Visitors Guide to
Lee County

Welcome to Lee County, Iowa!

Lee County is located in the extreme southeast corner of Iowa. The Des Moines River flows southeasterly along the southern border, the Mississippi river flows south along the eastern border, and the Skunk River flows southeasterly along part of the northern border of the county. The area surrounding the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers was profitable for fur traders, and a number of Iowa towns developed from trading posts. The first recorded history of the county starts with the first explorers, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette. The first people the two explorers met were of the Illinois tribe, and there is debate whether this meeting took place at the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers or farther north at the mouth of the Iowa River. The territory was claimed by France although never exploited with the exception of the activities of fur traders.

By the time the Americans arrived after the Louisiana Purchase the Sauk and Fox tribes inhabited Lee County. In 1805 Lt. Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) was given the assignment of exploring the Mississippi River and encountered the Des Moines Rapids, just north of the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. Here the river bottom had reached bedrock and this 12 mile long geological formation proved an obstacle to river traffic on the Upper Mississippi for nearly a century. In 1808 the U.S. 1st Infantry Regiment built Fort Madison, the first U. S. military post on the upper Mississippi River. The fort was built to protect the government "factory," or trading post, where area Sauk and Fox tribes could exchange furs and lead for metal implements and other manufactured goods.

Following the outbreak of the War of 1812, British agents from Canada incited a group of Sauk and Fox that were led by the chief Black Hawk against the Americans. In September, 1812, they besieged Fort Madison. During the siege, the post commander ordered the burning of the factory, which was outside the fort. Faced with constant harassment the fort was abandoned in September, 1813. Under cover of darkness, the men of the garrison slipped away in boats leaving the fort engulfed in flames. When Fort Madison was settled years later in 1833 all that was left of the post was a single chimney. The local chapter of the DAR built a replica monument of the chimney in 1908 at the actual site of the old fort. A reconstruction of the old fort is in nearby Riverview Park and can be visited during the warmer months.

The first permanent settlement in Lee County originated when Samuel Muir built a cabin at the foot of the Des Moines Rapids in 1820. In that year the steamboat era began on the upper Mississippi when the Western Engineer arrived at the Des Moines Rapids. Riverboats became the basis for Keokuk’s early growth and the village provided wood for the steamboats and keelboats for “lightering,” where goods and passengers were carried on smaller boats over the rapids. In 1829 the American Fur Company established a trading post at Keokuk. The trading post, along with five adjoining cabins, became known locally as “Rat Row.”  By 1860 the small fur trading village, platted in 1837 and named after a Sauk chief who was friendly with the settlers during the Black Hawk War, had grown into a thriving commercial town and acquired the nickname as the “Gate City” because it was the entrance into the state of Iowa. Lee County was first established in 1836 but the boundaries were subject to change and in 1839 its present boundaries were fixed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. The county-seat was first located at Fort Madison. In 1843 the county seat was moved but returned to Fort Madison in 1845. A rivalry for the county seat soon developed between the population centers of the county, Keokuk and Fort Madison. In 1847 the Iowa Legislature granted concurrent jurisdiction to both communities making Lee County the only Iowa county with two county seats.

While Nauvoo, across the Mississippi River in Hancock County, IL, is better known for its role in Mormon history, Lee County played an important part in that history, both before and after the exodus in 1846 from Nauvoo to Utah. To commemorate the historical events in Lee County the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation has erected three interpretive panels at historical locations in Lee County. The National Park Service has also erected a pavilion with interpretive panels in Linger Longer Roadside Park, off of US-61. The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, the first of its kind developed by the National Park Service, begins its Iowa leg at Montrose, across the river from Nauvoo.

During the Civil War Keokuk became a major military center. Most of the regiments from Iowa regiments and some from states to the north were organized at Keokuk and then shipped off to the fighting by steamboats. Because of its medical college, Keokuk also became a center for the wounded and eventually had six hospitals. In 1862 Keokuk donated land from the Oakland Cemetery for the Keokuk National Cemetery, the first designated national cemetery west of the Mississippi River. By the end of the war, the cemetery had interred over 600 Union soldiers and 8 Confederate prisoners of war, and currently the final resting place for over 4,600 American soldiers from all conflicts.

Efforts to overcome the Des Moines Rapids have helped shape Lee County. In 1838 and 1839 Lt. Robert E. Lee supervised underwater blasting to create a 5-foot-deep channel through the rapids.  In 1877 a a 6 foot deep 7.6 mile canal with three locks running along the Mississippi shore from Keokuk to Nashville, IA was opened.  In 1913 the Keokuk and Hamilton Water Power Company completed Lock and Dam #19 and the Keokuk Power House. When it opened the power house was the largest single powerhouse electricity generating plant in the world. The power house provided electricity for Keokuk and cities as far away as St. Louis. The power house also attracted a lot of industry to the Keokuk area. The lock and dam obliterated the Des Moines Rapids and created Lake Cooper, named after Hugh L. Cooper, the designer of the Keokuk Dam. Lake Cooper is the largest pool in the series of dams along the Mississippi River with 240 miles of shoreline.

Lee County has vibrant tourism organizations to assist visitors in planning a trip to their area. The county has hosts a variety of events in all seasons including Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in January and the Tri-State Rodeo in August. While you're in Lee County be sure to visit the historic neighborhoods of its communities and the Main Street business districts which feature many antique and unique specialty shops and historic architecture. The area offers many enjoyable restaurants and a variety of lodging options, including bed and breakfasts that overlook the river. The people of Lee County invite you to come and enjoy their communities and all that they have to offer.

Explore these Great River Road Communities
in Lee County, Iowa
Donnellson Fort Madison Keokuk
Montrose West Point
Chief Keokuk
Veterans' Memorial
Pioneer Trail
Lock & Dam #19

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