Oliver Weld – Keosauqua’s Young Representative.

It’s Friday, December 31, 1841New Year’s Eve in Iowa City. Young Oliver Weld – age 25 – is sitting alone in his rented room in Walter Butler’s City Hotel – located very near the corner of Clinton and Washington Streets (see map below) – directly across from the capitol building that is still under construction. Oliver is a newly-elected Territorial Representative from Keosauqua, and arrived in Iowa City earlier this month – here for the opening sessions of the Fourth Territorial Legislative Assembly held in Butler’s Capitol.

Butler’s Capitol in Iowa City.

You can read all the details here, but suffice to say that the Iowa Territorial Legislature – meeting in Burlington in January 1841 – announced that the next Legislative Assembly (the Fourth Session) would agree to meet in Iowa City on the first Monday in December, 1841 if

“other sufficient buildings shall be furnished for the accommodation of the Legislative Assembly – rent free.”

In some ways, this “offer” was thrown out there tongue-in-cheek – proposed by those who knew that Iowa City’s new capitol building would never be ready by December. Their hope was to embarrass both Iowa City and those legislators who voted for our city to be Iowa’s new capital. Yet, they had no idea that one certain Iowa Citian – Walter Butler – would take their invitation, finance and build a two-story 30′ x 60′ meeting house (see pic above), and offer it at no cost to the Territory, so Iowa City could, indeed, host its first Legislative session.

So, here we are – December 31, 1841 – and young Oliver Ward – who just completed another long day of legislative meetings in Butler’s Capitol, and is stuck in Iowa City over the long New Year’s weekend – sits down and writes his mother – Mrs. Mary Weld – back in Beverly, Massachusetts.

(JP-032) This rare stamp-less postal cover is postmarked January 2, 1842 in Iowa City and is written by Territorial Representative Oliver Weld, I. T. (Iowa Territory) and headed for his mother – Mrs. Mary Weld in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Sadly, we don’t have a lot of background information on Oliver Weld. We do know that he was born around 1816, and that his mother – Mary Oliver Weld – was married to Horatio Weld, had four children, and was widowed at some point while the family was growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts – Essex County (see map above). We also know that Oliver came west to Iowa’s Van Buren County – on the Des Moines River – sometime after 1838.

Read more about Van Buren County’s J.H. Bonney and his two-year term as Iowa’s Secretary of State here.

The town of Keosauqua was laid out in 1839 and derives its name from the Meskwaki and Sauk tribal word for the Des Moines River – Ke-o-saw-qua – which literally translates as “Bend in the River”. Oliver was one of the first attorneys to practice law in Van Buren County, and when the pioneers voted to send a representative to the Fourth Iowa Territorial Legislature, they choose young Weld as their man.

Keosaqua, by the way, played a big role in the infamous 1839 Honey War – when Iowa Territory and the State of Missouri nearly went to war with each other – arguing about the state line between the two. Read more here.

So now, without further ado, let’s unpack Oliver Weld’s New Years Eve 1841 letter – one section at a time…

My Dear Mother,

I take my pen to write you a few lines knowing that it must be a matter of pride to my mother to receive a letter from a son while a member of the Legislature of a Territory where his residence had been short previous to his election. I am now in possession of an office – the highest but one in the gift of the people of a Territory. But I am wearily tired of public life. The honor is trifling when compared with the trouble, vexation and slander which every public man has to bear, and it is far from being a matter of profit.

As we said earlier, Oliver Weld of Keosaqua, Iowa, has been elected by the good people of Van Buren County to represent them at the Fourth General Assembly of the Iowa Territorial Legislature. This is the first time that the Assembly has met in Iowa City – meeting the three previous years (1838, 1839, & 1840) in Burlington. Since the new capitol building is still under construction, the sessions are held in Butler’s Capitol – located near the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets. For the record, the Legislature met for 54 daily sessions, from December 6, 1841 to February 18, 1842, passing 127 laws on such issues as roads, ferries, dams, private and municipal incorporation, and divorce. You can read more details here. Without a doubt, the political climate was intense. Iowa was still a young land with lots of men positioning for power. We’re guessing the young Oliver Weld simply came to Iowa City to serve – not to get caught up in some of the political games being played by others.

I expect my mother begins now to think that I have followed her advice in regard to early marriage. You must think by this time that the probability of my marrying young has long ere this lassie away. The dull times (recession) over the Union have been visited upon us here in a tenfold proportion compared with the states. We have a population mostly composed of the poorer class of people, and there has hardly been any money in circulation, and although I have done a great deal of business, it has kept me very busy to be able to get money enough to keep my board bill square. I shall send you a paper during the session as the postage of all the members are paid, but I expect you will be but little interested in our proceeding.

Here is the third edition – December 18, 1841 – of Iowa City’s second newspaper – The Iowa Capitol Reporter. It’s this edition that Oliver sent to his mother. Keep reading and you’ll understand why…

You will see that I had rather a serious time in getting to our seat of government. We have no bridges as yet in this Territory, and the ice in (the) Skunk River was thinning so fast that the ferry-man would not cross the river. We crossed our buggy on a canoe and swam the poor horses through the ice. We were 8 days traveling 80 miles – or rather, we traveled 150 miles when the distance was but 80.

Two of Van Buren County’s Representatives – Oliver Weld and James Hall – had quite the adventure in getting to Iowa City from Keosauqua. Though both Iowa City and Keosauqua were stops on The National Road (see map above left), in 1841, it was still just a cleared trail with no bridges and very impassible in wet weather. Apparently, the two men left home on Friday, December 3rd – which under normal circumstances would have been enough time to get to Iowa City for the Assembly’s opening session on Monday, December 6th. But, as Iowans well know, December weather is unpredictable, and apparently, things got so bad (see article above), Weld and Hall had to back track as they were heading north, travel east to Burlington, take a steamboat north to Bloomington (Muscatine), and then, a stagecoach west into Iowa City. All in all – the 80-mile/two day trip turned into a 150-mile/eight day nightmare. As you can see from the article in the December 18th edition of The Capitol Reporter (below), the Van Buren delegation missed the whole first week of the Assembly, finally arriving on Friday evening, December 10th! Today, that same trip on Highway 1 – the old National Road – between Keosaqua and Iowa City would take less than 2 hours!

I should like very much to hear from home. I have not had a letter from any one for a long time. Remember me to Mrs. Graves & my sisters. Please direct your answer to Keosauqua, Van Buren Co – I.T. as the Legislature will have adjourned by the time that your letter will reach here.

Your affectionate son, Oliver Weld

Note – in the beginning the paper was called the Capitol Reporter, but over its existence, the paper called itself the Capital Reporter as well.

According to the historical records, the Fourth Assembly ended its session in Iowa City on February 18, 1842, upon which Oliver returned to Keosauqua – where he continued his work as a practicing attorney. Sadly, Oliver’s young life was cut short, as he died suddenly on October 30, 1843. We’ve found no records that indicate what happened and we assume he is buried in Van Buren County, but again, no records have been found. Below is a brief obituary found in The Iowa Capitol Reporter (below left), and a brief review of Weld’s life as given by Van Buren County’s own Josiah H.Bonney – Iowa’s first Secretary of State

Oliver Weld’s co-worker and good friend, George G. Wright, gave this glowing tribute to Oliver in a speech given to the Keosauqua Library Association on March 4th, 1856…

The first Attorney (in Keosauqua) was Isaac N. Lewis, now of Missouri, who soon after had a competitor, as he often facetiously expressed it, in Samuel W. Summers, now of Ottumwa. They were soon followed by Oliver Weld and Richard Humphreys. They were all here in the fall of 1840, in the full tide of successful practice, when your speaker cast his lot among them. Lewis, Summers and Humphreys are still living (but) Oliver Weld died at my residence in October, 1843. He had represented the county in the Legislature, was a man of sterling worth, strong mind, was universally esteemed by a very large circle of friends, and bid fair to occupy a proud and enviable position as a lawyer and politician. He was my partner at his death, I knew him well. He was an honest man, possessed many rare eccentricities, but a good warm heart. In his death, the State lost an able man, the profession – a sound lawyer, and society – a valuable member.

Godspeed, Oliver Weld (1816-1843).


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

The One Small Town In Iowa With More Historic Buildings Than Any Other, Only In Your State

Van Buren Court House, The Pearson House, The Church Tree & Butler’s Capitol, Harriet P Macy artwork, Sketches of Historic Iowa, 1969

Beverly, Massachusetts, Wikipedia

Keosauqua, Iowa, Wikipedia

The First Meeting of the Legislature in Iowa City, Iowa Capitol Reporter, December 11, 1841, p 2

Messr. Hall And Weld, Iowa Capitol Reporter, December 18, 1841, p 2

Representative James Hall, The Iowa Legislature

Representative Oliver Weld, The Iowa Legislature

Directory of Public Officials, Fourth Legislative Assembly, History of Iowa Volume III, IAGenWebProject

Oliver Weld, Josiah H. Bonney, G.G. Wright, Chapter XI – Keosauqua, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa, Edward Holcomb Stiles, Homestead Publishing, 1919, p 414-415

Our Town – An Address Delivered Before The Keosauqua Library Association, George G. Wright, March 4th, 1856, Van Buren County IAGenWeb

Mary Oliver Weld, Find-A-Grave

Death of Oliver Weld, Iowa Capitol Reporter, November 11, 1843, p 2


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