Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa City’s Humble Beginnings.

Iowa City, Iowa – it all starts here…

July 4, 1838 – Iowa Becomes a U.S. TerritoryOn this Independence Day in 1838, Iowa was officially separated from Wisconsin Territory, decided by an Act of Congress that had been passed earlier that summer (June 12) in Washington D.C. The new governor of Iowa Territory, Robert Lucas, announced that Burlington would remain as the “temporary” capital of Iowa, only until such time when a more centrally-located capital city could be determined. Throughout the region, there was a buzz about the future, and the thought that there would be a new territorial capitol brought up a spirit of competition that, sadly, nearly tore the territory apart just as it was beginning. Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).

As we discussed earlier, sixty miles northwest of Burlington, in newly formed Johnson County (see map above), a group of pioneers, under the leadership of businessman John Gilbert, were holding a big July 4th celebration on the banks of the Iowa River. One year earlier (July 4, 1837) there was a similar party to celebrate Gilbert’s new trading post, but that party was pretty small compared to the one in ’38. This year, things were really looking up for Napoleon. In December, the territorial legislature had appointed the city as the first county seat and it was about to approve both a post office, with service to Bloomington (Muscatine), and a territorial road that would connect it with Oquawka, Illinois, a major port on the Mississippi River.

It’s at this big July 4, 1838 Independence Day party in Napoleon where Chief Poweshiek, the kind-hearted Meskwaki chief, spoke his powerful farewell speech. Historian, Laura Rigel, gives us the details…

To celebrate the creation of Napoleon, (John) Gilbert decided to hold another Fourth of July celebration at the trading post. Jennie (Gilbert) prepared the dinner, after which Gilbert went with a group of men to visit Poweshiek. An interpreter named Stephens reportedly explained the significance of the day to the Meskwaki, after which, according to a single document in the Iowa State Historical Society, Poweshiek made a brief speech, translated presumably by Stephens:

I want to live where men are free! Soon I will go to a new home. You will plant corn where my dead sleep, our town, the paths we have made, the flowers we have loved will soon be yours. I have moved many times, I have seen the white man put his foot in the track of the Indian and make the earth into fields and gardens. I know I must go far away and you will be so glad when I am gone. You will soon forget the lodge fires, and the meat of the Indian has ever been free to the stranger.

Sadly, within nine months, Poweshiek’s words would begin to find their fulfillment, John Gilbert will be deceased (March 1839), and the little community of Napoleon would soon meet its demise as well.

1839 – Iowa City’s First Days of Existence.

Territorial Governor Robert Lucas – click here to read more about Lucas.

All this transition started on January 21, 1839, when Territorial Governor Robert Lucas issued the following decree:

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.”

By early spring, those commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were preparing to go about the business of surveying Johnson County in search of the perfect location. As we discussed in an earlier post, on May 1, 1839, two of those commissioners (Swan and Ronalds) met in John Gilbert’s trading house in Napoleon to “officially” begin the search.

Chauncey Swan. Read more about Swan, often called the Father of Iowa City, here.
Here’s the oath that Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds took that late night of May 1, 1839 in John Gilbert’s trading post in Napoleon.

The next day, May 2, the search began, ending two days later on a rolling hillside overlooking the Iowa River, just about two miles north of Napoleon. One writer states that the men described the site as “shaped like an amphitheater.” On May 4, 1839, a small ceremony was held in that “amphitheater” with a dedication stake being driven into the ground.

This view of the Iowa River might just be the way it looked on May 4, 1839.

And with the sound of a hammer pounding on a wooden stake, Iowa City began.

Benjamin Shambaugh provides this commentary on May 4, 1839. Click here to read more about Lt. Albert Lea and the ‘prophetic’ words he wrote about the Iowa River valley in 1836.

Here’s how another historian reported on what happened in the months following…

On May 7 (1839) the other two commissioners chose (Chauncey) Swan (as) Acting Commissioner of Public Buildings. The Acting Commissioner would be the most directly involved of the commissioners in overseeing the surveying and platting of Iowa City, the selling of city lots, and the hiring of an architect and building contractor for the capitol. He would also give the legislature progress reports. In the summer of 1839 Swan moved with his family to Iowa City and immediately took up his responsibilities. The commissioners had procured surveyors to lay out the capitol, and that summer Swan oversaw the surveys, (finalized) the spot for Capitol Square, and arranged for maps to be made and distributed in preparation for the sale of lots, the receipts going toward the capitol’s construction. Swan coordinated the land sales, which began in August 1839, collected payments, and kept track of receipts. Click here to read about the sale of the first lots in Iowa City.

May 17, 1839 – Naming the New City.

The name “Iowa City” first appears in the official diary of the Hon. Theodore S. Parvin, Secretary to Governor Robert Lucas, who on May 13, set out from Bloomington (Muscatine) with the Hon. Joseph Williams, Territorial Judge, to attend court for the first time in Johnson County. On May 17, Parvin sketched out a map of the city in his journal, labeling it… “a map of the City of Iowa.”

1839 – John Plumbe’s book, “Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin.”

This rare book from 1839 provides us with the one of the earliest overviews of Iowa Territory. In the back of his book, Plumbe included a large fold-out map which indicates the new “City of Iowa” as it had now been established as the new Iowa Territorial capital city!
Click here to read more about John Plumbe, Jr.
Click here to read more about Iowa and the early maps that helped settlers find their way across this beautiful land.
(S-0041) Iowa Territorial Centennial 1838-1938. Read more about the 1938 Iowa Territorial Celebration.

On July 4, 1839, another big Independence Day celebration was held. This time, the party wasn’t in Napoleon, but on that same hilltop overlooking the Iowa River where Swan and Ronalds drove their stake into the ground.

The 21-year-old Ohio-born pioneer, Cyrus Sanders, was present at this July 4, 1839 celebration, writing these beautiful words in his journal. Click here to read more from Sander’s 1839 journal.

Read more about this big July 4th celebration (1839), and the one held on this same spot one year later in 1840.

July 4, 1839 – The “City of Iowa” – 640 acres – Township 79 North, Range 6 West of 5th Meridian.

“That was Iowa City in July, 1839 — a map, a paper plat, recorded in the office of I. P.  Hamilton, the recorder of Johnson County.” Benjamin Shambaugh
L. Judson’s 1839 proposed city map of Iowa City. Two months after the surveyors planted that stake — on July 4, 1839 — this first map of Iowa City situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian, was signed and approved.
Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.

Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s map, was divided into blocks 320 feet square with lots 80 x 150 feet. With six exceptions, the streets, which ran east and west and north and south according to the compass, were all 80 feet wide. The exceptions were Iowa Avenue (120 feet wide) and Washington, Jefferson, Capitol, and Madison (100 feet wide). Streets from west to east: Front, Madison, Capitol, Clinton, Dubuque, Linn, Gilbert, Van Buren, Johnson, Dodge, Lucas, and Governor. Streets from north to south: Brown, Ronalds, Church, Fairchild, Davenport, Bloomington, Market, Jefferson, Iowa Avenue, Washington, College, and Burlington.

Read more about these earliest days of Iowa City – and the planning that went into its design.

Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.

Iowa City – The New Territorial Capital 1839.

Butler’s Capitol – Since it was going to take a long time to build the new stone capitol in Iowa City, in 1841, a man named Walter Butler built a two-story frame building on the corner of Clinton and Washington Streets, and here the Legislature met in Iowa City for the first time in December of 1841. It was not until 1842 that the stone capitol could be used. Click here to read more about Butler’s Capitol.
This is the first Johnson County Court House built in 1842.
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), a Dominican missionary priest, who designed churches in the Territories of Iowa and Wisconsin. Although no verification has ever been made of his role in designing the capitol building, the following passage does appear in his Memoirs (1843) describing it. . .”a structure whose dimensions are 120 feet long by 60 feet wide, with three stories, the whole built of stone. This building situated upon a beautiful eminence on one side looks down upon the Iowa River, and from the other commands a view of the Capital City; it rises from the center of a great square; it towers above the ancient oaks surrounding it.Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Celebrating Iowa City’s Heritage…

(C-0020) This cover is very rare indeed.  While Des Moines was picked as the First Day of Issue City for the Iowa Territorial Centennial Stamp issued on August 24, 1938, Iowa City really had more significance in Iowa Territorial history. Fortunately, a wise and historically-aware stamp collector got this cover postmarked in Iowa City on that same day!

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

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, 2009.

Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893.

Johnson County, Iowa and the Counties of Iowa, Remley J. Glass, Klipto Loose-Leaf Co, 1940, p 91

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, 1939, State Historical Society of Iowa.

Midnight Ride of Philip Clark, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Palimpsest, May 1939 Volume 20-Number 5, Article 4

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 307-309.

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, p 21

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