Iowa — History and Culture
Iowa epitomizes the American Midwest in many ways. It is largely rural, the people are extremely friendly, and they enjoy hearty meat and potatoes. The sparse urban offerings are found in the capital of Des Moines and to a lesser degree in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Every four years the US presidential caucus turns this quiet farming state into a hotbed of political opinion, a status Iowans actually take pride in. Visitors can expect a warm welcome everywhere they venture, but little in the way of world-class entertainment or cutting edge development.
Though Native American tribes like the Ioway, Sauk, and Meskwaki lived in Iowa for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived in the 1680’s, much of their civilization has been eradicated. In 1673 the French explorers Joliet and Marquette reached the area and claimed it as part of New France (or Louisiana). Iowa became part of the United States when the French sold Louisiana in 1803.
The local Native American tribes put up little resistance to the American government. All of the residential tribes sold their land to the US government by 1851 except for the Meskwaki, who negotiated a settlement and are the only remaining tribe living on their reservation today.
The first settlers began arriving in Iowa in 1833, mainly from neighboring states and mostly as complete family units. The prairie land made early life hard as timber was scarce. With the arrival of the railroad in the mid 1800’s the towns of Iowa and their populations boomed. Eventually, there were five railroad lines crossing Iowa and most of the state’s industry was based around agriculture. Quaker Oats was one of the first major companies established here.
In 1846 Iowa became the 29th state, siding with the Union North during the American Civil War. No battles were fought in Iowa, but the state sent 75,000 of its men to fight. During the war, the capital was moved to Des Moines and the University of Iowa was founded in Iowa City.
Afterwards, the state saw a huge influx of immigrants attracted to the good soil and the prosperous cities. Germans made up the largest ethnic group, still evident today in sites like the Amana Colonies. The vast majority became farmers or craftsmen. The 1920’s and 30’s were hard times for farmers as prices for their products plummeted. The government had to step in with subsides, which still continues today. Though farming is still the dominant industry, the state also has a strong manufacturing sector of white goods and farm machinery.
The culture of Iowa has been built almost entirely on the backbone of agriculture. The first settlers in the 1830’s came to farm, and farming still remains rooted as the main economic engine of the state. Aside from a few pockets of urban life in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa is a vast rolling state of farmland. Small rural towns dominate the landscape, populated by friendly Midwest folks happy to chat with a visitor from out of town.
The state also has the odd distinction as the first main site of the US presidential caucuses every four years. In this way, Iowans have a strong vein of political opinion running through them almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. When not working, Iowans spend their time outdoors fishing, hunting, boating, and biking. This is a state that loves its land because it depends on it for work and play. But they must be doing something right, evident in the easy smiles on most faces.