Boundaries for Iowa

Before We Were the State of Iowa

How did Iowa come to have the shape it has today? Before 1846 there was no state of Iowa, and there were no boundaries for the state. Before Europeans came to North America, the boundaries for states and nations as we know them today did not exist. The Native Indian groups living in North America had not made maps of the land on which they lived. Most tribal groups thought in terms of large land areas. They knew where their region began and ended but they did not feel they owned it.

Europeans were used to thinking about land as something to be owned. They drew boundary lines on maps to show what land belonged to which nation. They also drew more lines on the maps to show the land owned by each person.

After the American Revolution, the 13 separate colonies became the 13 United States. Seven of these states claimed that they owned land stretching westward all the way to the Mississippi River. Much the land west of the Appalachian Mountains was unsettled. After much debate and some argument, the boundaries for all those states were decided. Most of the western land became the property of the federal government and was called “territory.” The government planned to remove the Native Americans who lived on this land and sell it to the pioneer settlers. Eventually more states could be created from the area.

By 1837, sixty years after the Revolution had ended, 13 new states had been added to the Union. The only territory that remained east of the Mississippi River that had not gained statehood was in Wisconsin and Florida. By that time the United States government and its citizens had already begun to look to the land west of the Mississippi River for future development.

Nicollet Explores West of the Mississippi

In 1803 the United States purchased the land west of the Mississippi River from France. Called the Louisiana Purchase, this almost doubled the size of the nation. By 1837 three states had already been formed from the region—Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. In addition, large sections of land had been opened for settlement just north of Missouri in the future Iowa Territory. Congress wanted more detailed and accurate information about this area that was so rapidly being filled with new settlers.

To gather this information, the United States hired Joseph Nicolas Nicollet. Leading a large group, he explored the land between the upper Mississippi River and the upper Missouri River in order to prepare a map of the region. Between 1836 and 1840 he traveled through forests and prairies, carefully recording the rivers, streams, hills, valleys and plateaus which he found. Earlier explorers had made good maps, but Nicollet's scientific skill and improved scientific instruments provided a more accurate map than the earlier ones.

Nicollet knew that it would not be long before the people of Iowa Territory would ask to become a state, so he included suggestions for future state boundaries in his report to Congress. His map was published in 1843— only one year before the Iowa Legislative Assembly applied for statehood. The recommendations in his report later caused boundary disputes between the people of the territory and Congress.

But I may remark, in the first place, that two states may be formed west of the trans-Mississippian states of Arkansas and Missouri; and then, by taking about equal portions of each side of the Missouri River, embracing the mouth of the Platte River, we have a third state, with a good and well-watered soil. This latter division would still leave sufficient space for the state of Iowa, by extending it as far north as the St. Peter's. Now, north of the two last-mentioned states might be formed another, embracing all the remaining tributaries of the Mississippi on its west side, as well as those of the Red River of the North, and as far north as to the British possessions.

Thus it appears, that, by a judicious division of the remaining country along the borders, taking in a small portion of the more barren region beyond it, there is sufficient space for five new states of large size, compact in their forms, and having a good portion of fertile soil; most of them possessing convenient navigable streams, with a fair prospect of mineral resources.

-Joseph Nicolas Nicollet, Report to Congress (1841)

Thoughts of Statehood

The territory's rich and fertile soil attracted many settlers, and Iowa filled rapidly with newcomers. By 1844 75,000 people lived in the territory. Many of these people thought it was time for statehood. They wanted to have full control over their own government—to be able to vote for president and choose senators and representatives to Congress.

They wrote a constitution, selected boundaries for a state and sent their request for statehood to the United States Congress. The boundaries they chose were based on the recommendations of Robert Lucas, Iowa's first territorial governor. The boundaries followed the rivers of the region: on the east the Mississippi River; on the west the Missouri River; and to the north the St. Peter's (now the Minnesota) River. The southern boundary between Iowa and Missouri was already waiting to be settled in the courts. However, Iowa's boundary request ran into trouble. Much of the trouble had to do with free states and slave states.

Slave or Free?

For many years Congress had tried to keep an even number of slave states and free states. This meant there would be equal representation for each side in the United States Senate. States were created by Congress in pairs, one from the North and one from the South. Northern members of Congress wanted to create as many free states as they could out of the remaining Louisiana Territory in which Iowa was located.

They looked at Joseph Nicollet's report and saw his recommendations for state lines based on the topography of the area. He suggested a boundary line on the 94°30' meridian which was close to the natural watershed between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Nicollet thought of the upper Midwest as a region divided into smaller areas by ridges, rivers and plateaus. He also thought state boundary lines might be based on the products each area might produce and on the transportation of these products to markets. His plan even included a strong trading link with British North America (now Canada) by way of the Red River in present-day Minnesota.

Nicollet's vision of state boundaries for Iowa was not accepted by the settlers. The writers of the proposed Iowa constitution and boundary plan thought of Iowa as a great agricultural state lying between two mighty rivers. They even wanted to include the rich valley of the St. Peter's (Minnesota) River. Because rivers provided the best transportation for agricultural products, Iowans argued that the state's boundaries should include both rivers so that farmers could easily sell their crops. The people felt the state should not be used to balance the power between the northern free states and the southern slave states. In 1844 the Iowa voters refused to accept the constitution with the Nicollet boundaries.

Finally, Iowans accepted a compromise agreeing to the boundaries that we know today. Iowa became the 29th state on December 28, 1846.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Boundaries for Iowa,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 3 (February 1983): 2-4.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa..