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State Shapes: Iowa Caucus Edition

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Today, across Iowa’s 99 counties, friends, foes, families, and neighbors are casting their votes in the 2016 Iowa Caucus. The Iowa Caucus has been the first major electoral event in the Presidential nominating process since 1972, but Iowa has a much longer history than that. Let’s take a look at some of the historical factors that shaped the State of Iowa.

Named for the Ioway, a Chiwere-speaking Native American Siouan people, the land that makes up the State of Iowa came under U.S. ownership in 1803 with the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. The Mississippi River, which made up the eastern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, formed eastern borders for the future states of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and part of Minnesota.

Iowa began to take on a more familiar shape when Missouri, its neighbor to the south, became a state in 1821. Originally surveyed in 1816 by John C. Sullivan, the line dividing the states, called the Sullivan Line, turned out to be very contentious. Instead of being straight, the Sullivan Line curves slightly northward and, rather than ending at the Mississippi River, it ends at the Des Moines River. This unusual line gave Iowa a 500 square mile nib in its southeastern corner, which later became part of Lee County.

Iowa’s land changed names several times before it was eligible for statehood. Following the precedent set forth by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Iowa had to reach a certain population before qualifying for statehood. From 1803 to 1821, it was part of the Missouri Territory, but when Missouri became a state, Iowa became an unorganized territory. In 1834, Iowa was attached to the Michigan Territory, until Michigan became a state in 1837, which transformed the then “Iowa District” into the western portion of the Wisconsin Territory. Finally, in 1838, the Iowa Territory was organized and in 1846 became a formal state.

Willard Barrows, "A New Map of Iowa." 1845. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.
This map, published the year before Iowa declared statehood, shows some of the extent of the Iowa Territory. Willard Barrows, “A New Map of Iowa.” 1845. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress. View online here.

With the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers forming its western border, the Mississippi River its eastern, and Missouri its southern, Iowa still needed a formalized northern boundary to be a State. Iowa selected 43°30’, which made it nearly three degrees (approx. 200 miles) from its southern to northern border. This also set the precedent for “height” for several other Plains States: North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska are all three degrees in height.

McGowan & Hildt, "Map of the United States west of the Mississippi..." 1859. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.
Following Iowa’s precedent, Nebraska and Kansas were drawn with three degrees of height. When the Dakota Territory is admitted into the Union in 1889, it will also be split into two halves, each being three degrees, also. McGowan & Hildt, “Map of the United States west of the Mississippi…” 1859. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress. View online here.


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