1840 – Sketches Of Iowa City – J. B. Newhall.

Born in Lynn (Essex County), Massachusetts, pioneer John B. Newhall and his wife arrived in Burlington, Iowa in 1834, establishing a general store with two of his relatives – Isaac and Joseph Newhall. Over the next fifteen years, Newhall became nothing short of a regional celebrity – author of three guidebooks that proved to be invaluable to those who were relocating to this beautiful “This Is The Place” land called Iowa.

An explorer at heart, J.B. Newhall traveled extensively throughout Iowa District of Wisconsin Territory, taking detailed notes along the way. In 1837, the Territorial capital moved from Belmont, Wisconsin to Burlington, and with the transition, there came an increase of newspapermen and publishers like James Clarke and Cyrus Jacobs – who brought with them The Wisconsin Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser, and James G. Edwards – editor of the The Iowa Patriot. Read more here. Surrounded by big-hitters such as these, J.B. decided to gather up his many writings, and just as Iowa was becoming its own Territory (1838), he began talking up his book idea – The Iowa Directory and Emigrant’s Guide – using Edward’s Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot as his launching pad. Here’s one example (below) from the May 21, 1840 edition…

The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot (i.e. The Burlington Hawk-Eye) was owned by James G. Edwards who teamed with local attorney David Rorer in 1838 – promoting the nickname of “Hawkeye” as identifying all those who hailed from the State of Iowa. Read more here.

Click here to read more about J.B. Newhall – known by his readers under his pen name of Che-Mo-Ko-Mon – which translates “white man.”

One week later, in a rather lengthy article appearing on page 2 of the May 28, 1840 edition of The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, Newhall offers us his delightful overview of the one-year old start-up city – Iowa City. The article starts out with this brief introduction from the paper’s editor – James G. Edwards

The following sketch of Iowa City from the pen of our townsman, Mr. John B. Newhall, who is traveling over the Territory for the purpose of attending personally to the collection of materials for his “Iowa Directory,” which we learn will be completed immediately after his contemplated trip to the Falls of St. Anthony. The Directory will doubtless contain much valuable information in relation to this Territory. From all we can learn, we do not believe that his description of the almost magical “Iowa City” goes beyond the sober reality.

This unfinished mural by Mildred Pelzer Locating the Capitol 1839 – depicts the earliest days of Iowa City. Read more here.

Keep in mind here, that on May 28, 1840, Newhall is writing about his very recent – Saturday, May 16th and Sunday, May 17th – trip to Iowa City. This visit came only one year and a few days after Chauncey Swan drove a stake into the rich prairie land on a hill sitting above the Iowa River – marking the spot where Iowa’s new capitol building would be constructed. As Newhall mentions, it was less than one year earlier – on July 1, 1839 – when the land survey was completed and the first “official” map of Iowa City was drawn up (see L. Judson’s map below).

L. Judson’s 1839 proposed city map of Iowa City. This first map of Iowa City – situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian – was signed and approved. Click here to read more how the streets of Iowa City were named.

According to Newhall, there are now one hundred houses, ten stores, three coffee houses (restaurants), one drug store, one gun smith, four lawyers, three hotels/taverns – with two more in the works. Click here to read about the hotels of early Iowa City.

Add in three brick buildings, a private school, and a city newspaper – all being planned – and Iowa City is a community on the move.

Here, J.B. discusses the new capitol building that is under construction on Capitol Square. He’s obviously spent some time chatting with Chauncey Swan (Mildred Pelzer’s artistic depiction – above) who has now taken over the role of contractor for the massive project, since the architect, John F. Rague walked off the job. Read more here. Newhall, a man of faith, concludes his Iowa City report by giving us a beautiful summary of the worship service he attended on Sunday, May 17th – most likely held in either The City Hotel or The National Hotel along with the good folks of North Presbyterian who established one of the earliest churches in Iowa City (1840). Read more here.

By the following spring – 1841 – J.B. published his 252-page Sketches of Iowa, or The Emigrant’s Guide, which immediately opened doors of opportunity for Newhall to become a well-known spokesman on behalf of the expanding Iowa Territory. As it was with many books written in the 19th century, Newhall’s new guidebook had a really long title – see the Title page above.

Dedicated to General Augustus Caesar Dodge (above left) – a delegate to Congress from the Territory of Iowa – Newhall’s guidebook covered an extensive amount of detail (see two index pages below), and was highly recommended by former Territorial Governor Robert Lucas (above middle), and the General Surveyor of Wisconsin & Iowa – George W. Jones (above right).

In the book’s Preface (below), Newhall spelled out the great importance of his guidebook to America’s new West – Iowa Territory.

Above left is a short blurb about the book that appeared in The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot in April of 1841.

While J.B.’s guidebook offered its readers an abundance of detail, he did miss a fact or two. In truth, Johnson County actually began on December 21, 1837, when the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature – meeting in Burlington for its winter session – approved the formation of fourteen counties in Iowa District. Read more here.

Newhall’s first three pages basically summarize how Iowa City came into being. You can read more details here.

On the fourth page, J.B. reviews the July 1, 1839 surveying project which laid out Iowa City for future development, and then he describes the design of the new capitol building that is going up on Capitol Square.

Above is a photograph of Clinton Street taken in 1854. This is the Iowa City, J.B. Newhall envisioned upon his visit in May 1840.

Finally, on the fifth page, we find an inventory of 1840 Iowa City – population 700.

A spacious city hotel, three or four brick buildings, and several others in progress, ten drygoods, grocery, and provision stores, one drug store, one saddlery, two blacksmiths, one gunsmith, three or four coffeehouses, four lawyers, three physicians, one church, and one primary school.

I counted, even in the middle of last May, rising of 100 buildings, and saw and heard the busy workmen engaged on half as many more. At that time, conversing with a gentleman from Pennsylvania, who came to the “city” the week preceding, and had a frame house covered, and his goods in it; he said to me, “Five days ago my house was in the woods, growing.”

1841 J.B. Newhall’s Map of Iowa – Compiled From the United States Surveys, Exhibiting the boundaries of Counties, Township-lines, Ranges, Prairies and Timber Lands; The location of Cities, Towns, Indian Villages, Post and Steam Boat Routes. See more early Iowa maps here.

At the back of Newhall’s guidebook was a beautiful map of Iowa Territory as it was in 1841. Historians call this highly-detailed map – published by J.H. Colton of New York – one of the earliest, and finest maps of Iowa Territory (see yellow region-top right) and the twenty settled counties of Iowa.

With the publication of his guidebook in the spring of 1841, Newhall not only became a well-known personality around the Territory of Iowa, but throughout the East as well. Over the next three years, J.B. hit the road, using his lecture tour to promote both his book, and Iowa.

Click here to read about J.B.’s triumphant return to Iowa City aboard the Steamboat Ripple in June 1841. Read part of his speech given at The National Hotel.

Many credit Sketches of Iowa – and his two followup volumes – The British Emigrants’ Hand Book, And Guide to the New States of America, Particularly Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin (1844), and Iowa Territory—A Glimpse of Iowa (1846) as primary examples of why so many people from the East, and yes, even Europe, packed up their lives and moved to Iowa in the latter part of the 1840’s and throughout the 1850’s.

In another post, we explore J.B. Newhall’s third guidebook – A Glimpse of Iowa – and give you an overview of the continued glowing report he had about Johnson County and Iowa City in 1846. Click here to read more.

So, here’s a big salute to John B. Newhall of Burlington, Iowa. Without his guidebook and corresponding promotional tours, who knows how the Hawkeye State might have developed in the 1840’s and 50’s. Thanks, J.B., for being one of Iowa’s best traveling salesmen!

Read the book for yourself – Click here.


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

The Iowa Directory and Emigrant’s Guide for 1840, The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, May 21, 1840, p 4

Iowa City, J.B. Newhall, The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, May 28, 1840, p 2

Sketches of Iowa, The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, April 22, 1841, p 2

1841 Map of Iowa, Published by J.H. Colton for John B. Newhall, Barry Lawrence Rudderman Antique Maps

Sketches of Iowa, the Emigrant’s Guide, Legislative Services Agency, Pieces of Iowa’s Past, May 4, 2022

John B. Newhall, Pieces of Iowa’s Past, Iowa State Capitol Tour Guides, March 30, 2011


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