Scott County’s Representative – James Grant.

In earlier posts, we’ve discussed the intriguing story behind the very first Iowa Territorial Legislative Session held in Iowa City (1841-1842). This was actually the Fourth Assembly of the Iowa Territorial Legislature, with the previous three gatherings held in Burlington, the first Territorial capital of Iowa. But, since the new capitol building was not ready in Iowa City, the Fourth Assembly met in, what was affectionately called, Butler’s Capitol (pictured above).

Click here to read more about Walter Butler and his last-minute masterpiece that assured Iowa City to serve as host for Iowa Territory’s Legislature Session of 1841-1842.

As you can see from the lists below, there were two legislative groups that met in Iowa City as part of that Fourth Legislative Assembly. Meeting between December 6, 1841 and February 18, 1842 the Council had 13 members plus one secretary, and the House of Representatives was comprised of 26 members with one secretary. Forty-one Territorial leaders – all meeting for the very first time in Iowa’s new capital city – Iowa City.

In other posts, we’ve introduced you to Oliver Weld from Van Buren County, William L. Toole from Louisa County, and Joseph Fales from Linn County – all representatives who played active roles in this memorable Fourth Assembly in Iowa City. Here now, I’d like to introduce you to a fourth man who was part of these early legislative sessions…

Born in Enfield in Halifax County, North Carolina, on December 12, 1812, James Grant attended college at age 14 – University at Chapel Hill (now known as the University of North Carolina), and graduated in 1830, before his eighteenth birthday. After teaching in Raleigh for three years, Grant decided to head west, and in 1834, opened a law office in Chicago. Successful as a lawyer, the 22-year old Grant was also appointed as the Prosecuting Attorney of the Sixth District of Illinois (1834-1837). But in 1838, James decided to make a major life change – moving to Scott County in Iowa Territory and settling on a farm near the little village of Rockingham.

According to family records, James Grant left Chicago – coming west into Iowa – primarily, for the sake of his health, hoping the open-air work of a farmer would help his weakened lungs. But, apparently, after a year or two, Grant realized that this city boy was not cut out for farming. So by 1840, James – who married Sarah E. Hubbard and had a daughter, Mary Louisa, all in 1839 – resumed his legal career, opening a new law office in Scott County. And, over the next fifty years, Grant came to be known as one of the most distinguished – and colorful – lawyers, not only across Iowa, but the entire country – involving himself in some of the most important land and bond cases in the West. Which brings us now to just one of those colorful stories…

Elihu B. Washburn, the second Governor of Illinois, offered this bit of Iowa experience with Judge James Grant. Washburn was fresh from staid, sober New England in the spring of 1840 when he attended a court proceeding held at Maquoketa, the seat of government of Jackson County, Iowa. This community, like many frontier settlements, was afflicted with gang of rustlers, counterfeiters, and horse thieves which the newly-organized courts found to be difficult to deal with effectually. The townspeople of Maquoketa had just arisen en mass and driven out a gang of counterfeiters in a fierce fight in which seven men were killed. The whole community was greatly excited and every man was armed. Washburn states…  

I stopped at the tavern which had been kept by W. W. Brown, alleged leader of the gang, and who had been killed in the doorway of his home. My roommate was Judge James Grant of Davenport. When we were about to retire – what was my amazement to see my roommate, whom I had never met before, draw out from the back of his coat an immense Bowie knife and place it under his pillow. (Later) when abroad, I wrote a letter to a friend in regard to the incident and described Judge Grant’s Bowie knife as being three feet long. The letter got into the newspaper, and the Judge wrote me a letter – when I was in Paris – denying my statement and asserting the knife he had on that occasion was only two feet long!

As it was with so many colorful lawyers, Grant’s growing reputation brought him into politics, so in 1841, as we mentioned earlier, he was chosen to represent Scott County in the first Territorial Legislative Assembly to be held in Iowa City. You can read more about that session here. Which brings us, now, to the rare postal cover and letter we’d like to share with you…

Just days before the Fourth Legislative Assembly in Iowa City was coming to a close on February 18, Representative James Grant – our colorful lawyer friend from Scott County – jotted off a quick note to the Secretary of the I&M Canal Board, located back in the Chicago area – Lockport, Illinois.

(JP-051) Above is a rare postal cover/letter from Rep. James Grant, written on February 14, 1842. His letter is addressed to the Secretary of Canal Board in Lockport, Illinois, and is postmarked in Iowa City on February 16, 1842. As a Territorial Representative, Grant was given the privilege of free postage, so as you can see, he signed his name – J Grant – HR (House of Representatives) in the top right-hand corner.

As you will see from the letter’s contents (below), Rep. Grant, who became a very wealthy man over the years, is writing to inquire about his large collection of 1836 investments in the Illinois & Michigan Canal Project

Rockingham in Scott County – The first government surveyors – Adrian H. Davenport & J.H. Sullivan in 1835 laid out a village and a township on the Mississippi River named Rockingham. It was a rival of its eastern neighbor – Davenport – and contested for the county seat in 1838. The Rockingham Post Office opened on March 11, 1837 and was discontinued December 16, 1847 – the same year that the town itself ceased to exist.
Dear Sir,   I purchased of the canal commissioners in 1836, a large amount of the Chicago lots for myself & others. I understand that a law has been passed for the relief of purchasers: Please let me know its provisions & what should be done in this premise. Your obedient servant – Jas Grant
As you can see, Rep. Grants letter from Iowa City has nothing to do with Iowa Territory and his assignment of representing Scott County at the Fourth Legislative Assembly! Yup, our colorful lawyer is conducting personal business at the cost of the Iowa taxpayer. Hmm. Nothing new here, right?

While our 1842 letter from Rep. Grant – in Iowa City – to the I&M Canal Commission – in Lockport, Illinois – has absolutely nothing to do with Iowa Territory, it does give us an opportunity to tell you about a very historic construction project that started in Illinois as early as 1822, and did, indeed, greatly influence Iowa and the growth of the entire American West.

Connecting the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal was a mighty Middle West enterprise.

As you most likely know, the development (see map above) of the Erie Canal (1825) and the Ohio Canal (1832) played a huge role in opening the American West to rapid expansion. These waterways, when completed, connected the commerce of the Eastern Seaboard with the natural resources surrounding the Great Lakes (Erie), and the Ohio River (Ohio). And with the success of these massive man-made projects, it was only a matter of time before politicians and investors saw the unlimited potential in connecting Chicago and the Great Lakes with The Great River – the Mississippi – which was America’s north/south highway for most of the 19th century.

In 1822, the U.S. Congress took the first step in the I&M Canal Project by giving the State of Illinois permission to construct the canal, appropriating $10,000 for a survey of the route – a twenty-mile-wide strip of land that ran from Chicago to Ottawa, Illinois (see map above) where the canal would then connect with the Illinois River. After over a decade of delays, in 1835, the Illinois legislature passed a law that empowered the Governor and the Canal Commission to raise $500,000 by selling 284,000 acres of federal land – at $1.25 per acre – in order to finance the first stages of construction. Canal bonds were put on sale in 1836, and it’s the purchase of some of those bonds that our Iowa Representative James Grant is referring to in his 1842 letter…

I purchased of the canal commissioners in 1836, a large amount of the Chicago lots for myself & others.

Here’s a peek (below) at some of the paperwork drawn up in 1836 surrounding the sale of bonds for the I&M Canal Project. James Grant, while living in Chicago at the time, purchased a large number of these Chicago-based bonds…

The I&M Canal Board received James Grant’s letter on February 28, 1842, and at the bottom of the letter, it is marked “answered March 3, 1842”. Sadly, we don’t know the details of their response.

As it is with many construction projects, the original cost estimates for the I&M Canal were greatly under-estimated, and by the time the first spade of earth was turned on July 4, 1836, the new price tag was $8,654,000!

You see, as it turned out, 1836 and 1837 were years of general speculation and upheaval in land prices, so with “cheap money” increasing the cost of labor and material, the canal project ballooned in cost and saw very little work completed. Add to that the fact that the whole country was heading toward a financial panic (1837), where many who had bought land from the government, from the canal commissioners, or from private dealers, were now forced to relinquish their rights and lose all they had paid. Between 1837 and 1840, lots, blocks and acres were sold for taxes and, in many cases, reverted back to the government. It’s in the midst of this financial panic that Representative James Grant is inquiring about a new Illinois law that has been passed which hopefully will reduce the losses of investors like himself…

I understand that a law has been passed for the relief of purchasers: Please let me know its provisions & what should be done in this premise.

While we don’t know how Grant’s personal investments in the I&M Canal turned out, we do know the project was eventually completed. In April 1848, the canal’s first boat, the General Fry, moved north up the Illinois River, through the canal, into the south branch of the Chicago River. In the first ten years of canal service, important cargoes of wheat, lumber, coal, corn, pork, and other commodities were transported, opening boat traffic from the Mississippi River right into the Great Lakes. Mission accomplished!

Back in Iowa, in 1844, James Grant was elected as a delegate to the first Constitutional Convention, taking an active role in framing the proposed Constitution. After this first attempt at statehood was rejected by citizens (read more here), Grant was invited, once more, to be a member of the second Constitutional Convention in Iowa City, becoming the author of Iowa’s “Bill of Rights” – which was included in the final draft that resulted in Iowa’s statehood on December 28, 1846.

In 1847, Grant was elected Judge of the District Court, serving five years, before being re-elected (1852) to the Iowa Legislature, where he served as Speaker of the House for the Fourth General Assembly. In his final political move, Grant returned home and was elected mayor of Davenport in 1854, serving for one year in that position.

One point of interest – on September 1, 1854 – the cornerstone of the first bridge over the Mississippi River was laid during Grant’s term as mayor, with John Knox, mayor of Rock Island, assisting – which now brings us to…

Over his fifty years in Scott County, James Grant’s legal practice was very successful, and he made a small fortune representing the railroads. In one railroad case, he won for his clients one million dollars, and received for his services $100,000!

It’s important to point out here, that, in the 19th century, the definition and rules for a conflict of interest differed greatly than they do today. That’s why Grant, who began investing in the railroad industry in the early 1850’s, ran for the Iowa State House of Representatives in 1852, was elected Speaker of the House, and was able to secure valuable franchises and right-of-way concessions for the railroad.

Railroad Arrives – 1856 an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

In 1851, Judge Grant invested in and became the first president of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, and that’s one of the main reasons, as mayor of Davenport in 1854, the first bridge to be constructed over the Mississippi River (opening in 1856) was the Rock Island’s railroad bridge! Hmm. Conflict of interest? Well, despite the political shenanigans, the addition of the railway bridge in Davenport changed everything for Iowa and Iowa City. You can read more here.

In LeGrand Byington’s recollections of the earliest days of Iowa City’s railroad pursuit, Judge Grant provided Byington with these memories. Read more here.

In the 1870’s, Grant left the railroad business and returned to his private legal practice for several years, before retiring around 1880, and moving to California for the climate. The health issues that plagued him when young, continued to worsen, and on March 14, 1891, in Oakland, California, James Grant died, at age 78. His remains were shipped back to Davenport for his funeral, and he is buried in the Oakdale Cemetery there.

One biographer said this about Judge Grant…

On the 14th of March, 1891, Judge James Grant died at Oakland, California, and when the news of his death was passed from one to another at his home in Davenport, Iowa, “almost everyone in Davenport,” said the Daily Democrat, commenting editorially on his death, “felt that he had lost a personal friend.”  He was a fine classical scholar and turned to the classics even in his later years for diversion from business and other affairs.  As a judge on the bench he was noted for his prompt discharge of public business and the broad common sense and equity of his decisions.  As a practitioner, zeal, courage, resourcefulness and a felicitous power of expression were his distinguishing characteristics.  He was a man of strong and tender emotions.  “When the subject was such as to enlist his feelings,” says an old member of the Iowa bar, “he was truly eloquent in the highest sense of that expression.”


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

Representative James Grant, The Iowa Legislature

Map of Scott County, Iowa, U.S. Library of Congress

Rockingham Township, Scott County, Iowa, Wikipedia

History of the Ohio & Erie Canal, The National Park Service

James Grant (Iowa politician), Wikipedia

James Grant, The Scott County Bar, Chapter XVIII, Scott County History, IAGenWeb

Illinois and Michigan Canal, Wikipedia

Illinois and Michigan Canal records, ca. 1839-1871, Chicago Historical Society, 2014

List Of Chicago Lots To Be Offered For Sale – June 20, 1836, I & M Canal Documents and Correspondence, 1832-1857

Account of sale of Chicago lots, June 1836, I & M Canal Documents and Correspondence, 1832-1857

LeGrand Byington notes, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 259-260

Sarah E. Hubbard Grant, Find-A-Grave

James Grant, Find-A-Grave


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