Jesse Williams – Rescuing Iowa’s New Capitol – 1841.

As we’ve written in other posts, Governor Robert Lucas‘ monumental decision on January 21, 1839 (above) to not only locate Iowa’s new Territorial capital in under-developed Johnson County, but also to build a whole new capital city around it – starting Iowa City from scratch – was controversial, at best. Not only did it make the small group of Johnson County citizens living in Napoleon angry – for not choosing their existing community – but most every legislator from around the Territory was tee’d off as well, because Lucas – by choosing a whole new city – was eliminating all of Iowa’s existing communities from contention! Thus, those living particularly in older, more populated locations like Burlington, Mt. Pleasant, and Keokuk were furious at Lucas, and quite honestly, drug their feet as long as they could on funding the move to Iowa City – hoping the whole project might fail. Which brings us to this rare, postal cover we share with you here today…

(JP-054) This rare postal cover & letter was written by Iowa’s Territorial Agent – Jesse Williams – on February 16, 1841 and mailed & postmarked in Bloomington on February 19, 1841. It’s headed to Edward Langworthy, Esq. in Dubuque, Iowa Territory.

This February 16, 1841 3-page letter, written by Iowa’s Territorial Agent – Jesse Williams – is a valiant attempt to find the much-needed funding for completing the new capitol building in Iowa City. So, here, allow us to take Jesse Williams’ letter – one section at a time – and give you some added insight as we read his urgent plea to a wealthy businessman and former legislator in Dubuque. But, before that, allow me here to briefly tell you about the two parties involved in our letter.

As is stated (above) in a biographical article on Jesse Williams – appearing the The Iowa City Press-Citizen (1981) – Governor Robert Lucas brought his young friend with him when he came here from Ohio in August 1838 to take up his newly-appointed assignment as Territorial Governor of Iowa. Read more here. Over time, Williams not only served as Lucas’ private secretary, but he was assigned as Territorial Auditor (1840), Territorial Agent (1841), and Territorial Secretary (1845). It was during his one-year stint as Territorial Agent when our letter was written.

One of Dubuque’s earliest settlers, Edward Langworthy – and his brother – actually built a house there in September 1832, disobeying the U.S. government’s ruling that no white man could settle in Iowa prior to the completion of the Black Hawk Purchase of 1833. U.S. soldiers actually had to forcibly remove the Langworthy’s from their illegally-built log cabin, but on June 1, 1833, when Iowa opened up, they were back, becoming some of the first miners in Dubuque County. A very wealthy businessman, Edward Langworthy was elected to the second Iowa Territorial Legislative Assembly held in Burlington (1839-1840), and as a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1844, he proposed that the legislature prevent black and mulatto settlement in the state. The measure was adopted, but, fortunately, removed at a later meeting. The convention, however, at Langworthy’s recommendation, did exclude free black males from voting or serving in the state legislature and militia. So, based on the ethical standards we’ve set for Our Iowa Heritage, we will not comment any further on the history or background of Mr. Langworthy.

So, now…let’s get to our 1841 capitol-saving letter…

Bloomington Feby 16. 1841

Edward Langworthy Esq. – Dubuque, Iowa City (Williams probably meant to write Iowa Territory)

Sir. I take the liberty of thus troubling you for the purpose of soliciting your aid in effecting the loan authorized to be made by a law of the late session of the Legislature for the completion of the public buildings at Iowa City. I feel warranted from the zeal which you have always manifested in your official capacity as a member of the Legislature for the success of Iowa City in the belief that you will lend your best endeavors in aiding me to affect the contemplated loan for the completion of the capital.

Suffice to say here that Iowa’s Territorial Agent – Jesse Williams – is writing Langworthy because of his ability, as an influential businessman, to involve the Miners Bank of Dubuque – one of Iowa’s largest financial institutions at the time – in this fund-raising project to save Iowa City’s capitol from disgrace.

You must be aware that it will be impossible to have the public buildings in a condition for the accommodation of the Legislature at its next session without further means than are now under control of the Territory for that purpose. At least a portion of the loan authorized must be affected at an early day to enable the superintendent (Chauncey Swan) to commence a vigorous prosecution of the work at as early a period in the spring as the weather will admit.

So, here’s the situation: construction on the new capitol began with the laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 1840 read more details here – but, because of funding issues – and the sudden loss of the building’s architect – construction has become a slow and tedious endeavor. As it turned out, Chauncey Swan (pictured above) – the Legislative commissioner from Dubuque who chose this Johnson County location in May – moved his family to Iowa City, and is now the superintendent Williams is referring to in his letter.

We know, from historic records, that Williams was spot-on correct when he predicted in his letter that “it will be impossible to have the public buildings in a condition for the accommodation of the Legislature at its next session.” As it turned out – despite William’s fund-raising project – the new capitol wasn’t usable until the Fifth Legislative Assembly (1842-1843), so in December, 1841 – thanks to the quick thinking and generous heart of Iowa City’s Walter Butler – the Fourth Assembly met in Iowa City at what was affectionately called, “Butler’s Capitol” – a two-story wooden-framed building thrown together at the last moment. Read more here.

It has occurred to me that the Dubuque Bank might be induced to take a portion of the loan and my object at present is to ask you to make the inquiry. I would feel myself authorized to issue Territorial bonds, say of one thousand dollars each, pledging the proceeds of the lots at Iowa City, also, the faith of the Territory and the state (when she becomes one) for their redemption. These bonds would draw ten percent interest, and would be similar stocks to state bonds and transferable and negotiable at the pleasure of the holder. These bonds would certainly be good stock in the hands of a bank and could, I have no doubt, be negotiated by the bank to good advantage in the Eastern market, if desired. The bonds could be made payable, I have no doubt, at such time and place as would be desired by the bank.

So, here’s the deal. Jesse Williams – as Iowa’s Territorial Agent – has been commissioned to find creative ways to finance the construction of Iowa’s new capitol building. As we shared earlier, records indicate that Williams was a very close comrade of Governor Robert Lucas, coming here with him – serving as his personal secretary – from the time Lucas arrived from Ohio in August of 1838. It’s apparent from Lucas’ personal writings that Williams was actively involved in many of our first Governor’s decisions – including the controversial call for Johnson County to be the site for Iowa’s new capital. So, it’s very apparent that Williams has a passion to not only find a way for Iowa City to succeed, but he’s also heavily-invested in its future, as well. More on this later.

The speedy completion of the public buildings at Iowa City is certainly a matter in which the people of the north are deeply interested, and I confidently that the Dubuque Bank will accommodate the Territory by cashing her bonds for an amount sufficient for the vigorous commencement of the work in the spring.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the Territorial Legislators from Henry, Des Moines, Van Buren, and Lee County were united in their dis-taste for Iowa City becoming Iowa’s new capital. These southern-most counties in Iowa resented the fact that Burlington had been rejected by Governor Lucas, and as a matter of fact, John Chambers – a Kentuckian who was appointed to be Iowa’s second governor, replacing Lucas in 1841 – was so opposed to Iowa City, he refused to govern from there even after the new capitol opened in 1842.

Those in the northern counties, however, were much less negative to Lucas’ move and, in some ways, favored the center of governmental power being shifted closer to them. But, as we said, either way, with finances tight, most legislators were hesitant to spend precious dollars building such an “elaborate” capitol building in a city that didn’t even exist at the time! So, that explains why Jesse Williams was so inventive in putting together optional fund-raising plans and why he chose Edward Langworthy – the wealthy businessman with close connections to Dubuque’s strongest financial institution – Miners Bank of Dubuque.

I shall be pleased to hear from you on this subject at your earliest convenience. Please direct to me at Burlington, as I shall be there some weeks on my return.

Very respectfully – Your Obedient Servant – Jesse Williams – Territorial Agent

Interestingly, we have two historical records to share here that will answer that question. First, in an 1882 letter written by Edward Langworthy, we find these recollections of 1841…

Next, in that same 1981 article from The Iowa City Press-Citizen we mentioned earlier, we find even more answers. Apparently, it’s a good news – bad news situation.

The good news? Yes – Jesse Williams was able to collect $5,500 from the Dubuque bank…

But, as it is, at times, with land investments, there are moments when the risk doesn’t pay off. It looks like Jesse Williams’ fund-raiser – while helping with the construction of the new capitol in Iowa City – didn’t pan out well for its investors, pushing Miners Bank in Dubuque into bankruptcy. Whoops!

While Williams lost his position as Territorial Agent in 1842 because of all this, he still decided to remain in the center of all governmental work – Iowa City – and involved himself in a number of city activities…

First, he got into politics and became the owner & editor of The Iowa Capital Reporter from 1842 into 1845.

Next, in 1844, he began purchasing land…

First, in Johnson County, and then throughout Iowa Territory. In 1845, Williams was appointed as Territorial Secretary, and once Iowa became a state (1846), he was replaced by an elected official, so began investing in land in western Iowa, and eventually, Nebraska. He also teamed with Bernhart Henn in Fairfield, producing accurate township maps of Iowa – see 1851 map below.

By the late 1860’s, Jesse Williams had moved westward to Sioux City, and in 1872 relocated to Omaha – where he died on July 18, 1879. Sadly, no burial records have been found at the point of this writing.

DYK – May 17, 2023

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

Representative Edward Langworthy, The Iowa Legislature

African-Americans, Encyclopedia Dubuque

Territorial Officials and Governors of Iowa, Iowa Official Register

Jesse Williams, Editor, The Iowa Capital Reporter, March 8, 1845, p 1,2,4

Jesse Williams, The Iowa Capital Reporter, History of Johnson County, 1883, p 371

Jesse Williams, Executive Journal of Iowa 1838-1841, Governor Robert Lucas, edited Benjamin Shambaugh, 1906, pp ix, x

First acquisition, Williams Century Farm a high point in county, Irving B. Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 12, 1976, p 21

Iowa City’s First Land Speculator, Robert Belding, Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 8, 1981, p 4

1851 Iowa Township Map, Henn, Williams & Co, Iowa DOT

Township Map Of The State Of Iowa, Henn, Williams & Co, David Ramsey Map Collection, 1851

Death Of An Iowa Pioneer, Davenport Democrat, July 24, 1879, p 4

A Pioneer Gone, Sioux City Daily Journal, July 20, 1879, p 3

Col. Jesse Williams, Muscatine Journal, July 22, 1879, p 3

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