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Here's What You Didn't Know About Iowa’s First Settlement
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Here's What You Didn't Know About Iowa’s First Settlement

Fort Madison was just starting to wake up and come to life as we drove into town. The morning air was still heavy with dew from the previous evening. But the weatherman had promised a glorious late-September day. 

Our first stop of the morning was the county courthouse. Built in 1841, it’s one of the oldest in continuous operation among Iowa’s 100 county courthouses.

No, that’s not a typo. Iowa has 99 counties but 100 county courthouses. You see, Lee County has two…this one in Fort Madison for northern Lee County, and another in Keokuk for southern Lee. 

As the story goes, there was a movement afoot in the early days of the county to move the county seat from Fort Madison to a more centrally located town like Donnellson. But Keokuk had other ideas. 

Over a weekend, a prominent Keokuk resident broke into the Fort Madison courthouse, gathered up all of the Keokuk-related records and took them back to set up a second county courthouse. In 1848, a special act of the Iowa General Assembly made it official, and Lee County has had two courthouses ever since!

We headed down to the Fort Madison riverfront to explore a replica of Old Fort Madison. For you trivia buffs, the fort and accompanying trading post, established in 1808, was the first settlement on the Upper Mississippi River in what was to become Iowa. It was built to protect U.S. interests in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and garrisoned about 60 soldiers. 

Fort Madison became a flashpoint during the War of 1812, when the Indigenous aligned with the British and attacked it on several occasions. The outpost received reinforcements in August 1813 but had only moldy flour and rotten meat for the men to eat.

When the meager supplies ran out, the post commander ordered the fort abandoned in November 1813 and burned so the enemy couldn’t use it.

One of the fascinating displays at the old fort is an exhibit of frontier medicines. If they fell ill, those soldiers had more to worry about than attacks from the natives.

For instance, the leaves of foxglove were used to stimulate the nervous system. They didn’t know it at the time, but foxglove is the source for digitalis, now a heart-regulator medication. Little wonder it stimulated the nervous system—a dose large enough to make your heart race would make anyone nervous!

Fort Madison’s Riverview Park also includes the Santa Fe Depot museum and a vintage steam locomotive capable of speeds up to 120 mph.

This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at

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Leave a Comment

  1. Travel Iowa Team
    Travel Iowa Team
    Truly fascinating stuff! Thanks for contributing to the Travel Iowa blog!
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