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Dubuque, Julien
(January 10, 1762–March 24, 1810)

–fur trader, lead miner, and entrepreneur—was born in the village of St.-Pierre-de-Bequet, on the St. Lawrence River, in the district of Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Canada, the youngest of possibly 10 children born to Noel-Augustin Dubuque and Marie (Mailhot) Dubuque. His great-grandfather, Jeandubuc, had migrated to Canada in the 1650s. Julien was well educated in the parish schools and at Sorel. Fluent in English as well as his native language, he was highly educated for a young man of his time. Upon his death, among the items found in the inventory of his estate were at least 58 books, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, several political works of Montesquieu, and other literary writings and maps. He was also apparently adept at playing the fiddle and had a keen interest in culture and the arts. He was not the stereotypical rough frontiersman but instead was described as suave, pleasant, and sociable and lived lavishly. In appearance he was short, stocky, with a dark complexion, known to the Meskwaki Indians as "Little Night" (la petite nuit).

    He worked as a clerk out of Michilimackinac and learned the Indian trade before joining his brother Augustin at Prairie du Chien around 1783. He ventured farther down the Mississippi River, settled among the Meskwaki Indians, and soon gained their respect and confidence. On September 22, 1788, in Prairie du Chien, Dubuque made an agreement with the Meskwaki under the leadership of Aquoqua (Kettle Chief), giving him permission to work the lead mines in their territory. He afterward claimed that the agreement also gave him absolute possession of the territory itself. In 1796 the Spanish government granted him a tract of land–some 21 miles long and 9 miles wide near where the city of Dubuque is today– which he adroitly called the Mines of Spain. In 1806 the American government validated his claim, but after his death it was contested, and litigation raged for more than 40 years until the U.S. Supreme Court finally invalidated the claim in 1854.

    At the Mines of Spain, Dubuque set to work building cabins for his French Canadian helpers, a smelting furnace, a trading post, a sawmill, and a blacksmith shop and cultivating more than 1,600 acres of land. There are a few references to Julien Dubuque having a wife (most likely a Meskwaki woman, perhaps Potosi, daughter of chief Peosta), but there was no mention of a wife or children in the estate.

    The Meskwaki lived nearby in bark-covered wickiups, and the women and old men did most of the lead mining. The lead ore was heated (smelted) and poured into "pigs" (containers weighing approximately 11 pounds each) and transported by canoe to St. Louis. Dubuque's trips to St. Louis were as much social as commercial. He attended elaborate dances and receptions and became acquainted with many prominent citizens, including Auguste Chouteau, to whom he later sold half of his property. He returned to the Mines of Spain not only with trinkets, trade items, tobacco, rum, and supplies for his Meskwaki friends, but also furniture, books, dishes, and silver to supplement his personal lavish lifestyle.

    Dubuque became a well-known figure in the fur and lead mining trade in the upper Mississippi River valley. He even served as Indian agent at Prairie du Chien for nearly two months in 1808 before bad health and financial problems caused him to ask to be replaced. He was forced to sell half of his land to Auguste Chouteau, and when his estate was settled seven years after his death, it was not financially solvent. His lingering illness was attributed to lead poisoning, syphilis, tuberculosis, or pneumonia, or some combination of these. He died at the age of 48, 22 years after establishing perhaps the first white settlement in what would later become the state of Iowa. His Meskwaki "brothers" buried him high on a limestone bluff overlooking Catfish Creek. His grave was marked by a wooden cross carved with his name and the epitaph "Mineur des Mines d'Espagne" (Miner of the Mines of Spain). Later a little wooden hut was erected over the site with a window for the soul's exit to the west, in keeping with Woodland Indian traditions of earlier times. Today, the burial site is marked by a handsome limestone tower built by the Early Settlers' Association in 1897 as a tribute to a man who bridged the gap between two cultures in the New World in a place that would later bear his name.
Sources Unpublished manuscripts are in the Pierre Chouteau Jr. Collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. See also William E. Wilkie, Dubuque on the Mississippi, 1788– 1998 (1987); M. M. Hoffmann, Antique Dubuque, 1673–1833 (1930); Richard Herr mann, Julien Dubuque, His Life and Adventures (1922); and Thomas Auge, "The Life and Times of Julien Dubuque," Palimpsest 37 (1976), 2–13.
Contributor: Michael D. Gibson