Our Iowa Heritage: Burlington – Iowa’s First Capital 1837-1840.

Burlington – City on the Flint Hills.

Burlington Iowa in the 1880’s.

Burlington was established, like its sister-city, Dubuque to the north, on the western shores of the Mississippi River in 1833, immediately following the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832 (see map below). Prior to European settlement, the area was territory belonging to the Meshwakis (Sauk and Fox tribes), who called it Shoquoquon (Shok-ko-kon), meaning Flint Hills.

The Black Hawk Purchase of 1832 secured land up and down the Mississippi River. When this territory opened up to settlers on June 1, 1833, Iowa was “un-organized,” no longer affiliated with the former Missouri Territory. On June 28, 1834, Congress put this new Iowa territory under the care of Michigan Territory; and in September of that same year the land was divided into two counties – Dubuque and Demoine. Both of these counties had one township each—Julien Township in Dubuque County and Flint Hill Township in Demoine County. It is believed that these two townships were the very first local government divisions west of the Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1834, John Gray, who purchased one of first lots with his wife Eliza Jane, bought the naming rights as well for $50 and named the settlement Burlington in honor of his hometown in Vermont. The Grays’ daughter Abigail was born in Burlington that same year, the first European-descended American settler child born on Iowa soil.

In 1837, Burlington was designated as Wisconsin Territory’s “temporary” capital – replacing Belmont, Wisconsin while a new capitol building was being constructed in Madison City, Wisconsin.

Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).

(M-0005) One Wooden Nickel – celebrating Burlington’s 100th Anniversary of being Iowa’s first Territorial Capitol -1838.
Iowa Territorial Governor Robert Lucas – Click here to read more.

On July 4, 1838, when Iowa officially became a separate U.S. Territory, the new governor, Robert Lucas, announced that Burlington would remain as the “temporary” capital of Iowa, since it had already been serving as the capital of Wisconsin Territory since 1837. The Legislature convened in November 1838, at Zion Church, and the Council had 13 members, the House had 26. In one of its first actions, the group decided to relocate the territorial capital to a more centrally-located setting, choosing Johnson County as that place.

“Old Zion” – the first Methodist Church in Iowa, located near what is now Third and Washington Streets in Burlington. (P-0243)

Allow me to share a few Burlington-themed postal covers and postcards…

(C-0251) 1852 Stamp-less Letter from A.C. Harding in Monmouth, IL to (Judge) Charles Mason in Burlington, Iowa – Postmarked January 8, 1852. Click here for the full story on Judge Charles T. Mason of Burlington.
(C-0253) Postmarked December 22, 1853 in Burlington, this cover comes from Oliver Cock, a New York City native who came to Burlington in 1839. Click here for more about this Iowa pioneer who became the first head master of the Masons in Iowa.

(C-0243) (C-0254) Circa 1862 – P. Henry Smythe (Smyth), Crocker & Smyth. Circa 1884- P. Henry Smith & Son (James D.).

(C-0212) Circa 1862 – Postmarked December 11 in Burlington this rare cover is addressed to Mr. John Gardner of Columbus City, Iowa. Louisa County records from the late 1850’s and early 1860’s show that John Gardner was a hotel owner in Columbus City and was actively involved with other city leaders in trying to move the county seat from Wapello to Columbus City. The attempt was never accomplished, but from county records, it seemed to be quite the battle.

The building of the Mississippi & Missouri railroad, (now the Rock Island), from Davenport and Muscatine to Washington was at first of considerable advantage to Columbus City, even though the road did not hit the town. The nearest stations were first, Sand Bank (now Columbus Junction) and then Clifton, but for many years Columbus City was considered the town of that vicinity. Indeed, the railroad maps of that day show Columbus City as a station on the Mississippi & Missouri railroad.

The census taken by the state in 1856 shows that Columbus City had more farmers, more laborers and more brick layers and more sawyers than any other township in the county, although Wapello township surpassed it in the number of blacksmiths, carpenters and mechanics in a few other trades. In consequence of its growing importance Columbus City people became ambitious that it should be the county seat and on Monday, September 1, 1858, presented to the county court a petition signed by a majority of the local voters of the county asking that the question of a relocation of the county seat at Columbus City be submitted to the local voters of the county to be voted upon at the coming October election. John Gardner was one of those signers.

The county seat campaign which followed was a red hot one in every respect and little was left undone by either the friends of Columbus City or Wapello to insure a favorable result. Objection was made on the part of those who were opposed to a removal of the county seat (from Wapello) that the bond given on the removal to Columbus City was void and could not be enforced by the county in case it became desirable to do so and they had the opinions of Governor James W. Grimes, Judge David Rorer and Judge T. W. Newman to support their objections. On the other hand, the friends of Columbus City had the favorable opinion of Judge J. C. Hall, of Burlington, and of D. C. Cloud, of Muscatine, and perhaps others. The vote resulted in favor of Wapello by 105 majority. Case closed. Read all the details here…
(C-0021) 1884 Postal Cover.

Today’s Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper traces its roots to two early Burlington newspapers:

1) The Wisconsin Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser, which was established July 10, 1837 by James Clarke and Cyrus Jacobs. Clarke and Jacobs moved to Burlington from Belmont, Wisconsin, when the capital of the Wisconsin Territory was moved to Burlington (1837). The pair did printing work for the territorial government, and were aligned with the Democratic Party. In 1838, just as the new Iowa Territory was created with Burlington being its first capital, Jacobs was killed in a duel that culminated a “long-simmering” political dispute with local attorney David Rorer. Jacobs was on the verge of a prominent career in state politics while Rorer, a colorful character indeed, was moving up the political ladder as well. One account tells the story this way…

Ten days after Rorer lost the election, the pair met on a Burlington street. Jacobs drew a pistol and hit Rorer on the head with a cane. Rorer reeled and fired his own pistol, with fatal results. The examining justices found that Rorer had acted in self-defense. Rorer concluded: “I will never again campaign for election.

2) Meanwhile, a rival newspaper to Clarke and Jacobs’ Gazette/Advertiser, The Iowa Patriot, came to town via Fort Madison with James G. Edwards serving as the owner/operator.

James Edwards (The Old Hawk) brought his Patriot newspaper to Burlington in 1839.

Edwards was a supporter of the Whig Party, so apparently, Rorer and Edwards joined political forces, teaming up to eventually accomplish a lot of good things for the growing city of Burlington.

(L-0001) 1913 letterhead from The Burlington Hawk-Eye.

Meanwhile, Jacobs’ surviving partner, James Clarke became postmaster of Burlington and later its mayor. Eventually, Clarke was named the third and last governor of the Iowa Territory, and Clarke County in southern Iowa is named in his honor. After his term as governor, Clarke returned to Burlington to run the Gazette/Advertiser. He was elected as the first president of the Burlington School Board, and died July 28, 1850, in a local cholera epidemic. He was only 38, and interestingly enough, David Rorer was one of his pall bearers!

The Burlington Hawk-Eye in the 1920’s.

In the 1920s, both newspapers (The Hawk-eye and Gazette) built new buildings and remained competitors until the Depression, when both experienced financial difficulties and were purchased by Omar N. Custer, owner of the Galesburg (IL) Register-Mail. Custer merged the papers into The Burlington Hawk-eye Gazette and moved the operation into the Gazette’s building. The Burlington Hawk Eye continues to publish to today, boasting itself as “Iowa’s Oldest Newspaper.” Click here to read more about Iowa’s oldest newspapers.

Circa 1870’s map – Des Moines County Heritage Center Museum in Burlington.
(P-0206) December 26, 1903Burlington Railroad RPO/Transfer Clerk Picture Postcard. Burlington was the long-time hub-city for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CBQ) and this picture postcard of Burlington has an interesting history when it comes to Railroading in Iowa. Click here for more info.
(P-0211) Circa 1910 – Scene on the Levee in Burlington!
(C-0019) This cover is very rare indeed . While Des Moines was picked as the First Day of Issue City for the Iowa Territorial Centennial Stamp issued on August 24, 1938, Burlington really had more significance in Iowa Territorial history. Fortunately, a wise and historically-aware stamp collector got this cover postmarked in Burlington on that same day!
(C-0235) 1833-1983 Burlington Sesquicentennial Celebration.
(P-0175) 1988 Iowa Territory Sesquicentennial Issued in 1988 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Iowa Territory (1838-1888). First Day of Issue was in Burlington – Iowa’s first capitol city.
Burlington – Steamboat City on the Great River.

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

Iowa As It Is – A Gazetteer for Citizens and Handbook for Immigrants, N. Howe Parker, 1855

Burlington, Iowa – Wikiwand

The Burlington Hawk Eye, Wikipedia

History of Des Moines County and Its People – Volume I, Augustine M. Antrobus, 1915, p 36

A River Runs Through Us -The Hawk Eye, January 28, 2018

When Iowa Was Without a Name, Iowa Stories – Volume 2, Clarence Ray Aurner, 1918

Burlington on the Mississippi – Sesquicentennial 1833-1983, Helen T. McKim, Helen Parsons Editors, 1983, Doran & Ward Lithographing Co

P. Henry Smyth, Find-A-Grave

Mary Ann Crocker Smyth, Find-A-Grave

P. Henry Smythe, Annals of Iowa, Volume 7 – Number 2 – Winter 1905, p 159

History of Louisa County, Chapter XIV, Our Courts and Lawyers, p 246


Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…

Click here for a complete INDEX of PEOPLE-PLACES-THINGS…

Click here for a complete INDEX of stories listed CHRONOLOGICALLY…

Click here for a numerical INDEX to all of the U.S. postage stamps, postal cards, and coins in our collection…