Traders and Early Settlers

Detail of the Antoine LeClaire grave marker at Mount Calvary Cemetery, Davenport, Iowa. Photo by the author.

The history of Davenport, Iowa was largely absent from my upbringing. I was born there, yet nothing. There was no Iowa history curriculum in K-12 schools, nor at university. The first biography of George Davenport, one of the city’s founders and its namesake, was not published until May 21, 2020.

I left Davenport for university in 1970 and haven’t missed learning the history. I am revisiting it now that I’m writing my autobiography.

The Trader at Rock Island: George Davenport and the Founding of the Quad Cities by Regena Trant Schantz is a serviceable biography which reflects detailed research into the history of the region. Schantz obviously reviewed documentary records, physical artifacts, and sites. It adequately tells the story of early traders, mineral extraction, land speculation, river culture, and the relations with Black Hawk and other indigenous tribal leaders from the perspective on one of history’s most prominent participants. Because of my education, this history matters little in my outlook toward my home town.

By the time my awareness came of age, the city was in a post-World War II economic boom. Depending upon how one reckons economic history, this was preceded by the trader days, land speculation, the surge in lumber milling after 1850 (as Wisconsin and Minnesota forests were clear cut and rafted down river without replanting), and the rise in farming after the Black Hawk War finished in 1832. Some of my spouse’s family were among the early Iowa settlers after the war. A tide of immigration to Iowa started by the 1840s. With the removal of indigenous tribes and native forests, along with ripping up and plowing the prairie, the landscape in which I found myself was already in existence. There was little reason to think about the early days of settlement.

By the time Mother graduated high school in 1947, the city was ready for the post-World War II boom. Settlement had grown far beyond the initial lots surveyed in the 1830s. The house in which we lived while I was in high school was built in 1910, well above the antediluvian banks of the river. There was infrastructure, a bus route, medical facilities, a wide range of churches, and corner grocery stores waiting to get displaced by supermarkets. Many large manufacturing and food processing companies existed. A person could go their whole life without knowing about the exploits of George Davenport, Antoine LeClaire and other traders turned land speculators during the time before the initial plat was laid out.

What does my writing owe to the history of the city of my birth? Not much, I reckon. It served as a landing place for ancestors displaced from other states. Grandmother arrived with children in tow during World War II. My paternal grandfather arrived after the war and didn’t live much longer.

I plan to tell the story of the initial lot sales, the lumber boom, and development of industry. I suppose that’s needed to set context. Besides the meat packing plant where my father, grandmother and I worked, I don’t have many connections to the old days. Most of our early family stories are derived from immigrant experience in Minnesota and Illinois on Mother’s side, along with Father’s ancestry in Southwestern Virginia and nearby Kentucky.

The biography of George Davenport is engaging, and of interest as an alternative to many stories of settlement in the Tidewater and New England. The Louisiana Purchase is often discussed, yet what happened locally is not. I tip my hat to the work of traders, land speculators and developers yet realize that is not my history.

I am from there, yet not of there.