Ethnic Groups of Iowa

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This entry was originally written by Carol L. Maki and Michael John Neill for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Iowa Family History Research series.
History of Iowa
Iowa Vital Records
Census Records for Iowa
Background Sources for Iowa
Iowa Maps
Iowa Land Records
Iowa Probate Records
Iowa Court Records
Iowa Tax Records
Iowa Cemetery Records
Iowa Church Records
Iowa Military Records
Iowa Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Iowa Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Ethnic Groups of Iowa
Iowa County Resources
Map of Iowa


African American

In the 1840s only slightly more than 300 African Americans were living in Iowa. Free African Americans were discouraged, if not totally forbidden, from migrating to the state by a ruling in April 1839. It stated that any African American, “black,” or “mulatto” must provide “a fair certificate of actual freedom under a seal of a judge and give bond of $500 as surety against becoming public charges” before being permitted to settle in Iowa. After 1865, however, the African-American population in the state tripled, most migrating from Missouri and other Mississippi and Ohio river areas. Very few histories of African Americans in Iowa exist at this time. William J. Peterson’s Iowa History Reference Guide (see Background Sources for Iowa) lists numerous periodical articles and some books for African-American history in Iowa. The following are a brief sampling of those articles.

  • Bergmann, Leola Nelson. “The Negro in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History 46 (January 1948): 3-90.
  • Gallaher, Ruth A. “Slavery in Iowa,” Palimpsest 28 (May 1947): 158-60.
  • Van Ek, Jacob. “Underground Railroad in Iowa,” Palimpsest 2 (May 1921): 129-43.

Additional suggestions for reference on African-American history in Iowa include:

  • Iowa Bystander, 1894–1987, Des Moines. Renamed New Iowa Bystander in 1971, this newspaper was established for the African-American community in Iowa in 1894 by I. W. Williamson, Billy Colson, and Jack Logan. Some years are available on microfilm.
  • Schweider, Dorothy, Joseph Hraba, and Elmer Schweider. Buxton: Work and Racial Equality in a Coal Mining Community. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987. Buxton, which existed as an “integrated community” coal camp in south-central Iowa during the 1900s, was referred to as “the black man’s utopia in Iowa.”

Native American

In 1781 the wife of Peosta, a Fox warrior, reported the discovery of lead deposits in the Iowa country. Seven years later Julien Dubuque, a fur trader, obtained sanction from the Indians to work lead mines near what is now Dubuque. The following timeline of the Native Americans in Iowa will provide a guideline to their disbursement within and beyond the state.

1824: Half-Breed Tract established in present Lee County

1825: Neutral lines established between Sioux, Sac, and Fox

1830: Neutral ground is established between Sioux, Sac, and Fox

1832: Black Hawk War terminates in cession of strip of lands west of Mississippi River known as Black Hawk Purchase; Winnebago tribe is given part of neutral ground

1833: Title to Black Hawk Purchase is transferred to United States Government; Ottawa, Pottawattomie, and Chippewa tribes are given lands in what is now southwestern Iowa

1834: “Half-breeds” are given fee simple title to Half-Breed Tract by act of Congress

1836: Sac and Fox cede Keokuk’s Reserve of the United States

1837: Sac and Fox cede to the United States 1,250,000 acres of land known as the second Black Hawk Purchase

1838: Chief Black Hawk dies at his home near the Des Moines River in Davis County

1842: Sac and Fox cede all remaining lands in Iowa

1843: Sac and Fox vacate lands east of line passing north and south through the Red Rocks of Marion County

1845: Sac and Fox withdraw from Iowa

1846: Pottawattomie relinquish lands in western Iowa

1848: Removal of Winnebago tribe begins

1851: Sioux cede lands in northern Iowa

1857: Spirit Lake Massacre: Sioux attack settlers and kill thirty; small band of Sac and Fox return, permitted to buy eighty acres of land in Tama County; members of these tribes still live on a semi-reservation north of the village of Tama

1862: Blockhouses erected in northwestern Iowa for protection against the Sioux

See the following for Native American research in Iowa:

Rafert, Stewart. “American-Indian Genealogical Research in the Midwest: Resources and Perspectives,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 76 (September 1988): 212-24.

Other Ethnic Groups

The following sources are valuable in gaining an understanding of various ethnic groups in Iowa from both a historical and genealogical standpoint.

  • Foreman, Grant. “English Emigrants in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History 44 (October 1946): 385-420.
  • Calkin, Homer L. “The Coming of the Foreigners,” Annals of Iowa 43 (April 1962). This issue of Annals deals exclusively with foreigners including those immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom.
  • Christensen, Thomas P. “A German Forty-eighter in Iowa,” Annals of Iowa 26 (April 1945): 245-53.
  • ——. A History of Danes in Iowa. New York: Arno Press, 1979.
  • Van der Zee, Jacob. The Hollanders of Iowa. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1912.
  • Wick, Barthinius Larson. The Amish Mennonites: A Sketch of Their Origins, and of Their Settlement in Iowa, with Their Creed in an Appendix. Iowa City: State Historical Society, 1984.
  • ——. “The Earliest Scandinavian Settlement in Iowa,” Annals of Iowa 29 (October 1948): 468-72.
  • Luther College, Koren Library, Decorah, Iowa 52101, holds over 20,000 Norwegian manuscripts and 1,000 volumes of Norwegian American newspapers.
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