Cyrus Sanders – My 1839 Iowa Adventure.

If you are a regular reader of Our Iowa Heritage, you know that we have told the stories of many of the early settlers of Johnson County:

All of these men and women – listed above – arrived in Johnson County long before a certain Ohio-born 21-year old farmer/surveyor named Cyrus Sanders. But, here’s the reason we are talking about Sanders today…

Cyrus Sanders recorded his early adventures in Johnson County, over a five-year period (1838-1843), in a journal – giving us a day-by-day account of one man’s trek from Ohio to Iowa. And quite the diary it is!

In January 1939, one-hundred years after the fact, The State Historical Society of Iowa, with historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh serving as editor, re-printed the contents of Cyrus Sander’s journal. And today, as we grow ever closer to the 200th anniversary of his original writings, allow me to share a small portion with you – most of Cyrus’ 1839 entries, as they appeared in that 1939 reprint. I promise to keep my commentary to a minimum as we travel together, offering an occasional subject header and a few other historical tidbits along the way. So, let’s begin…

On December 6, 1838, Cyrus Sanders left Oxford, Ohio, taking a stagecoach to Cincinnati, where, on the next day (December 7), he boarded an Ohio River steamboat with only $100 in his pocket. We will skip over the next month, in order to save space, but you can read the full manuscript here.
It was very typical for early settlers traveling west to take the Ohio River south to Cairo, Illinois (where the Ohio meets the Mississippi) and then up the Great River via riverboat through St. Louis and on into Iowa. But with this being the winter, with rivers being either completely frozen or too low for riverboat traffic, Cyrus traveled most of this trip via stagecoach combined with a whole lot of walking! He arrived in Macomb, Illinois on January 4th – 45 miles southeast of his destination – Burlington, the territorial capital of Iowa. Click here to read more about Burlington.
After a month on the road, Cyrus was anxious to arrive in Iowa, walking across the frozen Mississippi River, waving his hat as he entered Iowa’s capital city. That evening, he met some of Iowa’s most prominent movers and shakers – Governor Robert Lucas, Treasury Secretary Jesse Williams, and others, who were all boarding at the Burlington House. A wise business man, Cyrus knew very well that his surveying skills would be in high demand in a territory that was just opening up – especially with reference letters from Governor Lucas and Treasury Secretary Williams, who was a surveyor from Ohio as well.
It’s about 25 miles from Burlington to Salem in Henry County.
Being a surveyor brought good employment in Henry County for a good part of February.
And back to Burlington…
I’m sure that a good part of Cyrus’ decision to not stay in Burlington, heading north and west for Johnson County, was due to all the high-level conversations surrounding the permanent location of the territorial capital. In January, Governor Lucas had announced that Johnson County would be the new site and within four months (May 1), territorial commissioners would arrive to choose the exact location.
And now, it’s back to Salem and on to Johnson County.
Johnson County – as it might have appeared in 1839.
Apparently, Cyrus’ first evening in Johnson County was spent in a “miserable hut” located 2.5 miles north of John Gilbert’s Trading House. Interestingly enough, the site chosen for Iowa City was located 2 miles north of Napoleon, meaning the “miserable hut” must have been a “claim cabin” thrown up by a settler very near where Old Capitol stands today!
Click here for more about the earliest days of Napoleon, Johnson County’s first white settlement.
The Meskwaki Tribe had been forced here in 1832. Read more about their journey.
(M-0118) This Native American axe, found in a field near the Iowa River, is part of our collection. Sounds like Cyrus found a similar specimen in his field! Click here to read more about the earliest Native tribes of eastern Iowa.
The mill-dam Cyrus mentions here was located on the Iowa River in today’s Coralville.
This footnote was entered into the 1939 publication by Benjamin F. Shambaugh. The Johnson County Claim Association was a grass-roots organization that brought “law and order” to areas of land that were yet to be officially purchased from the U.S. Government. Claim jumpers would attempt to secure land by secretly building what was called a ‘claim cabin’ on a property before the rightful owner could “buy” the land. The Claim Association would engage in a variety of ‘high-pressured’ activities to get rid of claim jumpers – some of which were legal – but many not!
Mail was delivered to Johnson County beginning in 1839 – with the first “official” post office being at John Gilbert’s Trading Post. Click here to read more.
These rare postal covers were all addressed to Cyrus Sanders between 1839-1841.
Click here to read more about Chief Poweshiek.
July 4th celebrations in the earliest days of Johnson County provided a unique opportunity for gathering settlers who were, for the most part, scattered during other times of the year. This first July 4th celebration in Iowa City was a unique one and one year later (1840) a similar celebration was held, and included the laying of the cornerstone of the new capitol building. Click here for more about this important day in Iowa City history.

In his later writings, Cyrus Sanders reported a bit more about this first city-wide celebration – describing Gen. John Frierson – the main speaker at the July 4, 1839 event. Read more here.

Cyrus Sanders was elected to be Johnson County’s first surveyor and was re-elected to that position numerous times over the next 40 years. Click here to read more about Cyrus’s training in surveying.

(JP-019) Here’s a very rare letter from Iowa City’s iconic pioneer – Cyrus Sanders – to C.H. Booth – Surveyor General in Dubuque – dated September 18/19, 1849. Read more here.

Bloomington was the original name of Muscatine, Iowa.
The claim jumper mentioned here was given the Claim Association treatment – they tore down his shack! Records indicate that one of Cyrus’ surveying jobs included the land surrounding Solon, in northern Johnson County.
The one year anniversary is here – from Ohio to Iowa – a year I’m sure Cyrus would never forget.
Click here to read more about Cyrus Sanders.
Click here to read more about Cyrus’ historical writing in the 1880’s.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to you, Cyrus Sanders – one amazing man with one amazing story!

Check out our list of Johnson County Historical Resources and our Iowa Historian Hall of Fame.

DYK-December 24, 2021

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

Cyrus Sander’s entire journal can be accessed here:

Journal of Cyrus Sanders, The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Volume XXXVII – Number 1, January 1939, pp 52-87

Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, p 26.

Photo of Cyrus Sanders: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, p 43

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