Iowa City, Johnson County, and Eastern Iowa history, as seen through the eyes of postage stamps, postcards, letters, coins, books, and other collectibles.
Our Iowa Heritage: Burlington – Iowa’s First Capital 1837-1840.
Burlington – City on the Flint Hills.
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.
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.
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.
Allow me to share a few Burlington-themed postal covers and postcards…
(C-0243)(C-0254)Circa 1862 – P. Henry Smythe (Smyth), Crocker & Smyth. Circa 1884- P. Henry Smith & Son (James D.).
Today’s Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper traces its roots to two early Burlington newspapers:
1) TheWisconsin 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, TheIowa Patriot, came to town via Fort Madison with James G. Edwards serving as the owner/operator.
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.
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!
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.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.