Our Iowa Heritage: 1820’s/1830’s – Phelps/Gilbert.

If you’ve ever set out on a journey to discover your family heritage, you’ll know the dilemma that often occurs when you hit a fork in the proverbial road, where the “facts” you’ve uncovered seem to point in several different directions.

So, it is with Johnson County, Iowa history when trying to determine the WHO and the WHEN of those who came before us. Now, obviously, the truest answer lies, not in our European heritage, but in Native American history. We address that issue elsewhere in our writings.

So, here’s a set of four “facts” about the earliest days of Johnson County. Two surround the WHEN question, and two deal with the WHO. Which option(s) do you to believe to be true? And which, not?


Historical Option #1: The first white man to set foot in Johnson County was a fur-trader, associated with the American Fur Company, arriving in the 1820’s (circa 1822-1826).

Historical Option #2: The first white man to set foot in Johnson County was a fur-trader, associated with the American Fur Company, arriving in the 1830’s (circa 1830-1832).


Historical Option #1: John Gilbert, a New Yorker, is that fur-trader, arriving here, via Green Bay.

Historical Option #2: Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, a New Yorker, is that fur-trader, arriving here, via Illinois.

So, let’s tackle all this, taking it one step at a time. First, in order to set a proper date, we need to put our date options (1820’s vs. 1830’s) in context. Allow me, here, to give you a brief timeline for Iowa’s earliest history…

1673 – Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet, French explorers are the first Europeans to set foot on the western shore of the Mississippi River, including eastern Iowa.

1682: Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claims “Louisiana” (the Mississippi River valley, including Iowa) for the King of France.

1788: Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian fur-trader arrives in what is today, Dubuque County, Iowa, establishes Iowa’s first European/American settlement and begins trading with the Sauk and Fox tribes.

1803: The United States purchases the Louisiana Territory from France. St. Louis becomes the capital of the northern section of the Territory, of which Iowa is a part.

1804-1806: Louis and Clark expedition of the Louisiana Territory, traveling from St. Louis westward up the Missouri River.

1805-1806: Zebulan Pike explores the upper Mississippi River valley, charting many of the tributaries of the Great River, including those in Iowa.

1808: Fort Bellevue (later called Fort Madison) constructed in what will become Lee County.

1812: Iowa becomes part of Territory of Missouri with the capital in St. Louis.

1813: Fort Madison abandoned.

1821: Missouri is admitted to the Union, leaving Iowa with no official jurisdictional authority designated until 1834.

1823: Stephen Long expedition explores the upper Mississippi River valley, including Iowa. First steamboat (The Virginia) on Mississippi River reaches Iowa.

1824: So-called “Half Breed Tract” set aside in what would become Lee County.

1830: So-called “Neutral Ground” established in what would become northeastern Iowa. Isaac Galland founds first school in Iowa (Lee County).

1832: Following the Black Hawk uprising, a treaty with the Sauk Indians (“Black Hawk Purchase”) opens Iowa land for legal European/American settlement.

1833: On June 1, U.S. citizens may legally enter into Iowa, buy land and establish homesteads.

Now, let’s look at what some of the most reliable historians say…

Author Charles Ray Aurner in his 1912 book, Leading Events in Johnson County History, is like others, focusing on John Gilbert as the man behind the first American Fur Company trading post, dating its beginnings in 1826. Famed Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, in the 1980’s, produced a very informative 18 minute video on the subject.
This 1883 account from the History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882 offers a bit of difference in the story, dating the first Trading Post circa 1830, but like Aurner and Weber, gives credit to John Gilbert as the primary agent.
Once again, from the 1883 History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882, here’s how the author addresses the “Sumner Phelps” issue, correctly associating him with the American Fur Company and as a traveling supervisor for that same company. Phelps family records, however, show that Sumner was doing this type of work from 1825 on, both independently with his own company, S.S. Phelps & Co (with his brother, William, who relocated from Illinois, working as an owner/operator on the Des Moines River) and with the American Fur Company (see below) from 1834 and following.
This 1919 account from the Phelps family records, indicates that Sumner Phelps probably had a much longer history of “servicing” trading posts along the rivers of Iowa than John Gilbert, who according to some records didn’t arrive in Iowa until 1835.

Read more about Sumner Phelps and his fur-trading business along the rivers of eastern Iowa.

Read more about John Gilbert and the early days of Napoleon on the shores of the Iowa River.

The Evidence That Demands A Verdict: C.W. Irish – 1886.

Which now brings us to the one piece of evidence that, as I see it, pushes us to a logical conclusion. This comes from the same source as an earlier one (above): Leading Events in Johnson County History, a publication by Charles Ray Aurner (1912), recounting the story from the day (in 1886) when C.W. Irish, a member of the Johnson County Old Settlers Association, spoke at the 50th Anniversary Celebration…

Charles Wood (C.W.) Irish. Charles Wood Irish was born in New York City on February 11, 1834, son of Frederick M. Irish. He was raised and educated in Iowa. In 1855, he married Susannah Abigail Yarbrough. As an engineer and surveyor, Irish served in a number of capacities. He was a city engineer for Iowa City and the first county surveyor in Tama County. In addition, he was a chapter member of both Iowa Society of Civil Engineers and the Agassiz Society of Iowa City. Irish was involved with the first attempt to build a railroad across Iowa in the 1850s. Later he worked as a surveyor in the West during the construction of such railroad lines as the Chicago-Northwestern and the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe. He was appointed United States Surveyor General for Nevada by President Cleveland in 1886 and in 1893 was called to Washington to head the Bureau of Irrigation and Inquiry. At the time of his death in 1904, he was serving as the Deputy Mining Surveyor of Nevada. In addition to being both an engineer and surveyor, Irish was a noted botanist, geologist, and astronomer. His observations of the total eclipse of the sun in 1869 at Iowa City and Nevada in 1889 resulted in international recognition. Charles Wood Irish died September 27, 1904, at Gold Creek, Nevada.

Read below what Irish had to say about our WHO and WHEN Johnson County controversy…

Leading Events in Johnson County History, a publication from 1912, p 44.

Now, allow me to give you my take on what ole C.W. Irish said that day in 1886 as he was reminiscing about the past…

Point one: Note that Irish’s story is a perfect reflection of what the Phelps family story provides. William, Sumner’s brother, did indeed work the Des Moines River, beginning at the mouth of the river on the Mississippi; working his way westward and settling with his wife near Iowaville (just east of Agency) on the Des Moines River. Captain Phelps brother (i.e. the man Irish refers to) who “came up the Iowa river and built his fort inside the lines of Johnson county,” is, without a doubt, Sumner Phelps.

Point two: Notice, at this point in Irish’s story, there is no mention of John Gilbert! As a matter of fact, just a bit later in his talk, Irish gives us his answer to our question of which man came first…Phelps or Gilbert. Let me share that with you here…

It’s vitally important to establish the fact that in order to get to John Gilbert in Johnson County history, C.W. Irish had to move forward in time to at least 1836, several years after the first trading house was already established on the Iowa River! And as you can see clearly in his words, Irish believed Gilbert was invited to come to Iowa by “Mr. Phelps,” which could be a reference to William, who was the general manager working out of Iowaville, or Sumner himself, who was overseeing the first trading house, “the founding of which I have already described.”

You see, it’s really clear here. To C.W. Irish, John Gilbert was not the first white person in Johnson County to set up a trading post. That honor belongs to Sumner Phelps, whose family records agree that while he never settled here, was, in fact, the “traveling salesman,” who established the first trading post as the Phelps brothers built their commercial fur-trading franchises across the Mississippi River valley.

Now, it’s equally true, both from Irish’s story and other historians, that John Gilbert was Johnson County’s first true settler, moving here around 1835, establishing his home, recruiting others to join him (Myers and Clark in 1836), and eventually building a second trading post in 1837.

Point three: Now, let’s address the WHEN issue. The only glaring errors in C.W. Irish’s story are the two dates he gave for these early Johnson County events. He says “1822” for the time when the fur-traders began their work on the area rivers, and states that in “1826” boats from St. Louis “discharged their cargoes and took on loads of furs.” Allow me here to address these date problems:

A) While fur-trading was certainly occurring on the Mississippi in the 1820’s, it appears that the Phelps family didn’t branch out beyond Yellow Banks (now Oquakwa, IL) with S.S. Phelps Company until the late 1820’s. Sumner, in fact was in Galena, IL for a period of time (beginning in 1828), and it wasn’t until the early 1830’s when brother William moved to Iowaville on the Des Moines River. So, indeed, if Sumner Phelps is our man, the date of 1832 certainly fits much better than Irish’s “1822.”

1823 Map of the Upper Mississippi River Valley – The Steamboat Virginia. In 1823, the Virginia made the first steamboat trek on the Upper Mississippi. Here is a map of that journey.

B) The fact is that in 1826, while steamboats were now traveling the Mississippi (see map above), it’s hard to conceive that larger commercial flat-bed boats, and certainly no steamboats, would be traveling up the Iowa River. Canoes and small rafts, yes, but nothing more. As a matter of fact, most historians place 1837 as the date when the first steamboat made its way up the Des Moines River to Iowaville. Now, if we change Irish’s date by one decade, moving his “1826” to 1836, his story makes much more practical sense.

C) Finally, the 1820’s dates that Irish and others use, fail to take in account the history of the Sauk and Fox tribes themselves and where they settled between 1800 and the 1830’s. Historians know with certainty that Chiefs Poweshiek and Wapashashiek didn’t settle in the Iowa River valley until they were pushed there around the time when the Black Hawk treaty (1832) was signed. So, these early accounts of fur-traders having such intimate interaction and transactions with Poweshiek and his tribe in the early 1820’s simply could not have occurred until the early 1830’s at best.

Above is a map of Iowa in 1833 – just prior to the Black Hawk Purchase opening to white settlers. Click here for an overview of maps of Iowa Territory available during these pivotal years.

So, here’s my guess. C.W. Irish, in 1886, is telling the most accurate story we have, but sadly either C.W. simply misspoke by one decade, or those reporting on his talk did!

Leading Events in Johnson County History continues on pp 44-45, where we find that Irish had planned to bring written proof from William Phelps of his statements, but sadly he had mislaid it. C.W. goes on here to accurately describe the Johnson County story as it played out from 1833 through 1836, when Albert Lea published his map of the area (see below).
Albert Lea’s map of the Johnson County area in 1835 (published in 1836) showing the first trading post on the Iowa River and Chief Poweshiek’s camp nearby. Click here for more details.

It’s interesting that most Iowa historians writing between 1883 and 1940 have continued utilizing these two WHO and WHEN “errors” I’ve pointed out in this early Johnson County story. Reliable authors such as Jack T. Johnson, writing for the State Historical Society in 1939, and Irving Weber, recording his Napoleon story in the 1980’s, both pointed to John Gilbert arriving in Iowa in the mid-1820’s. And yet recently, since 2000, authors, such as Laura Rigel and Sarita Zaleha, armed with more biographical material, richer archaeological data, and easier access to historical records, seem to agree with the WHO and WHEN conclusions I’ve come to here:

Historical Fact #1: The first white man to set foot in Johnson County was a fur-trader, who eventually associated with the American Fur Company (1834), arriving in the 1830’s (circa 1830-1832).

Historical Fact #2: Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, a New Yorker, is that fur-trader, arriving here, via Illinois.

I’ve taken the liberty to chart out on this 1835 map by Lt. Albert Lea where the Phelps brothers built their successful fur-trading business. Starting in the north: 1) Galena (1828) where Alexis & Sumner were lead miners; 2) Yellow Bank (Oquakwa, IL) just south of where the Iowa River meets the Mississippi where Alexis and Sumner finally settled; 3) Johnson County (1832) where Sumner canoed up the Iowa River; and 4) Iowaville (1830’s) where William settled on the Des Moines River, managing the entire fur-trading operation.

Admittedly, like most family stories, the research still continues. Who knows? At some point, more evidence may come forth to disprove my points. But until then, I’m sticking with this “Sumner in 32” version of the Johnson County story. Thanks to Sumner Phelps for arriving here first, and thanks to John Gilbert for sticking around! And thank YOU for listening!

Read more about Sumner Phelps and his fur-trading business along the rivers of eastern Iowa.

Read more about John Gilbert and the early days of Napoleon on the shores of the Iowa River.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

A Timeline of Iowa History, Iowa OnLine

History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882, author & publisher unknown w/ quotes from early settlers Cyrus Sanders, Henry Felkner, Iowa City, 1883, pp 300-1.

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp. 14, 19, 44-45.

The “Virginia,” The “Clermont” of the Upper Mississippi, William J. Peterson, 1968, Minnesota History Magazine

A History of Wapello County-Trading Posts, Wapello County Museum website

Stephen Sumner Phelps, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 1919), p 255.

Guide to the Charles Wood Irish Papers, University of Iowa Library

General Charles Wood Irish, Find-A-Grave

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36, 2009.

Iowa City Parks: Terry Trueblood Recreation AreaSand Lake, Sarita Zaleha, Iowa City Parks website.

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