Our Iowa Heritage: 1839 – U.S. Mail Comes To Johnson County.

A Letter from Home. In 1937, Mildred Pelzer won the federal commission (WPA) to complete the post office mural for Waverly, Iowa, as part of the Section of Painting and Sculpture′s projects. The mural depicts a scene of a couple on their farm, where the wife had brought a letter from their previous home to the field. As her husband paused his plowing, the wife read the letter to him, as their child grasped at her mother’s skirts. Click here to read more about the artwork of Mildred Pelzer.

Here in Iowa, the first “official” post office was opened in Dubuque in 1833.

In the earliest days of Iowa, receiving and sending mail was very difficult indeed. The first settlers legally started arriving in Iowa, settling along the Mississippi River, on June 1, 1833, after the Black Hawk War. Dubuque was settled that same year, and “officially” opened a post office at that point.

One by one, communities throughout Iowa Territory added “official” post offices. Keep in mind that post offices, at the time, were located in general stores, and the postal clerk pretty much knew everybody who wanted to mail a letter. Yes, things were simpler back then, but sending and receiving mail was not an easy thing. If you lived in a larger city in the East, things ran smoothly, but the further west one went, the higher the odds that your mail would not be received or sent at regular intervals. Up until the 1840’s, all U.S. mail in Iowa was conditional mail service, based on location and if navigation between point A and point B was even possible.

The January-1838 Little White Lie.

For more about John Gilbert’s 1838 Johnson County expansion proposal – click here.

In an earlier last post, we introduced you to Napoleon, Iowa: Johnson County’s first county seat. Incorporated in 1838, this little community had high hopes of becoming a prominent city in the new Territory of Iowa. As a matter of fact, the townspeople, especially John Gilbert, Johnson County’s first white settler, was a bit sneaky when it came to convincing the Territorial Legislature that there was more growth and activity in Napoleon than there actually was.

Historian, Laura Rigel, tells us more about this “little” deception that brought a post office to Napoleon, the first step in getting your town on the map!

In the winter of 1837/38, it was lonely along the Iowa River. Most of the Meskwaki were away at their hunting camps, and the young white men who helped build (John) Gilbert’s new (trading) post had migrated to Muscatine or New Boston (Illinois) to earn winter money by chopping wood for steam boats on the Mississippi. Isolated and bored, Gilbert and a restless Pleasant Harris (January 1838) decided to walk through the snow to Burlington to petition the territorial legislature for roads and a mail service. When they arrived to present their case, Governor Dodge asked Gilbert for the population of the settlement around the trading post, and Gilbert responded, “Fifteen hundred.” The governor was surprised at the large number and, when Gilbert was asked “how he dared tell the governor such a lie,” his response was, “he did not ask what color they were.”

In truth, there were less than 50 white settlers in Johnson County (Napoleon) at the time, while the Meskwaki tribes had over 1,500 souls living in two large villages along the Iowa River. Rigel continues…

The joke, of course, is that Gilbert counted the Meskwaki villagers as legitimate residents despite their color. By playing upon the governor’s ethnocentric, racist assumptions, he used the large Meskwaki population to obtain a post office for Johnson County. But Gilbert’s response to Dodge also registers the degree to which the Meskwaki counted a great deal (albeit at great cost to themselves) in the economic and political founding of Johnson County. (Chief) Poweshiek’s and Wapashashiek’s villages made up the single most substantial and significant population in Johnson County: without them, neither the fur trade nor the land business, nor the state capital would have emerged on the Iowa River when and where it did.

Based on the inflated numbers Gilbert gave Governor Dodge, the Territorial legislature, as they gathered in Burlington during the winter session of 1837/38, looked at Johnson County as a prime location for future development. And as the saying goes, the rest…is history.

Johnson County’s First Post Office – Napoleon, Iowa – 1839.

John Gilbert’s Trading Post – Johnson County’s first Post Office (1839) in Napoleon.

So here are the facts: In January of 1838, when Gilbert told his Napoleon fib, the population was less than 50. By 1838, when Iowa became a territory, there were 237 souls living here. By 1840, that number had grown to 1,504, ballooned to 4,472 in 1850, and by 1860, Johnson County had a population of 17,573.

Because of John Gilbert’s little white lie, people in authority did approve a post office for Napoleon in 1839, and guess who was Johnson County’s first postmaster?

John Gilbert – of course!

But sadly, Gilbert died in March of 1839, just a few days before he was to be sworn in.

The “official” government records for Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1839-1842 – Johnson County, Iowa

John Gilbert – Napoleon – 2 Mar 1839
Samuel H. McCrory – Napoleon – 18 Apr 1839
Move to Iowa City
Chauncey Swan – 14 Nov 1839
James M. Hawkins – 2 Sep 1841
Samuel Trowbridge – 30 Aug 1842

Read more about John Gilbert and the early days of Napoleon on the shores of the Iowa River.

Cyrus Sanders – early Johnson County Settler. This rare postal cover (above), dated August 5, 1839 and addressed to Cyrus Sanders indicates that the little town of Napoleon did, indeed, have Johnson County’s first postal station.

Much to the dismay of those living there, the Johnson County county seat was moved to Iowa City on Oct. 8, 1839, with relocation of the post office completed by November 14, 1839. This explains why this 1841 postal cover (see below) addressed to Cyrus Sanders displays his ‘new’ Iowa City address, even though the original agreement between Napoleon and the Post Office was to continue into 1842.

Look at this very rare postal cover (below) from 1839 addressed to Cyrus Sanders “near the City of Iowa.”

The Iowa City Post Office Opens for Business.

Stagecoach Anyone?

In 1837, the USPS authorized the first stagecoach mail service in Iowa – Burlington, the Territorial capital, to St. Francisville, Missouri. In 1840, the Iowa Territorial Legislature approved three stagecoach mail routes between Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Davenport, and Macomb, Illinois, and twice-weekly mail service between Dubuque and Davenport. Over time, a number of stagecoach companies entered into the growing Iowa market, with each competing for contracts with the government to carry U.S. mail. Those that snagged these lucrative deals, meant several hundred dollars a year in revenue.

Click here to read more about the stagecoach era in Iowa City.

In 1840, Frink & Walker was the first company to bring stagecoach service into Iowa City. $3 would buy you a seat on the thirty-mile trip to Bloomington (Muscatine) via a two-horse stage coach. Keep in mind that in the 1840’s, getting mail to and from back east would mean accessing the Mississippi River, so when Frink & Walker began their stagecoach run to Bloomington, people in Johnson County could now receive and send mail on a more dependable schedule.

But, as you can see from the articles below, things didn’t always go smoothly!

By the mid 1840’s, Iowa City’s Post Office became much better established, setting up shop on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street.

Here comes the railroad…

Once the railroad came into Iowa (Iowa City – 1856) and began expanding (1860’s), mail service transitioned from stagecoach lines to rail cars. RPO’s (Railway Post Offices) became the wave of the future. Read more about RPO’s here.


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

The Postal History of Iowa, Woodrow W. Westholm & John Ruskin, The Annals of Iowa-Volume 32-Number 7 (Winter 1955), pp 521-529.

Napoleon on the Frontier, Jack T. Johnson, Palimpsest – April 1, 1939, pp 114-125

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, p 167, 176, 310

Chauncey Swan, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, U of I Library website.

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36

Rivers Attracted Pioneers to Region, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWebProject-Johnson County

Early Iowa City, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb

Appointments to U.S. Postmaster – Johnson County, Iowa 1939-1842, Ancestry.com

Commemorative Stamps & Iowa History, The Palimpsest, August 1965, p 396a

A Century of Mail Delivery, The Palimpsest, August 1946, pp 226-227, 231

Stagecoach Days, Orville Francis Grahame, The Palimpsest – Volume 5 – Number 5 – Article 4, May 1924, pp 176-185

Transportation in Iowa – A Historical Summary, Iowa Department of Transportation


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