Our Iowa Heritage: Surveying the Life of Cyrus Sanders – Iowa City Pioneer.

Allow me to introduce you to one of Johnson County’s early settlers, and fortunately for those of us who love Iowa history, one of our county’s most prolific storytellers.

Cyrus Sanders – From Ohio to Iowa – From Buckeye to Hawkeye.

Cyrus Sanders was born on September 28, 1817 in Highland County, Ohio into a Quaker (Friends) family, with both parents (John and Eleanor) hailing from North Carolina. Cyrus grew up on a farm, but with education being such a high priority, this five-year-old took his school days very seriously. By age eleven, Cyrus was working his summers on the farm while spending the winter months attending school, where he became known for his quick learning and high retention levels. At age 19, Cyrus began teaching school, and at age 20 (1837) he entered Miami University, where he focused on his favorite subject – mathematics.

1838 – Surveying for the Railroad.

The Little Miami, the second railroad incorporated in Ohio, was formed in 1836 but ran into financial problems throughout its first ten years of existence. Originally intended to run from Cincinnati to Springfield, where it was expected meet the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad, Little Miami’s first president, who served without pay, was Jeremiah Morrow, governor of Ohio.

In the summer of 1838, he joined an engineering corps assigned to expand the Little Miami Railroad, but that job was short-lived, leaving him unemployed by the fall. It’s at this point when the 21-year-old Ohio native started to dream about coming west. While his work experience with Little Miami was brief, it did teach him excellent surveying skills, which combined with his farming experience, proved to be his ticket to future employment for many years to come.

December 6, 1838 – The Journey Westward Begins.

Cyrus Sanders’ Journal – with only a compass, staff and “such portables as might be carried in ‘saddle bags,’ Cyrus traversed the Midwestern prairies, rain or shine, never knowing if he would run into Native Americans or a new settlement. Click here to read more.

On December 6, 1838. Cyrus Sanders left Oxford, Ohio, taking a stagecoach to Cincinnati, where, on the next day (December 7), he boarded an Ohio River steamboat with only $100 in his pocket. A diary-keeper, Cyrus recorded his Iowa adventure over the next five years (1838-1843), and today, that journal has become a treasure for those of us who desire to know what it was like to be a young pioneer making a new life for one’s self in the Hawkeye State of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. In a separate post, I’ve opened up Cyrus’ journal, giving you a peek at his entries throughout 1839 – the year he relocated from Ohio to Johnson County – click here to read more.

April 5, 1839 – Cyrus Arrives in Johnson County – Finds Accommodations A Bit Lacking.

Apparently, Cyrus’ first evening in Johnson County was spent in a “miserable hut” located 2.5 miles north of John Gilbert’s Trading House. Interestingly enough, the site chosen for Iowa City was located 2 miles north of Napoleon, meaning the “miserable hut” must have been a “claim cabin” thrown up by a settler very near where Old Capitol stands today!

Johnson County’s First Surveyor – Elected 1839 – Serving Forty Years.

From the very start, Cyrus used his skills in surveying to open doors of employment. When he first arrived in Burlington, he met the Secretary of the Treasury, Jesse Williams, a surveyor from Ohio as well, and with reference letters from both Williams and Governor Robert Lucas, Sanders became well-known for the much-needed work in surveying this new land called Iowa. On July 8, 1839, after settling into Johnson County, he was elected by the small party of settlers to become our county’s first surveyor – a post to which he was continually re-elected for nearly forty years! One historian states it this way…

(Sanders), elected county surveyor of Johnson County over and over again, without regard to party rules of rotation, for his geodetic accuracy, together with his benevolence and suavity, extended his popularity beyond the lines of his party. 

Cyrus & Sarah Sanders & Family.

Cyrus Sanders married Sarah Pauline Worden (b -1823) on May 4, 1845 in Iowa City. They had three children: Horace (1846-1926), Calista (1848-1934), and Euclid (1853-1931).

1850 Federal Census, Iowa City Twp, Johnson Co, IA, showing the household headed by Cyrus Sanders, age 32. In a column not included in this detail, Cyrus was listed as born in Ohio, Sarah (age 27) as born in New York, with two children at the time, both born in Iowa.
1880 Federal Census, Lucas Twp, Johnson Co, IA, showing the household headed by Cyrus Sanders, followed immediately by the household headed by his brother Richard (listed here as “R. B. Sanders”).

Cyrus Sanders – Iowa City’s First Weatherman.

Unlike his poetically-detailed journal entries on his journey to Iowa, these entries in a small, now yellowed notebook in cursive and pen were brief. On occasion he simply noted the temperature. Sometimes he also included the current prices of meats and crops, all the while keeping up with his own crops—when they were to be plowed, sowed, and when the winter suspended both.

Cyrus’ love of writing and his emphasis on accuracy followed him his whole life. His diaries written later in life were often filled with short weather-related details, such as…

January 1, 1860—thermometer 26 [degrees] below zero—winter very pleasant – if agreeable – no snow or rain.

The following winter, Cyrus notices on March 1, 1861 – snow and good sledding all the time since the 9th of December 1860. Winter more regular and mild than usual, and uncommonly healthy.

Every year, Cyrus mentions the first killing frost, with the earliest in his memory being September 13, 1839. 1863 was a close second:  September 19th. That same year, as early as mid-October, the first snow fell.

The winter of 1880–1881 is widely considered the most severe winter ever known in parts of the United States. Many children—and their parents—learned of “The Snow Winter” through the children’s book The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the author tells of her family’s efforts to survive.

The winter of 1880-81 was a killer, however…

March 28 – snow storm in afternoon.

March 31 – snow storm all day.

April 3 – snowed all day.

April 8 – snow fall last night and this morning 4 or 5 inches deep.

April 11 and 12 – snowy, both days.

April 14, 15, 16 and 17 – thawing rapidly, snow nearly all over except heavy drifts. The ground has not been bare of snow since Christmas—114 days.

Later that year, Cyrus recapped: This year 1881 has been a very remarkable year, Jan., Feb. & March unusually cold with a great many violent snow storms that blocked R Road and other roads so that they were often impassable for days at a time, snow drifts did not entirely disappear until the last days of April.

In Memoriam – Cyrus & Sarah Sanders – Johnson County Pioneers.

Around 1880, at the suggestion of Iowa City Daily Republican editor Herbert S. Fairall, sixty-three-year-old Cyrus Sanders began writing down the early history of Johnson County. As Sanders wrote, combining his first-hand knowledge with his wit and wisdom, Fairall published the material, and Iowa Citians absolutely loved it. Knowing that the Sanders’ column was helping sell newspapers, Fairall created a new department at The Republican, calling it Early Iowa, with Cyrus as the primary contributor for material.

But the story doesn’t stop here…Click here to read the rest of this story…


From The Johnson County Old Settlers Association, we find these words:

One of the most active and prominent of Johnson County was Cyrus Sanders, who passed away April 27, 1887 (age 69). 

Cyrus Sanders, who stood with and labored by our side in the early struggles of Johnson County and Iowa City, has gone from our midst in obedience to the summons, “Come up higher”.  Therefore we, his friends and companions, members of the Johnson County Old Settlers’ Association, hereby express our high appreciation of his integrity as a man, his purity and faithfulness as a citizen, his loving kindness as a husband and father, and of his generous loyalty as a friend.  We rejoice in his manly character.  We rejoice that he lived and worked with us.  We mourn his departure.  We sympathize with his bereaved family to whom has come such bitter loss.  We endeavor to bow in submission to the will of the Father and Friend of all.

It is assumed that both Cyrus (1817-1887) and Sarah (1823-1897) are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, though no grave markers are present.

Sanders Creek, a tributary of Rapid Creek, located on the north side of Iowa City is named for Cyrus Sanders.

All in all, Cyrus Sanders and his wife Sarah were amazing people who hopefully will never be overlooked or forgotten in Our Rich Iowa Heritage. Godspeed – Our Surveying Friend.


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

Highland County, Ohio, Wikipedia

Little Miami Railroad, Wikipedia

Cyrus Sanders, Iowa Historical Record, volume 1-18, 1885-1902, Iowa Biographies Project, RootsWeb

Cyrus Sanders Tribute, Old Settlers’ Association Yearbooks 1866-1925, Johnson County, Iowa, Iowa Biographies Project, RootsWeb

Journal of Cyrus Sanders, The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Volume XXXVII – Number 1, January 1939, pp 52-87

Johnson County Surveyor, Elected 1878, Iowa City Daily Republican, September 16, 1878, p 1

Cyrus Sanders’s 19th-Century Diary, Peoples’ Weather Map

A Pioneer Gone – Cyrus Sanders’ obituary, The Iowa City Daily Republican, May 3, 1887, p 3

Sanders Creek, Wikipedia

Cyrus Sanders, Find-A-Grave

Sarah Pauline Worden Sanders, Find-A-Grave

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