The Johnson County Business Meeting That Changed Iowa History.

Did You Know? the audio version

Normally, no one would believe that a typical business meeting could contain anything of such great importance that it could change the course of history. Particularly if we’re talking about a typical meeting of any governmental organization like a county board. Right?

But wait!

Allow me here to introduce you to one of the most intriguing business meetings I’ve ever encountered. One that, in my humble opinion, changed the course of history for Johnson County, Iowa City, and yes, even the state of Iowa. First of all let me give you the facts…

Watercolors of early Johnson County by Jo Myers-Walker. See more here.

In January 1838, in a double log cabin – like the one you see depicted above – located about two miles south of the present-day Pentacrest in Iowa City – six men and one woman met to draft a strategic plan that would be presented to the Iowa Territorial legislature in Burlington, requesting major funding for roads, bridges, and the pièce de résistance – a post office!

Click here to read about the earliest days of Johnson County

For those of us who live in Johnson County, Iowa, it’s important to know that this January 1838 business meeting was the very first impromptu “board meeting” in the brand-new county of Johnson which had just been formed – along with 14 other Iowa counties – one month earlier on December 21, 1837 (see map below).

The uniqueness of this story, however, is not so much about the ‘when,’ ‘where,’ or ‘what’ of this Johnson County business meeting, but truly – the ‘who’ that attended!

One look at the attenders list – there were only seven people there! – and you just might be surprised at who’s included…

  • Henry Felkner – a farmer and sawmill operator, arriving here in May of 1837, and historian who wrote about early Iowa City in 1883.
  • John Gilbert – a fur-trader from New York, Napoleon’s first permanent resident, arriving around 1835, replacing Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps as the on-site trader for the American Fur Company.
  • Judge Pleasant Harris – a Quaker born in North Carolina, moving here from Indiana with his wife, Hannah, in May of 1837.
  • Isaac N. Lesh – Judge Harris’ son-in-law from Indiana, arriving here with his wife in August of 1837.
  • Eli Meyers – one of Johnson County’s first farmers, arriving with Philip Clark from Elkhart County, Indiana in May of 1837.
  • Jennie – an older Native Iowan woman from the Winnebago tribe, working for the Phelps Brothers Fur Trading Business – a predecessor to John Gilbert’s trading post (pre-1835).
  • Mogawk – a tall, black man who rescued fur-trader William Phelps from a deadly gunpowder explosion while working on the Des Moines River.
Watercolors of early Johnson County by Jo Myers-Walker. See more here.

Keep in mind that this very first Johnson County business meeting was held in John Gilbert’s trading cabin located smack-dab in the middle of three Meskwaki tribes, estimated to be about 1,500 in population, all of which were led by Native Iowan chiefs, Poweshiek, Wapashiek, and Totokonock, three strong-willed men who desired to live peacefully alongside their white brothers and sisters, who apparently wanted the same.

Click here to read about Remembrance Park – a new effort to recognize the importance of these earliest days in Johnson County history.

As we see it, the unique diversity and peacefulness of this early Johnson County gathering is worthy of our remembrance.

Watercolors of early Johnson County by Jo Myers-Walker. See more here.

Iowa City historian, Henry Felkner, who was a part of this gathering, recorded what happened at this first Johnson County business meeting, and here is ‘The Resolution” the business meeting produced…

Watercolors of early Johnson County by Jo Myers-Walker. See more here.

Actually, there is a great deal of historic evidence that clearly indicates that this January 1838 board meeting in Johnson County played a significant role in the historic decisions made by Iowa Territorial Governor Robert Lucas and Territorial Legislators when deciding, in 1838/1839, to re-locate the Iowa capital from Burlington to a new, more centrally-located city (Iowa City) in the spring of 1839.

  • 1835/1836 – Lt. Albert M. Lea, after his historic 1835 expedition up the Des Moines River, writes his ground-breaking book, Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase. In it – on pp 37-38 and on his map included in the book – Lea discusses the idea of a new city called Iowa that would host all governmental activities when the District of Iowa (as it was in 1836) became a state. In his discussions, he foresaw the strong possibility – because of population growth – of locating this new City of Iowa in the Iowa River Valley instead of on the Mississippi River as was being discussed at the time. Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition.
  • December 21, 1837 – The Legislators of Wisconsin Territory, meeting in Burlington, recognize fifteen new Iowa countries, of which one is Johnson County.
  • January 1838 – As we’ve already discussed here, John Gilbert, the highly motivated businessman who recruited the first white settlers to move west, quickly responds to this new formation of Johnson County by calling together a “business meeting” to draw up an “official” proposal requesting Territorial development that included a post office, roads, and bridges for Johnson County.
  • January 1838 – As a result of this business meeting, John Gilbert and another resident, Pleasant Harris, take this official proposal to Burlington, requesting Territorial Legislators to seriously consider Johnson County and their city of Napoleon as a worthy candidate for future Territorial expansion. Gov. Henry Dodge (Wisconsin Territory) was impressed with their presentation and asked how many people lived in Johnson County. John Gilbert – a salesman at heart – quickly replied “About 1500.” When asked later why he told this “little white lie” (sorry for the pun) he replied that Dodge didn’t ask what color the people were! In truth 97% of the 1500 in 1838 were members of the Meskwaki tribe.
Click here to read more about John Gilbert’s exaggeration.
  • 1838/1839 – It’s obvious that these exaggerated population numbers in Johnson County when combined with Gilbert’s paperwork (& charisma!) from that Johnson County board meeting, played a decisive part in the decisions made by Territorial leaders to invest time, energy, and resources into Johnson County throughout 1838 and into 1839. Certainly, Governor Lucas – who took up his office in July/August 1838 – and many other Territorial leaders were fully aware of Lt. Albert Lea’s writings of 1836, and from everything we find in Governor Lucas’ history, we know that he was highly interested in expanding our borders westward – building roads and bridges, while making preparations for Iowa to become a state as soon as he could prove to the U.S. Congress that Iowa was progressing in that direction. In my humble view, Territorial leaders picked up on Gilbert’s excitement to promote Johnson County and got behind those plans throughout 1838 and into 1839.
  • January 1839 – Governor Lucas announces a new city called Iowa City will be the future home of all governmental activity. At this point – Territorial interest is directed fully toward Johnson County.
  • May 1839 – We all know the historic significance – statewide – of the founding of Iowa City, the home of Iowa’s first state capital, and of course how those events so greatly impacted our state history: i.e. the capital being moved to Des Moines (1857), and the opening of Old Capitol as the home of the University of Iowa.

Might I dare say, that without this key component – The January 1838 Johnson County Board Meeting – and the way the “official results” of that meeting influenced Territorial leaders at the time, the amazing Iowa City story we all know today may have not been written in the manner it was. In other words, a tip of the old hat to this amazing business meeting – it was truly, a game-changer!

Click here to read about Remembrance Park – a new effort to recognize the importance of these earliest days in Johnson County history.

DYK-April 14, 2023

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

Be It Resolved, Henry Felkner, History of Johnson County, Iowa, Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities and Villages from 1836 to 1882, 1883, pp 583-584

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