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.
Lucas’ father, an American Revolutionary War veteran, owned slaves and large amounts of land, and according to family legend, Robert’s uncle, Joseph Barnes, built a steam-powered boat long before Fulton’s invention. Robert received some early schooling in mathematics and surveying, skills which would prove invaluable to his future work. Around the age of nineteen, Robert settled in the Scioto Valley of the Northwest Territory – what is now south-central Ohio (see above) – and began working as a surveyor.
Robert joined the Ohio militia in 1803, was elected to the Ohio General Assembly in 1808 as a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, and married Elizabeth Brown, his landlord’s daughter, in 1810. Made a Brigadier General that same year, Lucas and his wife had a daughter, Minerva, in 1811, but Elizabeth suddenly died of tuberculosis in 1812.
During the War of 1812, he served in campaigns under Generals William Hull and William Henry Harrison, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1816, Lucas married Friendly Sumner, and over the next sixteen years the loving couple had seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood.
Robert began his political career as an Ohio Democrat. 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 in 1832 and again, in 1834. In 1832, he presided over the first Democratic National Convention in Baltimore.
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 looked to Ohio, hand-picking Robert Lucas as Iowa’s first Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
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.
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…
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 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.
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).
Apparently, Robert Lucas was well known for his temper. As governor of Ohio, he once came 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 state arguing over the placement of the boundary line at the southern edge of Iowa Territory.
During the summer of 1839, Missouri decided to draw up their own border that extended well north of the existing Sullivan line (see map above), and with that, local Missouri officials began entering the disputed area, assessing residents for property tax. Many of these Iowa citizens wanted no part of Missouri, mainly because it was a slave state and most of the inhabitants had always lived in a free state. Many found the thought of living in a state where slavery was legal to be abhorrent. These Iowa residents complained to Governor Lucas, who opposed slavery, and the Iowa statesman responded quickly to the matter. On July 29, 1839, Lucas issued a strong proclamation stating that Iowa territorial laws must be upheld against any encroachment, and that any Missouri officials who tried to enter the area past the Sullivan Line should be forced to leave and/or arrested. When the Missouri governor, an equally stubborn man, heard about Lucas’ proclamation, he quickly issued his own, basically saying that Missouri law was right and Iowa had it wrong.
If you recall, our state’s motto is: Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.
That fall (1839), tensions along the border grew much worse when two local sheriffs (one from Missouri and one from Iowa) got into a war of words over these tax issues. Just as the Iowa sheriff was threatening to arrest the Missouri sheriff for trespassing, apparently a tax collector from The Show Me State crossed over the border, cutting down several large trees that housed an Iowa farmer’s swarm of bees, taking the honeycomb as payment for past due taxes. Keep in mind that honeycomb, at the time, was a very valuable resource. When Lucas heard about this “honey incident” and the tussle going on between the two sheriffs, he’d had enough and put out a call for the state militia (remember earlier, we told you that one of his early goals was to have a strong militia), stationing several units along the Iowa border! The Missouri governor, not to be outdone, did the same.
Inside of a hollow bee tree, one can see how much honey just one of these trees can hold.
Fortunately, just as the situation was about to get out of hand, cooler heads in both Missouri and Iowa prevailed, convincing the two governors to call back their troops, making The Honey War between the two states a bloodless one. Yet, while hostilities were averted, the legal battles continued all the way to the Supreme Court, when finally, in 1849, ten years after the “war,” a final decision was made in Iowa’s favor.
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.
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. 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 remained in Iowa City, eventually 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 south and east of the city that he had acquired in 1839. That homestead would later come to be known as Plum Grove.
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.
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.