Our Iowa Heritage: The Old Capitol Gem That Got Away.

Dang. Don’t you just hate it when you lose a treasure you’d really like to have? Double dang!

If you’re a follower of this website, Our Iowa Heritage, you know that I’m constantly on the look for Iowa-themed treasures, especially postal covers that date back to the earliest days of Iowa City.

In August 2021, I was so excited to see the stampless postal cover (pictured above) come up for bid on Ebay. It’s an 1840 letter from George Matlock in St. Louis writing to William Brownell in Bloomington (Muscatine), Iowa. The date on the letter looks to be April 27, 1840, and it is postmarked in St. Louis on April 29, 1840. I won’t take the time or space here to tell you about “stampless” postal covers. You can read about that here.

Amazing Iowa Historical Contents!

Now, for the contents of this amazing 1840 letter. Yowsers. This is what got me so excited…

George Matlock, who must be associated with the construction business in St. Louis, is recommending to William Brownell (a mover and shaker in construction in Bloomington) several workers who have done good construction work for him in St. Louis. Apparently, these men specialize in doors, shutters, and railings, and the original mailing must have included business cards with these men’s contact information. Sadly, over the decades, those cards have become separated from the original mailing, but just the letter itself is so exciting.


As you can see from the first few lines of the letter…

“As you are about to erect the large state house…”

Now, allow me to put this letter in context, with the following timeline…

July 4, 1839Chauncey Swan and a small party of pioneers gather to celebrate the first “Independence Day” ceremony in Iowa City’s history. The location of the new territorial capital has been chosen and on this special day, Swan and the others are celebrating our city’s new beginnings. Read more here.

On that same July 4, 1839, the first “official” city map is signed and approved…

L. Judson’s 1839 proposed city map of Iowa City. Two months after the surveyors planted that stake — on July 4, 1839 — this first map of Iowa City situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian, is signed and approved. Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.

November 12, 1839 – Liking what Springfield, Illinois architect, John Rague, did with their new Illinois state capitol design (see above left), a $46,000 contract for the construction of the new capitol in Iowa City (above right) is let to Rague & Company. Construction plans for the building begin immediately, with the laying of the cornerstone set for July 4,1840. Historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh tells us more about these earliest days of the project…

November 12, 1839 to July 4, 1840.

Chauncey Swan is appointed to be the on-site building superintendent, working alongside John Rogue, the architect, who remains in Springfield, Illinois. Since Iowa City is a pre-planned city, with no prior existence before 1839, there are very few people living in the city at this time, with even fewer men who have the experience needed to build a “large state house.”

We Build Our Capitol – 1841 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Mildred Pelzer’s mural depicts Chauncey Swan (right), who is sometimes called the “Father of Iowa City” since he was part of the original team that selected the site and then stayed here until 1849, serving in a variety of leadership roles; and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli (left). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

The Call Goes Out For Help.

Records show that Swan and Rogue, working together throughout the winter/spring of 1839-40, get the word out as best they can, recruiting qualified workers to come to Iowa City to be a part of the new construction team that is being assembled. By July 4, 1840, about two months after the date of our letter (below), the cornerstone is laid, and this construction project is off and running.

And that, my friends, brings us back to…

April 27, 1840 – The Old Capitol Gem That Got Away.

Obviously, William Brownell, a well-respected and well-experienced construction man in nearby Bloomington (Muscatine) is one of the first men contacted by Swan and/or Rogue. I’m sure Brownell, through his many contacts up and down the Mississippi River, got the word out that Iowa City is looking for experienced builders.

That call for experienced workers has now reached George Matlock, an experienced construction man in St. Louis. And I’m guessing here, but if we had the names on those long-lost business cards that Matlock includes with this April 27, 1840 letter, I’m certain those would be the men who coordinated the construction of the doors, shutters, and railings we find on our beloved Old Stone Capitol today.

Click here to read more about the construction of Old Capitol.

Dang. I wish I’d gotten that letter. It went for $83, and in my mind, it’s probably worth at least twice that, or more. If you are the person who got that letter, and are reading this post – God bless you, dear friend. Enjoy a true piece of Iowa history. And someday, might I suggest you donate this letter to our good friends at the Old Capitol Museum. I’m sure it’s a treasure they’d love to have in their historic collection.

Alas. Thank goodness for the “copy screen” function on my laptop. At least, when I become forlorn over The Old Capitol Gem That Got Away, I can turn to this page and gaze at what might have been! :0(

Too dramatic? Yeah, you’re right.

Let’s move on.

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

William Brownell – Muscatine County1839, First Settlers in Bloomington, The History of Muscatine County, Iowa – 1911, IowaGenWeb

William Brownell – Muscatine County-Court House, Portrait and Biographical Album of Muscatine County, Iowa, 1889, p 597

William Brownell – Muscatine CountyWell Digging, The History of Muscatine County, Iowa, 1879, p 421

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