Gilbert D. Dillon, one of Iowa’s first bankers, was born in Asbury of Ulster County, New York in 1814 to an Irish-born pastor – Rev. Robert Dillon and his wife, Elizabeth Trumpbour. G.D.’s wife, Mary Schoonmacher, was born one year earlier – 1813 – also in Ulster County, New York (see below). We assume the couple met and married there prior to heading west.
Records show that on October 31, 1837, Dillon, along with several other businessmen including Ezekiel Lockwood, opened Iowa’s first territorial bank – Miners Bank of Dubuque.
At the time, Iowa was not a separate U.S. Territory, so Miners’ Bank was chartered with $200,000 from the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, with Lockwood serving as bank president and Dillon appointed as cashier. Much like credit unions today, which serve the employees of specific businesses, Miners Bank was created to work alongside, as the name suggests, pioneers who were flocking into Iowa, hoping to make a fortune in Dubuque’s lead-mining industry.
Writing in the Annals of Iowa in 1870, Charles Negus states that Miners Bank, like many other banks of its day, was started on “fictitious capital” with stockholders “purchasing” stock by using notes written in their name rather than paying with actual dollars. This shortage of cash reserve caused problems almost immediately, which from what we read in the records (below), put Gilbert Dillon, as the bank’s cashier, in a sticky situation.
One thing led to another, and apparently, Gilbert, when he refused to play along with the shady practices of the bank’s investors, was secretly replaced. So, when Dillon, now fired, took back his $5K – $6K investment, he was promptly accused of embezzlement. All of this eventually went to the Wisconsin Territorial courts, where Gilbert was proven innocent and the charges dropped.
Miners Bank went on doing business for another decade, with continuous run-ins with both the courts and its customers. Above is part of a 1838 petition initiated by John Plumbe of Dubuque and signed by other prominent Dubuque pioneers, calling for the bank to be investigated. In July 1848, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the loss of charter, but by this time the bank had closed its books and doors. In 1901, the site of Miners’ Bank was used to build the German Savings Bank of Dubuque.
We aren’t sure what Gilbert D. Dillon ended up doing for work after leaving Miners Bank. We do know, however, that G.D. and Mary bought land in nearby Delaware County (west of Dubuque) and became one of the first settlers there in 1839.
According to county records, Gilbert built the first frame house in Delaware County, settling in the now non-existent town of Rockville in North Fork Township.
Records also show that G.D. was Delaware County’s first Justice of the Peace.
In March of 2022, I came upon a lovely letter on Ebay from Gilbert to Mary. It’s a stampless postal cover – the earliest in our collection – dated June 17, 1840. The short note is addressed to Mrs. Mary Dillon – Dubuque – I T (Iowa Territory). Below is the content of the letter…
Apparently, Gilbert was on a business trip of some kind back east – looking to stir up some interest. At the writing of the note, he’s not sure if any of his leads are going to pan out or not. More than likely, G.D. traveled to Ohio via riverboat – going south on the Mississippi to St. Louis and then northward on the Ohio River.
According to Delaware County records, twins William and Cornelia Dillon were born to G.D. & Mary in the autumn of 1840. That might explain why Gilbert was concerned about Mary’s well-being in his letter. It’s our guess that a very pregnant Mary stayed with friends in Dubuque while G.D. traveled back east Ohio in June of 1840.
Sadly, two additional sons were born later: Jacob in 1847 and Robert in 1849, but both boys died within a year or so of their birth – 1848 and 1850 respectively.
Mary Schoonmacher Dillon died on January 15, 1857 at age 43/44, while Gilbert D. Dillon passed on December 20, 1874, at the age of 60. Both are buried, alongside sons Jacob and Robert, at Worthington Baptist Cemetery, Dubuque County, Iowa.
Here’s to you Mr. & Mrs. Dillon – Godspeed!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.