1840 – The Road From Bloomington To Iowa City.

In 1839, the one big problem with building a whole new city from scratch, is that there were very limited options on how to get people in and out of Iowa City! This diagram of Johnson County’s first pioneer community – Napoleon – (above right) indicates the only three transportation options of the day:

  • An ancient Native American trail running north/south – now called Sand Road,
  • The Iowa River flowing south to the Mississippi River, and…
  • A roughly-cut wagon trail going east from Napoleon to Bloomington.

In the early writings of Iowa historian, T.S. Parvin, we find that when he and Judge Joseph Williams traveled to Johnson County – in May 1839 – for the first court proceedings, the trail from Bloomington to Iowa City – while primitive when compared to the roads back east – was still “a beautiful road,” stretching through 30 miles of “fine country, mostly prairie.”

It was on this trip with Judge Williams, when T.S. Parvin sketched out a map of this new city in his journal, labeling it… “a map of the City of Iowa.” Read more here.

But, before we go any further about the road between Johnson County and Bloomington, we must, first, pull out a map of Iowa that was printed prior to 1850 in order to show you where Bloomington was. See it there (above right) tucked away in Muscatine County – located on the Mississippi River?

Bloomington had its beginnings as a no-name trading post – founded by agents of Colonel George Davenport – immediately following the Black Hawk War/Purchase of 1832/1833. Davenport, who lived in Rock Island, brought in a stock of goods, erected a small log cabin near the Mississippi River, leaving his trading post under the supervision of one of his representatives. In 1835, James W. Casey started a second trading post on the river near Davenport’s, and that spot became known as Casey’s Wood Yard or Casey’s Landing of Newburg. In 1836, Colonel John Vanater – who had been in the area several years earlier – returned, bought Davenport’s trading post, and named the fledgling community Bloomington – after his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. On January 8, 1837, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, named Bloomington the county seat of the newly-established Muscatine County in the Iowa District of Wisconsin Territory. After Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, Bloomington continued to grow and was incorporated on January 23, 1839.

But, in 1850, the good people of Bloomington, Iowa were forced to change their city’s name due to the increasing confusion surrounding U.S. mail delivery to three different Midwestern cities: Bloomington, IndianaBloomington, Illinois and Bloomington, Iowa. So, after years of confusion, Bloomington adopted a new name – Muscatine.

Read more about Bloomington, Iowa and how it played into the earliest days of Iowa City newspapers.

So, when Iowa City was founded in May 1839, the closest Iowa community was Bloomington, and since the city was strategically located on the Mississippi River, it was simply common sense that the rugged trail which connected the two cities needed to be improved. Which now, brings us to our very rare postal cover and letter from July 1840…

(JP-053) Above is a very rare postal cover & letter – sent in July 1840 to Mr. Stephen B. Gardner, Iowa City I.T. (Iowa Territory). You’ll notice how the cover has no postmarking, so we are assuming the letter was ‘mailed’ from along the existing Bloomington/Napoleon trail using the “free” option (see upper right corner) given to governmental officials. The letter was drafted by Territorial road supervisors Cyrus Cox and A. H. Haskell and surveyor I.B. Davis, who have been appointed to oversee the construction of an improved road from Bloomington into Iowa City. The backside of the cover (below) features the subject of the letter – Plat & Field Notes of Territorial Road from Bloomington to the West Line of Washington County Johnson Co I.T., and this was probably penned by the letter’s recipient – Stephen B. Gardner, Clerk of Johnson County, Iowa.
Our July 1840 letter refers to a six-mile stretch of land in Johnson County (see above) – just one section of the newly-proposed 30-mile road between Bloomington and Iowa City.

This letter (below) just may be one of the most valuable & historic postal covers & letters we have written about here on Our Iowa Heritage website. The reason we say that, is because our letter – written on July 30, 1840 – actually contains the surveyor’s – I.B. Davis – plat and field notes for, what looks to be, the first six miles of one of the oldest roads built in Johnson County – a road that will eventually extend from Bloomington to Iowa City, and then angle southwest into Washington County – on its way to Sigourney in Keokuk County.

We the undersigned commissioners & surveyor authorized to locate a Territorial Road from Bloomington to the West Line of Washington County do certify the above to be a correct plat & field notes of that part of said road which lies in Johnson County given under our hands this 30th day of July 1840.
Commissioners: Cyrus Cox, A. H. Haskell
Surveyor: I.B. Davis

Let me start by offering you (below) this historical background to the earliest roads of Johnson County, using the writings of H.A. Reid, contributor to the classic 1883 volume – The History of Johnson County, Iowa…

As the article (above) states, in 1839, there were several proposals out there for roads to be built in Johnson County – all of which would make Iowa City more accessible. But in truth, there was only one road that had the big financial backing of both the Federal and Territorial governments – The Military Road (above right), or as it was later called – The National Road – on which construction began – starting from Dubuque in 1840. Read more here.

Back in these early days of Iowa, the location of a post office was everything, so by the fall of 1839 – with Johnson County mail now being directed to Iowa City – and not Napoleon – a better & more direct route enabling the mail to get to Iowa’s Territorial capital became a high priority.

As we discussed earlier, in 1839, there was an existing trail between Bloomington and Napoleon – Johnson County’s first pioneer settlement. But when it was decided – in May 1839 – that a new Johnson County community named Iowa City would be developed just north of Napoleon, the little village began to disappear, and by November, Johnson County’s first post office had been moved from Napoleon to Iowa City. Above, notice the two 1839 postal covers sent to Johnson County pioneer – Cyrus Sanders. The first (left) is addressed to Napoleon, while the second is now going to the “City of Iowa,” which Iowa City was first called in 1839.
Look for the Bur Oak Tree! At the top of the letter, the surveyor – I.B. Davis spells out the technical details of the 6-mile stretch of land on the eastern side of Johnson County, noting the location of posts he has placed in the prairie. Notice the last entry mentions a burr oak tree. Because of its relatively thick, fire-resistant bark and natural resistance to drought, a burr oak could compete successfully with the prairie grasses. These “oak groves” were favorite home sites for early settlers in Iowa, and historic records indicate that burr oak trees were used as gathering places – such as this story from Judge Joseph Williams (below)…

Here’s the written contents of our letter and the all-important map & references…

The map – we suggest you click here to view enlarged pics of this rare map.

Finally, allow me to introduce you to the four Iowa pioneers whose names are attached to this rare July 1840 letter.

Stephen B. GardnerClerk for the Johnson County Board of Commissioners – living in Iowa City with his family during the 1840’s and 50’s. The 1850 US Census – Iowa City – Johnson County – shows: Stephen B. Gardner, age 46, clerk of District Court, born in N. Carolina; Margarett, age 52, born in Maryland; Barbary Nickols, age 12, born in Pennsylvania. Other records show that Stephen B. Gardner was one of twenty-five trustees appointed in April 1843 to oversee the formation of Iowa City College, a seminary of higher learning for “the benefit of the youth of every class of citizens, and every religious denomination, who shall be freely admitted to equal advantages and privileges of education, and to all the literary honors of said college.” Read more about Stephen B. Gardner and his work with Judge Joseph Williams of Bloomington.

As you’ll see here, both Cyrus Cox and A.H. Haskell have connections in Washington County, so that might be the reason they were chosen to be the road commissioners for this project which was destined to run from Bloomington to Iowa City, and then angle south and west to the western edge of Washington County.

Cyrus CoxRoad Commissioner – was born on October 15, 1807 in Crawford, Ohio when his father, John Martin Cox, was 33, and his mother, Rebecca Hull, was 30. Cox married Jane Higbee on July 22, 1833 in Crawford, and became the parents of at least 6 sons and 5 daughters. U.S. census records for 1860 show that the Cox family ended up living in English River Township in Washington County, Iowa – near today’s Kalona. Cyrus died on September 6, 1898, at the age of 90.
A.H. (Artemas Howe) Haskell – Road Commissioner – was born in Vermont in 1807, the son of George Henry Haskell and Elizabeth Betsy Howe. He married Clarissa Neal Rogers on August 11, 1833 in Trumbull County, Ohio and had four children. Prior to August 1840, Haskell was Justice of the Peace of Iowa Township in Washington County, having been appointed by the Territorial governor. In 1845, A.H. relocated to Sigourney, Iowa, and with Devalson G. Burguess, manufactured fanning mills. In 1848, he was appointed Warden of the penitentiary at Fort Madison, Iowa and died there in the spring of 1850.
I.B. Davis – Surveyor – was a farmer from Cabell County in West Virginia, and looks to have moved to Attica in Liberty Township of Marion County, Iowa in 1846. While, we can’t prove this theory, it’s possible that the I.B. Davis, who did the surveying work in Johnson County, just might have been James Davis – the surveyor that Territorial Governor Robert Lucas chose in 1838 to help Albert M. Lea do the surveying for the Iowa/Missouri border – which ultimately led to The Honey War. Could these two signatures (below) be the same man? Read more here.

Johnson County records (below) indicate that Cox, Haskell, and Davis received reimbursement for their work – which, we are guessing, must have continued on, well past our July 15, 1840 letter. Records also indicate that others were involved with the Bloomington to Iowa City project, and are listed here as well.

And, we know from looking at maps, and from other records dating back to the 1840’s, that the road – in its entirety – was completed by the early 1840’s, and that Frink & Walker was the first company to bring stagecoach service into Iowa City, with $3 buying you a seat on the thirty-mile trip from Bloomington via a two-horse stage coach. Read more here.

As we discussed earlier, after 1850, when Bloomington changed its name, the road – here in Iowa City – became better known, as it is still called today – Muscatine Avenue (pictured below on a 1854 map of Iowa City).

Muscatine (Bloomington) as it appeared in the 1850’s.
One of Iowa’s first popular authors – J.B. Newhall – wrote regular columns for The Burlington Hawk-Eye & Patriot newspaper. In 1840, he reported on his recent trip from Iowa City to Bloomington, and above is his report on the road, the city of Bloomington, and on his friend De Moss’s Wapsenonock House – which was located 15 miles east of Iowa City in Wapsinonoc township of Muscatine County. Read more about Newhall and his writings here.

We hope you enjoyed this trip down The Road From Bloomington to Iowa City!


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

1840 Roads, Transportation in Iowa – A Historical Summary, Iowadot.com, p 3-4

First County Roads, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 234-236

Bloomington Road, C.R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, 1912, p 477

Muscatine Road, C.R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, 1912, p 173

Bloomington, J.B. Newhall, The Burlington Hawk-Eye & Patriot, May 28, 1840, p 2

Judge Williams & the burr oak, The Scott County Bar, Chapter XVIII, Scott County History, IAGenWeb

Cyrus Cox, Ancestors.Familysearch.org

Artemas Howe Haskell, Find-A-Grave

I.B. Davis, Liberty Township, Marion County, Iowa, A.T. Andreas Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, Part 1, IAGenWeb

Stephen B. Gardner, C.R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, 1912, pp 75, 183-184


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