Indigenous peoples of varying cultures inhabited areas along the river over thousands of years, using it for transportation, water and fishing. According to the Rock Island County Historical Society, the first more permanently settled inhabitants of the Moline area are thought to be the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians, who founded the village of Saukenuk in 1720 along the Rock River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi. This tribe saw the land between the Rock and Mississippi rivers as ideal for farming and fishing. By the early 19th century, this once peaceful area became a site of violent confrontations between European-American settlers, arriving in greater numbers and encroaching on Native American land, and the Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1832 Chief Black Hawk declared war on the United States, initiating the Black Hawk War. When the war ended later that year, Black Hawk and his people were forced to leave the area and go north, paving the way for more European-American settlers to enter the Mississippi Valley.
In 1837, David B. Sears and a group of associates built a 600-foot (180 m) stone-and-brush dam across Sylvan Slough, thereby connecting the southern bank of the Mississippi River to what is today called Arsenal Island. The dam not only served as an access road between the island’s settlements and the mainland, but it provided water power for a mill which Sears built to saw wood, grind corn, and card wool. The water power generated by the dam attracted many industrialists. Over the next seven years, a number of factories sprouted up along the shoreline. A factory town was platted in 1843 on the Illinois shore under the working name of “Rock Island Mills”. The name did not stick. When Charles Atkinson, one of the major landowners in the area, was offered the choice of naming the town Moline (“City of Mills”, from the French moulin, as suggested by a local surveyor P.H. Olgilvie) or Hesperia (meaning “Star of the West”), he chose Moline. The town of Moline was incorporated on April 21, 1848 under Illinois state law and granted a charter for a trustee form of government.
The same year, John Deere, the inventor of the self-scouring steel plow, relocated his steel plow company from Grand Detour, Illinois, to Moline. At the time, Moline had a population of only a few hundred, mostly involved in work at the mill. Despite Moline’s small size, Deere saw several promising elements there: Moline’s dam and coal deposits would provide a good source of power; Moline was near the other well-established towns of Stephenson (later renamed Rock Island) in Illinois and Davenport in Iowa; and Moline’s access to the river would make shipping goods cost-efficient. As Deere expanded his factories, Moline grew in area and population.
Charles Atkinson and others successfully lobbied the federal government to get the first transcontinental railroad to pass through Moline and to cross the Mississippi over Arsenal Island. The railroad, which arrived in 1854, carried thousands of immigrants – at that time mostly Swedish, Belgian, and German, reflecting areas of economic problems in Europe – to Moline’s borders. The immigrants, most of whom knew little or no English, responded to the call of “John Deere Town” by the conductor. The railroad connected the region to the national economy, ending its previous isolation, and ensured the future success of the area. Manufactured goods were increasingly transported over rail instead of by water.
Moline’s founding fathers were primarily ambitious industrialists from New England. David B. Sears came to Moline from the Northeast by way of Cairo, Illinois, and Atkinson, John W. Spencer, and Spencer H. White, other prominent founding men, were also New Englanders. They brought a stern work ethic and controlled civic life; Moline, in contrast to its neighbors, was not a “shoot ‘em up river-town.” An article in the Moline Workman in 1854 noted that a “much duller town could not be scared up this side of Sleepy Hollow. Moline attracted large waves of immigrants from Sweden, who were believed to be family-minded, God-fearing, community-oriented workers who rarely went on strike.
Following incorporation, Moline was laid out in an orderly initial grid of sixteen square blocks with streets named after the primary landowners of the time. The New Englanders chose not to install a town common or park along the river, as they thought the space would be better used for industrial purposes. Many of these founders clearly envisioned a “Lowell on the Mississippi”, after a major industrial city of Massachusetts; Moline was marketed as a “Lowell of the West” to potential investors and immigrants.
As Moline grew around its mills and factories, and as its neighbor to the west, Rock Island, continued to grow at a similar pace, the neighboring towns ran up against one another’s borders relatively quickly. In the mid-19th century, articles about “consolidation” were a daily feature in the Moline Workman and the Rock Island Advertiser; city leaders dreamed of the joint city becoming the largest in the state. As local leaders sat down to discuss consolidation, however, disputes arose, with the most important being which city would subsume the other. As the county seat and earliest settlement on the Illinois side, Rock Island argued that it should annex Moline; Moline, being more prosperous and better known nationally, wanted to keep its name. Other points of conflict included that Moline did not want to have to assume any of Rock Island’s public debt; Rock Island feared that a union with Moline would drive down its property values; and the citizens of the two towns, representing different regions, classes, occupations and ethnicities, widely disagreed on major political issues of the day. Many leaders of Rock Island, a community founded largely by Southerners, remained sympathetic to the Confederate cause throughout the Civil War. Meanwhile, Moline was ardently Republican. The talks of consolidation ceased, although they would later return but were never resolved in favor of the merger.