How States Get Their Shapes
What are the most important factors in determining state borders?
Americans are so accustomed to the current shapes of the states that make up the United States. History, however, tells a much different story. Iowa’s borders were caught up in the sectional struggle over slavery and became a contentious issue at home and in the U.S. Congress.
Path to Statehood
From the early years of the United States, Congress adopted a plan to admit western states into the Union on a status equal to the original thirteen. The region first became a territory with limited government. Once the population reached 60,000, the legislature could submit to the voters (white males 21 years and older) a proposal to draft a state constitution to send to Congress with an application for statehood. After several false starts, such a proposal was approved in 1844. However, it took two more years before Congress and Iowa voters could agree on the terms of a constitution.
While several issues were subjects of intense debate, Iowa’s borders were not at first. Because Missouri had already been admitted as a state, Iowa’s southern border was established (or so it seemed at the time). Similarly, the Mississippi River divided Iowa from Illinois and Wisconsin on the east. The northern and western borders had no so such fixed lines. Iowa’s first territorial governor, Robert Lucas, wanted Iowa to extend up to what is now Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, a large state indeed. The convention adopted the Lucas borders and sent them to Congress for approval.
At this point, Iowa’s admission became a subject of geo-political bickering. Because each state gets two Senators, northern interests wanted to carve out western lands into many small states that would never support slavery and cotton production. Many states, many “free” senators. Hence, they wanted to reduce the size of new states on the northern prairies and Great Plains. The South wanted just the opposite. They wanted big states from this region. Big states, fewer senators.
"Small State" vs. "Big State" Interests
When Iowa’s constitutional proposal reached Congress, Northern “small state” interests redrew the western border, not as the Missouri river as Lucas had proposed it, but a line some 80-100 miles back to the east. They also moved the northern border south from Lucas’ original proposal. Iowans balked at the smaller size. When the proposal came back to Iowa voters for approval, the measure failed. A compromise was reached setting the borders as we know them today.
While the constitution stated that Iowa’s southern border is the northern border of Missouri, it was unclear exactly where that line was to be drawn. The survey line ran from the Missouri River to a point "on the rapids of the Des Moines River." Unfortunately, there were several sets of rapids that answered that description. A heated exchange between the governors of Iowa and Missouri led to hastily assembled militias on both sides, but no shots were fired and the issue was settled by the U. S. Supreme Court.
Even today, issues surrounding the border occasionally arise. The Missouri River occasionally shifts its flow somewhat, and lands on either side might find themselves on the opposite side. Do affected residents now vote in a different state and pay on different tax rates? The courts have been able to settle the cases without resort to armed conflict.
The United States map would look much different in the Midwest if either of the first two Iowa boundary lines had been adopted. We would have had Rochester and Albert Lea, Iowa, and part of Minnesota’s capital would have been Hawkeye land. On the other hand, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Atlantic, and Storm Lake would have been part of Nebraska. The shape of Iowa was the result of political compromise.
How did surveyors contribute to border decisions?
- Field Notes of Surveyor John Sullivan, 1816 (Document)
- Map of Surveyed Part of Iowa by J.H. Colton, 1839 (Map)
- Act of Congress to Define Iowa's State Boundaries, August 4, 1845 (Document)
- Surveyor Letter from Messers Hendershott and Minor in Keokuk, Iowa, September 20, 1850 (Document)
What is the process by which a territory becomes a state?
- Land Ordinance of 1785, May 18, 1785 (Document)
- Act of Congress to Admit Iowa and Florida into the Union, March 3, 1845 (Document)
- Final Act of Congress to Admit the State of Iowa into the Union, December 28, 1846 (Document)
- Iowa Boundaries as Defined by the State Constitution, 1857 (Document)
How are/were border disputes between states settled?
- Article Detailing Border Conflict Between Iowa and Missouri, May 17, 1845 (Document)
- "The Contested Boundary" Between Iowa and Missouri, October 30, 1847 (Document)
- U.S. Supreme Court Report by Surveyors about the Iowa, Missouri Border, December 17, 1850 (Document)
How did the conflict over slavery affect decisions about state borders?
- NW Land Ordinance for Ohio River Territories, July 13, 1787 (Document)
- Mitchell's School Atlas of the United States and Mexico, 1839 (Map)
- "Boundary Between Missouri and Iowa" Article in The Daily Crescent, April 3, 1849 (Document)
Field Notes of Surveyor John Sullivan, 1816
Map of Surveyed Part of Iowa by J.H. Colton, 1839
Act of Congress to Define Iowa's State Boundaries, August 4, 1845
Surveyor Letter from Messers, Hendershott and Minor in Keokuk, Iowa, September 30, 1850
Land Ordinance of 1785, May 18, 1785
Act of Congress to Admit Iowa and Florida into the Union, March 3, 1845
Final Act of Congress to Admit the State of Iowa into the Union, December 28, 1846
Iowa Boundaries as Defined by the State Constitution, 1857
Article Detailing Border Conflict Between Iowa and Missouri, May 17, 1845
"The Contested Boundary" Between Iowa and Missouri, October 30, 1847
U.S. Supreme Court Report by Surveyors about the Iowa, Missouri Border, December 17, 1850
NW Land Ordinance for Ohio River Territories, July 13, 1787
Mitchell's School Atlas of the United States and Mexico, 1839
"Boundary Between Missouri and Iowa" Article in The Daily Crescent, April 3, 1849
- The Goldfinch: Iowa History for Young People, Spring 1976
This Iowa history magazine for children was published quarterly by the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1975-2000. Each issue focuses on a theme and this particular volume highlighted the development of Iowa's government on its path to statehood.
- The Goldfinch: Iowa History for Young People, Volume 4, No. 3, February 1983
This Iowa history magazine for children was published quarterly by the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1975-2000. Each issue focuses on a theme and this particular volume highlighted the creation of Iowa's boundaries.
- "To Shed Our Blood for Our Beloved Territory: The Iowa-Missouri Borderland," Derek R. Everett, The Annals of Iowa (Volume 67, No. 4, Fall 2008)
This Annals of Iowa essay focuses on the "border war" between Iowa and Missouri as the former approached statehood.
- "The Southern Boundary of Iowa," Frank E. Landers, The Annals of Iowa (Volume 1, No. 8, 1895)
This Annals of Iowa essay focuses on the conflict and compromise that led to the southern border of Iowa.
- "The Border War Between Iowa and Missouri, on the Boundary Question," Alfred Hebard, The Annals of Iowa (Volume 1, No. 8, 1895)
This Annals of Iowa essay features a look at the border conflict that developed between Iowa and Missouri as Iowa reached statehood.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (8th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for eighth grade students.
- SS.8.14. Examine and explain the origins, functions and structure of government with reference to the US Constitution and other founding documents, branches of government, bureaucracies, and other systems and its effectiveness on citizens. (21st century skills)
- SS.8.21. Analyze connections among early American historical events and developments in broader historical contexts.
- SS.8.23. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in early American history.
- SS.8.25. Examine the evolution of the function and structure of government in Iowa.