History of Des Moines

Exploring the Area

In the last few years, there has been a little more buzz about Des Moines since it’s been on various national Top 10 lists. Most likely, though, many probably don’t know how the city got its start. Like a lot of the Midwest, Des Moines became a place of interest for the government as people began to head west in the 1800s.

Since the Midwest was still mainly untouched by European settlers, there were many Native American tribes across the plains. That being the case, the government decided to have specific officials to help with relations to all tribes called Indian Agents. Their responsibilities included:

  • helping keep the peace between settlers and the local tribes
  • supervising trade between the tribes and traders
  • distributing annuities to the tribes from the federal or state government

In 1834, Agent John Doughtery from Fort Leavenworth, KS recommended to the War Department to set up a military post where the Des Moines and Raccoon River met. The next year, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny and Lieutenant Albert M. Lea were sent to see if the area would be the right place for a military unit station. After exploration, it was decided to set up as a base to help protect the rights of the Sak and Fox tribes.

Before the military arrived, John C. Fremont, an explorer and military officer3, was sent in 1941 to learn about the area around the Des Moines River like the plant life as well as document the exact location of the Raccoon River Forks. In May of 1843, Captain James Allen and a company of cavalrymen from Fort Sanford arrived on the site of the recommended base. Captain Allen suggested to name it “Fort Raccoon” but the War Department told him to use the name “Fort Des Moines.” The fort opened on May 20, 1844 as a military encampment.

Many historians agree that the opening of the fort was the beginning of the City of Des Moines. Whatever the case, we’re thankful to all those who made the trek to this area and helped settle and grow it to be the great city we know today.


Choosing a Name

Many cities are usually named after someone who discovered or settled the area or for something specific to that area. The name for the City of Des Moines, however, has a little bit of a mystery to it.

Before settlers came through the Midwest, there were many Native American tribes throughout the area. Many were located near bodies of water such as rivers. A word that is from one of the local languages is “Moingona”. This loosely means river of mounds or the mounds. When the people in these areas buried those who had passed, they were put in burial mounds, usually found near the rivers. Some believe the name “Des Moines” is a loose form of this Native American word.

Since French explorers were some of the first in the area, many of the rivers and streams that were used often for traveling were French words or phrases. As settlers came into the area, a group of reformed-Catholic monks called Trappist Monks also found a place to live. They had left France during the French Revolution to get away from the violence. The monks lived in huts at the American Bottom at the mouth of the river. Explorers decided to name the river that ran through this area Riviere des Moines which translates to “river of monks.” Many feel our city was named after that river since it flowed through the area.

The spelling of the name of our city has been found in various ways as well. All spelling was done by sounding out the word so on the different maps and writings you would find:

  • De Moyen
  • Demoir
  • Demain
  • De Main
  • Demoine

The first on the list translates as “middle” since the river was the mainstream between the Missouri and Mississippi. It was also suggested to mean “the less” or “the smaller” since a small tribe of Native Americans lived on the other side of the river from a larger group called “the greater.”

Des Moines has a rich and interesting history and its name is no exception. No matter how the city truly got its name, we hope you’re proud to call Des Moines your city.


Many of Firsts

In the 1800s, many people braved the trip to help settle the Midwest including Des Moines. It was because of these people and the many firsts they created that we are able to enjoy this great city today.

A few months before the cavalry arrived to set up a base, Wilson Alexander Scott arrived to start preparing a section of land so they could grow food. Once the military had arrived, many others began to settle in the area, some of whom originally planned to head to California during the Gold Rush. Even though the Army left the fort not long after it opened, the settlement continued to grow into a city.

Although Scott was the first settler, he wasn’t the first to set up a home here. A tailor, J.M.Thrift, two gunsmiths, James Drake and John Studevant, a blacksmith, Charles Weatherford, and two farmers, William Lamb and Alexander Turner were the first homes in the area. As the community grew, Thomas K. Brooks set up his office as the area’s first doctor.

The first school was formed in 1845 four years before Des Moines was officially a town. Only 13 students attended that first term. The first church, Fifth Street Methodist Church ran by Reverend Abner and Exra Rathburn, helped by letting classes be held there. It then moved to the unfinished courthouse building. Since it was nearing winter and the building wasn’t finished, they decided to stop classes temporarily. In 1851 a half-acre was purchased for $100 to build a proper schoolhouse. It was made with logs on the corner of 9th and Locust St and continued to be funded by student tuition.2

After a short stay in Kansas, Scott came back to Iowa in 1846 and purchased 500 acres on the east side of the Des Moines River. The next year he started the first ferry across the river and later built the first bridge. He also donated part of his land to the State of Iowa to be used for the capitol along with $6,000 to help build it. Because of all he did for Des Moines and his generosity, his grave is located on the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds to this day.

Before the Des Moines Register was in print, there were actually two others. The first newspaper, The Iowa Star, was edited by Barlow Granger and published on July 26, 1849. The Des Moines Gazette began shortly after and was edited by Lampson P. Sherman.

If it weren’t for these people taking a chance and being the first, we wouldn’t have many of the great opportunities and perks we know today. We’re thankful they paved the way to what we know as the City of Des Moines.