Iowa City: In The Beginning. If we go back to the beginnings of Iowa City, we must first address the curious story surrounding the little community that preceded it:
Named by its first white settlers, Napoleon was a trading post before it became Johnson County’s first “official” village.
In other posts, we’ve given you details about the main players in this Napoleon story. Allow me to review with you here…
Chief Poweshiek: The Meskwaki chief, along with Chief Wapashashiek, and Chief Totokonock, relocated their villages on the shores of the Iowa River, near Snyder Creek and the English River, around 1832, following the Black Hawk War that forced the Sauk and Fox tribes out of their homes along the Mississippi River. Click here to read more.
Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps: A traveling fur-trader from Illinois, who, along with his brothers, formed an independent fur-trading company that networked the white community back east with the Sauk and Fox tribes, first along the Mississippi River (1825-1832), then along the banks of the Des Moines, Iowa, and Cedar Rivers of eastern Iowa, after these same tribes were forced westward after the Black Hawk War (1832). By 1834, the American Fur Company had persuaded the Phelps Brothers to continue their successful trading business through their larger organization. Click here to read more.
John Gilbert: A fur-trader/land investor who was brought in on a permanent basis, first by the American Fur Company in 1835, to establish a full-service trading post, replacing the smaller post established in 1832 by the traveling fur-trader, Sumner Phelps. Gilbert was the first white settler in Johnson County, and was instrumental in bringing others to the area, thus establishing the little community of Napoleon. Click here to read more.
Wheaton Chase: Sumner Phelps’ brother-in-law, who settled on the Iowa River soon after John Gilbert arrived in 1835. It’s believed that Gilbert separated from the American Fur Company (1836), going independent as a trader, and that Chase was brought in by American Fur to replace him.
Philip Clark and Eli Myers: Based on the persuasive recommendations of John Gilbert, these two men from Elkhart County in Indiana were some of the first white settlers to purchase land in Johnson County and relocate their families here (1836). By 1837, there were roughly thirteen households that made up the little community that would become Napoleon. Click here to read more.
The American Fur Company.
French fur traders, such as Julien Dubuque in 1788, were the first white men who traveled westward, developing working relationships the Sauk and Fox tribes who lived peacefully along the shores of the Mississippi. By the 1830’s, after the tribes were forced from their homes on the Mississippi River, numerous trading opportunities were moved westwars, taking shape up and down the many tributaries of the Great River.
Some historians may differ on this, but most today, believe an American named Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps canoed up the Iowa River around 1832, into what is now Johnson County, looking to re-establish trading partnerships with the tribes he had once worked with when they lived on the Mississippi River.
Reliable Johnson County records indicate that Sumner’s original trading post, circa 1832, was located near the mouth of Snyder Creek (see map below), just south of modern-day Iowa City. A few years later (circa 1835), this same fur-trading business, now aligned with the American Fur Company, became the property of John Gilbert, a New Yorker, looking for a new start in the West. When Gilbert arrived, there were roughly 1,500 – 2,000 Meskwaki people living on the eastern banks of the Iowa River, by far the largest population of Meskwaki anywhere at the time. A.T. Andreas Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa (1875) says this about John Gilbert…
The map below shows the location of two of these Meskwaki villages, led by Chiefs Poweshiek and Wapashashiek. Sadly, between 1832-1837, the Meskwaki tribes were slowly being pushed further west, thus Gilbert and other European fur-traders were taking advantage of all that, following the migration as the tribes were being forced from their native land.
1836-1838: Napoleon, Iowa – Johnson County’s First European Settlement.
Gilbert, quite the businessman, enticed Philip Clark and Eli Myers, who were from Elkhart County, Indiana, to relocate their families to this new community that was developing on the Iowa River.
July 4, 1837 – Celebrating Napoleon’s New Trading Post.
Historian Laura Rigel provides us with more details about this July 4, 1837 grand opening…
Gilbert’s gamble on the land along the Iowa River was paying off. Now his post was servicing new settlers as well as supporting trade with the Meskwaki. With the help of local men in need of work, he built his second, larger trading post (1837) closer to Poweshiek’s village and broke off his association with the American Fur Company (preferring to become an independent broker). He was so confident of his move that, on the Fourth of July, 1837, he held a grand opening for the new post with a whiskey celebration for both the neighboring Meskwaki and the new male settlers. Henry Felkner rode to Muscatine for whiskey, while the other Yankees made a U.S. flag on which they attempted to sew an eagle, but instead made a goose, surrounded by scraps of red, white, and blue. The participating Meskwaki responded to the festivities with “She-mo-ko,” an expression that is hard to translate except, perhaps, by rolling your eyes to indicate that something is “too much,” or “over the top.”
Soon more emigrants followed. John Cain, William Sturgis, S.B. Mullholland, and the Earhart brothers all roomed at Gilbert’s trading post that summer until their claims could be staked and shelters raised. By the end of 1837, thirteen more white families had settled in the vicinity of Gilbert’s trading post, which served as a combined inn, tavern, grocery store, and city hall, as jumping-off place and catalyst to settlement. By summer’s end, Gilbert had begun to dream of founding the future seat of Johnson County on the land around his post.
December, 1837 – Johnson County is officially formed.
Johnson County was established in December 1837 by the legislature of the Wisconsin Territory (meeting in Burlington), one of thirteen new counties established by that body in a comprehensive act. Prior to this, the Black Hawk Purchase was composed of two large counties: Dubuque in the north, Des Moines in the south.
Records show that on July 4, 1838, the good people of the little town of Napoleon (and the imaginary town of Osceola), gathered once again, for a big celebration, inviting the Meskwaki people to join in the party. For more details about that gathering, click here.
Later, that same year (November 1838), when the Iowa Territorial Legislature met for the first time in Burlington, they decided it would be best to relocate the territorial capitol to a more centralized location, picking Johnson County for that site. As a result of that decision, a new community was created by an act of Legislative Assembly of the Iowa Territory on January 21, 1839, fulfilling the desire of Governor Robert Lucas:
An Act to locate the Seat of Government of the Territory of Iowa … so soon as the place shall be selected, and the consent of the United States obtained, the commissioners shall proceed to lay out a town to be called “Iowa City.”
Three commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were assigned to Johnson County in search of the perfect location for the new capitol. It’s at this point, the story gets interesting. Let me share some of it by quoting from The University of Iowa’s Biographical Dictionary article on Chauncey Swan…
In early 1839 the legislature voted to locate a permanent territorial capital in Johnson County. Swan was one of three commissioners chosen to locate the site for what would be called Iowa City. The legislature directed the commissioners to meet in Johnson County on May 1, but only Swan (escorted by local resident Frederick Irish) arrived that morning (John Gilbert’s trading house). At noon, Swan told the crowd gathered that at least two commissioners needed to be present or locating the capitol would be postponed. He suggested that if one more commissioner could be summoned before midnight, the process could continue. A local farmer (young Philip Clark mounted a horse) fetched John Ronalds from his home in Louisa County (a one-way distance of 35 miles!). In the official record, Swan reported that Ronalds arrived around 11:00 p.m. Local lore maintains, however, that Swan turned back the hands on his watch to ensure that Ronalds arrived before midnight.
Most historians agree that this controversial first gathering, held on May 1, 1839, met at John Gilbert’s trading post in Napoleon. As you might imagine, the townspeople had hoped that Napoleon might become the “new” Iowa City, but their hopes were dashed when, within three days, Swan and Ronalds identified the perfect spot for the new capitol, on a rolling hillside just about 2 miles north of town, overlooking the Iowa River. It’s there, on May 4, 1839, where a dedication stake was driven into the ground. And it’s there, Iowa City had her humble beginnings.
Suffice to say that as Iowa City was being born, Napoleon’s demise had been sealed.
In Jack T. Johnson’s 1939 article, Napoleon on the Frontier, this transition is described this way…
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
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 168, 176, 207, 290, 301-2, 307.