Laurel Summers – The Man Who Saved Iowa City.

Without a doubt, the world of politics is a rough-n-tumble environment – certainly not a place for those who don’t have a stomach for conflict. So, when it comes to telling stories about Iowa City, its earliest days, and how political decisions during that time were made, it’s important to pay credit to those brave souls who stood up to those pressures, making the right decisions – even when those choices were not all that popular.

Case in point?

According to the most reliable records we have, it was Laurel Summers – a farmer-turned Territorial Legislator – who, despite the political pressure from others, cast the deciding vote that finalized – on January 21, 1839 – the choice that Iowa City would be Iowa’s new capital city!

Not too bad for a 27-year-old farmer from Parkhurst, Iowa in Scott County – who was chosen by his neighbors to represent them at the first “official” session – November 1838 though January 1839 – of the newly-formed Iowa Territorial Legislature. It’s my guess that Summers had no idea how much turmoil he was about to step into when he got off that Mississippi riverboat docking in Burlington. Let me set the stage for you…

Without a doubt, this 1838-1839 Legislative Session had its moments of great tension. From the very beginning, Iowa’s new Territorial Governor – Robert Lucas (above left) – was at odds with the Territorial Secretary – William B. Conway (above right). Conway, who was appointed by President Martin Van Buren, arrived on the scene in Burlington in July 1838. And in the weeks before Lucas arrived – August 15, 1838 – Conway took full authority as the “acting” governor, making many big decisions that Lucas had to reverse upon his arrival.

Here is one good example. On the left (above) is the District map drawn up by William B. Conway – which favored his home area of Scott County. But when Robert Lucas arrived in August, he had a different plan (on the right) – dividing the Territory of Iowa into eight districts – with a much fairer distribution of representation. So, with Lucas’ plan in place, there were 13 Council seats and 26 House seats assigned for the first General Assembly scheduled for November in Burlington.

One of Lucas’ biggest decisions that caused much controversy during this first Legislative session was to announce that while Burlington would remain the Territorial capital for now – that chosen privilege would be given to a new community as soon as the Legislature decided on where that centrally-located destination would be. Note here that Treasurer Conway was highly motivated to move things north to his Davenport home in Scott County, while other legislators were found politicking for their hometowns as well.

Lucas, soon after arriving in Burlington, took an extensive tour of all of the larger Iowa communities up and down the Mississippi – from Dubuque in the north to Keokuk in the south. While some of those communities might have been good homes to Iowa’s new capital, the Territory was rapidly growing westward and none of these cities would be located where the population was expanding. Mt. Pleasant was a strong favorite for some, but Lucas believed that this Henry County community was located too far south to be seriously considered.

Seeing how his decision was causing so much competition amongst his fellow statesmen, Governor Lucas decided to go the route that other Easterners had done when facing such dilemmas. Historian Silvana R.Saddali tells us more…

Well, as you might imagine, when Lucas announced that, in his view, Iowa should build a whole new community for its capital, picking Johnson County for that location, things didn’t really settle down, but it actually sparked a whole new firebrand of political positioning. From what records we have, apparently Mt. Pleasant was still the favorite for many, but finally, when it came down to the final vote in January 1839, Governor Lucas’ plan to build a new city in the newly-formed, centrally-located County of Johnson won the day by one vote – 13-12! And, as we mentioned earlier, that one vote belonged to Scott County’s farmer – the independent and forward-looking representative who withstood the political pressure – our Iowa City hero – Laurel Summers!

So, on January 21, 1839 – with no Territorial Representative names attached, the “official” act of this 1838-1839 Iowa Territorial Legislative Assembly was announced to the public…

In this first section – Seat of Government – it is declared that Johnson County will be the site for Iowa’s new government, and that a group of three commissioners will meet on May 1, 1839 in Napoleon to begin the search for the best location. FYI – the map of Johnson County I’ve attached here came much later.

In this second section – Seat of Government – it is declared that the new community to be laid out in Johnson County will be known as Iowa City. Here, also, that three-man committee is named – Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston. Read more here.

Interestingly, in his biographical material, it appears that Laurel Summers stood up for our fair city once again – this time, in 1844 – demanding that Iowa City be the host for a proposed Constitutional Convention that was scheduled for October, 1844. Just as it was in 1839, when other representatives selfishly wanted their own hometowns to host this upcoming convention which would help move Iowa toward Statehood, Summers stood firm, insisting that Iowa City was the center of Iowa’s government, even when there was an increasing number of voices calling for Iowa’s capital – whenever Statehood was achieved – to be re-located further west.

Sadly, I don’t believe many Iowa Citians know this story of Laurel Summers, nor do many realize the courage he had to stand with those who believed that the true future of Iowa was not in playing it safe, but was attained by stepping out into new uncharted territory. Nor did Summers act selfishly here, going along with his fellow Scott County representatives by elevating his local interests over and above what was best for all of the people of Iowa. Allow me to close by re-posting this rather lengthy – but very worthy – biographical sketch of Laurel Summers that comes from The Port Byron Globe – dated May 10th, 1901

Among the pioneers of Iowa, the name of the late Hon. Laurel Summers of LeClaire well deserves conspicuous and honorable mention in the history of this great commonwealth. For he was among the first of the early settlers who began the work of transformation of a wilderness into one of the richest and most progressive states of the American Union, and through the territorial era and the period of statehood, covered by the passing of more than a third of a century, he was a zealous, active and efficient co-worker with his fellow citizens in the marvelous development of Iowa, which the annals of the state so well portray in record of its progress.

Laurel Summers was born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, October 2, 1812. Thence he removed with his parents in 1823 to Morgan County, Indiana, where he remained until 1830, when he located at Indianapolis, where he learned the bricklayer’s trade. In 1837, he came to Iowa, and soon decided to locate in Scott county, which throughout his life remained his home. At that time, as the historian records, Iowa was a part of Wisconsin Territory, but by act of Congress June 12, 1838, the then future Hawkeye State acquired a Territorial organization of its own. At the first election thereafter, September 10, 1838, Mr. Summers was elected to the House of Representatives of the First General Assembly of the new Territory, and he continued to represent the people of Scott County therein in 1839 and 1840.

In 1844, he was chosen a member of the Territorial Council, corresponding to the State Senate, in which body he retained membership until Statehood was attained, December 28, 1846. In August 1850, he again became a member of the Legislature, having then been elected to serve in the lower house. During these years, Mr. Summers resided in the part of the present town of LeClaire, then known as Parkhurst, so named in honor of an estimable family of pioneers, among the first settlers of the locality. A daughter of this family, Miss Mary Parkhurst, born in the State of New York, January 11, 1822, was united in marriage to the subject of this sketch in May, 1841, and in this first year of the Twentieth Century she is blessed with good health and exhibits lightly the weight of nearly four score years. Five children were born of this union: Mrs. Helen L. Whitford of Beloit, Wis.; Mrs. Elsie A. Curtis and Mrs. S. I. Headley of LeClaire; Augustus D. of Dallas County, Ala., and Lewis Cass – the last named deceased in infancy.

In 1853, Mr. Summers was appointed United States Marshal for Iowa by President Franklin Pierce, and in 1857, he again received the appointment, his last commission for an additional four years tenure of the office having been signed by President James Buchanan. At that time Iowa comprised but one United States judicial district, and as there were no railways in the state prior to 1855 and but little railroad trackage within its borders later during his term of service, Mr. Summers mainly traveled by stage or steamboat in attending sessions of the Federal courts. In 1860, he conducted the United States census which exhibited the remarkable growth from 1840 of 43,000 population to 684,000 but a score of years later.

Shortly prior to his retirement, from the position of U. S. Marshal in 1861, after eight years’ service therein, he was chosen by his fellow-townsmen to serve them as Mayor, and in later years he was thrice more called upon to serve them in the same capacity. In 1858, he had been a member of the city council, and in these positions of municipal trust, he demonstrated the qualities of efficiency and devotion to the public interests that had characterized his course as a legislator in the pioneer legislative assemblies of Iowa. In 1874, he was designated by the Governor to serve as trustee of the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames, and there superintended some important building improvements, for which trust his excellent business capacity and his skill as a mechanic well qualified him. His last public service, not many years before his decease, was that of chief deputy for Sheriff Howard Leonard, and at various times he was called upon by Mr. Leonard to discharge the full functions of the office.

At the dawn of a spring morning, April 15, 1890, Laurel Summers was called away from earthly scenes. From the press of the state and from beyond its borders, from citizens of his county and state, and from many in other states, there came eloquent and touching tributes to his memory. They were merited. He was a man whose nature drew toward him a feeling of warm personal regard, whether inside or outside of his own political fellowship. After the close of a heated political contest, political opponents who had referred to him unkindly became his warm, personal friends. His unselfish nature, his able, genial manner and his strong intellectual and moral worth rendered it impossible for anyone to retain a feeling of resentment toward him. He was optimistic but never visionary. He entertained a reeling or intense pride – well justified – in the great state whose foundation he had assisted in placing. His perceptive sense enabled him, in early years, to foresee the coming greatness of this region, and he was ever earnest and outspoken in advocacy of any measure that could contribute toward its more complete development.

From the April 16th & 18th, 1890 editions of The Davenport Democrat...

An instance is here given upon the authority of the late Hon. J. H. Murphy. Mr. Murphy, many years ago, informed a well known and respected citizen of LeClaire (C. P. Disney) that Laurel Summers was the first man to suggest that the island of Rock Island be reserved for the building of a government arsenal, and that he urged that the Legislature memorialize Congress to that end.

It is not improbable that Iowa City owes to Mr. Summers the historic interest attached to that municipality as having been the capital of the territory and state from 1841 to 1857. In 1839, the subject of removal of the capital from Burlington was agitated in the legislature, Mt. Pleasant having been a contestant for its location, when, after many fruitless ballots, during which Burlington strove to retain it, Laurel Summers turned the scale in favor of Iowa City by announcement of his vote thereof.

In this March 19, 1884 edition of The Davenport Democrat, an entertaining version of the 1839 Iowa City story was offered to its readers. Other biographical evidence seems to point more toward Summers holding firm with his principles vs. what we read here…

In official position Mr. Summers well exemplified the Illustration, “A Public Office is a Public Trust,” in the zeal, efficiency and strict integrity which characterized his fulfillment of its duties. He was not an orator, but his public addresses were clear and impressive, and no hearer could doubt the perfect sincerity of his expressed convictions. He was an able and highly entertaining conversationalist, and a most interesting correspondent.

(JP-018) Here’s a rare postal cover & letter from Iowa City newspaperman Thomas Hughes to State Representative Laurel Summers – written in April 1846. It’s an important letter addressing the formation of the Constitutional Convention meeting in Iowa City in May 1846. Read more here.

The large accumulation of letters left by him, from men distinguishing public life as well as from others gifted in literary attainment, fully testify to the appreciation vested in correspondence with him. In public life, he was contemporaneous with such eminent men as Senators Jones, Dodge, Harlan and Grimes; Governors Briggs and Hempstead; Congressmen Leffler, Cook and Vandever, and Judges Love, Mason, Grant and Dillon, with many other men of distinction in the annals of Iowa. But the correspondence of Mr. Summers was not restricted to fellow citizens of his own commonwealth; it included men famous throughout the republic, in and out of the public service, at the national capital and elsewhere.

Such men as Laurel Summers are a benefaction to any community in which they cast their lot. They are as an inspiration intellectually and morally, for they afford a noble example to those who come within the radius of continued association with them, and thus it is that their influence becomes apparent as a halo to all withing their vicinage. It was, therefore, but natural that the neighbors and towns-people of Mr. Summers should feel and manifest a keen sense of personal loss when they realized that he was no more on earth.

No more deserving, no more appropriate inscription was ever placed upon a monument than the brief one engraved upon that erected in the LeClaire cemetery which marks the grave of Laurel Summers: “An Honest Man Is the Noblest Work of God.”

Godspeed, Laurel Summers – Godspeed.


September 28, 2022

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

Representative Laurel Summers, The Iowa Legislature, State of Iowa

Summers Family, J.W. Ellis, The History of Jackson County Iowa- Vol 1, S.J. Clarke Publishing, pp 379-381

History of the Township and City of LeClaire – From the History of Scott County, Iowa 1882 Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., IAGenWeb- Scott County

Principle, Interest and Patriotism All Combine: The Fight over Iowa’s Capital City, Silvana R. Siddali, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 64 – Issue 2, Spring 2005, pp 111-138

The Removal of the Capital from Iowa City to Des Moines, Iowa Journal of History & Politics, Vol. 14 No. 1, Jan. 1916, pp 56‑95

A Capital Reminiscence, The Davenport Democrat, March 19, 1884, p 1

Assembly Districting And Apportionment In Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State University of Iowa, State of Iowa, pp 529-531

The Statute Laws of the Territory of Iowa (1839), The Iowa Printing Company 1900, pp 1-2, 465-468

William B. Conway, Wikipedia

William Bernard Conway, Find-A-Grave

Another Pioneer Gone, The Davenport Democrat, April 16, 1890, p 1

At Rest, The Davenport Daily Times, April 18, 1890 , p 4

Mary Parkhurst Summers, Find-A-Grave

Laurel Summers, Find-A-Grave


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