Our Iowa Heritage: Philip Clark – Johnson County’s Irish Settler.

Philip Clark – Johnson County’s first white farmer. 1804 – 1891

In 1804, across the sea,

One Philip Clark, he came to be.

In ’36, he saw the light,

And with his friend, Myers, they fought the good fight.

An Irishman at birth, a Hawkeye at death,

By 1891, a life well-spent.

Forgive the poetry, but with this post being my first about an Irish immigrant who made his way to Iowa City, I felt a wee bit of the blarney rising up in me.

Our Philip Clark story starts in Elkhart County, Indiana.

As the story goes, Philip Clark and Eli Myers first met, becoming good friends, in my wife’s old stomping grounds of Elkhart County, Indiana. Apparently both of these men had caught a good case of Western Fever and wanted to pursue owning their own farmland in the new territory that was opening up on the other side of the Great River – a land some were calling Iowa. Click here to read the story of how explorer Albert Lea popularized Iowa’s name.

1836 – Fort Armstrong, Illinois.

In the fall of 1836, our two Indiana friends rode their horses 250 miles, from Elkhart to Fort Armstrong (Rock Island, Illinois), understanding that a new land agreement was about to be signed between the United States and the Sauk and Fox nations. The first treaty, the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832, opened up six million acres, and rumor had it that Chief Keokuk was now ready to sell off even more land. Word about this possible agreement had spread throughout the region, drawing many like Clark and Myers, who wanted to be at the head of the line when all this came down.

Click here to read more about the transition of Native American lands in Iowa.

As it turned out, this 1836 conference at Fort Armstrong resulted in a strip of land called the Keokuk Reserve being purchased from the Sauk tribe. Many believed more land would be coming soon, and they were right. By 1837, the Sauk and Fox tribes agreed (under extreme pressure) to sell yet another 1.25 million acres of land immediately west of the existing 1832 Black Hawk Purchase. As you can see from the map below, present day Johnson County is located smack-dab in the middle of all three of these land purchases made between 1832 and 1837.

On this map, the yellow represents the 1832 Black Hawk Purchase, the green stripe is the Keokuk Reserve acquired in 1836, and the blue is the second Black Hawk purchase of 1837. Today’s Johnson County includes land from all three land acquisitions.

John Gilbert meets Philip Clark and Eli Myers.

Albert Lea’s map of the Johnson County area in 1835 shows John Gilbert’s trading post on the Iowa River with Chief Poweshiek’s camp nearby. Click here for more details.

As it turned out, there was another curious land speculator at Fort Armstrong during that treaty signing in 1836. His name was John Gilbert . . . or should I say that Gilbert was the name that John W. Prentice was using at the time?

You see, since 1835, John Gilbert had been operating a fur-trading post for the American Fur Company on the Iowa River (see map above), living under the radar screen of both the U.S. Government and those creditors back east who were looking to collect on some pretty serious debt Gilbert/Prentice had accumulated through a series of bad business investments in Ohio.

Click here to read more about John Gilbert, Johnson County’s first permanent white resident.

So, when John Gilbert ran into Eli Myers and Philip Clark at Fort Armstrong, suffice to say that most of their conversations focused on the ground floor opportunities that awaited any brave soul who might be willing to pull up stakes and settle on virgin land that would soon be up for sale! Here’s the way one Johnson County historian tells the story of these three land speculators…

Late Fall 1836 – Establishing Claim Cabins on the shores of the Iowa River.

This is what Johnson County most likely looked like around 1836-1837.

So, as the story goes, Philip Clark and Eli Myers, with John Gilbert leading the way, rode their horses over the sixty mile wilderness trail, heading west to Gilbert’s trading post on the Iowa River. Once there, they liked what they saw. Knowing that they were standing on the newly-acquired Keokuk Reserve, with more Meskwaki (Fox) land soon to follow, made for two excited settlers. Combine that with Gilbert’s existing friendship with Meskwaki Chief Powesheik, and you have a perfect scenario for two farmers from Indiana who want to bring their families west to this rich new land called Iowa.

Click here to read more about Chief Poweshiek.

So, as Johnson County historians have recorded, Clark and Myers picked out land surrounding Gilbert’s trading post, put together a couple of roughly-assembled “claim cabins” and headed back to Indiana before the snow started to fly. Gilbert, excited to see more white faces around him, promised to “hold” their claims for his two new friends, keeping other squatters away that might come looking over the winter.

So, that’s the long and short of how John Gilbert convinced the Irish immigrant, Philip Clark, and his farmer friend, Eli Myers, to leave “home again in Indiana” and come to the land of the Hawkeyes.

Spring 1837 – The First Planting Season in Iowa.

At the first sign of spring, Clark and Myers were headed west, and this time, they came prepared to do some serious farming.

And, as the records show, a good number of other individuals besides Clark and Myers made their way to Gilbert’s new and improved trading post throughout the spring and summer of 1837. Historian A.T. Andreas provides much more details… 

1838 – 1839 The Rise of Philip Clark’s Napoleon.

As it turned out, Philip Clark became Johnson County’s first real estate mogul by, first, swapping out his original piece of property (480 acres) for a bigger piece of land (742 acres) located just north of Gilbert’s new trading post, and constructing first, another “claim cabin,” followed by a two-story frame house. It’s said that Clark, as he took possession of this new land, deemed this little community that was starting to rise on the shores of the Iowa River – Napoleon, honoring the French emperor who once ruled over the Louisiana Territory. To me, that story seems kinda fishy, since Clark was a good Irishman. I’m guessing that John Gilbert, Clark’s trading buddy, who really wanted this Iowa town to become the center of attention, had his hand in this decision as well, lest our first little burg in Johnson County be called St. Patrick!

On July 4th, 1838, Napoleon became the county seat of the newly formed Johnson County and this 2-story farm house (above), built on Philip Clark’s land, became the first County Court House.

You can read all about Napoleon’s glory years here.

Read the story of how John Gilbert convinced the territorial legislature in Burlington to consider Johnson County for its new capitol.

This is the lay of the land on May 1st of 1839 when Chauncey Swan arrived at John Gilbert’s trading house to begin the search for Iowa’s new territorial capital.

May 1, 1839 – The Beginning of the End for Philip Clark’s Napoleon.

Here’s how the University of Iowa’s Biographical Dictionary explains what happened next…

In early 1839 the legislature voted to locate a permanent territorial capital in Johnson County. (Chauncey) Swan was one of three commissioners chosen to locate the site for what would be called Iowa City. The legislature directed the commissioners to meet in Johnson County on May 1, but only Swan arrived that morning. At noon, Swan told the crowd gathered that at least two commissioners needed to be present or locating the capitol would be postponed. He suggested that if one more commissioner could be summoned before midnight, the process could continue. A local farmer (young Philip Clark mounted a horse and) fetched John Ronalds from his home in Louisa County (a distance of 35 miles!). In the official record, Swan reported that Ronalds arrived around 11:00 p.m. Local lore maintains, however, that Swan turned back the hands on his watch to ensure that Ronalds arrived before midnight.

Below, enjoy the famed Iowa historian, Benjamin F. Shambaugh‘s version of this May 1, 1839 story… The Midnight Ride of Philip Clark.

Three days later, on May 4, 1839, on a bluff located about two miles north of Philip Clark’s farmland, Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds drove a stake into the ground, signaling the humble beginnings of Iowa City, Iowa, and the quiet end to Philip Clark’s dream for Napoleon.

You can read about the beginnings of Iowa City here.

Philip Clark – Post Napoleon – the Saga Continues…

This 1868 map of Iowa City depicts a riverboat going north, past Philip Clark’s farm, into Iowa City.

In an interesting side-story from 1849, Iowa City artist, George H. Yewell, records in his journal four different arrivals of the Steamboat Herald to Iowa City: on March 24, April 11, April 22, and May 10. On the April 22 arrival, George and several others of his buddies made it down to Philip Clark’s farm, hailed the Herald and got a ride up to the landing at the foot of Capitol Square. According to Yewell, there was “a pleasure party on board from Hannibal.”

Click here to read more about steamboats coming to Iowa City during this time.

1849 – 1850 Gold Fever Strikes Iowa City.

By 1849/1850, Gold Fever had exploded across the country and literally thousands of settlers were pulling up stakes, making their way westward to California in the hopes of striking it rich. Chauncey Swan was one of those city leaders who got “The Fever,” organizing a troop of Iowa Citians who headed west in May of 1849. Records show that our two Indiana farmer friends, Philip Clark and Eli Meyers, headed west around that time as well. We’ll let historian Ray Aurner tell you this part of our Irishman’s story…

Philip Clark – Iowa farmer turned California gold prospector.

There’s so much more to Philip Clark’s story after he returned to Iowa City in 1857.

Click here for all of the juicy details, including why a mob of angry Iowa City men murdered Boyd Wilkinson, “a crafty, slippery fellow,” who was hired to push our old Irishman off his property!

From the Iowa City Daily Republican, Sept. 11, 1891

THE OLDEST GONE.
Death of Phil. Clark, Johnson County’s First White Settler.

Phil Clark died at his home on the Newport Road, this morning, aged eighty-eight. Though ailing long, he has breasted summer’s heat and winter’s storms, for these many years, and now, with unexpected suddenness, this once sturdy oak topples over, with scarcely a half-day’s warning, for he was around as usual, last night. Phil Clark was the first white settler of Johnson county, and his name will live forever in the county’s archives. A wife and one married daughter survive him.

Obviously, Philip remarried after his first wife, Clarissa, left him prior to his 1857 return from California. We have no records of the son he had from that 1841 marriage. His second wife, Christiana, and their daughter Margaret, survived Philip, dying in 1902 and 1941 respectively.

To Philip Clark, our Indiana farmer, resident Irishman, and long-time Hawkeye, allow me to close with The Irish Blessing


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

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

Napoleon on the Frontier, Jack T. Johnson, Palimpsest – April 1, 1939, pp 114-125

Early Settlers, A.T. Andreas Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, www.usgwarchives.net

Rivers Attracted Pioneers to Region, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWebProject-Johnson County

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp 4, 6, 19-22, 32

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, p 207

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

Mob Intent on Lynching, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 2, Article 114, 1975, pp. 37-40

The Boyd Wilkinson Case, Erik McKinley Eriksson, The Palimpsest, Volume 6, Number 3, Article 3, March 1925, pp. 95-97

Philip Clark, Find-A-Grave

Christiana Clark, Find-A-Grave

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