You might think your town is old, but it probably isn’t the oldest in the country.
That is unless you live in St. Augustine, FL. Which looks pretty good for being 454 years old.
That’s older than America for those playing at home.
So that got us thinking, what is the oldest city in Iowa? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your Iowa city or town is old, it isn’t really all that old in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Pyramids in Egypt were built around 2600 BC, a cool 4100 years before St. Augustine.
And now that we have you thinking about how the time line of your existence is really kind of unimpressive on the timeline of history, let’s drop right into the analysis.
These are the 10 oldest cities and towns in the Hawkeye State according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Davenport (Photos)
- Keokuk (Photos)
- Des Moines (Photos)
- Marshalltown (Photos)
- Council Bluffs (Photos)
- Mount Pleasant (Photos)
- Storm Lake (Photos)
- Oskaloosa (Photos)
- Fairfield (Photos)
- Orange City (Photos)
For being 182 years old, Davenport doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in Iowa? That would be Urbandale — a brand spanking 1 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In Iowa… Or Is It Settled?
Surprisingly, there’s not a definitive data set that contains the dates of incorporation or settlement for cities in America. Put differently, there’s no official data set from the Census that contains when every place in America was founded.
So what did we do instead?
Use the internet’s version of official government data — Wikipedia of course!
For the majority of cities in Iowa, Wikipedia offers data on some kind of ‘date of foundation’ in the infobox. Unfortunately, because it’s Wikipedia and not a sprawling government bureaucracy, that can take the form of any of the following nomenclature (plus others):
And then even more stuff — for example Atlanta has a ‘Terminus’ date, whatever that is.
If no ‘date of foundation’ was found in the infobox, we looked to the general text in the History section of the city for ‘Founded in XXXX’.
All in all, we were able to collect data on 77 out of 79 in Iowa with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 97.5% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Davenport turning out to be the matriarch of Iowa at the ripe old age of 182.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
The land was originally owned by the historic Sauk people, Meskwaki (Fox), and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Native American tribes. France lay claim to this territory as part of its New France and Illinois Country in the 18th century. Its traders and missionaries came to the area from Canada (Quebec), but it did not have many settlers here. After losing to Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War, France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi River to the victor, but retained lands to the west.
In 1803 France sold its holdings in North America west of the Mississippi River to the United States under the Louisiana Purchase. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike was the first United States representative to officially visit the Upper Mississippi River area. On August 27, 1805, Pike camped on the present-day site of Davenport.
Situated between the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers, the area that became Keokuk had access to a large trading area and was an ideal location for settlers. In 1820, the US Army prohibited soldiers stationed along the Mississippi River from having wives who were Native American. Dr. Samuel C. Muir, a surgeon stationed at Fort Edwards (near present-day Warsaw, Illinois), instead resigned his commission rather than leave his Indian wife and crossed the river to resettle. He built a log cabin for them at the bottom of the bluff, and became the area’s first white settler.
3. Des Moines
Des Moines traces its origins to May 1843, when Captain James Allen supervised the construction of a fort on the site where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers merge. Allen wanted to use the name Fort Raccoon; however, the U.S. War Department preferred Fort Des Moines. The fort was built to control the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians, whom the government had moved to the area from their traditional lands in eastern Iowa. The fort was abandoned in 1846 after the Sauk and Meskwaki were removed from the state and shifted to the Indian Territory.
The Sauk and Meskwaki did not fare well in Des Moines. The illegal whiskey trade, combined with the destruction of traditional lifeways, led to severe problems for their society. One newspaper reported:
Henry Anson was the first European settler in what is now called Marshalltown. In April 1851, Anson found what he described as “the prettiest place in Iowa.” On a high point between the Iowa River and Linn Creek, Anson built a log cabin. A plaque at 112 West Main Street marks the site of the cabin. In 1853 Anson named the town Marshall, after Marshall, Michigan, a former residence of his.
5. Council Bluffs
The first Council Bluff name (singular) was actually on the Nebraska side of the river at Fort Atkinson (Nebraska) about 20 miles northwest of the current Council Bluffs. It was named by Lewis and Clark for a bluff where they met with the Otoe tribe on August 2, 1804.
6. Mount Pleasant
Mount Pleasant was first incorporated as a town by European Americans in 1842, and again in 1851.
7. Storm Lake
Storm Lake was incorporated in 1873. The city of Storm Lake is named from the lake where it is said a trapper experienced a severe storm.
Oskaloosa derives its name from Ouscaloosa who, according to town lore, was a Creek princess who married Seminole chief Osceola. A local tradition was that her name meant ‘last of the beautiful.’ (This interpretation of ‘last of the beautiful’ is not correct. ‘Oskaloosa’ in the Mvskoke-Creek language means ‘black rain,’ from the Mvskoke words ‘oske’ (rain) and ‘lvste’ (black). ‘loosa’ is an English corruption of the Mvskoke word ‘lvste’. See for example the Wikipedia entry for Tuskaloosa, eponym of the town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In addition the Mvskoke word ‘Ouscaloosa’ means ‘Black Water’). The first European-American settlers arrived in 1835, led by Nathan Boone, youngest son of frontiersman Daniel Boone. Acting on instructions from Stephen W. Kearny, he selected this as the first site of Fort Des Moines, located on a high ridge between the Skunk and Des Moines rivers. The ridge was originally called the Narrows.
The area now known as Jefferson County was first settled in 1836, and became Jefferson County in 1839, with the new community of Fairfield as the county seat. The name was suggested by Nancy Bonnifield, one of the settlers, because it aptly described the fair fields of the area. But also author Susan Welty suggests it was a play of words on her own name (bonny field). By 1840, Fairfield had a population of 110 and grew to 650 in 1847. The city was the site of the first and second Iowa State Fairs.
10. Orange City
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In Iowa
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in Iowa. If we missed your city’s ‘date of foundation’, let us know in the comments. Or feel free to take a look at the table of the oldest places in Iowa.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Hawkeye State.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to Iowa:
- Urbandale (Founded in 2017)
- Ankeny (Founded in 2017)
- Johnston (Founded in 2017)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In Iowa
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