Today, the thought of moving an entire state government from one city to another seems like a ridiculous idea. Not only would it be a cumbersome task, but just the cost alone for securing adequate land and constructing new buildings would break a state’s budget.
Yet, back in the 1850’s, when the United States was rapidly expanding westward, and state governments were much smaller, the idea of moving Iowa’s capital city from Iowa City to Des Moines seemed like a very do-able idea.
Let me give you the two driving forces behind the “Move our Capital to Des Moines” idea.
Throughout the 19th century, and at least the first half of the 20th century, the idea of American westward expansion was tied to an erroneous religious doctrine called Manifest Destiny, where the white-European culture saw itself as superior to all other people and cultures. Therefore, as God’s “redeeming” force, “rescuing” land from Native Americans, who were often seen as “less-than-human-savages,” white men and women believed God’s hand was with them as they pushed further westward into the wilderness.
While today, most clear-minded Americans would not be in agreement with such thinking, in the 1850’s, it was simply part of the culture to believe that the “promised land” was always west of where you were currently living. Events like the opening of new land in Iowa (the Black Hawk Purchase in 1832), the California gold rush (1849), and the expansion of the railroad into Iowa (1856), all contributed to the belief that relocating the state capital, as our state expanded westward, was the “right” thing to do.
Sometimes, it’s easy for us living in the 21st century to forget that the shape and size of our state really wasn’t determined until right up to the point when statehood occurred. In truth, the southern border line was so unclear, the two entities – the State of Missouri and the Territory of Iowa – almost went to war over it in 1839!
Click here to read more about The Iowa/Missouri Line War.
Above, you see a proposed map of Iowa based on what many legislators in Washington D.C. wanted in 1844. Had that map been approved, the center of our state would have been Tama, not Des Moines, and Minneapolis would have been right across the Iowa/Minnesota border! So, when statehood was established in 1846, the borders we have today finally came together.
FYI: The two big rivers produced our eastern and western borders, Missouri lost the Line War in a Supreme Court decision in 1849, and our northern border with Minnesota was reduced by two tiers of counties to the south.
But, even in 1850 (see map below), while the shape and size of Iowa had been determined, the population density was still very weighted to the east. As you can see, there was very little activity happening west of Marshalltown, let alone in Des Moines!
But, despite the numbers, the two driving forces of Manifest Destiny & Westward Expansion were always present, pushing Iowa legislators, even from day one in 1846, to debate about the distinct possibility of someday making Des Moines our permanent state capital. Actually, in 1847, just one year after statehood, those who wanted a westward move sooner vs. later went ahead and selected a site for the new capital “when,” and not if, it ever happened.
But, wait. It wasn’t Des Moines!
The location these folks picked was “on a beautiful prairie” in Jasper County and they named it Monroe City. Lots were surveyed and sold – using the same procedure followed when Iowa City was established in 1839. But, alas, while the efforts were made, the idea was overruled and within two years (1849), Monroe City was history, with the Iowa legislature ordering it to be abandoned with full refunds given to those who had already planned their move.
Yet, as the population of Iowa continued to grow, and more and more land was “purchased” (or shall we use the truest word…”stolen”?) from our Native Iowan neighbors, the number of legislators leaning toward a westward progression increased significantly.
In November 1856, delegates from around the state of Iowa were elected to a third constitutional convention, with the assignment of revising the original constitution. Two other conventions had been held in Iowa City – the first in 1844 (an unsuccessful bid at statehood), and the second in 1846, which, as you know, resulted in statehood. In January 1857, this third constitutional convention gathered in Iowa City, meeting in the House Chamber (above), and over the next two months, hammered out a constitutional rewrite.
Once the constitutional convention finished their work, the paperwork was then sent to the floor of the Iowa Senate (above), where on March 5, 1857, it was approved. This new constitution was then ratified by the people of Iowa on August 3, 1857 by a majority of only 1,630 votes. And on September 3, 1857, upon proclamation of Governor James W. Grimes, a new State Constitution went into effect. And it’s this 1857 constitution, with its forty-eight amendments, that is still in effect in Iowa today.
The Constitution of Iowa (1857) – This replica of the original, handwritten 1857 Constitution of the State of Iowa rests on an original desk in the House Chamber of Old Capitol today. The original constitution is in the Secretary of State’s office in Des Moines. (BH-038) 1907 Pocket Version Deluxe Morocco published by: The State Historical Society of Iowa – Edited by B.F. Shambaugh with a 12-page historical introduction.
It’s in this new 1857 constitution where the decision on moving the state capital to Des Moines was finally made. But, as you can see from the two articles below, there was a compromise included in this package deal that helped pacify those folks who didn’t want Iowa City to be left without a prize…
Article XI, Section 8, provided that: The seat of Government is hereby permanently established, as now fixed by law, at the city of Des Moines, in the county of Polk; and the State University at Iowa City, in the county of Johnson.
Article IX, Section 11, provides as follows: The State University shall be established at one place, without branches at any other place; and the University fund shall be applied to that institution, and no other.
In the Iowa Journal of History & Politics (1916), we find this interesting account of that pivotal Constitutional session in 1857…
The question of the permanent location of the capital came before the constitutional convention of 1857 in connection with the location of the State University. During the second week of the convention a resolution was offered to inquire into the expediency of permanently locating the seat of government, the State University, and the asylums for the blind and the deaf and dumb. The location of the University caused the greatest amount of discussion and it was largely in that connection that the capital was mentioned. The inclusion in the new Constitution of the compromise of 1847, whereby the State University was to be located at Iowa City whenever the capitol should be removed was persistently insisted upon, in spite of proposals to establish the University at the former site of Monroe City, to leave the matter to a vote of the people, or to rest the decision with the legislature. It was objected that such clauses would overload the Constitution with affairs of local interest. But the judgment of those who wished permanently to settle the question finally prevailed, and the convention incorporated (Article XI – Section 8) in the Constitution of 1857.
In order to validify the acts of State officers and to fulfill his duty…Governor James W. Grimes on October 19, 1857, officially declared “the Capitol of the State of Iowa to be established under the constitution and laws of the State at Des Moines in Polk County.” Although the new capitol building at Des Moines was still unfinished, the State officers had begun packing and moving the contents of their several offices by the first of October. Snow flew before the task was completed.
And so, in October of 1857, the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines began in earnest, prompting one disgruntled Iowa City newspaper reporter to quip…
Let Des Moines have the politicians, we’ll take the professors!
Keep in mind, in 1857, there were no train tracks west of Iowa City. The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad had completed its promise to build a route from the Mississippi River (Davenport) to Iowa City by January 1, 1856, and in truth, that achievement just about bankrupt the company. It wouldn’t be until 1860 when the M&M would cross the Iowa River, so until then, the only way to Des Moines (120 miles) was via a dirt trail for either stagecoach or horse-drawn wagons.
The Great Western Stage Company was kind enough to move the personal belongings for a handful of senior officials free of charge. So, using a four-horse coach, that journey began on Thursday, November 5, 1857, with Iowa City driver Joseph Braggs at the reins, arriving in Des Moines around noon the next day.
State Treasurer Martin Morris personally paid for wagon transport for deputy office holders. That group traveled separately, pausing one night in Brooklyn (near Grinnell), but as all Iowans know, weather can change quickly. The next morning, the traveling party was greeted with sleet and rain, and by evening, a snowstorm was raging throughout central Iowa.
The weather got so bad, a second over-night stay, at a farmhouse twenty-five miles from their destination, was needed. More snow came in overnight, and it so obscured the route that their driver gave up and quit the job. A local farmer, familiar with the terrain, used his lumber wagon to carry the deputies the final miles, finally arriving Sunday afternoon, two days after their counterparts.
Unfortunately, most of the furniture and larger office pieces didn’t fare nearly as well on this 120-mile journey. Between the bad weather and the poor road conditions, almost all of the original furnishings used in the Iowa City state house was either lost or so badly damaged they could not be salvaged. Four office safes, for example, were loaded onto wagons drawn by oxen. The Treasurer’s office safe was so heavy, it was actually abandoned en route near a creek in Polk County, only to be retrieved after the storm abated and the ground had frozen! The driver of the rescuing ox cart gained hearty cheers from state officials when he and the safe finally arrived – probably because the safe contained gold and silver that was used to pay their salaries!
As we mentioned earlier, even though Des Moines was now the state capital, that didn’t mean central Iowa was ready to receive the state government. Transportation in and out of Des Moines remained a problem until the railroad arrived (1866), and a three-story brick building served as a “temporary capitol” until 1886.
Construction on the new capitol building began in 1871, being dedicated on January 17, 1884, and completed in 1886, just months before the “temporary” capitol was lost to fire. So, all in all, the transition from Iowa City to Des Moines took nearly 30 years to complete!
Wow – that’s what you call good government at work!
All the while, the State University of Iowa, which was given the old statehouse in Iowa City (1857) as a second-place prize, continued to grow and flourish. And from everything I can determine, all these years later, I think we got the good end of the deal!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Large mural, “Westward,” at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Library of Congress
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
Postcard 247: Iowa Government Exits Old Capitol, Bob Hibbs, June 5, 2004, Johnson County IAGenWeb Project
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