The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Le Claire, Antoine
(December 15, 1797–September 25, 1861)

–an important figure in the negotiations leading to the extinguishing of American Indian claims in Iowa and the resultant development of Scott County, Iowa—was born at St. Joseph, Michigan, the son of a French Canadian father and a Potawatomi mother. St. Joseph was a central point in the fur trade where buyers and sellers from the Great Lakes region and beyond would frequently meet. In that environment, Le Claire acquired the ability to speak French, Spanish, and several American Indian languages. Apparently, the family's business relationship with John Kinsey of Fort Dearborn (presently Chicago) cemented sympathy for the American cause during the War of 1812.

    As a result of those connections, William Clark, governor of Missouri Territory, invited young Antoine Le Claire into government service and sent him to school to improve his English language skills. In 1818 Le Claire was working at Fort Armstrong (Arsenal Island) and in 1820 was in the Peoria area, where he married Marguerite LaPage, also of mixed American Indian and French Canadian ancestry. After some years in the service of the federal government, in 1827 Le Claire returned to Fort Armstrong, where he continued his duties as interpreter in several important treaty negotiations with the Sauk, Meskwaki, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Osage, Chippewa, and Kansas.

    Le Claire was a participant in negotiating the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832, by which the Sauk and Meskwaki ceded much of their land in Iowa. At the insistence of the Sauk chief Keokuk, Le Claire was given the section of land upon which the treaty was signed, the present site of Davenport, Iowa. The Sauk and Meskwaki also donated to him a square mile of land located at the head of the Rock Island rapids, where the town of Le Claire is presently located. In the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, the Potawatomi gave him land on the Illinois side of the river, including the site of Moline, Illinois. The federal government rewarded Le Claire's efforts by appointing him justice of the peace and postmaster in 1833, with authority over the entire Black Hawk Purchase area.

    Because the area was sparsely populated, his duties were limited, and he embarked on many commercial ventures. He was among the men who met in George Davenport 's house to plan the establishment of the city of Davenport. Although the city carries Colonel Davenport's name, many believe that Le Claire was most instrumental in its founding. Le Claire was paid $1,750 for the original site and retained one-eighth interest in the venture. Much of the funding for public buildings and churches of several denominations resulted from his generosity. His donation of land for a courthouse contributed to the decision to locate the county seat at Davenport instead of Rockingham. The first hotel, foundry, and ferry were among Le Claire's many business ventures.

    Outside of Scott County, Le Claire is probably best known for his translation of Black Hawk 's autobiography. Although its authenticity has been questioned, it appears to reflect the thoughts, if not the actual dictation, of Black Hawk. The extent of Le Claire's role in shaping the text–like that of the original publisher, John Patterson–has long been the subject of some controversy.

    Although Antoine and Marguerite had no biological children, they informally adopted Louis Antoine Le Claire, the son of a half-brother. After living in the Treaty House, built at the site of the Black Hawk Treaty, until 1855, the family moved into the mansion that would be known as the Le Claire House. (That house would become the residence for the first bishop of the new Diocese of Davenport in 1880.) In the late 1850s Le Claire suffered a severe financial setback as a result of his efforts to bail out the Cook and Sargent Bank, which eventually failed anyway in 1859.

    Antoine Le Claire died on September 25, 1861. When the site of St. Marguerite's Church was selected for the construction of Sacred Heart Cathedral, his and Marguerite's bodies were moved to Mount Calvary cemetery in 1889.
Sources The most compelling account of Le Claire's life is in Franc B. Wilkie, Davenport Past and Present (1858)-a celebratory account written before the famous pioneer's death. The Davenport Public Library's special collections department has posted on its Web site a fairly complete account of Le Claire's life.
Contributor: Mel Prewitt