Our Iowa Heritage: Ahoy, Frederick Irish – The Iowa City Sea Captain.

When Iowa Territory opened up in the mid-to-late 1830’s – dreamers back east, from all sorts of backgrounds, ventured westward to settle on this beautiful land one Native American tribe (Meskwaki) called IOWA – this is the place.

Fur traders were the first white settlers, followed by farmers, brick-makers, lawyers, and in 1838, even a Quaker ship captain, a former whaler, made his way to Johnson County!

Meet one whale of a guy . . . Frederick Macy (F. M.) Irish from Hudson, New York in Columbia County. Born on March 13, 1801 to Jonathan Irish and his wife, Ruth, Frederick had five other brothers and six sisters! In Iowa City, Irish was known as the “huge captain with the booming voice.”

Columbia County, New York (see map above) is located on the Hudson River, very near the Catskill Mountains, and was settled in 1786 by a colony of Quaker seafaring families from Nantucket Island. Apparently, the Irish’s and others decided that they’d lost too many fathers and sons to the dangers of whaling, but as the old saying goes, you can take a man away from the sea, but you can’t take the sea out of a man. So, it was for Frederick and his brothers.

Without a doubt, whaling was a dangerous job (i.e. Captain Ahab and Moby Dick), and as much as Jonathan and Ruth Irish wanted to raise their sons in a less dangerous calling, it was Frederick’s oldest brother who returned first to the trade, sailing from Nantucket, but, sadly, was lost at sea. Yet, that didn’t stop young Frederick. The Iowa City Daily Evening Press (Feb. 19, 1875) tells Irish’s sea tale…

Shipping with the famed Captain Ray on the good ship Stonington, whose stout timbers rest now on the bottom in the Straits of Magellan, (Irish) entered the whaling service and followed it for several years. More than fifty years ago (1825) he sailed through the Golden Gate and heard the Angelus ring in the adobe mission church of San Francisco. Sailing further north to where the Columbia poured its unfretted flood into the Pacific, he faced that wild coast about which, since, wars have been fought, treaties made, flags changed and from which History has culled a golden page. Resting upon the Sandwich Islands, he pulled an oar in the boat which landed the first load of American Missionaries; and there acquired the soft language of the natives and so observed their customs and habits as to supply the material for many an interesting narrative.

During his later years in Iowa City, F.M. would love to give lectures on whaling, displaying some of his own personal harpoons used during his days on the high seas.

But finely homeward, around the Horn he came, to find the family scattered, as is Nature’s order, brothers and sisters married new homes made, and new faces in them. So he too settled down; the waves wooed him no more and having profitable engagement with the old Dry Dock Company, in service in N. Y. harbor, where his sailing knowledge availed him, there came into his life the tender longing, out of which homes grow up, and firesides come, in which men and women reach their best estate; and on December 12th, 1826, he and Elizabeth Ann Robinson of the village of Mamaroneck, West Chester County, New York, were married, and, blessed with more of health and manly and womanly attractions than fall to the lot of many, they entered on that long journey that has lasted until its fiftieth year (1875) was but a little further on.

Now married, Frederick used his sea-legs around 1836 to relocate his family to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he built the first foundry and machine shop in the Wabash Valley. There, the Irish’s had another son, and by 1838, F.M. was, once again, on the move. With his family living in a temporary home in New York, Irish sold all he had, bought a horse, and headed west to the new land called Iowa. The Daily Evening Press, once again, tells the story poetically…

Iowa was then just talked of, a few traders were posted on its Mississippi border, while the general Eastern public were under the impression that beyond the river bluffs the land was a rootless, leafless desert; and even the better informed who had read the journal of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, had learned that the country could never be settled, for it was pelted with everlasting rains, a sort of Alaskan shower, that never wholly ceased. But desert and deluge had no place in the fears of the coming pioneer and he came by National roads and Eastern shore there spread out under his feet the forest clad bottom, past whose leafy line marched, to its own majestic music, the Mississippi. Beyond was Burlington, the Capital of the newly organized territory, as it had been the Capital of Wisconsin territory before the division, and to that city he crossed. This was in 1838.

As you’ve read on other posts from Our Iowa Heritage website, F.M. Irish became one of the important movers and shakers in early Iowa City history. Some records indicate that he was present on May 1, 1839 at John Gilbert’s Trading House when Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds started their “official” search for Iowa Territory’s new capital city. Other records show him as the man who built the Lean Back Hall which housed the many men who came to Iowa City in the fall of 1839 to purchase land. F.M. also built his own cabin on land north and east of the city, a cabin that eventually served as the temporary court house for Johnson County (1839-1842).

October 8, 1839 Iowa City – Johnson County’s New County Seat.

Read more about the earliest days of Johnson County here.

F.M. Irish – Family Man – Capitol Builder – Railroad Investor.

We Build Our Capitol – 1841 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Mildred Pelzer’s mural depicts Chauncey Swan (right), who is sometimes called the “Father of Iowa City” since he was part of the original team that selected the site and then stayed here until 1849, serving in a variety of leadership roles; and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli (left). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Since F.M. was there in the very earliest of days in Iowa City, Chauncey Swan brought him alongside as the construction of the new capitol was happening. Even though Irish was a farmer all of his years in Iowa City, he also had a great inventive mind, designing a construction rig that helped the workman lift the limestone blocks used in constructing the new building.

Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Eventually, Irish enlarged his own cabin, reuniting with his family, bringing them here from New York in 1840. In 1841, he purchased an additional 30 acres of land adjacent to his home and purchased four lots within the city as well. At this point, I’m going to let the beautiful writings of The Iowa City Daily Evening Press tell the rest of F.M.’s amazing story (with a few comments from me peppered in along the way)…

Irish remained a prominent citizen in Iowa City (1838-1875) who was appointed, along with former Governor Robert Lucas, to a group working to bring the railroad to Iowa City. Here then, after the suns of every latitude had bronzed his face, and many trials had come to him, he came to stay. In life’s very prime, he entered in earnest upon the making of a home. A fortunate entry of land from the government, in the course of years brought to him affluence.

Click here to read about the coming of the railroad to Iowa City.

1855 – Blinded but Not Blind to Life.

The last twenty years of his life were passed in total blindness, a sudden attack of neuralgia having destroyed his vision. But let us hope that that last score of years brought to him much of life’s pleasures and that his extreme age, even, was not accompanied by any more than the usual trials of gathering infirmity. He was a man of most wonderful memory and with the rarest faculty of description. Of great head and great heart too let it to be written that the sorest trials of his life came through loyal adherence to the bruised fortunes of his friends.

With an imperious will that a tempest could not bend nor break, there came down through the long line of his Quaker ancestry, trickling through the tender hearts of demure and gentle women and just men, to his, a flood of tender feeling which to the last glorified his poor blind eyes, in which Pity’s sweet fountain never ran dry.

1868 – The Iowa City Historian – A First-Hand Account.

Largely self-cultured, he had a wide acquaintance with literature. But a few years since, assisted by his daughter, as amanuensis, he prepared (1868) for the Annals of Iowa, a history of Johnson county, which is a just monument to his mnemonic accuracy and a most interesting collation of fact and detail, cast into that vigorous and excellent English, of which he was capable.

One of the earliest histories of Iowa City was written by F.M. Irish in 1868. It was published in four segments in the Annals of Iowa (1868). You can access these complete writings using the links at the bottom of this page.

The Kind & Generous Sailor.

Charitable to the last degree he was always on the alert to do some good things for the poor. There were formerly resident here several old and indigent blind people to aid whom was his habit. In order to combine employment for his active mental faculties with their succor, it was his fancy to deliver, in one of the public halls of the city, familiar talks upon whales and whaling, illustrated by the exhibition of implements used in whaling, the proceeds of these talks going to the needy and blind. Thus his early passion for a sailor’s life and its pursuit, was carried into comfort for the comfortless; and perchance in memory of this, yesterday some kind and thoughtful hand cast upon his coffin an anchor, wrought in living flowers, and buds and leaves.

With the first rigors of the season came to him a plea for help from an early settler, Stephen B. Gardner, now resident in Kansas, and within a few months stricken to utter helplessness with paralysis. With the cry for help all remembrance of feud and offense was washed away, and he buried himself in collecting amongst old settlers such addition to what he was able to give, as should make the helpless man comfortable. And on the last day of his life, his business to the city, that brought him past the fatal spot where Death lurked to strike him, was the mailing of some more of this fund to Mr. Gardner, which had accumulated since the former installment was sent.

Here’s the signature of Stephen B. Gardner when he was serving as Clerk for the Iowa District Court and the Johnson County Board of Commissioners (1845). Click here to read more about young Stephen B. Gardner, who lived in Iowa City with his family during the 1840’s and 50’s.

The Good Captain’s Sudden Death – February 1875.

The manner of (F.M.’s) death, while intensely distressing, was as near a realization of his often expressed wish as was possible. He kept a careful boy to drive a very trusty horse, and so was accustomed to ride at pleasure from his home to the city. At one o’clock on last Tuesday, while coming as usual down Dubuque street, through the cluster of teams at the wood and hay market, his sleigh ran athwart a team which was moving west. As soon as they saw each other both drivers checked up, but too late to save a fatal collision. He was immediately brought to the private room of the PRESS office, where despite the earnest professional efforts of Dr. Graham and Profs. (W.F.) Peck, (John C.) Shrader and Clapp, he died in two hours. There was no complete reaction from the shock and the apparent suffering was so inconsiderable as to go no farther than the vague uneasiness which is the usual accompaniment of such complete paralysis.

Obsequies were conducted at the residence, on Rose Hill, yesterday, Rev. Mr. Judd, Rector of Trinity, officiating. So closed a long and active life. Let its unnumbered kindly acts be its eulogy, for a sore-hearted swell of feeling restrains this pen within the limit of barest detail.


1849 – Rose Hill – The Irish Home.

Rose Hill, also known as the Irish-Goetz House, is a historic building located in what was once, the eastern edge of Iowa City. As we discussed earlier, Irish first built a log cabin here in 1839 (see map above), and then in 1840/1841 enlarged the home, adding 30 additional acres (yellow) to the property. In 1849, F.M. built the house (below) called Rose Hill. Many believe the home was part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era, since the Irish family sided with the many anti-slavery abolitionists living in Iowa City at the time

When Irish built this house he chose the Greek Revival style, which might reflect his relationship with John F. Rague, who designed Old Capitol. It also reflects the housing styles of his native New York, and is very similar to the “farmhouse elevation” found in Minard Lafever’s work, Young Builder’s General Instructor.

J. H. Millar’s 1854 map of Iowa City shows Capt Irish’s Rose Hill, named for all the wild roses on the original 30 acres.

Irish’s descendants owned the property until 1964, when the city bought 17.5 acres, making it into a section of today’s Hickory Hill Park. The remainder of the property was developed into new housing, but fortunately the original Rose Hill home was saved from the wrecking ball, being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

Click here to read and see more about Rose Hill and today’s Hickory Hill Park.

Here are the seven children of Frederick & Elizabeth Irish (married 1826)…

A son, born in NYC – died in infancy in NYC

A daughter, born in NYC – died in childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana

Charles Wood Irish, born 1834 in NYC – died in Nevada 1904

Gilbert Robinson Irish, born 1837 in Terre Haute, Indiana – died in Iowa City 1911

Thomas Myrick Irish born 1841 in Iowa City, Iowa – died in California 1935

John Powell Irish, born 1843 in Iowa City, Iowa – died in California 1923

Ruth Elizabeth Irish, born in 1849 in Iowa City, Iowa – died in Iowa City 1938


Frederick M. Irish died on February 16, 1875, at age 73, and Elizabeth A. Irish died two years later on November 4, 1877. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Here’s to the Good Captain and his dear ship-mate in life…Godspeed!


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

Columbia County, New York, Wikipedia

History of Johnson County – Part 1, Iowa History of Johnson County, Iowa, F.M. Irish, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1868 – Number 1, 1868, pp 23-31

History of Johnson County – Part 2, Iowa History of Johnson County, Iowa, F.M. Irish, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1868 – Number 2, 1868, pp 105-120

History of Johnson County – Part 3, Iowa History of Johnson County, Iowa, F.M. Irish, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1868 – Number 3, 1868, pp 191-215

History of Johnson County – Part 4, Iowa History of Johnson County, Iowa, F.M. Irish, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1868 – Number 4, 1868, pp 302-328

Frederick M. Irish – In Memoriam, IAGenWeb, Iowa City Daily Evening Press | Iowa City, Iowa | 19 February 1875, page 4, columns 2-4.

Rose Hill, Iowa City, Iowa, Wikipedia

Frederick Macy Irish, Find-A-Grave

Elizabeth Ann (Robinson) Irish, Find-A-Grave

General Charles Wood Irish, Find-A-Grave

Gilbert Robinson Irish, Find-A-Grave

John Powell Irish, Find-A-Grave

Click here to watch this Weber Days 2021 presentation. Presented by local historian Tom Schulein, “The Remarkable Irish Family” tells the story of the patriarch Frederick Macy Irish, best known as “Captain” Irish, and the notable lives of some of his children and grandchildren.

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