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, Indiana – Bloomington, Illinois and Bloomington, Iowa. So, after years of confusion, Bloomington adopted a new name – Muscatine.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Not Yet But Soon – Muscatine Avenue, Iowa City Republican, February 23, 1907, p 8
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