116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
French Canadian Julien Dubuque is credited with being Iowa’s first white settler. It took almost 70 years after his death before a landmark monument was built over his gravesite near the Eastern Iowa city that bears his name.
Dubuque arrived in northeast Iowa around 1788, living among the Meskwaki (called Fox by the French) in Little Fox Village. He was reputedly charismatic and became a close friend of Meskwaki Chief Peosta and eventually marrying Peosta’s daughter, Potosa.
Through his association with the tribe, Dubuque discovered the abundance of lead ore in the bluffs and valleys west of the Mississippi that the Indians until then had kept secret.
He soon gained permission from the tribe to mine the lead.
To cover his bases, Dubuque also obtained permission in 1796 from the governor of the Spanish province of Louisiana, Baron Carondelet, to take ore from the “Mines of Spain” in a 50-square-mile area of the Spanish-held territory.
Dubuque continued his work in the mines and as a trader for more than 20 years until he died March 24, 1810. He was buried with tribal honors before native chiefs and hundreds of men and women who climbed to his burial place atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
After his death, the Indians no longer felt obligated to allow whites on their land. To discourage miners from trespassing on Dubuque’s claim, the Meskwaki destroyed all his buildings and chased miners back across the Mississippi.
The natives retained control of the land until the Blackhawk Purchase in 1833, when they ceded their land west of the Mississippi to the United States. Settlers streamed into the area, and miners took over the mines, establishing a Miners’ Association.
Village of Dubuque
The village near where Dubuque mined was named for him in 1833 at a public meeting, honoring him as the area’s first pioneer. His gravesite was difficult to access and was mostly ignored.
The editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, however, visited the grave in 1849.
“We found the tomb, made of stone, under a lofty bluff just below the city,” he reported. “It had a leaden door, with a wooden cross on it, and the inscription, ‘Julien Dubuque, Miner of the mines of Spain; died 24th day of March, 1810, aged 45 years, 6 months.’ ”
Dubuque’s burial vault
The effort to erect a memorial to Dubuque began in 1858. Area residents proposed a monument made of local limestone carved into a bluff and wanted the words from the wooden cross — which was long gone — to be carved on the memorial.
In 1870, the old settlers of the area were still contemplating plans for the monument. One of those settlers, Eliphlet Price, has visited Dubuque’s grave often between 1834 and 1835.
Price said he and William Gordon of Missouri set out early on a Sunday morning in June 1834 to visit the grave as well as Dubuque’s homestead on Catfish Creek.
He later described the grave’s stone vault about a mile south of Dubuque as “having a commanding view of the Mississippi River.”
“The exterior of the building was about 8 feet by 10,” he said. “The walls were of stone, and about 12 inches in thickness. The stone had been dressed and laid up apparently by a stone mason, without the aid of lime or other cement.
“The roof of the building was combed and covered with cedar shingles, its length being parallel with the Mississippi River.
“At the north end of the building, about 3 feet from the ground, was an opening into the interior about 2 feet square. There was no door or door frame, or woodwork of any kind about the jambs, sill or cap of this opening, and no appearance of there ever having been any.”
Price was determined to examine the vault. He grabbed a makeshift tool, crawled in and began digging in the dirt until he unearthed human skeletal remains and those of bear, raccoon and deer, along with buttons, beads and shells.
According to Dr. John P. Quigley, who saw the vault in 1838, the walls were about 4 feet high, with a door on the side facing the river. It had a ridgepole roof covered with sheet lead. Near the northeast corner was a red cedar cross about 9 feet high.
By 1845, though, between vandals and weather, the structure had lost its roof, its cross and about a foot of wall.
After years of working toward building a monument, the Early Settlers’ Association, the Iowa Institute of Science and Arts and contractor Carter Bros. began work on the Dubuque monument on Sept. 27, 1897.
The circular, castle-like structure, built of native limestone, was 25 feet high and 12 feet in diameter. At the base was an entrance to the burial vault secured by a grating.
When construction began, workers were surprised to unearth skeletons. It was commonly believed the grave had been looted long before.
Those buried there besides Dubuque were Chief Peosta, Chief Rolling Cloud, Gray Eagle and Dubuque’s wife, Potosa. The bones were carefully removed and those identified as Dubuque’s were reinterred before the monument was dedicated Oct. 31, 1897.
Potosa’s remains and those of her father, Chief Peosta, were placed in museums until 1973, when Peosta was buried near Dubuque’s monument. What happened to Potosa’s remains is unknown.
The Mines of Spain were abandoned in the early 1900s. The Iowa Conservation Commission acquired the land in 1982. The Mines of Spain Recreation Area today covers 1,437 acres of woods and prairie land, and the Julien Dubuque Mines of Spain is a National Historic Landmark.