The Iowa Pioneer Experience
In Iowa and northern Illinois pioneers faced a landscape different than any they had ever experienced. Before European settlers landed on the Atlantic coast, the eastern half of the United States was almost entirely covered with forests. Iowa-born naturalist John Madson writes: “It is said that a grey squirrel could travel inland from the Atlantic coast for nearly a thousand miles and never touch the ground.”
In Iowa and northern Illinois, however, settlers moved out of the forests. They encountered the American prairies, vast stretches of treeless grasslands. The woodlands had provided wood for homes, barns, fencing and fuel; but the prairies had few trees. Iowa pioneers needed to adapt to a new environment that did not provide easy access to wood.
Eastern Iowa's Landscape
Iowa has three different landscapes. In eastern Iowa and along the rivers there are hardwood forests: oak, walnut, maple, elm. Trees not only supplied the wood pioneers needed; the very presence of trees was taken as a sign that the land was fertile. After all, it could grow trees! Pioneers worked hard to cut down the trees to open fields for crops and gardens. Sawmills to cut the trunks into lumber were some of the first industries on the frontier. They split large pieces into vertical lengths to make fence and sliced shingles for the cabin roof from logs. When other chores were finished, cutting wood for the fireplace or the stove was a never-ending task.
Northern and Western Iowa's Landscape
When settlers emerged onto the tall grass prairies in northern and western Iowa, however, they needed to learn new skills. Grasses around small ponds or marshes could grow as high as 7-8 feet. Some diaries report that cattle could get lost in the tall grass and one had to stand on the back of a horse to try to find them. Prairie fires were a constant danger from spring through fall. Lightning could ignite the dead stems and soon a wall of fire, fanned by the winds, could race up a hill burning everything in its path. Pioneers learned to plow broad fire strips around their cabins and barns to protect buildings from the flames.
Plowing itself was a new venture on the prairies. So strong and tangled were the tough roots of the grasses and other prairie plants that it took three or four teams of oxen to plow it the first time. They used a huge plowshare with a sharp edge that could cut through the soil and turn over a strip of virgin prairie sod. Once the roots had broken up, the pioneer could use a regular plow, but even here, new ways were better. The rich Iowa topsoil clung to the cast iron plowshares; they wouldn’t scour (fall off the metal blade) and soon the plow was stuck in the mud in the field. A blacksmith in Illinois, John Deere, invented a steel plowshare smooth enough so that the soil didn’t stick to it. It made plowing much easier, and it made John Deere a richer man.
The best farms were those that had some timber for firewood. But local woodlots couldn’t supply all the lumber that prairie pioneers demanded. They needed boards to build houses and barns and outbuildings and fences. Fortunately the railroads came to the rescue. Four lines ran east-and-west across the state by 1870 and branch lines were soon connecting small towns to a giant steel spider web. The white pine forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin echoed with the sound of axes and saws to supply the needs of prairie farmers. Logs floated down rivers to sawmills along the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, and especially Chicago. Lumber yards sprang up in Iowa river towns like Dubuque, Clinton and Davenport. So profitable was selling lumber to prairie farmers that Clinton boasted it had more millionaires per population (most in the lumber industry) than any other American city.
Northwest Iowa's Landscape
In the far northwest corner of the state settlers arrived before the railroads. The climate is drier than in central and southern Iowa and the grass is shorter. Few trees were native to the area when pioneers arrived. Lumber was very expensive because it had to be transported overland.
Pioneer families in the northwest part of the state learned to make do with very little wood. Rather than log cabins, they built sod houses. They dug a hole in a hillside, perhaps lined it with boards from the wagon, and then made a roof with branches or limbs from smaller trees from along the river. They may have used the tarp that covered the wagon to lay over the limbs. Then they cut strips of sod from the prairie. The tangled roots held the dirt together. They piled strips on top of each other to form the sides of the cabin. Across the top the strips formed the roof. The sod strips were good insulation, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Sod houses were never intended as permanent homes, however. They were temporary structures until the settlers could build frame houses.
Pioneer Days End
By the 1880s there were settlers from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River. The pioneer days were over. At first many pioneer families planted wheat. They ground it into flour for their own use or sacked it and shipped it down the rivers. Because a sack of wheat is heavy, it was expensive to transport. Soon farmers learned that they could make more money growing corn. They didn’t ship the corn down the river. They fed corn to hogs and then sent the hogs to market. Sometimes they drove the hogs to a river for shipment. In the winter they sometimes butchered the hogs on the farm and hauled the frozen meat in a wagon. Growing corn became so profitable that Iowa and the rest of the Midwest became known as the Corn Belt. Wheat farming moved onto the Great Plains where they could not grow corn as well.
It took only about 40 years for all of Iowa to become covered with small farms. Most of the native prairies disappeared because farmers plowed them up to plant crops. A few small prairies remain to remind us what Iowa looked like before the pioneers arrived.
- Bogue, Allan. From Prairie to Corn Belt. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1994.
- Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. 1st ed. New York, New Yorks: W. W. Norton, 1991.
- Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.
- Sage, Leland. A History of Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1974.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Tom Morain.