Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest city and is among the oldest settlements west of the Mississippi River. The first permanent settler to the area was French-Canadian fur trader Julien Dubuque. When he arrived in 1785, the Mesquakie (Fox) Indians occupied the region which included an abundant amount of lead mines. Knowing lead’s importance to Europeans, the Mesquakie kept the locations of the mines a secret. But Julien Dubuque developed close relationships with the Mesquakie while trading fur and the Mesquakie informed him of the region’s wealth of lead deposits. Working together to mine the lead with the Mesquakie, Julien Dubuque was eventually given control of the mines, which he named the Mines of Spain ,and successfully operated until his death in 1810. On June 1, 1833, the land Julien Dubuque had worked so hard to develop was opened up for settlement by the United States Government under the Black Hawk Purchase Treaty and came to be known as the city of Dubuque when it was chartered in 1837.

Dubuque’s location to the Mississippi and its abundant land and resources, attracted large numbers of immigrants, particularly Irish and Germans, from overcrowded cities on the east coast. The Black Hawk Purchase Treaty allowed miners the first opportunity to settle along the banks west of the Mississippi and those that moved westward referred to Dubuque as the “Key City”—the place in which the door to their dreams of a better life was opened. Settlers to this vibrant river city were known for mining and fur-trading, but later flourished in the industries of button making, boat building, logging, mill working, meat packing, and other heavy industries. Since then, the community has had a long-standing manufacturing sector and a growing service sector. Dubuque is now the major retail, medical, education and employment center for the tri-state area.

Dubuque takes great pride in the slogan, “Masterpiece on the Mississippi,” but such was not always the case for Dubuque. In the 1980s, Dubuque was a city experiencing difficult times. The city had double-digit unemployment, an exodus of residents from the community and the state, struggling downtown businesses, and disconnected neighborhoods. However, community leaders from the private and public sectors came together in four community visioning efforts over the past 20 years that helped change Dubuque. These leaders focused on grassroots efforts to address downtown redevelopment and industrial expansion. 

One of the biggest challenges for area leaders was how to once again connect citizens to the river that inspired the settlement of their community. The riverfront that was once an epicenter of the city was plagued by environmental issues, undervalued property, and a mix of heavy industrial uses adjacent to downtown. In the late 1990s, the Dubuque County Historical Society created the America’s River project with a goal of raising $25 million to redevelop the riverfront. Soon the $25 million America’s River project, with the help of a $40 million state Vision Iowa grant, became a $188 million revitalization reality, one of the most successful in the state. The goal for the project was to transform 90 acres of underutilized, industrial, brownfield property north of the historic Ice Harbor into a campus capturing the historical, environmental, educational and recreational majesty of the Mississippi River. The first phase of the project had five anchor components: the Mississippi Riverwalk, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the Grand River Center, the Grand Harbor Resort, and the Star Brewery.  The area now known as the Port of Dubuque continues to evolve and it has become a stunning gateway for the city and to the state of Iowa.

Dubuque has also long been a historical and cultural center with its numerous historic sites, architectural Historic Districts with well-preserved buildings and homes, a revitalized main street, history and art museums, live theaters, ballet troupes, a symphony, three private colleges, two seminaries, a Bible college, libraries and a local history research center, recreational and sports venues, beautiful parks, a state park and nature interpretive center, miles of hiking and biking trails, and the great Mississippi River. 

While significant progress has been made in the recent past, Dubuque is poised to continue in the tradition of the first pioneers who settled among its bluffs. Recent recognitions include being named one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People, the Most Livable Small City, and an Iowa Great Place, as well as having been named a five-time All-America City. Dubuque, Iowa is truly a “Masterpiece on the Mississippi.”

For additional information on the history of Dubuque, visit Encyclopedia Dubuque, the revised and expanded online form of the popular reference book Dubuque: The Encyclopedia written by Randolph W. Lyon. This website features more than 600 images and over 1,900 articles relating to the history and culture of Dubuque, Iowa.