Our Iowa Heritage: Walter Butler – A True Servant’s Heart.

Have you ever noticed? In life, there are givers, and there are takers. People that make things all about themselves vs. those who care more about others than what’s in it for them.

As I see it, Walter Butler of Iowa City was one of those with a true servant’s heart . . . a “butler” to the city, so to speak. One who tried his best to do whatever would best serve his community; even if it cost him a pretty penny or two to do so. Allow me here to tell you more about this special man from Tennessee…

Iowa City – May 1839.

This is what Iowa City most likely looked like in May 1839.

In 1839, when it was decided that Iowa City would be the new, centrally-located capital of Iowa Territory, there was nothing here but a river called the Iowa, surrounded by thick prairie grass and dense forest. A little community called Napoleon had been the Johnson County seat, and on October 8, Iowa City took over that role, with the county commissioners meeting in the simple log cabin home of Captain F.M. Irish.

A contract for the design and construction of the new capitol building had been agreed upon in November, but with winter coming, not much work would occur until spring. That fall (August and October), there were two city auctions (200 lots over one-square mile) where parcels of land surrounding this new capitol were sold to those who had the vision that Iowa City just might become something worth investing in.

Walter Butler was one of those men.

We historians simply don’t have much to hang our hats on when it comes to Walter’s background. We do know that he was born in Tennessee in 1800, moved as a young man to Illinois, married and had a family, which he brought with him when he ventured west to Iowa City in 1839.

Here’s a look at L. Judson’s original map (1839). Two months after the surveyors planted their stake — on July 4, 1839 — this first map of Iowa City situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian, was signed and approved. Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s map, was one-square mile, divided into blocks 320 feet square with lots 80 x 150 feet. Click here to read more about the early maps of Iowa City.

What brought Walter Butler to Iowa City?

We don’t know what exactly drew Walter Butler here. It might have been Governor Robert Lucas’ July 25th announcement of land sales in Iowa City (see map above) that first caught Walter’s attention. We do know, with certainty, that these two land sales (August and October) did bring a rush of folks to town, and we also know that there was little place for these potential land buyers to lay their heads.

Could it be that Walter came to town in time of the first sale in August and stayed in the Lean Back Hall? From everything historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh tells us about the place, it would have made for one memorable experience…

The Lean Back Hall – located at Washington & Linn Streets -where the Iowa City Post Office Building (Senior Center) exists today. According to some records, F.M. Irish was the owner of the building.

1839 – Walter Butler – in good company in Iowa City.

While we don’t know where Walter laid his head, we do know that he did purchase three lots in these first two auctions, bidding alongside some other names you’ll probably recognize (below). Historian William J. Peterson gives us the details…

Note the names – Robert Lucas (Governor of Iowa Territory),Chauncey Swan, considered by many to be the ‘father of Iowa City,’ and Lyman Dillon, the farmer from Cascade who plowed the famous furrow between Dubuque and Iowa City.

So now, let me tell you a couple of smart moves made by Walter Butler after buying land in Iowa City…

Smart move #1: In the 1839 auction, Walter bought Lot 5 in Block 80 (see above) for $300. Soon after that, since there was a real shortage of lodging in Iowa City (i.e. his experience in the Lean Back Hall?), Walter built a hotel on Lot 5.

In December 1840, Walter Butler’s City Hotel hosted a big Christmas Ball for the city. Here is an invitation to that event.

Smart move #2: In 1840, Butler sold some of his land that was located near today’s City Park to Walter Terrell, in order to buy Lot 6 (corner of Clinton and Washington Streets) for $800.

Now we get to the “servant” heart of Walter Butler…

In 1841, the Iowa Territorial Legislature, which had been meeting in Burlington since its inception in 1838, announced that they would continue meeting there until Iowa City, basically, got their act together. They knew that the construction of the new capitol building was moving along at a snail’s pace, and the new governor, John Chambers, who was never a big fan of Iowa City, choosing to remain in Burlington throughout his term (1841-1845), was in no big hurry to move things along. In January, 1841 the Assembly passed a rather back-handed act, stating that the next Legislative Assembly would meet in Iowa City on the first Monday in December, 1841 if “other sufficient buildings shall be furnished for the accommodation of the Legislative Assembly, RENT FREE.”

Ba-boom.

Peterson, in his 1955 article entitled, Walter Butler: Capitol Builder, tells us what happened next…

1841 – Walter Butler: Build it and they will come!

And so, the competition was on. And this is where Walter Butler steps in. Apparently, as soon as word reached Iowa City about the possibility of hosting the Territorial Assembly, Walter not only volunteered to lead the charge, but he also went immediately to work, building a suitable meeting hall on his property (Lot 6), with the full intention of offering it to the Assembly at no charge, even though that decision ended up being a very costly one for him personally.

It seems that Walter’s generosity stirred so much attention around the Territory, even the Bloomington (Muscatine) Herald got involved…

The Bloomington Herald was owned by Thomas Hughes, who by December 1841, moved to Iowa City, debuting his new newspaper, The Iowa Capital Reporter. Read more here.

And so, the Walter Butler story continues…

And here, is what Walter built…

Butler’s Capitol.

A new two-story wood-frame structure with a 60-foot front facing south toward Washington Street beginning some 32 feet east of Clinton Street. It was 30 feet deep and divided into separate meeting rooms for the 26-member House and 13-member Council upstairs, plus smaller committee rooms and several little offices at ground level. Built entirely of wood, it lacked plumbing, electricity, rest rooms and central heating as was typical of the era. Just months before the wood had been live timber which had been laboriously cut by hand into dimension lumber since no local saw mill was available.

December 6, 1841 – Iowa City’s First “Official” Day as the Capital of Iowa.

Benjamin F. Shambaugh recorded the glorious beginnings of Iowa City as the capital city of Iowa Territory, thanks to Walter Butler…

Worth noting in this account is the name of the pastor who offered the opening prayer for this first Assembly session in 1841. It’s no other but our infamous Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Michael Hummer. Read about his bell-ringing story here.

February 18, 1842 – 54 Sessions – 127 Laws – $24,415 Spent – $0 for Butler’s Capitol.

And so, Walter Butler did it. He built the building, paid the price, and found a way to make the Iowa Territorial Assembly (a bunch of politicians, mind you), along with the reluctant Governor Chambers, to keep their promise of meeting in Iowa City for their fourth general assembly if a free meeting space was provided.

For the record, the Legislature met in Butler’s Capitol for 54 daily sessions, from December 6, 1841 to February 18, 1842, passing 127 laws on such issues as roads, ferries, dams, private and municipal incorporation, and divorce. They appropriated $24,412 in funding, including $3 to the local justice of the peace, but not one penny to Walter for the use of his facility.

In December 1842, the Territorial Assembly returned to Iowa City for their fifth annual session, meeting this time in the first floor of the new capitol building (since the second floor wasn’t yet completed). These annual sessions continued into Iowa Statehood (1846) until 1857, when the State Legislature decided to leave our fair city, giving us the State University of Iowa, while they took their politics to Des Moines. Not a bad deal, huh?

So. . . what ever happened to Butler’s Capitol?

Let’s allow William J. Peterson to continue the story…

The only image we have of Butler’s Capitol is this photograph, taken after it had been moved in 1856.
Records show that in 1856, Butler’s Capitol was relocated to the east side of Dubuque Street, one half-block south of College Street, becoming The City Hotel (also known as The Hutchinson House), a fairly sleazy place and the city’s first brothel! Not the ending, Walter Butler envisioned, I’m sure.

And. . . what about Walter Butler?

Peterson continues…

A Man of Good Character.

Both Peterson (below) and other reliable sources indicate that Walter Butler was one special man, a gentleman of good character and a trust-worthy fellow, indeed.

Butler Bridge, Butler’s Landing, and the Coralville Dam.

Over the decades, there have been several Butler Bridges. This (above) is the bridge built in 1885.

Walter, during the short time he lived in Iowa City (1839-1844), owned other property north of the city, land which extended from today’s City Park, upstream along the Iowa River just beyond the site of today’s Butler Bridge (Dubuque Street). An early marina there was known as Butler’s Landing. In 1843, Butler gave three acres of his land for the construction of the Coralville Dam.

Walter Butler owned land along the Iowa River, from today’s City Park, including land he sold to Walter Terrell in 1840 (Terrell’s Mill) to Coralville (Coralville Dam) and other points north. Marked on the above map is the location of Butler Bridge.

1844 – A Good Life Sadly Cut Short.

Walter Butler (1800-1844), age 43, was buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Oxford Township) in Johnson County. According to Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, Walter’s widow, “greatly revered and respected, lived on for many years.” Sadly, there don’t seem to be any records with her name or life history, though Mt. Calvary cemetery files do indicate other Butlers who might be Walter and wife’s children.

All in all, Iowa City greatly benefited from the generous life that was Walter Butler. Godspeed!


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

Walter Butler: Capitol Builder, William J. Peterson, The Palimpsest, Volume 36-Number 12-Article 2, December 1955, pp 485-492

Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, p. 58

Butler Hotel, Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015, intro

Iowa City’s First Capitol, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb, July 26, 2003

Inside Butler’s Capitol, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb, August 1, 2003

Butler’s Landing Bridge, Bridgehunter.com

Landmarks Bear Butler Name, Chronology – 1841/1979, Iowa City Press Citizen, February 9, 1979, p. 20

Walter Butler, Find-A-Grave

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