Over the years, the legend of John Gilbert has grown. Most school kids in Iowa City, for example, would tell you that Gilbert, the first white man to set foot in Johnson County, arrived here in 1826, set up the first trading post with the Meskwaki tribe, and then became the first man to settle down here, establishing the little community of Napoleon by the sweat of his own brow.
Nice story, huh?
But, in truth, very little in my first paragraph is true!
As a matter of fact, I’ll begin here.
Fact #1: John Gilbert was not his real name! The truth is that one John W. Prentice, business man and land speculator from New York, made a series of bad investments in canal construction projects in Ohio, and once his debts began to mount up, Prentice apparently jumped ship, following new business opportunities in the west where he could hide his identity from his creditors.
Fact #2: John W. Prentice, now using the name, John Gllbert, found that new opportunity with one of the fastest-growing companies in the west – the American Fur Company (AFC). Allow me to share what historian Laura Rigel writes about AFC…
The American Fur Company was founded in 1808. Shipping trade goods (cloth, blankets, hardware) from their New York warehouses east on the Erie Canal, or by sailing ship to New Orleans, the AFC supplied traders up and down the Mississippi, using St. Louis as a central distribution center, at the juncture of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. By the mid-1830’s AFC was managed by Pierre Chouteau out of St. Louis, while William Phelps (Sumner Phelps younger brother) managed much of the Iowa/Illinois/Missouri conglomerate of AFC posts from his own trading post (Sac and Fox Outfit) in Iowaville on the Des Moines River. With a near monopoly of the (Native American) trade in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the American Fur Company epitomized the urban and industrial character of the changes that came to the Iowa River after the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Facts #3 & 4: Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps, an independent fur-trader from Yellow Bank (Oquakwa) Illinois, had been working with the Sauk and Fox tribes up and down the Mississippi River since 1825. In 1832, as the Black Hawk War was settled, all of the Sauk and Fox fur-trading operations were forced westward onto the river valleys of east-central Iowa. Following these tribes as they moved west of the Black Hawk Purchase, Sumner Phelps canoed up the Iowa River in 1832, meeting with his old business associates, Chiefs Poweshiek, Wapashashiek, and Totokonock, now all living on uncharted land just outside the 6 million acres purchased by the government, near where Snyder Creek and the English River dump into the Iowa River. I tell you this story to shoot down two more falsehoods. 1) Sumner Phelps was the first white man to set foot in Johnson County, not John Gilbert, and 2) this first encounter with the Meskwaki tribes in Johnson County happened in 1832, not 1826.
Fact #5: As a traveling fur-tradesman, Sumner Phelps built the first trading post in Johnson County, completing that work on one of his canoe trips around 1832. By 1834, this ever-expanding trading business (S.S. Phelps and Company) in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri was purchased by the American Fur Company, giving AFC a huge monopoly in this new western market. I tell you this story to shoot down one more falsehood … Sumner Phelps built the first trading post in Johnson County (1832), not John Gilbert.
That brings us back to John W. Prentice.
By 1835, as more and more land investors and fortune-seekers were moving westward into this unexplored place called Iowa, it was vital for the American Fur Company to have on-site representatives, guarding their established business from possible competitors and securing the area for future expansion.
As we mentioned earlier, Prentice took on the phony name of John Gilbert and signed up with AFC to take on one of these new job responsibilities. For Prentice and AFC, it was a win-win. AFC got their on-site manager while Prentice could hide away from his creditors back east while also using his business skills and his land speculation interests to make a whole new start in the west. According to the most reliable records, this transaction between AFC and Gilbert happened around 1835.
So, now that we cleared up the falsehoods, let’s talk about some of the positive things John Gilbert (a.k.a John W. Prentice) did after arriving here in Johnson County around 1835. First of all, the legend has one thing right…
John Gilbert was Johnson County’s First European Settler.
While Sumner Phelps was the first white man to set foot in Johnson County (1832), he never lived here. John Gilbert, on the other hand, moved to Johnson County in 1835 and became a true mover-and-shaker for all things Iowa. Jack T. Johnson, in his 1939 article, Napoleon on the Frontier, introduces us to this first white settler of Johnson County…
Historian Laura Rigel, tells us a bit more about this New Yorker-now turned Hawkeye…
Little is known about Gilbert’s life before he appeared at the mouth of Snyder Creek in Johnson County. Sometime in 1835, he visited Poweshiek’s village a mile north on the Iowa River and received permission to live on Meskwaki land in exchange for two barrels of whiskey. Poweshiek reportedly sealed the deal by liberally sampling Gilbert’s wares. Gilbert traded at Snyder Creek until 1837, when he built a second, larger post less than a quarter mile from Poweshiek’s village, and struck out on his own as an independent trader. Settlers testify that Gilbert spoke Meskwaki “with some French thrown in,” and he may have learned the trading business at Green Bay in then Michigan Territory.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in addition to exchanging trade goods for furs, skins, deer tallow, and bees wax, Gilbert was also a small-time land speculator, surveying future towns, locating mill sites, and buying interests in the land around his post. In 1838, for instance, Gilbert hired surveyors to lay out two “paper towns” on the Iowa River: Se-pa-na-mo, or Stump Town, at the juncture of the Iowa and English Rivers, and Napoleon (at present-day Napoleon Park in south Iowa City). He also participated indirectly in the construction of two sawmills, one at Old Man’s Creek, and the other on the Dubuque Road at Rapid Creek, and made at least one trip to Lafayette County, Indiana to sell land he had purchased downriver near Wapello.
John Gilbert – Johnson County’s first Postmaster (1839).
Without a doubt, between his AFC arrival in 1835, his decision to go it alone as an independent trader in 1837, and his pre-mature death in 1839, John Gilbert had his hand in nearly every major decision surrounding Johnson County and his little, home-grown community of Napoleon.
Read more about John Gilbert and his interesting ways of convincing the Territorial Legislature in Burlington that Napoleon was a worthy choice for “political favors” such as being chosen as the site for a new Johnson County post office.
Sadly, John Gilbert died in March of 1839, just a few days before he was to be sworn in as Johnson County’s first postmaster – a political appointment by President Martin Van Buren.
Apparently, changing his name didn’t do much to improve John W. Prentice’s luck! Not only did he die an early death, with complications from gonorrhea, Prentice/Gilbert, at the time of his demise was, once again, deeply in debt – this time to the companies that had supplied his new Johnson County trading post with manufactured goods.
But not all was lost. Today, Prentice/Gilbert has a major street in Iowa City named after him, and, as we said at the top, most school kids, including the late Iowa City historian Irving Weber, believe he’s the tops when reviewing Johnson County history!
Finally, John Gilbert was buried in 1839 near his trading post, then several years later as his beloved community of Napoleon gave way to Iowa City, his remains were moved to an unmarked grave in Oakland Cemetery. At his funeral, Gilbert was eulogized by a contemporary as…
“a fine scholar and an excellent businessman, a remarkable man for the position he occupied.”
Hats off to you, John W. Prentice . . . oh wait . . . John Gilbert. Johnson County thanks you for all you contributed to Our Iowa Heritage.
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