On occasion, when scouting the internet for historical pieces to add to Our Iowa Heritage collection, one hits the jackpot. In April of 2021, this little beauty postmarked in Burlington, Iowa came up for sale on Ebay, and with a bit of providence, we secured it at a very reasonable price for our collection. Turns out the dealer had just bought the letter from an estate in Maryland, and we’re so glad that we could bring this Hawkeye treasure back home to Iowa where it belongs.
At first glance, it appears to be a typical stampless cover dating back to the late 1840’s or early 1850’s. As we indicated in early writings, postage stamps were first introduced in 1847, but for those mailing letters in the wild, wild west of Iowa, stampless covers still were used into the late 1850’s. For postal cover collectors, this stampless cover does have a beautiful red hand-stamped postmark from Burlington, and a nice red “X” indicating the postage was 10-cents, the going rate at the time for any letter being sent over 300 miles.
So, allow me now, one step at a time, to address the meaningful pieces behind this one letter…
Sadly, over the years, a small strip running down the right side of the letter has been cut off, leaving us with no indication of the year it was written. The hand-writing is a bit unclear, but it appears that the letter was written on April 8 (?), with the hand-stamped postmark clearly indicating that it was mailed on April 11 in Burlington, Iowa. As you will see as we assemble other facts surrounding the letter, our best guess is that the letter was written around 1850.
Rev. William Thomas Thornhill Webbe (1837-1903) was a pastor/rector of Grace Chapel (Episcopal Church) in New York City from 1849-1869. Webbe also served as the Local Secretary for the Episcopal Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society with offices at 2 Park Place in NYC from 1850 through at least 1852.
The Protestant Episcopal Church Mission (PECM), first formed in 1821, was a Christian missionary initiative of the Episcopal Church that was involved in sending and providing financial support to lay and ordained mission workers in growing population centers in the west of the United States as well as overseas in China, Liberia and Japan during the second half of the 19th century. This committee, with offices in New York City, was obviously a major funding source for Christ Episcopal Church in Burlington during its early years as the first Missionary Station in Iowa.
The signing of the Black Hawk Treaty (1832) opened the western shore of the Mississippi to the settlers eager to move into the opportunities this New West offered. One of the early settlements on the Western Shore was Flint Hills (Burlington). In the early spring of 1836, the steamboat Olive Branch made its way up the Mississippi, which at the time, was full of floating ice. The riverboat carried among the settlers a Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Jackson Kemper, and a young attorney from Little Rock, Arkansas: David Rorer.
The two met on this journey and Mr. Rorer, who planned to practice law in Flint Hills, encouraged the Bishop to establish a mission in his new home town. By 1838, Flint Hills had become Burlington and with Rorer’s reminder, Kemper convinced the Episcopal Church to choose Burlington as its first Missionary Station in Iowa.
Old Zion was also used as the original meeting house of the Iowa Territorial Legislature. By 1840, the mission was organized into a Parish and the congregation proceeded to formally organize under the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Over the next decade, the Methodists welcomed the Episcopalians to occupy Old Zion for church services. Finally, in 1849, the Vestry resolved to acquire land for a church building at Fifth and High Streets where the present church now stands. At the same time the Vestry adopted the name “Christ Church.”
When the Episcopal Church choose Burlington for its first Missionary Station in Iowa, a broad appeal for a priest to serve the Station was circulated, but Bishop Kemper received but one volunteer – Rev. John Batchelder from Rhode Island.
John Batchelder (Bachelder) was born on July 18, 1801 in New Hampshire. He married Hannah Gooding (1802-1865) on May 11, 1833 in Providence, Rhode Island and had one son, Matthew (1835-1914). He relocated to Iowa in 1839 to serve as pastor/rector of the new Burlington Missionary Station, conducting his first worship service on March 15, 1839 in the only religious building in town – Old Zion, courtesy of the local Methodists.
The Batchelders lived in Burlington until their deaths in 1865 (Hannah, at age 63) and 1867 (John, at the age of 65). Both John and Hannah are buried in the Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington.
The board of Christ Church was composed of seven men.
As our letter states…
We, the undersigned…respectively request that the stipend heretofore allowed by your body to our pastor, the Rev J. Batchelder, may be continued to him, as usual.
Basically, the board was asking the Mission Board in New York City to keep sending financial support into Burlington in order to keep both the church and the good Reverend going! We’re guessing the answer was a positive one – keeping the ministry alive until such time when the local congregation could sustain it on their own.
David Rorer (May 12, 1806 – July 7, 1884) was a lawyer, judge, politician, author and anti-slavery advocate from Burlington who played a prominent role in the early history of the city and in Iowa legal history. He is credited, along with newspaper editor James Edwards, with bestowing the nickname of “Hawkeye” upon Iowans.
According to an account by his daughter Delia, “Still under 30 years of age, (David) was rapidly making a name for himself in the South, but he found himself entirely out of sympathy with the people over the slavery issue.” After a discussion around 1835 with an unnamed member of Congress in which the Congressman predicted the South would break away from the Union, Rorer and his wife, Martha, elected to “throw in with the free North and the Union.” Rorer freed his slaves and offered to take them with his family beyond the reach of slavery. Only one came with the family: the children’s nurse, called “Nin”. The family and Nin left Little Rock for St. Louis, intending to settle in Rock Island. But during their time in St. Louis, Rorer became friends with Jean-Pierre Chouteau, a prominent merchant and Indian trader, who recommended a settlement called Shoqoquon, also known as Flint Hills, in the newly-opened Black Hawk Purchase (Iowa).
All in all, this one letter touches on numerous stories we’ve addressed in Our Iowa Heritage series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reviewing them here with me.
Here’s to Flint Hills/Burlington, Old Zion Church, Christ Episcopal, Pastor John Batchelder, and David Rorer . . . all Hawkeyes at heart!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
The Church Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1852, Protestant Episcopal Church, New York City, pp 1,17-18, 36, 46, 392
Chapter XXXI: Churches of Burlington, History of Des Moines County and Its People – Volume I, Augustine M. Antrobus, 1915, pp 101-103, 466, 479
William Thomas Thornhill Webbe, Geni.com
Grace Chapel on High Street, 1879, House of Worship-Brooklyn
Protestant Episcopal Church Mission, Wikipedia
Hannah Bachelder, Find-A-Grave
Christ Episcopal Church – Burlington, ChristChurchOnline.com
Christ Episcopal Church (Burlington), Wikiwand.com
David Rorer, Edward H. Stiles, Annals of Iowa, Volume 8 – Number 2, 1907, pp 116-124
David Rorer newspaper ad, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 3, 1842.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye, The Pageant of the Press – A Survey of 125 Years of Iowa Journalism 1836-1961, William J. Petersen, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1962
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