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.

Peruse our growing list of stories of men and women who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity.

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline.


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

Civil Rights: Celebrating 50 Years of Higher Quality Through Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Commission, 2015

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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