The first known European explorers to document Iowa were Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet who traveled the Mississippi River in 1673 documenting several Indian villages on the Iowa side. The area of Iowa was claimed for France and remained a French territory until 1763. The French, prior to their impending defeat in the French and Indian War, transferred ownership to their ally, Spain. Spain practiced very loose control over the Iowa region, granting trading licenses to French and British traders, who established trading posts along the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers.
Iowa was part of a territory known as La Louisiane or Louisiana, and European traders were interested in lead and furs obtained by Indians. The Sauk and Meskwaki effectively controlled trade on the Mississippi in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Among the early traders on the Mississippi were Julien Dubuque, Robert La Salle, and Paul Marin. Along the Missouri River at least five French and English trading houses were built prior to 1808. In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte took control of Louisiana from Spain in a treaty.
After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Iowa was placed under United States control. Much of Iowa was mapped by Zebulon Pike in 1805, but it was not until the construction of Fort Madison in 1808 that the U.S. established tenuous military control over the region.
Fort Madison was built to control trade and establish U.S. dominance over the Upper Mississippi, but it was poorly designed and disliked by the Sauk and Ho-Chunk, many of whom allied with the British, who had not abandoned claims to the territory. Fort Madison was defeated by British-supported Indians in 1813 during the War of 1812, and Fort Shelby in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, also fell to the British. Black Hawk took part in the siege of Fort Madison.
After the war, the U.S. reestablished control of the region through the construction of Fort Armstrong, Fort Snelling in Minnesota, and Fort Atkinson in Nebraska.
The U.S. encouraged settlement of the east side of the Mississippi and removal of Indians to the west. Trade continued in furs and lead, but disease and forced population movement decimated Indian cultures and economies. A disputed 1804 treaty between Quashquame and William Henry Harrison that surrendered much of Illinois to the U.S. enraged many Sauk and led to the 1832 Black Hawk War. As punishment for the uprising, and as part of a larger settlement strategy, treaties were subsequently designed to remove all Indians from Iowa.
The Sauk and Meskwaki were pushed out of the Mississippi valley in 1832, out of the Iowa River valley in 1843, and out of Iowa altogether in 1846. Many Meskwaki later returned to Iowa and settled near Tama, Iowa; the Meskwaki Settlement remains to this day. In 1856 the Iowa Legislature passed an unprecedented act allowing the Meskawki to purchase the land; Indians were not usually permitted to do so. The Ho-Chunk were removed from Iowa in 1850, and the Dakota were removed by the late 1850s. Western Iowa around modern Council Bluffs was used as a way station for other tribes being moved west, including the Potawatomi.
The first American settlers officially moved to Iowa in June 1833. Primarily, they were families from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. On July 4, 1838, the U.S. Congress established the Territory of Iowa. President Martin Van Buren appointed Robert Lucas governor of the territory, which at the time had 22 counties and a population of 23,242.
Almost immediately after achieving territorial status, a clamor arose for statehood. On December 28, 1846, Iowa became the 29th state in the Union when President James K. Polk signed Iowa's admission bill into law. Once admitted to the Union, the state's boundary issues resolved, and most of its land purchased from the Indians, Iowa set its direction to development and organized campaigns for settlers and investors, boasting the young frontier state's rich farmlands, fine citizens, free and open society, and good government.
Iowa has a long tradition of state and county fairs. The first and second Iowa State Fairs were held in the more developed eastern part of the state at Fairfield. The first fair was held October 25–27, 1854, at a cost of around $323. Thereafter, the fair moved to locations closer to the center of the state and in 1886 found a permanent home in Des Moines. The State Fair has been held every year since except for the year 1898 due to the Spanish-American War and the World's Fair being held in nearby Omaha, Nebraska. The fair was also a World War II wartime casualty from 1942–1945.
Iowa supported the Union during the Civil War, voting heavily for Abraham Lincoln, though there was a strong antiwar "Copperhead" movement among settlers of southern origins and among Catholics. There were no battles in the state, but Iowa sent large supplies of food to the armies and the eastern cities. Much of Iowa's support for the Union can be attributed to Samuel J. Kirkwood, its wartime governor. Of a total population of 675,000, about 116,000 men were subjected to military duty. Iowa contributed proportionately more men to Civil War military service than did any other state, north or south, sending more than 75,000 volunteers to the armed forces, over one-sixth of whom were in their graves before the South surrendered at Appomattox.
Most fought in the great campaigns in the Mississippi Valley and in the South. Iowa troops fought at Wilson's Creek in Missouri, Pea Ridge in Arkansas, Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Rossville Gap as well as Vicksburg, Iuka, and Corinth. They served with the Army of the Potomoc in Virginia and fought under Union General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Many died and were buried at Andersonville. They marched on General Nathaniel Banks' ill-starred expedition to the Red River. Twenty-seven Iowans have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government, which was first awarded in the Civil War.
Iowa had several brigadier generals and four major generals—Grenville Mellen Dodge, Samuel R. Curtis, Francis J. Herron, and Frederick Steele—and saw many of its generals go on to state and national prominence following the war.
Following the Civil War, Iowa's population continued to grow dramatically, from 674,913 people in 1860 to 1,194,020 in 1870. The introduction of railroads in the 1850s and 1860s transformed Iowa into a major agricultural producer.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I and farmers as well as all Iowans experienced a wartime economy. For farmers, the change was significant. Since the beginning of the war in 1914, Iowa farmers had experienced economic prosperity. In the economic sector, Iowa also has undergone considerable change. Beginning with the first farm-related industries developed in the 1870s, Iowa has experienced a gradual increase in the number of business and manufacturing operations.
The transition from an agricultural economy to a mixed economy happened slowly. The Great Depression and World War II accelerated the shift away from smallholder farming to larger farms, and began a trend of urbanization that continues. The period since World War II has witnessed a particular increase in manufacturing operations. While agriculture continued to be the state's dominant industry, Iowans also produce a wide variety of products including refrigerators, washing machines, fountain pens, farm implements, and food products.
The Farm Crisis of the 1980s caused a major recession in Iowa, causing poverty not seen since the Depression. The crisis spurred a major population decline in Iowa that lasted a decade.
After bottoming out in the 1980s, Iowa's economy began to become increasingly less dependent on agriculture, and now has a mix of manufacturing, biotechnology, finance and insurance services, and government services. The population of Iowa has increased at a faster rate than the U.S. as a whole, and Iowa now has a predominantly urban population.