Curtis Bates – The Christmas Day Letter From Iowa City.

In 1841, Curtis Bates – a 35-year old lawyer/politician from Ohio – came into Iowa City in order to start up a new law office. According to historic records, this Connecticut Yankee – who ventured here via Trumbull County, Ohio (see above) – was now the eleventh man (see list below) to do just that in this two-year-old community that contained less than 1,000 people. Oh, and by the way, Bates was the seventh lawyer to come to town in 1841, since records indicate that there were only four lawyers here in 1840!

In the 1840’s, Iowa City became the city to find a good lawyer – read more about Iowa City in the early 1840’s here.

Despite the heavy competition, Bates made a go of it, and over the next ten years (1841-1851), this Buckeye made quite the impression in Iowa City. Let me tell you more…

In 1843, for example, Curtis Bates was one of fifteen well-established city leaders (see list below) who served on the Board of Trustees for the newly-formed Iowa City College. A private Christian institution sponsored by the Methodist-Episcopal Church – the school opened in 1843, but struggled in finding the right man to oversee it. In 1846, this short-lived school – it closed by 1848 – invited a new graduate of Indiana Asbury University to come to Iowa City and see what he could do. His name was James Harlan, and you can read more about Harlan’s earliest days in Iowa City here.

Four years after his vested interest in Iowa City College, in 1847, Bates was, once again, called upon to serve – with fourteen other city leaders (see list above) – on the Board of Trustees of a brand new educational endeavor getting off the ground in Iowa City. And while it took until 1860 for this new venture to truly succeed, The State University of Iowa proved to be a worthy undertaking, don’t you think? Read more here.

While not running for any office here in Johnson County, Curtis Bates was certainly no stranger to politics during his ten-year stay in Iowa City. In 1844, he was appointed a Judge, and along with James Robinson and Cyrus Sanders, was assigned to oversee local elections for the Iowa City precinct. Two years later, in 1846, Judge Curtis was elected to represent Johnson County at the Iowa Statehood Constitutional Convention held in Iowa City. Read more here. Which brings us, now, to our rare postal cover/letter from Christmas Day of 1848

(JP-047) Here’s a rare postal cover and letter written on Christmas Day 1848 and mailed on January 1, 1949 from Iowa City.

Like so many other Iowa pioneers of his day, Curtis Bates, as a lawyer, had both land and political connections back east. In another set of posts, we told you about Abraham H. Palmer – the Ohio native who served as the owner/editor of The Iowa Capital Reporter newspaper here in Iowa City from 1845-1850.

A.H. Palmer, affectionately known around Iowa City as The Old Growler, had come to town in 1844 to promote the political views of the Democrat Party, and in doing so, he took over the reins of The Capital Reporter, using it as a voice for his political views. Below, are two Palmer letters we have in our collection – both of which were headed to Defiance, Ohio – one in June 1845, the other, in October 1846.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that both of Palmer’s letters, and the Bates’ letter we showed you earlier, were addressed to the same person in Defiance, Ohio – the one and only…

From looking through all three of the letters addressed to William Carter (1845, 1846 & 1848), it appears that the common denominator here is that Carter – an attorney back in Defiance, Ohio – was, 1) a personal friend of both Palmer and Bates, 2) a fellow Democrat who had a vested political interest with both men, and 3) a well-connected lawyer who looked after both men’s land investments back in Ohio. Which brings us, now, to the contents of…

As is our pattern with these letters, we’ll make some observations along the way. Enjoy…

Iowa City – Dec 25, 1848

Friend Carter

Permit me sir, to wish you a Merry Christmas, and as this will not reach you before the new year, I may add, also, a happy new year.

It’s Christmas Day in Iowa City, and apparently, with the break in day-to-day business, Curtis Bates uses the day to catch up on business! Hmm. A bit of Scrooge here?

And this wish, of course, extends to the entire year, though a part of it may be under Taylor’s administration – under the administration of a mere military chieftain, though we were told by the Great Embodiment of Whiggery that war, pestilence and famine would be preferable to such a calamity. But, we shall see what we shall see, and that I anticipate will be a division and blowing up of Whiggery before the expiration of Taylor’s presidential term. Should he veto the Wilmot proviso*, as I believe he will, many of those who assisted to elect him will feel like serving him as Tyler was served when he vetoed the bank bill – burn him in effigy. But, I need not speculate on Taylor’s administration, the reality will come soon enough.

*The Wilmot Proviso was an unsuccessful proposal – vetoed by Taylor – in the United States Congress to ban slavery in territory acquired from Mexico in the Mexican–American War.

Presidents John Tyler (1841-1845) and Zachery Taylor (1849-1850) were both part of the Whig Party, but were both fiercely independent leaders who often acted contrary to their party’s wishes. Tyler was impeached by his own party, and Taylor died in office (1850) before the heads of Whiggery – as Bates called it – could do the same. As a Democrat who was writing this letter only one month after Taylor had been elected (November 1848), Curtis was expressing his deep frustrations even before General Taylor took office in March 1849!

As we know from Bates’ biographical information, he was a long-time Democrat with an interesting background in politics. Born on March 6, 1806 in Hartford County, Connecticut, his family moved to Trumbull County, Ohio, when Curtis Bates was three years old – and there, he studied law and began his first practice. Soon after, in 1830, he was elected State Senator, as a Democrat, but his Whig opponent contested the election, when it was shown that Bates was ineligible, being less than 25 years old when elected. A court battle followed, and by the time it was decided (1831), Bates had turned 25, making him now eligible. So, as it turned out, he was re-nominated, and elected by a nearly unanimous vote! This might explain Bates’ rather distasteful view of President-elect Zachary Taylor and everything Whiggery!

Not having written to you, or received a letter from you for a long time, I began to fear that time, whose withering hand is upon every thing, might be too rapidly effacing me from your memory, a result which I desire may not happen so long as we both shall live.

This is Curtis Bates’ poetic way for saying, “Hey friend, I’ve been too busy to write, but despite that, I haven’t heard from you in a long time either!” We noticed, when looking through A.H. Palmer’s two letters to Carter, their lawyer friend from Defiance, despite his accurate bookkeeping on the back of each letter (see below), seemed to have a poor track-record in returning a prompt response to his Iowa friends’ inquiries – though on this particular letter, Carter responded fairly promptly – January 27, 1849 – ten days after receiving it!

I anticipated visiting you last fall, but circumstances prevented, and now I think of visiting you next spring as soon as our courts are over, but Mrs. Bates’ health is such, it is quite uncertain whether I shall be able to do so. Nothing else, I presume will prevent.

Here, we get a hint at the sickness that eventually led to Bates’ first wife’s death – which we can find no details other than the fact that she died prior to Bates’ move to Fort Des Moines in 1851.

In the mean time, I hope you will be as attentive to my matters there, as you have been heretofore. The Judgement against Simons, I suppose, has been settled before this time as you have not informed me to the contrary. You will, I trust, attend to paying the taxes on my lands of which I have several times written to you heretofore, and be assured that the land shall remain as security to you until you are satisfied. I intended to send you a power of attorney to sell those tax title lands, but have as yet neglected so to do, but will try and attend to it soon, if I do not send it herein.

So, here’s the business part of Bates’ letter to his lawyer tending his business back in Ohio.

Some business is dull – other business quite brisk when the snow is not too deep to prevent it. Snow is so deep that we have not had the mails for several days. It is the deepest I ever saw in Iowa – about 18 to 24 inches.

Yikes – 18 to 24 inches by December 25th! So, definitely, a white Christmas in Iowa City in 1848!

Mr. Strait of Defiance was here a few days ago, but did not stay long enough to see much of the country – he seemed much pleased with it. Mr. Loyd of your County was here last fall and can give you some information of this City & County if you should see him & feel any interest in inquiring. I suppose you do not think any more of either visiting or removing to Iowa, though I presume the time you fixed upon for coming has already passed – to wit, when you could raise $2000 clear of all demands.

Let me hear from you when convenient. Give our best respects to Mrs. Carter and accept a fair share for yourself.

Respectfully, Curtis Bates

Based on this letter and the two from A.H. Palmer, the connections between Defiance, Ohio and Iowa City must have been fairly strong. In Palmer’s letters, we find out that William Carter was financially supporting Palmer and his newspaper efforts here in Iowa City. As fellow Democrats, all three men were quite devoted to furthering the political agenda of the party – particularly here in Iowa’s new capital city. As Bates states here, apparently Carter had, in the past, expressed strong interest in moving here to Iowa as well. Which brings us to the remainder of Curtis Bates’ Iowa story…

According to historical records, while in Iowa City, Curtis Bates was admitted to the Polk County Bar (1849), and became very interested in land developments in central Iowa – with Fort Des Moines taking the great majority of his attention. We are guessing that, based on his friendship with A.H. Palmer, the editor/owner of The Iowa Capital Reporter – Iowa City’s Democrat-leaning newspaper – Bates decided to move his resources westward. In the spring of 1849, Bates had a printing press and material hauled from Iowa City to Fort Des Moines on wagons, and on July 24, 1849, the first issue of The Iowa Star – Des Moines’ first newspaper – was printed. The Star, by the way, eventually evolved into what is today’s Des Moines Register. Read more here.

By 1851, Bates, and his wife Sophia, followed The Star, moving to Fort Des Moines, where Curtis opened a new law office and eventually ended up running (1852) and winning, as a Democrat against his Whig opponent, a seat in the Iowa Senate. In 1854, Bates was nominated by the Democrat’s State Convention for Governor, in opposition to the Whig candidate, James W. Grimes of Burlington. In a very close race, Grimes won, and in 1855, Judge Bates decided to step away from politics, sold The Star, and with his health failing (1861), retired from his law practice and devoted his time to the care of his large property holdings.

A pioneer of both Johnson & Polk Counties, Judge Curtis Bates lived to age 73, dying on May 12, 1879. Both Bates and his second wife, Sophia E. Newton (married in 1857) are buried in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines.

In 1860, Judge Bates purchased a tract of Polk County land lying south of Clark Street to Oakland Avenue, between Arlington Avenue and Fourth Street. It remained unplatted and unsold during his lifetime, but the public, by common accord, used the northern portion, along the bluff overlooking the Des Moines River valley, as a park, and it was known as Bates Park (see pics below). In 1883, his widow platted the entire tract as a public park, in accordance with the evident intent of the Judge, and gave the title to the City of Des Moines.

One of Bates’ biographers wrote this about the good judge…

Socially, the Judge was eminent for his virtues, integrity in business affairs, and fidelity in friendship, purity of life, and loyalty to the home of his adoption. Whatever was to the betterment of civic life, received his hearty support. Religiously, he was not the member of any denominational church, yet he was a regular attendant at the services of Father Bird (Rev. Thompson Bird) so long as that good man was able to preach, and subsequently attended the Presbyterian Church. His creed was the Fatherhood of God, and the Brotherhood of Man.

Well done, Judge Curtis Bates – well done!

DYK-December 23, 2022

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

Defiance County, Henry Howes, RootsWeb

1841 Iowa City Lawyers, Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 1, 1939, p 18AA

1844 – Iowa City College, Leading Events In Johnson County, C.R. Aurner, 1912, pp 274, 276

1844 – Judge of Elections-Iowa City, History of Johnson County, 1883, p 181

1846 – Iowa Statehood Constitutional Convention, Leading Events in Johnson County, C.R. Aurner, 1883, p 619

1847- UI Board Of Trustees, History of Johnson County, 1883, p 66

Convention Member Curtis Bates, The Iowa Legislature, State of Iowa

Biography of Judge Curtis Bates, Polk County, November 1905, Iowa Geneology

About The Iowa Star, Library of Congress

Judge Curtis Bates Obit, Iowa City Daily Republican, May 14, 1879, p 4

Judge Curtis Bates Obit, Iowa City Daily Republican, May 20, 1879, p 2

Bates Park Historic District, Wikipedia

Bates Park, City of Des Moines

William Carter, Find-A-Grave

Sophia E Newton Bates, Find-A-Grave

Judge Curtis Bates, Find-A-Grave

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