Allow me to tell you an amazing story of an event that happened here in Johnson County, Iowa nearly two-hundred years ago. It was an event that, from my perspective, was nothing short of a miracle. But, as you know, miracles can happen, time passes, and sadly, memories of past miracles grow dim.
It’s my desire here to rekindle our memories, and maybe, in a small way, cast a vision of what once was – can be once more.
1838 – Johnson County, Iowa – This is The Place.
Let’s set the stage:
On December 21, 1837, Johnson County of Iowa District in Wisconsin Territory came into existence. Above (left) is one of the earliest maps we have of our county: Lieutenant Albert Lea’s 1835 map shows the American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. Above (right) shows Johnson County, which, prior to 1837, included three distinct sections: the yellow represents land open to white settlers in 1833 via the Black Hawk Purchase, the green stripe is the Keokuk Reserve which was acquired from the Sauk and Fox tribes in 1836, and the blue is the second Black Hawk purchase of 1837 – where many Native Iowans settled after being pushed from their lands on the Mississippi River in 1832.
January 1838 – Napoleon, Iowa – John Gilbert’s Trading Post.
In January, during the cold, hard winter of 1837/38, Johnson County was the home to less than fifty white settlers, a band of courageous men and women composed of fur-traders, farmers, and other assorted pioneers who were looking for new beginnings in this unexplored territory the Sauk and Fox tribes called Iowa. Below is a map of the Iowa River valley as it was in 1838 (left) and as it is today (right).
Johnson County – Rich Prairie Land shared by Red and White.
Six years earlier (1832), Chiefs Poweshiek, Wapashashiek, and Totokonock, were forced off their homeland on the Mississippi River, relocating their Meskwaki communities onto familiar summer hunting grounds located near, what is today, Sand Road on the Iowa River. The largest community, headed by Poweshiek, was about five miles south of today’s Pentacrest. Just north of Poweshiek’s camp was another village led by Wapashashiek, while a third village, led by Totokonock, was twelve miles south of Iowa City on Sand Road at the mouth of the English River, just west of today’s Lone Tree. It’s estimated, in 1838, that there were approximately 1,500 Meskwaki people in Johnson County.
January 1838 – Unity Through Diversity – Our Johnson County Heritage.
With Johnson County being established by the Wisconsin Territorial legislature, meeting in Burlington in December 1837, several pioneers, led by fur-trader John Gilbert, met in January 1838 for Johnson County’s first business meeting, held at his trading post. The goals were simple: pull together a written proposal that would be taken to Territorial legislators in Burlington, requesting of them funding for Johnson County roads, bridges, and postal service.
Iowa City historian, Henry Felkner, who was a part of this gathering, recorded what happened at this first Johnson County business meeting:
…and here is ‘The Resolution” the business meeting produced…
Now, I hope you noticed something unique in the minutes of this 1838 Johnson County business meeting. Something that’s absolutely amazing – particularly as we read Felkner’s notes in the context of the times in which these good folks lived…
Taking a Roll Call of this First Johnson County Business Meeting…
Five white men:
Henry Felkner – a farmer and sawmill operator, arriving here in May of 1837, and historian who wrote about early Iowa City in 1883.
John Gilbert – a fur-trader from Ohio, Napoleon’s first permanent resident, arriving around 1835, replacing Sumner “Hawkeye”Phelps as the on-site trader for the American Fur Company.
Judge Pleasant Harris – a Quaker born in North Carolina, moving here from Indiana with his wife, Hannah, in May of 1837.
Isaac N. Lesh – Judge Harris’ son-in-law from Indiana, arriving here with his wife in August of 1837.
Eli Meyers – one of Johnson County’s first farmers, arriving with Philip Clark from Elkhart County, Indiana in May of 1837.
One black man:
Mogawk – a tall, African-American man who rescued fur-trader William Phelps from a deadly gunpowder explosion while working on the Des Moines River.
One Native American woman:
Jennie – an older Native Iowan woman from the Winnebago tribe, working for the Phelps Brothers Fur Trading Business – a predecessor to John Gilbert’s trading post (pre-1835).
Wait! – Did we read this correctly?
As expected, most any business meeting conducted on American soil between our founding date of 1776 and today would be “led” by older white men. No surprise here, right? But, according to Felkner’s written record, a black man and a Native American woman were not only allowed to sit in on this planning meeting, they were part of the decision-making process!
And to top it off, this very first Johnson County business meeting was held in John Gilbert’s trading cabin located smack-dab in the middle of three Meskwaki tribes, estimated to be about 1,500 in population, all of which were led by Native Iowan chiefs, Poweshiek, Wapashiek, and Totokonock, three strong-willed men who desired to live peacefully alongside their white brothers and sisters, who apparently wanted the same.
There’s an old saying that implies that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And while that’s true, might it also be said, that those who learn good lessons from our history are capable of repeating it?
Johnson County Remembrance Park – A Dream for a Time Such as This?
Historian Laura Rigel calls this unique 1838 Johnson County experiment in diversity: A Dream City.
For 30 years, another Johnson County historian, Marybeth Slonneger, has held onto this dream, believing this historic event can impact the way we live our lives today. Allow me to share with you, her vision, taken from her book, Remembrance Park…
On a wintery night in early 1838, Gilbert offered his trading post for a Johnson County business meeting that was attended by seven inhabitants. The diversity of the group is significant. It included a female: Jennie, a Winnebago woman, Mogawk, an African-American man, four Anglo-American newcomers to Iowa, and the fur-trader, John Gilbert. Three Meskwaki tribes lived in organized villages along the Iowa River and peacefully co-existed with the few whites passing through the territory, while hundreds of thousands of animals thrived in a snow-bound country of prairie and timber.
Today, Johnson County Remembrance Park only exists in my imagination, but if it were a real place, it would be situated on Sand Road in Johnson County, near the junction of what is now Synder Creek, Sand Road and the Iowa River. The Remembrance part of the name commemorates the meeting of two distinct cultures: the old Americans, who were represented by Poweshiek, leader of the Meskwaki band that settled in a nearby cove of the river, and John Gilbert, the representative of the new Americans, who traded with them.
The Park of the title refers to a wish, to a place in my mind peopled by visitors and, ideally, tended by a group of volunteers who would help restore the verges of roadside and creek in native plantings. On the snag of land where Gilbert pushed off in his boat, heavy with furs, or tied up to unload supplies for his trading post, a simple bench under a bur oak might overlook mayapples, dutchmen’s breeches, bloodroot, and native rarities that might have grown nearby. A plaque would tell of those seven Johnson County residents who met amid its beauty almost two hundred years ago.
While the unity through diversity experienced in John Gilbert’s trading post that snowy January evening has long past, in my mind, that world can be visited once more and its beauty and magic rekindled once again through the creation of…
Johnson County Remembrance Park – Unity Through Diversity…for a Time Such as This.
Would you like to help us build the JCRP dream? The campaign has now begun!
Drop us an email – let us know of your interest and we’ll keep you updated on the progress we’re making in Johnson County and how you can help!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.