Our Iowa Heritage: 1838 to Today – Unity Through Diversity in Johnson County, Iowa.

Looking back together so that we might go forward together as one.

In earlier posts, we’ve given you much history about the earliest days of pioneer settlement in Johnson County. While we may never recover all the details, most historians today believe that the first person of European descent to visit here regularly was a fur-trader named Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps. Around 1832, Phelps canoed up the Iowa River to the mouth of Snyder Creek, just south of modern-day Iowa City. There, he re-united with Chief Poweshiek and his Meskwaki tribe, long-time “customers” of Phelps when the tribe lived on the banks of the Mississippi. In 1832, all Meskwaki (Fox) and Sauk tribes were expelled from their lands on the Great River via the signing of the Black Hawk Treaty. Thus, between 1832-1837, these peaceful tribes were given “permission” to live just west of the newly-acquired Black Hawk Purchase (see map below).

This rare 1835 map from Albert Lea shows the American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and identifies Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. In 1832, Meskwaki & Sauk tribes were pushed westward from the Mississippi River, given “permission” to live in Keokuk’s Reserve or west of the Black Hawk Purchase (yellow) line. Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition.

A few years later (circa 1835), this same fur-trading business that was established by Phelps, aligned itself with the American Fur Company, and was managed by 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/near the eastern banks of the Iowa River, by far the largest population anywhere at the time.

That brings us to our story for today.

1837/1838 – Napoleon – A Circle of Diversity.

1837/1838- John Gilbert’s Trading Post – Johnson County’s first “community” settlement.

Early writings of those who helped settle Johnson County indicate that by 1837, John Gilbert, who was the first fur-trader to actually live on the banks of the Iowa River (1835), had built his own trading post (see pic above), recruiting others to join him here, with the explicit purpose of building a full-fledged settlement they called Napoleon. Gilbert, a wise, if not a bit crafty, businessman had deepened the working relationship Sumner Phelps had built with Powesheik, and through that mutual friendship, built a sweet spot where other rugged pioneers who wanted to pursue a life of independence could come and safely settle, knowing that both white and red men would live side-by-side in peace.

January 1838 – Johnson County’s First Business Meeting.

In an article written in 1939, historian Jack Johnson tells us a bit more about Napoleon – this very first Johnson County community of pioneers living and working together on the banks of the Iowa River…

Here is a proposed map of the area around John Gilbert’s trading post as it was in 1838 when Iowa became a territory.

January 1838 – Unity Through Diversity.

Five white men: Harris, Lesh, Myers, Gilbert, Felkner.

One black man: Mogawk.

One Native American woman: Jenny (or Jennie).

All were living peacefully, side-by-side. Working together for community advancement – one diverse team, living in uncharted territory, facing an unknown future, all the while, peacefully co-existing with two different Meskwaki tribes, about 1,500 in population, led by:

Two Meskwaki chiefs: Poweshiek and Wapashashiek.

Hmm. Think of it.

Author Linda Rigel, in her writings, calls this rag-tag 1838 Johnson County community…

A Dream City.

It’s this January 1838 exaggeration (little white lie!) by Gilbert on the population of Johnson County that actually ended up benefiting the county. Governor Dodge (Wisconsin Territory) took that number and approved the request for a United States post office to be started in Napoleon. Read more about that story here.

MLK: I Have a Dream.

Now, with your kind permission, I’d like to return to the present, keeping in mind that at our county’s very beginnings, the dream of men and women of different color and creed coming together as they worked for a common goal was apparently being fulfilled. If you recall, there was a special day in our nation’s history – August 28, 1963 – when another prominent voice called out for such a dream…

I look around Johnson County and Iowa today, and I wonder to myself… are we getting any closer to MLK’s dream?

So much tension. So much division. So much hatred.

But wait.

If you look closely enough, there are signs of hope…

Allow me here to share about a handful of Johnson County leaders who still believe that MLK’s Dream can find fulfillment in our day and time…

There’s Bruce Teague, our current Mayor of Iowa City. The new mayor said he found a home in Iowa City after making the transition without his parents at age 17. In the 26 years since, he said he has built strong relationships with the people of this community who helped foster his personal development. Once a student who received C’s and F’s and was at risk of not graduating from high school, Teague said, “The people of Iowa City helped develop me into who I am today. I’m really diverse. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m black, so I do have this minority experience. I am also a gay man, so I know what it is to live in groups where your voice is silenced.”

There’s Mazahir Salih, our current Mayor Pro Tem of Iowa City. Salih, who became the first Sudanese-elected official in the U.S. when she became a city councilor, said she is honored to represent the community as the new mayor pro tem, particularly as part of the historic female majority on the council. “That’s the way to go,” she said. “Women can do a lot of good things. Nothing against men, but I think that’s powerful and very inspiring to me and a lot of women in the community.”

Teague and Salih are part of a very diverse Iowa City City Council that also includes (left to right) Pauline Taylor, Laura Bergus, John Thomas, Susan Mims, and Janice Weiner.

Then, there’s our Iowa City Community School Board: J.P. Claussen, Dromi Etsey, Charlie Eastham, Shawn Eyestone, Janet Godwin, Ruthina Malone and Lisa Williams – where diversity abounds.

And just recently, the community banded together with the School Board, in the summer of 2021, to stand up against racism and social prejudice.


And, finally, over in Coralville, there’s our good friend, Hai Huynh, serving on the Coralville City Council. Hai is the daughter of a Vietnamese family who came to Iowa to escape poverty in 1993, and she is the very first Asian-American elected to public office in our Hawkeye State. We’re so thrilled to see this level of diversity happening here in Johnson County, Iowa. How about you?


So…what are you doing about diversity, Boller?

As I see it, there’s a lot of good reasons to have hope that MLK’s Dream can still come to fruition. Here at Our Iowa Heritage, we want to do our part as well. That’s why, as we write posts about the history of our state, our county, and our community, we not only want to share the powerful stories of those names most everybody knows, but we also want to strive to bring you those uplifting stories of men and women who, for no other reason than racial or sexual prejudice, have been overlooked in our history.

Who knows, maybe going Back To The Future might be a good idea. If we can strive for the diversity surrounding a common cause that was evident in John Gilbert’s Trading Post in 1838, maybe we can see it all come ’round, once more!

Looking back together so that we might go forward together as one. COME READ ALL THE DETAILS HERE.

Read these stories of men and women who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

Chief Poweshiek – The Roused Bear. During a very volatile time in Iowa history (1830-1854), the Meskwaki Tribal Chief Poweshiek did a masterful job of maintaining peace yet never sacrificing his strong principles, believing that all men should live in freedom. Read the story behind this brave warrior who loved his people and cherished the Iowa River valley, the place we now call Johnson County, Iowa.
Governor Robert Lucas. Did you know that Iowa’s first Territorial Governor, Robert Lucas, even though he grew up in a home where his father owned slaves, felt so strongly about the anti-slavery issue, when his party refused to speak out boldly against it in the 1850’s, he, and other prominent Iowa statesmen, actually switched political parties, choosing principal over position? Read more here.
Judge Charles Mason. Did you know that Judge Mason, along with his fellow judges Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, ruled (The Case of Ralph vs. Montgomery – 1839) that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was “forever prohibited?” Mason wrote, “The master who, subsequently to that Act, permits his slave to become a resident here (Iowa), cannot, afterwards, exercise any acts of ownership over him within this territory.” This anti-slavery decision is commemorated in Des Moines with the moving sculpture, “Shattering Silence.” Read more here.
Pastor Johann F. Doescher. Did you know that Pastor Doescher, who served as pastor (1859-1862) of the German Lutheran Evangelical Church in Iowa City (Zion Lutheran), had a true heart for caring for souls, regardless of ethnic or racial heritage? From German-Russians scratching out an existence in the Great Plains to African-Americans living in the racially-divided post-Civil War South, Johann took seriously Jesus’ command to love his neighbor as he loved his own. Even when shunned for crossing racial boundaries and labeled too eccentric or unstable to keep a job, Johann found a way to keep on keepin’ on, tearing down racial and social barriers. Read more here.
Isaac A. Wetherby. Did you know that Isaac Wetherby, one of Iowa City’s first photographers, was a strong abolitionist, painting campaign posters for Abraham Lincoln? In April of 1860, Isaac quietly traveled to Cedar County to take photographs and have discussions with several of John Brown’s followers who were hiding out in the William Maxsom home (a stop on the Underground Railroad). Read more here.
The Underground Railroad and Iowa. Did you know that Iowa was a key battleground over the issue of slavery during the pre-Civil War era? Iowa was admitted to the Union in 1846 as a Free State, but only after southern legislators insisted that a Slave State (Florida) be admitted as well? Read more here.
George D. Woodin. Did you know that there was a highly-traveled trail in the Underground Railroad going west out of Iowa City? It was called The Lane Trail and it extended all the way to Kansas, giving easy access for those in the anti-slavery movement, like John Brown and others. George D. Woodin of Iowa City was one of the trail’s founders. Read more here.
George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Born into slavery a year before it was outlawed, Carver left home at a young age to pursue education and continued that training in Iowa – Simpson College in Indianola (1890-1891), agricultural science (Iowa State University -1894) and was the first black faculty member at ISU (1894-1896) earning a master’s degree. He would go on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University (1896-1943). Read more here.
Carrie C. Catt. Growing up in Charles City as a farmer’s daughter, very few people expected Carrie Lane to be a world-changer. But over her 88 years, this ISU graduate became one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Her superb oratory and organizational skills led to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote in August, 1920. Read more here.
Lulu Johnson. Did you know that in June 2021, Johnson County, Iowa did something that rarely happens – they officially changed their eponyn, removing a racist slave-holding southerner in favor of one amazing African-American Iowa native who spent her life teaching us things we all need to know? Meet Lulu M. Johnson – our county’s new namesake. Read more here.
James Alan McPherson. Did you know that over a thirty-year period, James Alan McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, found plenty of “elbow room” for both himself and others while teaching at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop? In 2021, Iowa City renamed one of its city parks in his honor. Read more here.
Duke Slater. Did you know that in 1921, Iowa had an All-American football player from Clinton that single-handedly took the Hawkeyes to a mythical national championship? A man cut from the same fabric as Nile Kinnick, Duke Slater has largely been forgotten over the last century, primarily because of his skin color. But no more. Beginning in 2021, the Hawkeyes will be playing on Duke Slater Field in Kinnick Stadium. Read more here.
Simon Estes. Did you know that Simon Estes was born in 1938 in Centerville, Iowa, and is the son of a coal miner, with a grandfather who was once a slave sold for $500? Crediting his strong faith in God, Estes rose above the racial prejudice, finding his singing voice at SUI, before establishing himself as a world-renowned opera singer, with many calling him the finest baritone-bass in the world. Read more here.

Bookmark this page – more coming soon. And, help us add to this page by sending us your name suggestions and why you consider them to be Iowans that have distinguished themselves when it comes to encouraging diversity in our culture. Contact us.


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

Napoleon on the Frontier, Jack T. Johnson, Palimpsest – April 1, 1939, p 118

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36, 2009, pp 213-214

Iowa City City Council names Bruce Teague new mayor, Marissa Payne, The Daily Iowan, January 2, 2020

Bruce Teague beats out Ann Freerks in the Iowa City City Council special election, Kate Pixley, The Daily Iowan, October 2, 2018

School Board Members, Iowa City Community School District, 2021

Community rallies after racist comments during previous ICCSD school board meeting, Iowa City Press Citizen, July 27, 2021

Hai Huynh, Hai Huynh for Coralville

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