Chauncey Swan – The Father of Iowa City.

Did You Know? the audio version – May 2, 2022

Like so many other first-generation Iowans, Chauncey Swan was born in New York (1799), and while we don’t know a lot about his early years, records do show that he must have been politically active at an early age, as he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to the job of postmaster – a political position – in Otisco, New York.

It’s obvious from his life story, that Chauncey was not only a good politician, but also a healthy risk-taker, one who would suddenly pull up stakes and go where the action is. And by the late 1830’s, as Chauncey was nearing age 40, that action centered in on this new western territory called Iowa, where golden opportunity awaited those who would be brave enough to grab it.

Above, on this 1835 map drawn by Lt. Albert Lea, is the northern region of Iowa District (Dubuque County). Note the city of Dubuque (1833) with Catfish Creek (where Julien Dubuque first settled), and the large mining area called Lead Mines (including Galena, IL).

Drawn by the prospect of wealth through lead mining, Chauncey, his wife Dolly Bowen, and their four children moved west to Dubuque, the center of Wisconsin Territory by 1837. Ever since Julien Dubuque settled here in 1788, the entire Catfish Creek region surrounding the Key City was known as The Dubuque Lead Mines.

Combine Chauncey’s success in mining – February 3, 1838 journal entry: “a fine discovery of lead ore” – with his persuasive personality, and soon (September), Swan is elected to the first Iowa Territorial Legislature – to be held in November in the new capital city of Burlington – representing Dubuque County.

It was there, on January 21, 1839, when Governor Robert Lucas issued the following legislative decree…

An Act to locate the Seat of Government of the Territory of Iowa … so soon as the place shall be selected, and the consent of the United States obtained, the commissioners shall proceed to lay out a town to be called “Iowa City.”

Ultimately, three commissioners were chosen to survey Johnson County – which at the time was centrally-located in Iowa Territory – assigned to choose the perfect location for this new capital city of Iowa. Chauncey Swan was one of those commissioners.

Watercolors of early Johnson County by Jo Myers-Walker. See more here.

Here’s how the University of Iowa’s Biographical Dictionary explains what happened next…

In early 1839 the legislature voted to locate a permanent territorial capital in Johnson County. Swan was one of three commissioners chosen to locate the site for what would be called Iowa City. The legislature directed the commissioners to meet in Johnson County on May 1, but only Swan arrived that morning. At noon, Swan told the crowd gathered that at least two commissioners needed to be present or locating the capitol would be postponed. He suggested that if one more commissioner could be summoned before midnight, the process could continue. A local farmer fetched John Ronalds from his home in Louisa County. In the official record, Swan reported that Ronalds arrived around 11:00 p.m. Local lore maintains, however, that Swan turned back the hands on his watch to ensure that Ronalds arrived before midnight.

Philip Clark, the rider in this story has a rich Johnson County history. Click here for more.

In the following days, a spot along the Iowa River was chosen for the new capital. On May 7 the other two commissioners chose Swan Acting Commissioner of Public Buildings. The Acting Commissioner would be the most directly involved of the commissioners in overseeing the surveying and platting of Iowa City, the selling of city lots, and the hiring of an architect and building contractor for the capitol. He would also give the legislature progress reports.

In the summer of 1839 Swan moved with his family to Iowa City and immediately took up his responsibilities. The commissioners had procured surveyors to lay out the capital, and that summer Swan oversaw the surveys, chose the spot for Capitol Square, and arranged for maps to be made and distributed in preparation for the sale of lots, the receipts going toward the capitol’s construction. Swan coordinated the land sales, which began in August 1839, collected payments, and kept track of receipts. Read more here.

“No name (Chauncey Swan) stands out as consistently and prominently in early (Iowa City) history, and always in vital, worthwhile projects with strong overtones of moral character.” Irving Weber

On September 19, 1839, just as the Swans were settling into Iowa City, their five-year-old daughter, Cordelia, died, becoming the first white settler to die in Iowa City, and the first burial in, what is today, Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. The burial site had been largely forgotten until the Pilgrim Chapter of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) placed a marker at the site in 1935. Since then, an even larger memorial has been placed on the gravesite, honoring Cordelia and her pre-mature death in 1839.

In all truth, Chauncey Swan, a persuasive man, comfortable with power and influence, had his hands in just about everything going on in this fledgling little community of Iowa City. As we mentioned earlier, Swan had served as postmaster – a political appointment – back home in New York before coming to Iowa. Now, once again, as Iowa City was taking shape, he was appointed as postmaster for Johnson County, this time by President Martin Van Buren.

The “official” government records for Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1842 – Johnson County, Iowa
John Gilbert – Napoleon – 2 Mar 1839
Sam H.M. Caory – Napoleon – 18 Apr 1839
Chauncey Swan – Iowa City – 14 Nov 1839

According to an 1841 report to the Iowa legislature, as superintendent of public buildings in the new capital, Chauncey indicates that he paid John Ronalds $600 for the finest oak for the flooring of the building. Remember him? Ronalds was the ‘better-late-than-never’ arrival in the little town of Napoleon that fateful night – May 1, 1839 – when only two of the three commissioners showed up to sign on, by state proclamation, as appointed surveyors of the then uncharted Johnson County.

We Build Our Capitol – 1841 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Mildred Pelzer’s mural depicts Chauncey Swan (right), who is sometimes called the “Father of Iowa City” since he was part of the original team that selected the site and then stayed here until 1849, serving in a variety of leadership roles; and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli (left). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Click here to read more about Old Capitol – The Icon of the University.

Over the inside entrance of Old Capitol is this stone engraving from 1841. Click here to view more pics from inside the Old Capitol Museum.

In truth, as building superintendent, Chauncey contended with many setbacks. Arguably the biggest blow came only nine days after the cornerstone was laid – July 4, 1840. That’s when the architect and building contractor, John F. Rague, suddenly left the project, leaving Swan with the added responsibilities of hiring and paying workers, drawing up contracts, purchasing materials, and supervising day-to-day construction. Click here to read more about John F. Rague.

Whew. But wait. There’s more.

Perhaps, for Chauncey, the most frustrating part of all this was the state legislature’s lack of trust in him. In December 1839, the state asked for all copies of contracts and financial records. The following year, it sent investigators to evaluate the capitol’s progress and review Swan’s bookkeeping. While no inaccuracies were ever found and no accusations of mismanagement ever leveled against Swan, the legislature in January 1841 decided to divide his responsibilities, creating two positions: Territorial Agent, responsible for project finances; and Superintendent of Public Buildings, responsible for supervising the capitol’s construction. Governor Lucas appointed Chauncey as Superintendent of Public Buildings, a position he went on to hold until February of 1842.

All the while. as Chauncey was working for the state building project, he also entered into several new business ventures in Iowa City…

Clinton Street – Iowa City – 1854 photograph by Isaac Wetherby.
“A Distant View of Iowa City” (from the north) as sketched by George H. Yewell (1855). Walter Terrell’s mill is pictured on the bottom left.

In the spring of 1843, Chauncey organized a meeting, presided over by Judge G. Coleman, to consider building a dam on the Iowa River for a grist mill. The proposed location was north of Iowa City – near present-day Coralville – and as a result of that meeting, a stock-based company was formed: Iowa City Manufacturing Company – with Swan serving as president. Within a few weeks, the company purchased three acres of land for the mill and four miles of water rights, and began advertising in the Iowa Republican for wheat to grind in December of 1843. Unfortunately, by 1844, the company had failed and it’s property put up for auction, with the demise probably due to the stiff competition brought on by Walter Terrell and his dam and mill, also built in 1843, but located closer to Iowa City and much easier accessed from the surrounding area via the Military Road – built in 1840.

A closer look at the L. Judson’s 1839 map of Iowa City reveals The National Road crossing at what is now the Iowa Avenue bridge over the Iowa River. Swan’s Hotel was first called The National Hotel since it was located on The National Road, coming from Dubuque (1840) and near the only ferry crossing of the Iowa River. Click here to read more about The National Road.

Beginning in 1842, Chauncey and his wife, Dolly, became keepers of the eloquent inn and tavern called Swan’s Hotel, located on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Capital Streets, with a commanding view of the Iowa River. The Swan played a major role in day-to-day life during the early days of Iowa City.

Read about the first four hotel/taverns that were established in the early Iowa City days.

Throughout the 1840’s, connection by stagecoach was the primary way for Iowans to travel. Swan’s Hotel was a major stop for early stagecoach traffic on the National Road. Read more here.

Sadly, things for the Swan household took a sudden turn for the worse when on February 11, 1847, Chauncey’ wife, Dolly Bowen Swan, died (1797-1847). This devastating loss might explain Chauncey’s stepping away from The Swan, giving the operation over to his son, Charlie.

In 1849, perhaps in the same way that he was drawn to Iowa in search of lead, the 50-year-old Chauncey Swan suddenly decided to head west for California in search of gold. Gold Fever had exploded across the country and literally thousands of settlers were pulling up stakes, making their way westward in the hopes of striking it rich.

A true leader, Chauncey organized a troop of Iowa Citians, going by two names: the Iowa City Argonauts or the Sacramento Mining Company. By working together, the group was able to raise a decent amount of capital to purchase the needed supplies and traveled west together, making the journey much safer. The party left by wagon train on May 6, 1849, and many of Chauncey’s letters back home to his new wife, Mary Bliss (Walker) Swan, tell us about the highs and lows of this long trek west. Irving Weber, Iowa City historian, tells us more…

In one letter – April 25, 1850 – written after Swan arrived in San Francisco, Chauncey writes that “I cannot find a man here I know among 50,000 souls” and that “it is no place for me in this City.” In another letter – July 27, 1851 – Chauncey writes that he was coming back as soon as “I can accumulate enough money to book passage home.”

Apparently, Chauncey stayed in California until the spring of 1852, suggesting in his letters that he did finally find some success and was planning to return to Iowa City by way of ship, traveling around South America to New York City. Sadly, records show that Chauncey Swan took ill and died just as his ship was entering New York Harbor. His traveling comrades reported that he was promptly buried at sea. Thus, the Father of Iowa City, as he became know, was never able to return to his hometown.

The Chauncey Tower. Opening in 2019, the Chauncey Tower is a fifteen-story building that truly transforms the downtown skyline of Iowa City. Named for Iowa City’s founding pioneer, Chauncey Swan, this $57 million-dollar facility is located on the corner of College and Gilbert Streets and houses a 51-room hotel, luxury apartments, a bowling center, and much more. Swan Park is adjacent to the Tower.

Chauncey Swan – Father of Iowa City – Godspeed. Iowa City has designated May 4th as Chauncey Swan Day. May the Fourth be with you!

DYK–April 26, 2023

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

Chauncey Swan, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, U of I Library website

Swan Tales: The Life and Adventures of Chauncey Swan, Anne Mangano, Iowa City Public Library, May 2, 2016

Chauncey Swan – Father of City, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City, Volume 6, 1990, pp 21-24

Swan Hotel Hotel, Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015, pp 17-18

Early Iowa City, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb

Appointments to U.S. Postmaster – Johnson County, Iowa 1939-1842,

Chauncey Swan, Find-A-Grave

Dolly Bowen Swan, Find-A-Grave

First Deaths -Cordelia Swan, The History of Johnson County, 1883

Cordelia Swan, Find-A-Grave

Mary Bliss Swan, Find-A-Grave

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