers who came by river to meet them.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 6, No. 4 (April 1985). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa



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