1844 – The Great Lee County Road Debate.

When Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, there were less than 23,000 people in the entire region. The map below (left) indicates that most of Iowa was comprised of either rich prairie-land (yellow) or forested woodlands (green), with countless creeks and rivers winding their way southward toward the Mississippi River.

When Robert Lucas, the former governor of Ohio, was appointed as Iowa’s first Territorial Governor, one of his highest priorities was connecting Iowans with each other and the outside world. In Ohio, Lucas advocated a forward-looking transportation system through the building of canals, so now, as Iowa’s new governor, he envisioned a similar plan, only this time by developing a network of roads that would connect Iowa’s growing communities from north to south. On Dec. 14, 1838, Governor Lucas approved a law requiring the establishment of a road from Keokuk (in southeast Iowa) to, the soon to be announced capital, Iowa City. On December 31, U.S. Congress passed a bill appropriating $20,000 for Iowa’s first “Military Road,” requiring it to pass through as many county seats as practical. President Martin Van Buren, on March 3, 1839, signed the bill into law and Iowa’s Military Road was underway: one north/south road stretching from the mining and river town of Dubuque in the north to Keosauqua, near the Missouri border on the south (see map below).

While originally called Iowa’s Military Road, it was rarely used as such, and soon became better known as The National Road, part of the well-worn trail used by thousands to go west between 1840 and 1856 – when the railroad finally reached Iowa City. When completed in 1840, Iowa’s National Road passed through the cities of Dubuque, Cascade, Monticello, Solon, Iowa City, Ainsworth, Crawfordsville, Mount Pleasant, Hillsboro and Keosauqua – nearly 200 miles in length, making it the longest continuous furrow in the world at the time.

Which now brings us to the 1840’s – and our rare 1844 postal cover & letter from the good citizens of Lee County, Iowa (see map below) in southeast Iowa – sent to their Territorial Representative – William Steele – who was serving in the Sixth Territorial Legislature Sessions (1843-1845) in Iowa City.

(JP-068) Here’s a rare 1844 stamp-less cover with two enclosed letters sent by Lee County land owner Jesse O’Neal from Fort Madison, Iowa to the Honorable Representative William Steele in Iowa City – postmarked January 20, 1844.

You see, once the Military Road was completed in 1840, more and more settlers began pouring into Iowa, increasing the demand for good roads between these new communities that were popping up across the Territory. Our January 1844 letter (above) is a remonstrance, written to express serious concern by a good number of Lee County citizens over a new road being proposed by a Mr. Hamilton – between Salem in Henry County and Ft. Madison in Lee County. In the letter, Lee County land owner Jesse O’Neal appeals on behalf of the other land owners, expressing that this new road was not needed since, apparently, there was already an adequate road or up-graded trail in existence.

If you look carefully at the notes scribbled on the back side of the letter, it says…

Remonstrance From Lee against Road from Salem in Henry To Ft. Madison.

This was obviously written on the letter after it was received at William Steele’s office in Iowa City. And in case you don’t know what a remonstrance is – it’s a legal term describing “a forcefully reproachful protest” against a pre-existing proposal. In this case, the citizens of Lee County – some of which actually first signed Mr. Hamilton’s petition for a new road – are now signing a remonstrance – formally protesting the original proposal/petition.

Actually, our letter – which cost 25-cents to post and was postmarked on January 20, 1844 in Fort Madison, addressed to the Honorable William Steele in Iowa City – is two letters in one. First (below) is the actual remonstrance – signed by a good number of Lee County Residents. Let’s, first, read the letter’s contents – which was written on January 16, 1844 – and, as you can see, because of the age of the paper, some of the text is not fully readable – so we’ve inserted a few ‘best ideas’ along the way…

To the Honorable Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa.

The undersigned citizens of the County of Lee having understood that there is a petition in circulation to establish a Territorial Road from Salem to the town of Fort Madison respectfully beg leave to Remonstrance against that part lying between (the Western Hickory ??) and the town of Fort Madison except it should be laid out on the territorial road that is already established and in good condition or the trouble will be duly bound well (??).

Jan 16th 1844.

Completing page one are the Lee County signatures, and as you can see, it looks as though the original page (far left above) had a second page of signatures glued to the first – but sadly, over time, that second page has torn away. Note that in the right hand column (middle above), one signer – Edward Millbourne – indicates…

Upon representation of persons fully acquainted with the interests of the people of this county, I am induced to withdraw my name from the petition referred to and to sign this remonstrance.

As we will see from the second letter below – Millbourne is one of several land owners who, earlier, signed Hamilton’s road proposal petition, but now, on January 16, 1844, was now recanting their signature, signing on to this new request. So, that brings us, now, to the second letter – the cover letter – written on January 17, 1844 by Lee County land owner Jess O’Neal

Fort Madison January 17th 1844.

Mr. Steele – Dear Sir. I take the liberty of enclosing to you a conditional remonstrance against Mr. Hamilton’s petition for a road from this place (Ft. Madison) to Salem which is calculated to do us much injury and we think is (an) uncalled for service passage with one that is already established and well worked. He (Hamiliton) came into (Fort) Madison to get his petitioners. The names enclosed are settlers on the road, except a few in this place who have signed his petition, (now) oppose his representations – (which apparently proposed…) laying the road could be made eight miles (to ??) and that there was no (existing) road.

Yours Respectfully, Jesse O’Neal

Take a look at the two maps (above). On the left is Lee County in 1838 – when Iowa first became a Territory, and on the right is Lee County in 1840. Notice that the there is no road from Madison (Ft. Madison) to Henry County, only an east-west road running from Burlington (in Des Moines County) to West Point (in Lee County), and then heading north & west toward Jefferson County. Now, our letter doesn’t state this but, we’re guessing, that the newly-proposed 1844 “Hamilton” road from Salem to Ft. Madison would have ended up by-passing those Lee County farmers who signed the remonstrance – cutting them off from their existing road (a trail-like path) they presently enjoyed. If you look at the “before & after” maps (above & below), it looks like the farmers just might have won their fight, since the 1846 Lee & Henry County map (below) doesn’t show a well-developed road running directly between Ft. Madison and Salem via West Point – meaning the old farmer’s trail (not shown) was probably still the best way to get from Ft. Madison to West Point and on into Henry County. So, I think we can chalk one up for the Lee County farmers! Their remonstrance worked!

Click here to read about the Davis County residents who, in 1845, petitioned Iowa City for the construction of one of the first Territorial Roads built to the Iowa/Missouri border.

We don’t know too much about our letter’s author – Jesse O’Neal. He does show up as a Lee County land owner in two different Lee County historical records. First, O’Neal, his wife, and six other family members, are shown living in the county in the 1840 U.S. Census.

Secondly, Lee County land records show O’Neal purchasing land from 1841 to 1846, but after those dates, we simply can’s find any other records on what came next for the O’Neals.

Born January 28, 1799, at Mt. Sterling, Montgomery County, Kentucky, William Steele continued to reside there until 1826, when he emigrated to Springfield, Illinois. A farmer by trade, William married Nancy Jones in 1829, and served in the Black Hawk War (1832). From there, Steele moved to Iowa in 1836 – then the Territory of Wisconsin when Burlington and Keokuk were small trading posts. Eventually, he settled in West Point of Lee County (see map above).

As you can see (above), William Steele first represented Van Buren County as a Democrat during the Third Territorial Legislative Session held in Burlington (1840-1841), moving over to Lee County for the Fifth Session held in Iowa City (1842-1843). As many Democrats were doing in the 1840’s & 1850’s, Steele switched over to the Whig Party because of their strong objection to the Democrat’s unwillingness to speak out against the evils of slavery. So, as a Whig, Steele served in Iowa City for the Sixth Legislative Session (1843-1845), and it was during this time when he received our road debate letter from his Lee County constituents. Elected to the Iowa Constitutional Convention in 1846, Steele returned to Iowa City for one more term in the House, and according to one biographer…

It was through the exertions of such men as William Steele that Iowa has the best constitution and code of laws of any station in the union.

Not many records after this time in the 1840’s are available, but the Steele’s do reappear in the historical records of Oak Hill Cemetery Butler/Bates County, Missouri. Here, we find that William Steele died on November 24, 1880, at age 81, and is buried with his wife, Nancy Steele (1811-1897). Godspeed.

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

Military Road, Encyclopedia Dubuque website

Early Transportation in Iowa Before Railroads-Chapter One, Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT)

Jesse O’Neal, 1840 U.S. Census, IAGenWebProject

Jesse O’Neal, Land Patent Certificates, Lee County, IAGenWebProject

Representative William Steele, The Iowa Legislature

William Steele, Directory of Public Officials, Iowa Territory, IAGenWeb Project

West Point, Iowa, Wikipedia

Nancy Steele, Find-A-Grave

William Steele, Find-A-Grave

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