J.B. Newhall – Iowa’s First Rock Star.

A native of Lynn (Essex County), Massachusetts – born in 1806 – John B. Newhall made his way west to Burlington, just as Iowa was opening up to new settlers. Most historians place his arrival at 1834 – just one year after the city was established on the western shores of the Mississippi River – land first belonging to the Meskwaki (Sauk and Fox) tribes, who called it Shoquoquon (Shok-ko-kon), meaning Flint Hills. Over the next fifteen years, Newhall became nothing short of a regional celebrity – author of three guidebooks (above) that proved to be invaluable to those who were relocating to this beautiful “This Is The Place” land called Iowa.

In 1835, Lieutenant Albert M. Lea made an extensive exploration of the new Iowa District of Michigan Territory, and the following year (1836), he published the very first “travel guide” about Iowa. His map (see below) in the back of his book was the first to find a large circulation back east, setting the stage for others, like J.P. Newhall, to publish similar books – particularly after Iowa became its own Territory in 1838.

An explorer at heart, J.B. Newhall traveled extensively throughout Iowa District, taking detailed notes along the way. In 1837, the Territorial capital moved from Belmont, Wisconsin to Burlington, and with the transition, there came an increase of newspapermen and publishers like James Clarke and Cyrus Jacobs – who brought with them The Wisconsin Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser, and James G. Edwards – editor of the The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot. Read more here.

The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot (i.e. The Burlington Hawk-Eye) was owned by James G. Edwards who teamed with local attorney David Rorer in 1838 – promoting the nickname of “Hawkeye” as identifying all those who hailed from the State of Iowa. Read more here.

Sadly, we don’t have a lot of biographical information about John P. Newhall – other than the fact that when he arrived in Burlington with his wife in 1834, he opened a general store, and before long, was writing articles for local newspapers – being well received under his pen name of Che-Mo-Ko-Mon – which translates “white man.” Iowa historian William J. Peterson tells us more…

In this July 9, 1840 article (below) from The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, John B. Newhall was the Orator of the Day for Burlington’s July 4th celebration.

As we mentioned earlier, records indicate that J.B. Newhall established a general store with two of his relatives – Isaac and Joseph Newhall – sometime after arriving in Burlington. And while no family records have been found to identify if Isaac and Joseph were brothers to J.B., we do know that they successfully ran their business until the late 1830’s, at which time the partnership apparently dissolved.

By 1844 (see ad below), it appears that the on-going “family” relationship in Burlington – if there was one – had fallen onto bad times.

By 1841, J.B. Newhall had gathered a large collection of facts and figures from around the Territory, and published his first guidebook – Sketches of Iowa, or The Emigrant’s Guide. Again, William J. Peterson fills in the details…

Read what Newhall had to say about Johnson County and Iowa City in Sketches of Iowa.

Like it is with any celebrity, not everybody was a fan. Iowa’s first “official” librarian, T.S. Parvin, believed Newhall’s writings to be “too flowery.”

Despite the occasional critic, this 252-page classic immediately opened doors of opportunity for Newhall to become a well-known spokesman on behalf of the expanding Iowa Territory.

The arrival of a steamboat is pictured in At Our City Landing – 1844 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

The success of his book, coupled with his own unbounded enthusiasm, opened the door for Newhall to lecture extensively – speaking on the subject of “The Past, Present, and Future Resources of Iowa.” On June 21, 1841 – Newhall was the chief orator at The National Hotel as the whole city celebrated The Ripple – Iowa City’s first steamboat arrival. As Peterson states…

Little wonder, when the Steamboat Ripple arrived in Iowa City in 1841 to inaugurate steamboating on the Iowa River to that point, that John B. Newhall, one of the passengers, should become the principal speaker. An admiring Iowa City editor recorded the address of the “well-known author” of Sketches of Iowa as he spoke before the citizens gathered at a dinner at the National Hotel to honor the crew and passengers aboard the Ripple. The enthusiastic Newhall declared in part:

Read more about the steamboats that made their way up the Iowa River in the 1840’s.

At the back of Newhall’s book was a beautiful map of Iowa Territory as it was in 1841. Historians call this highly-detailed map – published by J.H. Colton of New York – one of the earliest, and finest maps of Iowa Territory (see yellow region-top right) and the twenty settled counties of Iowa. By fall 1841, Iowa City was just the beginning for Iowa’s big celebrity. Over the next three years, Newhall traveled extensively – even to Europe – becoming a spokesman for Iowa Territory and the new American West. Here’s how William J. Peterson described it…

Here’s part of a long article from January 1843 from Che-Mo-Ko-Mon – on the road in Columbus, Ohio…

The October 11, 1844 edition of The Bloomington Herald (below) reports that J.B. joined forces with the famed American artist – George Catlin in England to promote the American West. That same year, Newhall released his second volume – a one-hundred page book – The British Emigrants’ Hand Book, And Guide to the New States of America, Particularly Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin – published in London.

Upon his return to Burlington from his successful tour of Europe, J.B. was invited, in 1845, to serve as the personal secretary of Iowa Territorial Governor James Clarke. In that position, Newhall, once again, began traveling around the Territory, gathering more facts and figures. By year’s end, he had enough material to assemble his third Iowa guidebook – A Glimpse of Iowa In 1846. Peterson tells us more…

Released just months before Iowa became the 29th State in the Union, Newhall’s book, once again, found a sweet spot with both Iowans and those back East who were thinking about moving westward.

Read more about this book and all Newhall had to say about Johnson County and Iowa City.

On the first run, 600 copies were printed.

Despite it’s popularity, there were some major editorial and production problems with the first run of “Glimpse”…

So, a second edition followed…

Once the publishing issues were straightened out, Newhall’s book took off, selling 3,000 on the second run. This, of course, kept J.B. in the spotlight, and as you can see from the Burlington Hawk-Eye article (above) from July 1846, once again, Major John B. Newhall – a title he had picked up from serving in the Iowa militia – was the featured speaker at Burlington’s July 4th celebration.

In 1847-1848, J.B. began, what would become, his final project – a new Map of Iowa. Apparently, there were some delays due to some health issues with his engraver, but by 1849, it appears that a few sample copies had been released. Sadly, no copies of this map seem to be available today.

When gold was struck in California, the word traveled back East quickly, and many Iowans – who had been brought here originally by the thrill of a new adventure – started heading west. Peterson tells us more…

Before heading for California, ‘ole Che-Mo-Ko-Mon had a brief farewell tour on the Mississippi, and then headed south to St. Louis, and then west on the Missouri River to Independence – the jumping off point for anyone traveling west.

The Belle Creole in New Orleans – circa 1845-49 by unknown artist. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Interestingly, on his way westward – on the Steamboat Belle Creole – J.B. met up with a group of fifty-plus men from his old home town of Lynn, Massachusetts – all on their way to strike it rich in California. Apparently, the group left the boat at Boonville – west of Columbia – but not before Newhall and his comrades had a couple of wonderful days of reunion while cruising on the Missouri River.

On April 22, the Belle Creole made it to Weston – about 50 miles northwest of Independence, and on April 30, the steamboat arrived in St. Joseph, where J.B. wrote his final letter back home to Burlington. In the letter, he mentions being with a Dr. White and closes his letter by saying, “But enough, I leave for Independence to-morrow, from which point you may expect to hear from me, until then, adieu.”

It’s curious that J.B. was heading back south to Independence – which might mean that his health – or the poor health of his fellow travelers – had delayed his California plans long enough that it was too late in the season to head west. Records indicate that those leaving the Midwest for California had to be headed westward by early May in order to avoid deathly snow storms when crossing the Rocky Mountains in the early fall. Another possibility for J.B.’s back tracking to Independence was that he was always thinking about writing yet another guidebook, so it’s very possible that Newhall wanted to return to Independence to do some more exploration for his planned guidebook for those going west to California.

While we may never know the reason for his return to Independence, we do know that J.B. Newhall, age 43 – according to a letter sent to the Burlington Hawk-Eye by a “friend indeed,” L.C. Fiske – died suddenly of cholera on May 7, 1849 – after only 12 hours of sickness. Sadly, no burial records have ever been located.

So, here’s a big salute to Iowa’s first rock star – John B. Newhall of Burlington, Iowa (1806-1849). Without his three guidebooks and corresponding promotional tours, who knows how the Hawkeye State might have developed in the 1840’s and 50’s. Thanks, J.B., for being one of Iowa’s best traveling salesmen!

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

A Glimpse of Iowa In 1846, J.B. Newhall, 1849, Introduction by William J. Peterson, State Historical Society of Iowa, Reprint 1957, pp iii – xxi

Notice – Newhall Ad – Iowa State Gazette, December 7, 1844, p 3

Fourth of July, The Hawkeye & Iowa Patriot, July 9, 1840, p 2

Correspondence, Iowa Territorial Gazette And Advertiser, January 21, 1843, p 1

Our Countryman Catlin – A Yankee Pedestrian, Bloomington Herald, October 11, 1844, p 1

File: Emigrants Coming to Iowa – History of Iowa.jpg, WikiSource

Fourth of July, Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 9, 1846, p 2

A Rare Chance, Iowa State Gazette, April 4, 1849, p 4

A Run To The Rapids, Burlington Hawk-Eye, March 29, 1849, p 2

The Music and the Belle Creole at New Orleans, Online Steamboat Museum, Dave Thomson Collection

Independence, Missouri – Queen City of the Trails, Legends of America

Major J.B. Newhall, Burlington Hawk-Eye, May 24, 1849, p 2

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