Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage
Julien Dubuque's Mines
Spain itself was the second largest producer of lead in the world during the 18th century, and its ore mining and smelting technologies were influential in the New World. Dubuque’s Mines, which the Mesquakie worked with him, were highly successful and initiated the first major North American mineral rush – a precursor to the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. The district contains the archeological remains of Dubuque’s Trading Post (1788-1810) and the Mesquakie village of Kettle Chief (ca. 1788-1810); Amerindian and Euro-American lead mining shifts, shafts, adits, and smelters; and the remains of the later mining communities of Catfish and Mosalem. The district is now the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area whose visitor and interpretive center is a popular destination for learning about the important cultural amalgamation and technological evolution and the role of lead mining in the development of the United States.
The earliest known human inhabitants of the district were the Mesquakie tribe. Mounds, rock shelters, campsites and other archeological evidence reflect their presence for thousands of years prior to European contact. A large village of Mesquakie sat at the mouth of Catfish Creek when the French first entered the region in the mid-1600s, and the Mesquakie traded amicably with the newcomers to their region. By around 1690, the tribe revealed a rich lead deposit near present-day Dubuque to French explorer Nicolas Perrot. Perrot briefly set up a trading post in the area, bartering furs and other goods for ore with the native population. By 1710, however, he abandoned the region in search of less isolated territory.
Julien Dubuque, a young Quebec-born French Canadian, heard of the lead-rich area in 1785 and by 1788 was in negotiations with the local Mesquakie leaders to begin a mining venture on their land. By the end of the year, he had secured permission to be the sole mine-operator on the site. Considered the first person of European descent to settle permanently in present-day Iowa, he built a trading post, residence, and small smelter at the mouth of Catfish Creek with the help of the Mesquakie and French laborers.
During the late 1700s, the vast Louisiana Territory that Dubuque set out to mine belonged to the Spanish Crown. During Europe’s Seven Year War (1756 to 1763), the territory was under French control, but following its conclusion and the Treaty of Paris, the Spanish acquired Louisiana. Julien Dubuque had obtained express permission to mine the land from the Mesquakie, but he also sought recognition from Spain to secure his claim. In 1796, the Spanish Governor of New Spain, Francisco Luis Hector, barón de Carondelet, officially granted a 189 square-mile area to Dubuque for his mining operation. In recognition of the grant, Dubuque named his mines in Spain’s honor.
From the beginning, Dubuque combined fur and lead trading with manufacturing, residential, agricultural and export functions at his post. The first mines were worked on a small scale in a somewhat primitive fashion. After digging the ore out of the ground, miners would wash it in wooden sluices where the water would carry away any latent dirt and light impurities such as limestone. The ore was then brought to the smelter, a furnace designed to reduce the ore to its fairly pure lead form.
The earliest smelters at the mines were rudimentary due to the costs and limitations on materials. These furnaces involved stacking ore and logs together in a large inferno and collecting the molten lead as it flowed from the base of the pile. This system, though relatively easy, was inefficient in the amount of fuel it used and percentage of lead that could be captured, and little could be done about the plumes of deathly smoke that were a byproduct of the process. By the 1820s, the mines began using reverberatory furnaces.
Instead of mixing the fuel and ore together in one stack, reverberatory furnaces are configured so that the mineral and the burning fuel never come in contact with one another. Instead, the firebox is separated from the ore by a partition and covered with a domed roof. The angle of the roof reflects the hot air into the reaction chamber where the ore liquefies and easily flows out one end of the furnace. Chimneys divert smoke upward to reduce the risk of inhalation by the workers. Dubuque’s Mines used these more efficient furnaces until converting to more practical methods, such as the Scotch Hearth furnace introduced in the area in 1835.
The reverberatory furnace was by no means a new technology. At the time, England and Spain were the world’s top lead producers, and European nations had been mining and smelting various metals for hundreds of years. Technologies were constantly evolving to be more efficient: inventions that would eventually find their way from their mother-nations to the colonies. In 1640, the famous Spanish metallurgist, Alvaro Alonso Barba, published a comprehensive guide on metals, including the use of reverberatory furnaces. The Spanish are believed to have been the first to introduce the technology to the Americas.
The Mesquakie Indians worked Julian Dubuque's Mines and used the lead ore in trade for goods at his trading post. The Mesquakie continued to work the mines after Dubuque’s death in 1810, but American miners finally took over the mines as part of the settlement of the Black Hawk War of 1832. By the early 1830s, most of the Mesquakie tribe had left the area. What began as a small mining operation was now a big industry accompanied by towns, filled with newcomers flocking to the mineral-rich area from Missouri and the Ohio Valley. An assembly of these miners in 1830 drafted regulations for land use and conduct, laws that formed the basis for the development of future mining activities in the American West during the subsequent California Gold Rush.
Dubuque was the largest and most prosperous community in the entire lead district through the Civil War. Between 1845 and 1847, mining activity in the area peaked with the production of 54 million pounds of lead a year, at the time the most of any mining district in the entire world. Many miners had left in pursuit of gold out west beginning in 1849 and the easily worked minerals became depleted. Iowa’s fertile farmlands also lured miners away from the dangerous and struggling industry, and by 1870, agriculture had replaced lead mining as the region’s most valuable asset. The archeological remains of the 19th century mining communities of Catfish and Mosalem and a camp are located within the district.
At the beginning of the 1980’s, Julien Dubuque’s Mine became the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area and in 1993, the historic district became a National Historic Landmark. It is also a significant place to visit within the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area.
The 1,380 acres in the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area offer visitors a diversity of experiences. Much of the land is reminiscent of what it must have been like during Dubuque’s time and visitors can enjoy hikes, canoe trips and vistas through the area. Many of the trees in the district are at least 300 years old and it is the home of rare species such as bobcats, flying squirrels and bald eagles.
Visitors should stop at the Julien Dubuque Monument, which sits in the northeast corner of the Mines of Spain district. When Dubuque died in 1810, the Mesquakie buried him with tribal honors beneath a log mausoleum on the high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. During 1896, his body was exhumed and reburied under a new monument. Completed in 1897, the structure is a 12-foot tall limestone, cylindrical tower resembling a medieval castle turret. A rectangular stone in the floor marks Dubuque’s final resting place. The public can reach the monument via a paved path. The tower offers a fine panoramic view of the City of Dubuque and the Mississippi Valley below. Interpretive signage explains the site to visitors.
The E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center welcomes visitors to the park with free exhibits and programming. Visual and audio presentations provide information about the recreation area and its mining heritage. The center is part of the NPS Passport Program (stop by the main desk to get your stamp). Signs along the park’s many trails connect visitors with the surrounding natural and archeological features.