Our Iowa Heritage: Courting Johnson County.

Truth is, everybody wants to be a part of something big. That was no different in the 1830’s than it is today.

John Gilbert’s Trading PostJohnson County’s first Post Office (1839) in Napoleon. Gilbert came to Johnson County in 1835. It’s believed that Gilbert continued a trusting relationship with the Meskwaki tribe that had been started by his predecessor, Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, who had canoed up the Iowa River in 1832 to build a trading cabin for the American Fur Company. Click here to read more about John Gilbert.

When John Gilbert invited Philip Clark and Eli Myers (Elkhart County, Indiana farmers) in 1836 to join him in the unsettled wilds of Iowa District/Wisconsin Territory, his dream was to take his little settlement of Napoleon, nestled alongside the Iowa River, and turn it into a bustling community. As it turned out, Gilbert was so determined to ‘get-r-done,’ he even stretched the truth (or broke it?) when asked by a legislator in Burlington about the size of his little town.

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

The January-1838 Little White Lie (sorry…pun intended!).

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 Actual Population 1837-1860.

Johnson County began on December 21, 1837.

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.

Napoleon: From Zip to County Seat to Post Office to a County Court House in One Year.

So, with John Gilbert’s population exaggeration, Napoleon was given the political favor needed to designate it as the county seat of Johnson County by the Wisconsin Territorial Act of June 22, 1838, (just 11 days before the Territory of Iowa was created). By 1839, John Gilbert’s little burg was then awarded Johnson County’s first post office, with Gilbert, himself, being appointed postmaster! Sadly, Gilbert was not able to live out his dream, suddenly dying only days before his commissioning in March of 1839.

Johnson County Court House #1 – 1838-1839.

Before he died, Gilbert and his Napoleon friends succeeded in building Johnson County’s first court house…

John Gilbert, Samuel Trowbridge (Johnson County’s first sheriff), and other pioneers who supported designation of Napoleon as the Johnson County seat “chipped in together” to build a two-story frame cabin that became the first county courthouse. It was located near what is today Napoleon Park on Iowa City’s southern edge.

May 1, 1839 – Things are Looking Up for Napoleon.

The day John Gilbert died (March 1839), everything was looking pretty good for Napoleon to become the big city he had dreamed it would become. Johnson County was now established, Napoleon was the county seat, and a court house had been built. Even the Territorial governor, Robert Lucas, had announced that the Territory would be relocating its capital from Burlington to a more centrally-located area, and based on the political favor given Gilbert earlier, the rumor mill pointed directly toward Johnson County as being the host site for that new capital. By April, word arrived in Napoleon that the Territorial commissioners would be coming in May to pick their site for the capitol building, so Napoleon resident, Frederick Irish, was chosen to escort Dubuque legislator, Chauncey Swan, to the trading house of the late John Gilbert. Read more here.

May 4, 1839 – Thumbs Down on Napoleon.

All those Napoleonic dreams came tumbling down on May 4th, 1839 when commissioner Chauncey Swan decided to place his first surveying stake in a hillside about two miles north of the Johnson County Court House in Napoleon. You see, it was decided earlier by Governor Lucas that no existing city would be given the honor of being chosen as the capital. In true wisdom, Lucas knew that in order to avoid all the political positioning associated with such a decision, the best solution was to start fresh – with a new city in a new location. Read more about the history of Iowa City here.

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.”

October 8, 1839 Iowa City – Johnson County’s New County Seat.

Much to the dismay of those living in Napoleon, 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. A new court house was completed by 1842, so apparently county business was conducted in the home of F.M. Irish, who bought property in Iowa City in 1839.

Johnson County Court House #2 – 1842-1850’s.

This sketch of the first Court House and jail in Iowa City (1842) is strikingly similar to the Napoleon image with stone/brick substituted for wood. The courthouse was 56 by 28 feet, two stories high, made of brick, and was built by James Trimble, who had previously constructed Johnson County’s first jail. The Court House was built on Lot 8 Block 8 of the County Seat Addition to Iowa City – the southeast corner of Harrison & S. Clinton Streets (see map below) for $3,690. Records show it burned to the ground in the early 1850’s.
This 1854 Map of Iowa City reveals that South Clinton Street has long been the home of Johnson County Court Houses. Court House #2 (1842-1850’s) was located on the SE corner of Harrison & Clinton Streets, while #3 (1857-1901) was built in Court House Square, until being replaced with the current Court House #4.

Johnson County Court House #3 – 1857-1901.

In 1857, a new Johnson County Court House, replacing its burned-down predecessor, opened on South Clinton Street (the same location where our current Court House stands today). By 1897, cracks were detected on the south wall, endangering the structure and the records it housed, so construction on a new courthouse began in 1899.

Johnson County Court House #4 – 1901-present.

The Richardsonian Romanesque style courthouse in use today was designed by the firm of Rush, Bowman and Rush of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was bid at a cost of $111,000 and built by the firm Rowson & Son of Johnson County. The cornerstone was laid in December 1899, and the building’s tower is based on Henry Hobson Richardson’s design for the spire of Trinity Church in Boston. The building was dedicated on June 8, 1901.
(P-0045) Johnson County Court House – circa 1910.

And so, there you have it.

1914 – Photographer Fred Kent captures Old Cap with the tower of the Johnson County Court House in the background.

One county – Four court houses – Two cities – Over 180+ years. But wait . . . there’s more!

2021- Johnson County, Iowa – A New Eponym (Namesake).

Lulu M. Johnson (left) with members of her Sunday School class in Gravity, Iowa – circa 1920.

On June 24, 2021, Johnson County, Iowa did something counties rarely do. Originally named for the ninth Vice President of the United States, Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841), the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to change our county’s eponym (namesake), placing Lulu Merle Johnson (1907-1995) into that lofty position. Johnson was a BA and MA graduate of The University of Iowa (1930), the second African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in History, and the first to receive a Doctorate of any kind in Iowa!

I encourage you to click here and read more about this new namesake for Johnson County . . this one amazing lady from Gravity, Iowa.


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

County Seat Matters, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWeb, 2003

Johnson County Courthouse (Iowa), Wikipedia

Johnson County, Iowa, Wikipedia

Meet the new namesake of Johnson County, Tom Snee, Iowa Now, September 25, 2020

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