Like its sister-city Dubuque to the north, Burlington was established in 1833 on the western shores of the Mississippi River – land first belonging to the Meskwaki (Sauk and Fox) tribes, who called it Shoquoquon (Shok-ko-kon), meaning Flint Hills.
The Black Hawk Purchase of 1832 secured land up and down the Mississippi River (yellow strip pictured above). When this territory opened up to settlers on June 1, 1833, Iowa was “un-organized,” no longer affiliated with the former Missouri Territory. On June 28, 1834, Congress put this new Iowa territory under the care of Michigan Territory; and in September of that same year the land was divided into two counties – Dubuque and Des Moines. Both of these counties had one township each—Julien Township in Dubuque County and Flint Hill Township in Des Moines County. It is believed that these two townships were the very first local government divisions west of the Mississippi River. From its inception, Burlington was the center of all commerce for Des Moines County.
In the spring of 1834, John Gray, who purchased one of first lots with his wife Eliza Jane, bought the naming rights as well for $50 and named the settlement Burlington in honor of his hometown in Vermont. The Grays’ daughter Abigail was born in Burlington that same year, the first European-descended American settler child born on Iowa soil.
Above, on this 1835 map drawn by Lt. Albert M. Lea, is the southern region of Iowa District – Des Moines County – with Burlington, Madison (Ft.), Keokuk, and Ft. Des Moines all located on the Mississippi River. Click here to read more.
In 1836, in preparation for Michigan statehood, Iowa was assigned to yet another new territory – Wisconsin Territory – with Belmont, Wisconsin serving as its capital.
One year later, in 1837, Burlington was designated as Wisconsin Territory’s temporary capital – replacing Belmont while a new capitol building was being constructed in Madison City, Wisconsin. Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).
On July 4, 1838, when Iowa officially became a separate U.S. Territory, the new governor, Robert Lucas, announced that Burlington would remain as the “temporary” capital of Iowa, since it had already been serving as the capital of Wisconsin Territory since 1837. The Legislature convened in November 1838, at Zion Church, and the Council had 13 members, the House had 26. In one of its first actions, the group decided to relocate the territorial capital to a more centrally-located setting, choosing Johnson County as that place. Read more here.
(P-0243) “Old Zion” – the first Methodist Church in Iowa, located near what is now Third and Washington Streets in Burlington.
Today’s Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper traces its roots to two early Burlington newspapers:
1) The Wisconsin Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser, which was established July 10, 1837 by James Clarke and Cyrus Jacobs. Clarke and Jacobs moved to Burlington from Belmont, Wisconsin, when the capital of the Wisconsin Territory was moved to Burlington (1837). The pair did printing work for the territorial government, and were aligned with the Democratic Party. In 1838, just as the new Iowa Territory was created with Burlington being its first capital, Jacobs was killed in a duel that culminated a “long-simmering” political dispute with local attorney David Rorer. Jacobs was on the verge of a prominent career in state politics while Rorer, a colorful character indeed, was moving up the political ladder as well. One account tells the story this way…
Ten days after Rorer lost the election, the pair met on a Burlington street. Jacobs drew a pistol and hit Rorer on the head with a cane. Rorer reeled and fired his own pistol, with fatal results. The examining justices found that Rorer had acted in self-defense. Rorer concluded: “I will never again campaign for election.“
2) Meanwhile, a rival newspaper to Clarke and Jacobs’ Gazette/Advertiser, The Iowa Patriot, came to town via Fort Madison with James G. Edwards serving as the owner/operator.
Edwards was a supporter of the Whig Party, so apparently, Rorer and Edwards joined political forces, teaming up to eventually accomplish a lot of good things for the growing city of Burlington.
Meanwhile, Jacobs’ surviving partner, James Clarke became postmaster of Burlington and later its mayor. Eventually, Clarke was named the third and last governor of the Iowa Territory, and Clarke County in southern Iowa is named in his honor. After his term as governor, Clarke returned to Burlington to run the Gazette/Advertiser. He was elected as the first president of the Burlington School Board, and died July 28, 1850, in a local cholera epidemic. He was only 38, and interestingly enough, David Rorer was one of his pall bearers!
Click here to read about Burlington’s own Frederick & Matilda Schmieg and the Steinway Concert Grand Piano they purchased in 1878. After 130 years, ‘Rose’ (as the piano is affectionately known), sits in the Senate Chamber of Old Capitol in Iowa City – still making beautiful music all these years later in the Hawkeye State.
(M-0005) One Wooden Nickel – celebrating Burlington’s 100th Anniversary of being Iowa’s first Territorial Capitol -1838.
(C-0235) 1833-1983 Burlington Sesquicentennial Celebration featuring Snake Alley…
Here’s a tip of the old hat to Burlington – Iowa’s Steamboat City on the Great River.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.