If you’ve ever set out on a journey to discover your family heritage, you’ll know the dilemma that often occurs when you hit a fork in the proverbial road, where the “facts” you’ve uncovered seem to point in several different directions. So, it is with Johnson County, Iowa history when trying to determine the WHO and the WHEN of those who came before us.
Allow me, for example, to offer you a set of four “facts” about the earliest days of Johnson County. Two surround the WHEN question and two deal with the WHO.
Which option(s) do you to believe to be true? And which, are not?
- Historical Option #1: The first white man – known by name* – to set foot in Johnson County was a fur-trader arriving in the early to mid-1820’s (circa 1822-1826).
- Historical Option #2: The first white man – known by name* – to set foot in Johnson County was a fur-trader arriving in the early 1830’s (circa 1830-1832).
- Historical Option #1: John Gilbert, a New Yorker, is that first fur-trader, arriving here via Green Bay.
- Historical Option #2: Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, a New Yorker, is that first fur-trader, arriving here via Illinois.
You see, here in Johnson County, many would believe that the two Option #1 statements (above) are true. But, here’s the truth – they’re NOT! So, let’s unwrap these “facts” – taking things one step at a time…
Let’s start with the WHEN question – and in order to do that, we need to put our date options (early-mid 1820’s vs. early 1830’s) in context. Allow me, here, to give you a brief timeline of Iowa’s earliest history…
- 1673 – Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet, French explorers are the first Europeans to set foot on the western shore of the Mississippi River, including eastern Iowa. Read more here.
- 1682: Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claims “Louisiana” (the Mississippi River valley, including Iowa) for the King of France. Read more here.
- 1788: Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian fur-trader arrives in what is today, Dubuque County, Iowa, establishes Iowa’s first European/American settlement and begins trading with the Sauk and Fox tribes. Read more here.
- 1800: *Some historians believe there might have been a handful of unidentified French fur traders who ventured up the Iowa River around 1800 in order to trade with the Ioway tribe, but no actual names or places have been recorded.
- 1803: The United States purchases the Louisiana Territory from France. St. Louis becomes the capital of the northern section of the Territory, of which Iowa is a part. Read more here.
- 1804-1806: Louis and Clark expedition of the Louisiana Territory, traveling from St. Louis westward up the Missouri River. Read more here.
- 1805-1806: Zebulan Pike explores the upper Mississippi River valley, charting many of the tributaries of the Great River, including those in Iowa. Read more here.
- 1808: Fort Bellevue (later called Fort Madison) constructed in what will become Lee County.
- 1812: Iowa becomes part of Territory of Missouri with the capital in St. Louis.
- 1813: Fort Madison abandoned.
- 1821: Missouri is admitted to the Union, leaving Iowa with no official jurisdictional authority designated until 1834.
- 1823: Stephen Long expedition explores the upper Mississippi River valley, including Iowa. First steamboat (The Virginia) on Mississippi River reaches Iowa.
- 1824: So-called “Half Breed Tract” set aside in what would become Lee County.
- 1830: So-called “Neutral Ground” established in what would become northeastern Iowa. Isaac Galland founds first school in Iowa (Lee County).
- 1832: Following the Black Hawk uprising, a treaty with the Sauk Indians (Black Hawk Purchase) opens Iowa land for legal European/American settlement. Read more here.
- 1833: On June 1, U.S. citizens may legally enter into Iowa, buy land and establish homesteads. Read more here.
Next, let’s look at what some of the most reliable Iowa historians have said over the years about these WHEN and WHO issues surrounding our early Johnson County history…
Which now brings us to the one piece of evidence that, as I see it, pushes us to a logical conclusion. This comes from the same source as an earlier one (above) – Leading Events in Johnson County History – a publication by Charles Ray Aurner (1912), recounting the story from one summer day in 1886 when C.W. Irish, a member of the Johnson County Old Settlers Association, spoke at the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Iowa City.
Now, allow me to give you my take on what C.W. Irish said that day in 1886 as he was reminiscing about the past…
- Note that Irish’s story is a perfect reflection of what the Phelps family story (1919) provides. William Phelps, Sumner’s brother, did indeed work the Des Moines River, beginning at the mouth of the river on the Mississippi; working his way westward and settling with his wife near Iowaville – just east of Agency – on the Des Moines River. Captain Phelps brother – the man Irish refers to – who “came up the Iowa river and built his fort inside the lines of Johnson county” is, without a doubt, Sumner Phelps.
- Notice, at this point in Irish’s story, there is no mention of John Gilbert! As a matter of fact, just a bit later in his talk, Irish gives us his answer to our question of which man came first…Phelps or Gilbert. Let me share that with you here…
You see, it’s really clear here. To C.W. Irish, John Gilbert was not the first white person in Johnson County to set up a trading post. That honor belongs to Sumner Phelps, whose family records agree that while he never settled here, was, in fact, the “traveling salesman” who established the first trading post as the Phelps brothers built their commercial fur-trading franchises across the Mississippi River valley. Read more about Sumner Phelps here.
- Now, it’s true, both from Irish’s story and other historians, that John Gilbert, while not the first white man to step foot in Johnson County, he was, most certainly, the first true settler, moving here around 1835, establishing his home, recruiting others to join him – Myers and Clark in 1836 – and eventually building a second trading post in 1837. Read more here.
- So now, let’s address the WHEN issue. The only glaring error in C.W. Irish’s story, as I see it, are the two dates he gave for these early Johnson County events. He says ‘1822’ for the time when the fur-traders began their inland work on the area rivers, and states that in ‘1826’ boats from St. Louis “discharged their cargoes and took on loads of furs.” Allow me here to address these date problems…
- While French fur-trading was certainly occurring on the Mississippi River in the early 1820’s, it appears that the Phelps family didn’t branch out beyond Yellow Banks (now Oquakwa, IL) with S.S. Phelps Company until the late 1820’s. Sumner, in fact was in Galena, IL for a period of time – beginning in 1828 (lead mining) and it wasn’t until the early 1830’s when brother William moved to Iowaville on the Des Moines River. So, indeed, if Sumner Phelps is our man, the date range of 1830-1832 certainly fits much better than Irish’s 1822.
- The fact is that in 1826, while steamboats were now traveling the Mississippi (see map above), it’s hard to conceive that larger commercial flat-bed boats, and certainly no steamboats, would be traveling up the Iowa River at that point in time. Canoes and small rafts – yes – but nothing like Irish’s words describe. As a matter of fact, most historians place 1837 as the date when the first steamboat made its way up the Des Moines River to Iowaville. Now, if we change Irish’s date by about one decade, moving his boating dates from 1826 to 1836, his story makes much more practical sense.
- Finally, the 1820’s dates that Irish and others use, fail to take in account the history of the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) tribes themselves and where they settled between 1800 and the 1830’s. Historians know with certainty that Chiefs Poweshiek and Wapashashiek didn’t settle in the Iowa River valley until they were pushed there around the time when the Black Hawk Treaty (1832) was signed. Now, it is believed that the Meskwaki did come to the Iowa River valley on a regular basis – particularly in the summer months – in order to fish and hunt in this rich wilderness. Sand Road, for example, in Iowa City, is considered by many to be an ancient Native American trail used long before the early 1800’s. But, with that said, most eastern fur traders like Phelps and others would much prefer to do their business with the Native people nearer their permanent homes on the Mississippi River. It’s only when these tribes were pushed further west by treaties like the Black Hawk Purchase, when traders would have the need to move their trading posts further west as well. Thus, in my view, these early accounts of fur-traders having such intimate interaction and transactions with Poweshiek and his tribe in the early 1820’s in the Iowa River valley simply would not have occurred until the early 1830’s at best.
- So, here’s my guess. C.W. Irish, in 1886, is telling the most accurate story we have, but sadly either C.W. simply misspoke on the dates, or those reporting on his speech did so later when writing it down. As a matter of fact, the context of Irish’s talk is given here as C.W. explains his situation…
Above left – Albert Lea’s map of the Johnson County area in 1835 (published in 1836) showing the first trading post on the Iowa River and Chief Poweshiek’s camp nearby. Click here for more details. Above right – a map of early Johnson County settlements circa 1838.
It’s interesting that many Iowa historians writing between the 1930’s and 1980’s have continued utilizing these two WHO and WHEN “errors” I’ve pointed out in this early Johnson County story. Reliable authors such as Jack T. Johnson, writing for the State Historical Society in 1939, and Irving Weber, recording his Napoleon story in the 1980’s, both pointed (incorrectly) to John Gilbert arriving in Iowa in the mid-1820’s. As the old adage goes … “If one tells an untruth long enough and loud enough, people start believing it as truth.’ In my mind, it’s this constant repetition of the original error that has caused many to not correct it.
Recently, since the year 2000, more authors, such as Laura Rigel and Sarita Zaleha, armed with additional biographical material, richer archaeological data, and easier access to historical records, seem to all agree on this new WHO and WHEN conclusion I state here:
- Johnson County Historical Fact: The first white man – known by name* – to set foot in Johnson County was Stephen “Sumner” Phelps – a fur-trader, who first arrived as early as the late 1820’s – but more likely – the early 1830‘s. Phelps, as an independent trader, made regular visits here, building the first trading post on the Iowa River, and then finally, associating with the American Fur Company (1834), he turned his local AFC business over to John Gilbert, who moved to the area around 1835.
Interestingly enough, when I first wrote up this post in the spring of 2021, I’d yet to meet the wonderful Iowa City historian, Marybeth Slonneger. In June, 2021, Marybeth had run across my website and was interested in chatting since she was one of those Johnson County historians who had come to the conclusion I mention above many years ago! As I said, it’s my belief that the tide is now turning, and more historians are now favoring the story of the often-overlooked, and rarely appreciated Johnson County pioneer – Sumner Phelps.
So, why does all this matter?
First of all, it’s always good to clear up historical errors whenever we can. As it is in all things in life – truth matters – and anytime we can correct historical errors, it’s important we do so, if for no other reason than for those who will want to hold on to these stories in future generations.
Secondly, the more present-day historians look at the amazing story of the Phelps family – Sumner, William, and others, the more we realize that these kind-hearted, peace-making, yet adventurous fur traders from Illinois have been sadly overlooked in Iowa history. So much so, my friend, Marybeth Slonneger, has written her latest book on the subject:
Finally, allow me to introduce to you a new historical project being undertaken in Johnson County – a work that’s hoping to re-visit this important era in our county’s history. Visit our website (below) and take a peek. You might be surprised by what you find…
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882, author & publisher unknown w/ quotes from early settlers Cyrus Sanders, Henry Felkner, Iowa City, 1883, pp 300-1.
*some historians believe there might have been a handful of unidentified French fur traders who ventured up the Iowa River around 1800 in order to trade with the Ioway tribe, but no actual names or places have been recorded. See The Ioway Indians, Martha Royce Blaine, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995