Recommending John W. Finley – Dubuque’s Good Doctor.

When Iowa’s first Territorial Governor – Robert Lucas – arrived in Burlington in August 1838, his vision for Iowa was similar to his agenda when he was Governor back in Ohio. It included…

  • Establishing a system of free public schools,
  • Building territorial roads, and
  • Organizing a well-equipped militia to “defend ourselves against any force that could be brought against us.”

If you recall, our state’s motto is: Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.

Apparently, Robert Lucas was well known for his temper. As governor of Ohio, he came very close to bringing his state to war with Michigan over boundaries – a pre-curser to the football rivalry between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, no doubt? – and as Territorial Governor of Iowa, he almost brought Iowa to war with Missouri (1839) during what was called The Honey War, with each entity arguing over the placement of the boundary line at the southern edge of Iowa Territory.

The Honey War was a bloodless territorial dispute in 1839 between Iowa Territory and Missouri over their border. The dispute over a 10-mile-wide strip running the entire length of the border, caused by unclear wording in the Missouri Constitution on boundaries, misunderstandings over the survey of the Louisiana Purchase, and a misreading of Native American treaties, was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court (1849) in Iowa’s favor. The decision was to affirm a nearly 30-mile jog in the nearly straight line border between extreme southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri at Keokuk, Iowa that is now Iowa’s southernmost point. Before the issue was settled, militias from both sides faced each other at the border, a Missouri sheriff collecting taxes in Iowa was incarcerated, and three trees containing beehives were cut down.

Click here to read the full story about the 1839 Honey War between Iowa and Missouri.

Which brings us now to yet another story about the Iowa Territorial Militia – set up by Governor Robert Lucas – and our rare postal cover from Dubuque to Burlington in January of 1841…

(JP-067) On January 21, 1841, Major-General Warner Lewis – in Dubuque – wrote to Governor Robert Lucas, whose office was still in Burlington. This rare postal cover and letter was mailed on January 23rd, and according to the markings on the back of the letter, was received in the Governor’s office sometime soon after that date.
Du Buque – Jan’y 21st 1840
(General Lewis had obviously forgotten to turn over his calendar, because the year this letter was written was actually 1841, not 1840)

To His Excellency Robt. Lucas

Sir. The Militia law of this Territory provides for the appointment of a Hospital Surgeon for each Division. I would therefore recommend Dr. John W. Finley of this place (Dubuque) as a very suitable person to fill that office. I should be happy to see him appointed knowing he is well qualified, and also a gentleman of high standing and respectability whose appointment would give general satisfaction.

Very respectfully – Yr. Obt. Sert. (Obedient Servant) – Warner Lewis
We are guessing that either T.S. Parvin or Jesse Williams made these secretarial notes on the back of Lewis’ letter. Both Parvin & Williams served as personal secretaries to Governor Lucas during his term in office.

From Genl W. Lewis, Recommending Jn. W. Finley as Hospital Surgeon of the 3rd Division.
Confirmed March 22, 1841.

This line confirms that Lucas took Gen Lewis’ recommendation and assigned Dr. Finley as the Hospital Surgeon – March 22, 1841 – with the 3rd Division of the Iowa Militia, which was most likely stationed in the north, near Dubuque.

Warner Lewis – To his Ex. R. Lucas Jany 21, 1841

Warner Lewis – One of Dubuque County’s pioneers, Lewis was born in Goochland County, Virginia, on November 28, 1804. He emigrated to the mining region of Michigan Territory in 1827 and was appointed clerk of the United States District Court of that Territory. Warner served in the Black Hawk War (1832), moved to Dubuque, and in 1837 – at the first session of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in Burlington – served as chief clerk of the House of Representatives.

Upon the creation of Iowa Territory (1838), Warner Lewis was elected to the first two sessions (1838-1840) of the Council of the Legislative Assembly held in Burlington, where he took a prominent part in framing Iowa’s first laws.

In December 1841, Lewis returned for the fourth Iowa Territorial Legislative Session (1841-1842) – the first held in Iowa City – where he was chosen Speaker of the House. Read more here.

It appears that Lewis missed the Third Legislative Session (1840-41) where he did not travel to Burlington, and it was, obviously, during this time when he served as Major-General in the 3rd Division of the Iowa Militia.

In 1845, Lewis was appointed Register of the United States Land Office at Dubuque, in 1849, became the city’s mayor, and in 1850, was, once again, elected to Iowa Legislature – this time, it was the State Senate where he served for four years. In 1853, he was appointed by President Pierce as Surveyor-General for Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota and at the expiration of that term, was reappointed by President Buchanan.

Read more about the work of surveying land in Iowa in the 1850’s.

Serving twenty-four years as recorder of Dubuque County, Lewis was a life-long member of the Democratic Party, dying in Dubuque, May 4, 1888, at the age of eighty-three. General Warner Lewis and his wife, Caroline Fenimore, are both buried in Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque.

John W. Finley – born in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 15, 1807 – came to Dubuque in 1836. As a frontier doctor, Finley became the city’s first general surgeon, and the second permanent physician in both Dubuque County and Iowa Territory, often traveling by horseback over fifty miles to help outlying settlements.

As we saw in the 1841 postal cover, Finley served as the Hospital Surgeon with the 3rd Division of the Iowa Militia for several years. During the Civil War, Finley became a physician with the 37th Iowa Voluntary Infantry – “the Graybeards” – before returning to Dubuque to resume his practice.

For years, Finley hoped that his large collection of medical books would become the basis of a medical library, but all efforts to establish a medical school in Dubuque were unsuccessful. With his strong passion for education, Dr. Finley finally established Alexander College – one of the Midwest’s most publicized Presbyterian educational experiments of the 1850s. Promoters claimed the college was destined to become for Iowa what Yale was to Connecticut. Joshua Phelps, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dubuque – which Finley helped found – and president of the college, boasted of the institution’s four-year preparatory course of literary, scientific and classical education. Additionally, there was planned a four-year college program and a law school with a faculty including Judge Thomas S. Wilson, J. J. Dyer and the Reverend Phelps who served as president. The college opened in 1853, enrolling 107 boys in the preparatory department with 2 students in the college program, but when the financial panic of 1857 hit, everything closed up by 1859.

Dubuque of the 1840’s – On June 13, 1849, The Miner’s Express said this about The Key City…

“Already the largest town west of the Mississippi and north of St. Louis, situated precisely at the point of latitude at which the railroads extending west from the towns upon the lakes must strike the river; surrounded by a country on all sides, almost illimitable in extent and inexhaustible in its agricultural and mineral resources — it requires no gift of prophecy to foresee that Dubuque is destined to become and to remain the great commercial city of the Northwest.”

Dr. Finley, held in great respect by his colleagues and the community, was instrumental in the formation of the Northwest Medical Society of Dubuque in 1853. The Society, a group of eight physicians, originally met at The City Hotel, and eventually evolved into the Dubuque County Medical Society.

Sadly, Dr. John W. Finley died on August 3, 1877 of a brain tumor at the age of seventy, leaving his entire estate to his wife, Helen. In her will, Mrs. Finley specified that a hospital be built in memory of her husband, so after her death, the entire Finley estate became the first location for, what is today, Unity Point Finley Hospital in Dubuque.

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

Councilor Warner Lewis, The Iowa Legislature

Senator Warner Lewis, The Iowa Legislature

Warner Lewis, EncyclopediaDubuque

Gen. Warner Lewis, Find-A-Grave

John Finley, EncyclopediaDubuque

37th Iowa Infantry Regiment, Wikipedia

Dr John W Finley, Find-A-Grave

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