January 1842 – A Letter From The Fourth Assembly.

In earlier posts, we’ve discussed the intriguing story behind the very first Iowa Territorial Legislative Session held in Iowa City (1841-1842). This was actually the Fourth Assembly of the Iowa Territorial Legislature, with the previous three gatherings held in Burlington, the first Territorial capital of Iowa.

Click here to read more about Walter Butler and his last-minute masterpiece that assured Iowa City to serve as host for Iowa Territory’s Legislature Session of 1841-1842.

Butler’s Capitol – Iowa City – 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, and just months before, the wood had been live timber which had been laboriously cut by hand since no local saw mill was available! Read more here.

As you can see from the lists below, there were two legislative groups that met in Iowa City as part of that Fourth Legislative Assembly. Meeting between December 6, 1841 and February 18, 1842 – the Council had 13 members plus one secretary, and the House of Representatives was comprised of 26 members with one secretary. Forty-one Territorial leaders – all meeting for the very first time in Iowa’s new capital city – Iowa City.

For the record, these representatives met in Butler’s Capitol for 54 daily sessions, 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, sadly, not one penny to Walter Butler for the use of his facility! Read more here. In another post, we shared with you the exciting tale of one of those men – Oliver Weld, the young representative from Van Buren County. Read more here. So, today, allow me to share yet another perspective coming from these first sessions in Iowa City.

Representative William L. Toole was born near Winchester, Virginia on April 6, 1803, his ancestors having come originally from England and having been among the earliest settlers of Virginia. In March 1836, he came to Louisa County, Iowa (see map above) from Indiana and located near the mouth of the Iowa River (see red X). His little cabin was the beginnings of the village of Toolesboro – named obviously for its founder! Over his many years of living in Louisa County, Toole became one of the most prominent figures in its early history, having served in many important public positions. Toole, a Presbyterian pastor, served as the first Postmaster of Louisa County and was elected, as well, to the first Board of County Commissioners in 1838. A true Iowa pioneer, in 1870, Toole wrote two volumes of Louisa County history that was published in the Annals of Iowa.

And, as we’ll see here on this page, William Toole was also elected to the first House of Representatives for the Territory of Iowa in 1838, and re-elected to the Third and Fourth Territorial Assemblies (1840 & 1841) as well. He also served as one of the Louisa County delegates to the Constitutional Convention, held in Iowa City in 1844. Which, now, brings us to…

(JP-046) Above is a rare postal cover/letter from Rep. William L. Toole, written on January 29, 1842. His letter is addressed to Laurel Summers, Esq. who lives in Berlin, Scott County, Iowa, and is postmarked in Iowa City on January 30, 1842.

Laurel Summers was a young farmer from Scott County, Iowa who was chosen by his neighbors to represent them at the first “official” session – November 1838 though January 1839 – of the newly-formed Iowa Territorial Legislature. And, according to the most reliable records we have, it was Summers – who, despite the political pressure from others, cast the deciding vote that finalized – on January 21, 1839 – the choice that Iowa City would become Iowa’s new capital city! Read more here.

Click here to read yet another informative letter written to Laurel Summers in April 1846.

Berlin in Scott County was located at the northeast corner of LeClaire Township. The Berlin post office was established as Parkhurst on May 8, 1839 with Thomas C. Eads, postmaster. It was renamed Berlin on December 23, 1839, and then re-established as Parkhurst on December 3, 1845. Finally, the post office and community was renamed LeClaire on May 14, 1847 with Lemuel Parkhurst, serving as postmaster.

OK, so now that you know a little bit about these two Iowa Territorial Representatives – Toole and Summers – let’s unpack the two page letter (above). As we do with most letters like this, we’ll take it apart one paragraph at a time and give you some additional insight along the way…

Iowa City, Iowa, Jan 29th, 1842

Laurel Summers Esqr. – Dear Sir,

I have now before me, your very interesting letter of 19th (in hand), and I am well pleased that the veterans of the first session of the Iowa Legislature (see list below), continue to have a place in your reminiscences notwithstanding some of them differ with you in National Politics (etc.).

Yes, here they are – the 26 representatives and one clerk assigned to the Iowa Territorial House of Representatives – meeting for the first time in Burlington, the capital of Iowa Territory, in 1838. From what Toole says, this group of men built a special bond with each other, and despite their political differences, they remain friends and comrades to this day.

There is some peculiar association connected with the recollection of events of this session that will never be obliterated from my mind, and like you, whenever I meet with any of my fellow members of that Session, I can always give them an unusually hearty shake by the hand (“Kentucky Grip”).

A Kentucky Handshake is one that is strong, sincere, and full of emotion.

Old Joe Fales looks as natural at his desk as an old favorite piece of furniture does to a good old housekeeper. In fact, I feel lost when he occasionally visits the Council with his messages (etc.).

Hey Laurel – do you remember Old Joe Fales? Records show that Fales served the Territory of Iowa in countless ways, but what Toole is referring to here is that Joseph T. Fales was the Chief Clerk to the House of Representatives for all of the many sessions the two men had attended over the years. As a matter of fact, Fales fulfilled that role as Chief Clerk throughout the first six years of Iowa’s existence – from 1838 to 1844 – three years in Burlington and another three in Iowa City!

Click here to read more about Joseph T. Fales and his years of service in Iowa.

I have nothing very interesting to communicate at present, unless that the passage of your favorite old bill, to Divorce. –  Sarah East, from her husband H.S.W. East – has passed both houses, and has been with the Governor (John Chambers) several days, and no doubt, is now a law. And as I have faithfully advocated the passage of this bill at three different sessions, I think I am entitled to the good wishes, if not the affections, of the aforesaid Mrs. East, and I will be pleased if you will intercede (etc.).

So, when Iowa became a Territory in its own right in 1838, Legislators in Burlington specified only two legal grounds for obtaining a divorce in Iowa – impotency and adultery. But over the next few years, leaders like Toole, Summers, and others began taking a broader view at the subject, and by the end of the 1841-42 Session, had passed Iowa’s Revised Statutes on Divorce, which now included six additional grounds for divorce: 1) bigamy, 2) desertion for one year, 3) conviction of a felony or infamous crime, 4) habitual drunkenness, 5) cruel and barbarous treatment endangering the life of a spouse, and 6) indignities rendering a spouse’s situation intolerable. From what Toole states in his letter, a common friend – Sarah East – was obviously going to be pleased with this new law in place, because now, she would, legally, be able to separate from her bad boy husband! We’re not sure if Toole – a single man, as far as we know – had eyes for Sarah, but alas, that fact may never be determined. But it’s fun to speculate, isn’t it?

The passage of any appraisement law this session is now considered doubtful. We will pass a bill providing for preparatory steps for admission into the Union (and) it will provide for a vote to be taken at the August Election, for and against a Convention, and in October for Delegates (etc.).

From the very beginning (1838), when Iowa became a U.S. Territory, there were legislators who wanted to push toward statehood. So, over a period of eight years (1838-1846), the people of Iowa went back and forth on the issue. In 1840, for example, there were 43,112 citizens in Iowa, excluding people of color. At that time, only white men over twenty-one years of age could vote, and in the election of 1840, the question of statehood was put on the ballot. 937 men voted for it – 2,907 voted against it!

Now, once again in 1842, as Toole states, there will be another vote that will push toward statehood. But, history shows us that, once more, the good people of Iowa voted ‘nay.’ In 1844, another vote came forward, and this time, it did pass in its early stages, making the need for a Constitutional Convention to gather in Iowa City. Records show that Toole was a part of those meetings in August 1844, but once more, the plan stalled out. You can read more details here. It wasn’t until 1846, when Iowa finally become the 29th state in the Union.

We have spent the winter much more pleasantly than was anticipated, and the session has so far been quite pleasant. I will be pleased if you and I meet in Convention.

I remain with much Respect yours, Wm. L. Toole

The 1841-1842 Legislative Assembly started off in early December with a massive snow and ice storm – so severe, in fact, that two of the legislators – Oliver Weld and James Hall – from Van Buren County didn’t arrive in Iowa City until a week after the sessions began! Read more here. So, apparently, the winter got a bit more pleasant in January, and on January 29, 1842, when Toole wrote his letter, there would be only a couple more weeks (February 18) before the sessions in Iowa City would adjourn and everybody would head home for the spring and summer months. Since his good friend, Laurel Summers, had chosen not to be a part of this Fourth Assembly, Toole was hopeful of seeing each other again for the party conventions held in the fall.

So, there you have it. As history shows, both of these young Iowans – Toole was 39 and Summers was 30 at the time of this 1842 letter, went on to serve their Territory/State for many more years to come.

William L. Toole lived on to age 73, dying on February 27, 1877 and is buried in Mallory Cemetery in his beloved Louisa County. Laurel Summers, on the other hand, lived to the age of 77, dying April 15, 1890, and is buried at Glendale Cemetery in his beloved LeClaire in Scott County. Thanks to both men for their service to Iowa! Godspeed!


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

First Legislative Assembly & Fourth Legislative Assembly, Directory of Public Officials, IAGenWeb

Representative William L. Toole, The Iowa Legislature, State of Iowa

Louisa County, Iowa map, 1874, A.T. Andreas, David Rumsey Map Collection

Two Distilleries In Old Louisa County Settlement, Old Settlers In Louisa County, IAGenWeb

Wm. L. Toole, Old Settlers In Louisa County, IAGenWeb

History of Louisa County, William L. Toole, Annals of Iowa. Vol.8, no.3 (July 1870), p 257-269; vol.8, no.4 (Oct. 1870), pp 345-353

Representative Laurel Summers, The Iowa Legislature, State of Iowa

Scott County, Iowa Ghost Towns

Lost Towns of Scott County, Elaine Rathmann, celticcousins.net

Map of Scott County, Iowa – 1860, A. Hodge, Library of Congress

Joseph Thomas Fales, Find-A-Grave

Iowa Divorce – Iowa Legislature – 1838- 1843, Divorce Records: Linn County, Iowa, 1928-1944, Glenda Riley, Annals of Iowa, p 791

Laurel Summers, Find-A-Grave

William L. Toole, Iowa Gravestone Photo Project

William L. Toole, Find-A-Grave


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