The Des Moines Historical Society is a 501c3 nonprofit organization with the mission to promote the preservation and study of the history and heritage of Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo courtesy The Des Moines Register
Des Moines History -
The history of Des Moines can be traced to 1834, when John Dougherty, an Indian Agent at Fort Leavenworth, Ks, recommended that a military post be established at the point where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers merge. Nine years later, May 1843, Captain James Allen and a company of dragoons from Fort Sanford arrived on the site. Captain Allen proposed to name the garrison Fort Raccoon but was directed by the War Department to use the name Fort Des Moines. The origin of the name is uncertain, but most historians agree that the name probably initially referred to the river. Some people feel that 'Des Moines' is derived from the Indian word 'moingona' meaning river of the mounds which referred to the burial mounds that were located near the banks of the river. Others are of the opinion that name applies to the Trappist Monks (Moines de la Trappe) who lived in huts at the mouth of the Des Moines river. French voyagers referred to the river as La Riviere des Moines. The consensus seems to be that Des Moines is a variation of Moingona, Moingonan, Moingoun, Mohingona, or Moningounas, as shown on early maps.
Settlers began locating almost immediately near the fort, which is now the site of Sec Taylor Stadium. Streets were platted in 1847. The date of incorporation was September 22, 1851 and the first town election was held October 18 when 25 voters unanimously approved the town charter. On October 20th, eight councilmen were elected, and at their first meeting on October 25th, the Reverend Thompson Bird became the first president of the town council. The town continued under the 1851 charter until January 18th, 1853 when the Iowa Fourth General Assembly passed "An Act to Incorporate the Town of Fort Des Moines in Polk County, Iowa. In 1857, Fort Des Moines was shortened to Des Moines and later that year the city was designated the capitol of the State of Iowa.
The first City Hall Building was built in 1870 and was located at the corner of Second and Locust, now the site of the Civic Center Apartments. At that time it also housed the Fire Department and the Court House. That building stood until 1882 when it was demolished and replaced with a structure known as the City Market. On Christmas Eve 1909, the City Council approved the construction of the present City Hall building, which interestingly enough was called the Municipal Building in an effort toward a more positive connotation. Bids were tabulated and the low bidder was the firm of Charles Weitz and Sons, with a bid of $301,960. The cornerstone for the building was laid on June 13, 1910 to the great excitement of the community. Newspaper headlines heralded the event and noted civic leaders from all over the country that would attend the ceremonies. The dedication was preceded by a large parade through downtown which featured a platoon of police officers, civic groups, and a unit from the Sixth Cavalry.
During the 1900s issues such as the development of permanent roads, new health laws and women's suffrage dominated debate. But with the onset of World War I in August of 1914, expansion slowed as the country braced itself for war. To aid in the nation's war effort, Camp Dodge was established in 1917 and more than 100,000 Iowans were trained for combat.
Des Moines suffered the loss of many young men during the war. As those who were lucky enough to survive returned home, they faced unemployment. In January 1919, Mayor Tom Fairweather estimated that over one thousand veterans needed jobs and urged businesses in the City to assist with this growing problem. Local construction programs helped ease the situation, and the early 1920s saw an increase in building, particularly for Des Moines schools.
Although much of the boom that Des Moines experienced in the 1920s came to a halt with the stock market crash of 1929, the City fared surprisingly well throughout the 1930s. Federally funded projects supplied work that improved the City, including new bridges and streets. By 1941, Des Moines' populations had grown to 160,000 but as 1942 began, the City changed significantly as the nation entered WWII. As in most U.S. cities, food became scarce and thousands of men left the workforce to join the service.
By the end of the War era, Des Moines began to pick up the pieces and concentrate on improving the quality of life. Many businesses flourished in the post war climate, and the City soon emerged as a major insurance center. Other businesses located in Des Moines prospered and the City breezed through the next three decades with a healthy economy. Current information on business and employment statistics in the City of Des Moines indicate that the city continues to thrive.
Today more than 200,000 people live in Des Moines, and the City is recognized as a center for government, education, business, culture, and the arts. Des Moines also has gained national recognition as a major insurance center (the third largest in the world) with nearly 60 life, health, and casualty companies. The City's climate-controlled skywalk system serves as an important link to parking garages, hotels, restaurants, stores, and businesses. Skywalks make up more blocks per capita in Des Moines than in any other city of comparable size in the U.S. The City's numerous tourist attractions and facilities have established it as a popular and thriving Midwest city.
In the future, the Des Moines Historical Society will be the foremost authority on Des Moines history, with active members who are engaged in carrying out our mission.
DMHS will provide excellent educational programs in which members find personal value and in which they are given opportunities to study, research, discover and learn about Des Moines history.
As an organization, the Des Moines Historical Society believes:
...history is important to maintaining and developing the character of a city.
...history brings a community together.
...preserving our past helps guide our path to the future.
...history is meant to be shared.
...bringing together like-minded individuals has greater impact.
...we must stop the loss of Des Moines history.
...everyone has a story.
...learning history can be fun, engaging and worthwhile.
Des Moines Historical Society
History needs to be honest.
History should not be manipulated for an agenda.
It helps us understand who we are.
If we don't have knowledge, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
If we don't educate, our history dies.
Education helps us gain new perspectives.
It promotes understanding
History deserves a voice.
It's the vehicle to understanding.
It's a support system. History is rooted in community.
It offers diverse resources.
It identifies shared values and experiences.