Group of mill workers seated for portrait

Biggest cities in Iowa 150 years ago

Written by:
May 23, 2022
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Biggest cities in Iowa 150 years ago

After the completion of the 1860 census and the election of President Abraham Lincoln, America imploded. Eleven southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, instigating four bloody years of the Civil War and fundamentally altering the social history of the U.S. The estimates of deaths caused by the Civil War begin around 600,000, but some claim as many as 750,000 individuals died throughout the conflict.

With so many families looking for a new start after combat finally ended and approximately 4 million Black Americans emancipated from slavery, it was time for many Americans to look for a new home to put down roots. The obvious choice for many was to move west, where there was more land to buy, settle, and cultivate. Many traveled by covered wagon, spending months on the dusty trail. Others who could afford better accommodations took a 25-day ride by stagecoach. All of them picked new cities and towns to make their homes, spreading the U.S. population more evenly across different states and territories.

On May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad route across the United States was completed, ushering in a new era of transportation. The project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, though with the loss of many lives, including those of the many Irish and Chinese immigrants hired to work 12-hour days in the hot western sun. Riding by steam engine, passengers could cross the entire country in four days, enabling waves of Americans and immigrants to quickly occupy land that would otherwise take months to settle.

The years of Civil War reconstruction, coupled with wagon, stagecoach, and railroad passengers finding new lives across the U.S., made the urban development reflected in the 1870 census incredibly interesting. Stacker compiled a list of the biggest cities in Iowa from 150 years ago using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. By transcribing Table XXV of the Ninth Census of the U.S., which was previously only available as a PDF, it's easy to explore what the urban landscape looked like less than a decade after the end of the Civil War as America healed and grew.

The largest city in Iowa ranked #72 among all cities nationwide in 1870. Of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., 2 were in Iowa. Keep reading to find out more about the historic metropolitan landscape in your home state or check out the data on your own on our site, GitHub, or data.world.

You may also like: Counties with the most college graduates in Iowa

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Library of Congress

#25. Oskaloosa, Mahaska County

- Total population: 3,387 (#1,151 nationwide)
--- Male population: 1,791
--- Female population: 1,596
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,151
Men and boys stand in front of a wagon shop
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Andreas Larsen Dahl/Wisconsin Historical Society // Getty Images

#24. Sioux City, Woodbury County

- Total population: 3,401 (#1,138 nationwide)
--- Male population: 1,929
--- Female population: 1,472
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 756
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Carson Brothers/Buyenlarge // Getty Images

#23. Davenport, Scott County

- Total population: 3,414 (#1,128 nationwide)
--- Male population: 1,797
--- Female population: 1,617
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,319
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Camerique/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#22. Decorah, Winneshiek County

- Total population: 3,723 (#917 nationwide)
--- Male population: 1,943
--- Female population: 1,780
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,108
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#21. Marion, Linn County

- Total population: 3,854 (#866 nationwide)
--- Male population: 1,981
--- Female population: 1,873
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,225
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#20. Fort Madison, Lee County

- Total population: 4,011 (#807 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,112
--- Female population: 1,899
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,242
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#19. Washington, Washington County

- Total population: 4,043 (#790 nationwide)
--- Male population: 1,990
--- Female population: 2,053
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,245
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Alexander Alland, Sr./Corbis via Getty Images

#18. Lyons, Clinton County

- Total population: 4,088 (#771 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,049
--- Female population: 2,039
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,306
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Carleton E. Watkins/Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

#17. Mount Pleasant, Henry County

- Total population: 4,245 (#725 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,062
--- Female population: 2,183
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,304
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#16. Waterloo, Black Hawk County

- Total population: 4,337 (#694 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,250
--- Female population: 2,087
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,176
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Camerique/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#15. Knoxville, Marion County

- Total population: 4,750 (#570 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,416
--- Female population: 2,334
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,622
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#14. Lake Prarie, Marion County

- Total population: 4,958 (#530 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,552
--- Female population: 2,406
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,708
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Detroit Publishing Company // Library of Congress

#13. Ottumwa, Wapello County

- Total population: 5,214 (#482 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,769
--- Female population: 2,445
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,475
Farrier shoeing a horse with blacksmith and two other men standing nearby.
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#12. Des Moines, Boone County

- Total population: 5,241 (#478 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,656
--- Female population: 2,585
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,563
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#11. Iowa City, Johnson County

- Total population: 5,914 (#391 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,915
--- Female population: 2,999
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,875
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#10. Cedar Rapids, Linn County

- Total population: 5,940 (#389 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,077
--- Female population: 2,863
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,844
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#9. Clinton, Clinton County

- Total population: 6,129 (#369 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,265
--- Female population: 2,864
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,664
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Transcendental Graphics // Getty Images

#8. Centre, Henry County

- Total population: 6,310 (#351 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,149
--- Female population: 3,161
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,858
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#7. Muscatine, Muscatine County

- Total population: 6,718 (#320 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,347
--- Female population: 3,371
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,138
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#6. Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County

- Total population: 10,020 (#184 nationwide)
--- Male population: 5,477
--- Female population: 4,543
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,903
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Vintage Images // Getty Images

#5. Des Moines, Polk County

- Total population: 12,035 (#140 nationwide)
--- Male population: 6,182
--- Female population: 5,853
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 3,386
Men standing next to horse drawn carriages in front of shops
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American Stock/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#4. Keokuk, Lee County

- Total population: 12,766 (#123 nationwide)
--- Male population: 6,530
--- Female population: 6,236
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 3,854
Men and women sitting with bicycles in park.
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Chicago History Museum // Getty Images

#3. Burlington, Des Miones County

- Total population: 14,930 (#104 nationwide)
--- Male population: 7,713
--- Female population: 7,217
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 4,545
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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#2. Dubuque, Dubuque County

- Total population: 18,434 (#83 nationwide)
--- Male population: 9,201
--- Female population: 9,233
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 5,855
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

#1. Davenport, Scott County

- Total population: 20,038 (#72 nationwide)
--- Male population: 10,316
--- Female population: 9,722
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 5,909

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