Robert Edward Lucas was born on April 1, 1781 in what was then Mecklenburg, Virginia – today, known as Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He was the son of William and Susannah (Barnes) Lucas, a Quaker family whose roots stretched back to 1679 in Pennsylvania.
For a more complete overview of Robert Lucas’ year in Ohio – click here.
In 1800, the Lucas family moved to Ohio, where Robert, a military officer during the War of 1812, began his political career. Between 1808 and 1832, he was elected twice to the Ohio House and seven times to the Ohio Senate, and was elected governor of Ohio for two terms – in 1832, and again, in 1834.
On July 4, 1838, Iowa, which had been part of Wisconsin Territory since 1836, officially became a separate U.S. Territory, and President Martin Van Buren decided to look to Ohio, hand-picking his friend, the 57-year-old Robert Lucas, as Iowa’s first Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Read more here.
Since Burlington, Iowa had been chosen in 1837 as Wisconsin Territory’s “temporary” capital (replacing Belmont, Wisconsin while a new capitol building was being constructed in Madison), Lucas announced that the small river town located near the new territory’s southern border would remain the temporary capital until he could arrive in Iowa and “officially” call for a duly-elected territorial legislature to be formed.
Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).
Historian Jack T. Johnson indirectly describes the new governor’s move to Iowa in an article he wrote about T.S. Parvin, a young man from Ohio who ended up serving Lucas as his private secretary and protégé…
Read more about T.S. Parvin, who ended up becoming one of Iowa’s great historians.
Read more about Jesse Williams, Lucas’ private secretary who went on to help save the construction of Iowa’s capitol in Iowa City.
On Wednesday, August 15, 1838, when Governor Lucas and his small party arrived, by steamboat, Iowa Territory had 22 surveyed counties and a population of 23,242.
Once in Burlington, and after issuing a call for territorial elections, Lucas and his team spent the rest of August traversing the Mississippi, visiting the small river communities, all with the intent of the governor meeting the citizens of his newly-formed domain while determining the best location for the territory’s permanent capital.
Lucas’s vision for this new territory was similar to his agenda back in Ohio. It included…
- Establishing a system of free public schools,
- Building territorial roads, and
- Organizing a well-equipped militia to “defend ourselves against any force that could be brought against us.”
Back in Ohio, Lucas, as governor, advocated a forward-looking transportation system through the building of canals. As Iowa governor, he now envisioned a similar plan, this time pushing for a well-developed network of roads that would connect Iowa’s growing communities from north to south. An integral part of that networking plan was to relocate the territorial capital so that it would be centrally located for all Iowans, even if that meant starting a new city from scratch.
So, in November of 1838, the newly-elected Iowa Territorial legislature convened at Zion Church in Burlington, and in one of its first decisions, agreed to move the territorial capital to a more centrally-located option – one that would better accommodate Lucas’ vision for the future. This set off a firestorm throughout the region, with every little community believing that their city would be the best site for the new capital.
Read more about John Gilbert and his interesting ways of convincing the Territorial legislation to choose Johnson County for the new territorial capital.
Finally, on January 21, 1839, Lucas announced his big decision:
By early spring, those commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were preparing to go about the business of surveying Johnson County in search of the perfect location. You can read about that story here.
As we mentioned earlier, education for all Iowans was an important priority for Governor Lucas, so it isn’t surprising that within the first two months of his term as governor, he assigned his personal secretary T.S. Parvin to return to Ohio in order to purchase a large selection of books that became the Territorial Library and the beginnings of the official State of Iowa Library. Lucas also appointed his protégé to act as our state’s first “official” librarian (see proclamation below), and within months, Parvin had convinced the governor to ask the U.S. Congress for a grant of land to be set aside for literary purposes. Congress responded favorably to Lucas’ request, giving Iowa a grant of 72 sections of choice land to support the establishment of a university – the very first step in forming the State University of Iowa (1847).
If you recall, our state’s motto is: Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.
Apparently, Robert Lucas was well known for his temper. As governor of Ohio, he came very close to bringing his state to war with Michigan over boundaries – a pre-curser to the football rivalry between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, no doubt? – and as Territorial Governor of Iowa, he almost brought Iowa to war with Missouri during what was called The Honey War, with each entity arguing over the placement of the boundary line at the southern edge of Iowa Territory.
Read about The Toledo War of 1835/36 that involved Governor Lucas in Ohio.
As for Governor Lucas, while he was the one who made the executive decision to locate the Territorial capital in Iowa City, he actually spent little time governing here since he was replaced as Territorial Governor in 1841. After the Whigs won the 1840 presidential election, President Tyler, who took over the presidency after the sudden death of William H. Harrison, appointed John Chambers, a Whig, as Iowa’s new governor.
Arguably, Lucas’ post-gubernatorial contributions are as significant to Iowa’s development as those he made as governor. As a delegate to the first state constitutional convention in 1844, he served on the Committee to define the powers of the executive and on the Committee on State Revenue. He was also a member of the Committee on State Boundaries and advocated for boundaries from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers and to the St. Peter River in the north. Those boundaries were sent to Congress with the state constitution. Although Congress wanted a smaller Iowa, Iowa’s final boundaries were close to those Lucas had proposed.
Read more about the 1844 ‘shape of Iowa’ controversy.
While disheartened to only have three years as governor, Lucas did not give up on politics. In 1846, as Iowa moved from being a U.S. Territory to statehood, he put himself forward as the Democratic candidate to become the first state governor, but that effort fell short.
Read more about Iowa’s first gubernatorial election in 1846.
His last venture into politics is probably the most surprising. After being a Democrat his entire political career, he put his support behind the Whig candidate in the 1852 presidential election, becoming active in the local Whig Party because of his own party’s stance of indifference on the important issues of slavery.
After leaving the governor’s office in 1841, Lucas returned briefly to Ohio (1843), so he might run for the U.S. Congress. Defeated in that election, the Lucas’ sold all their land in Ohio, and moved to Iowa City, settling here with his wife, Friendly, and several of his children and grandchildren. In 1844, he built a home for his family on a plot of land (461 acres) south and east of the city that he had acquired in 1839. That homestead would later come to be known as Plum Grove.
Look at the amazing similarities between Friendly Grove, built in 1824 in Piketon, Ohio and Plum Grove, built twenty years later in Iowa City. Read more here.
Governor Robert Edward Lucas died at Plum Grove on February 7, 1853, was buried in Oakland Cemetery, and by 1854, the family had sold the property to the Hoyt family, abolitionists who also came from southern Ohio. Friendly, Robert’s wife, died in 1873, and is buried at Oakland as well.
One biographer states…
Robert Lucas was a man of practical common sense and seasoned wisdom. In the face of difficulty he maintained his position without sacrificing his self-respect. His experience in the War of 1812 helped make Lucas an exceptional leader. His stern and unbending in his policies made him an excellent statesman and governor of not one, but two states.
Plum Grove (above left) as it appeared in the early part of the 20th century – (above right) as it appears today at 1030 Carroll Avenue in Iowa City.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to Governor Robert and Friendly Lucas – for getting Iowa off to one good start!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Robert Lucas, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Library
The First Presidential Nominating Convention, TLDR Civics
The Years Parvin Remembered, Jack T. Johnson, The Palimpsest, Volume 19 – Number 8 – Article 5, August 1938, pp 324-327
Theodore S. Parvin, Charles Aldrich, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 5 – Number 3, 1901, pp. 199-208
Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp 38-41
The Lucas Family, The Office of the State Archeologist, University of Iowa
The Honey War – Forgotten History
Robert Lucas, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa
Robert Lucas, Ohio History Central
Portrait of Robert Lucas, The Ohio Statehouse
Robert Lucas, 1781 – 1853 12th Governor of the State of Ohio, The Society of the War of 1812 in the State of Ohio
Friendly’s Frontier: Images from the Life of Friendly Lucas, Iowa’s First ‘First Lady’, A.D. Allen, The Palimpsest, Issue 73(1), 1992, pp 18-31
Iowa in 1844, J.A. Swisher, The Palimpsest – Volume 25 Number 5, Article 7, May 1944, pp 154
History – Lucas Farms Neighborhood Association
Watch the Iowa City Library “Weber Days” presentation of “A Brief History of the Lucas Farms Neighborhood,” June 4, 2018
Plum Grove Historic Home, Johnson County Historical Society
Robert Edward Lucas, Find-A-Grave
Friendly Ashley Sumner Lucas, Find-A-Grave
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