Our Iowa Heritage Index: Iowa City – In The Beginning.

As you can see, our growing website Our Iowa Heritage covers a lot of time (pre-1800 to the present) and a lot of people. We’ve written about famous people and the not-so-famous ones as well. Yet, despite a person’s prominence (or lack of it), everybody has a story. And as you read our posts, you’ll hopefully discover that everyone’s story is a good one. So, in order to better find these good stories and details surrounding them, we’ve added this INDEX of HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS to help you along the way. Enjoy your journey.

Our Iowa Heritage: An Introduction. We might suggest you start here! Here’s how & why I got started collecting stamps, coins, and other Iowa memorabilia.

Meskwaki People – True Native Iowans. At the time of the American Revolution, the Mississippi River Valley was lush prairie-land occupied by several Native American tribes: The Meskwaki (Fox), the Sauk, the Sioux, and the Ioway. Since Our Iowa Heritage website focuses primarily on eastern Iowa, here we give a tip of the hat to the Meskwaki people who migrated to the Iowa River Valley as white settlements began to emerge.

Chief Poweshiek – The Roused Brown Bear. During a very volatile time in Iowa history (1830-1854), the Meskwaki Tribal Chief Poweshiek did a masterful job of maintaining peace yet never sacrificing his strong principles, believing that all men should live in freedom. Read the story behind this brave warrior who loved his people and cherished the Iowa River valley, the place we now call Johnson County, Iowa.

The Story of Napoleon, Iowa – 1832-1839. In 1832, Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, fur trader, canoed his way up the Iowa River until he found a nice valley where he could develop a trading relationship with the local natives. In 1835, John Gilbert, a New Yorker, took up where Phelps left off, and within a year or two, a new town sprung up. Read more about this short-lived, Johnson County community named after a French dictator and its sudden demise.

Stephen Sumner Phelps – The Original Iowa Hawkeye. Fur traders were the first European pioneers to travel up the unchartered inland waters of the Mississippi River. One entrepreneur from Illinois, who had a striking resemblance to another man from the Prairie State (can you guess who?) set foot in 1832 in what would soon become Johnson County, establishing trade with the Meskwaki tribes living on the Iowa River.

Will The Real John Gilbert – Please Stand Up? Over the years, John Gilbert has been heralded as the first white man to set foot in Johnson County and the first man to build a trading house here. Yet, there’s a dirty little secret we must tell you. Not only didn’t John Gilbert do these things, his real name was actually John W. Prentice! Come read the rest of the true Gilbert/Prentice story here.

1820’s/1830’s – Phelps vs. Gilbert Join us for an in-depth look at the burning question: Who came first to Johnson County – Sumner Phelps or John Gilbert? And when? For Iowa City historians, this just might be the ultimate who-done-it! And find out why it all matters!

Courting Johnson County. In December 1837, Johnson County – Iowa District – Wisconsin Territory came into existence. Within a year, Iowa became a territory and the first county court house was built – the first of four over the last 180+ years. Follow the story with us, as we move from Napoleon to Iowa City, ending up today with a whole new Johnson namesake.

The Johnson County Business Meeting That Changed Iowa History. With the creation of Johnson County, John Gilbert went to work, calling for a “business meeting” where a diverse team of six men and one woman met to draft a strategic plan that would be presented to the Iowa Territorial legislature, requesting major funding for roads, bridges, and a post office! The plan worked and over the next year, big preparations were made to make Johnson County the home of Iowa’s new capital city.

The U.S. Post Office Comes to Johnson County. One of the most important aspects of life for early settlers in Iowa was the receiving and sending of letters. Postal records indicate that Iowa City established its first “officially recognized” post office in 1841. But other records show that Johnson County had postal service prior to that time (1839), even though that service was sketchy at best.

Iowa Territory 1838-1846. On July 4, 1838, the U.S. Congress established the Territory of Iowa. President Martin Van Buren appointed Robert Lucas governor of the territory, which at the time had 22 counties and a population of 23,242. Within months, thousands began flocking into this new land, and slowly, the open prairies became rich farmland and little villages became thriving communities.

Welcome to Iowa, Governor Lucas. When Iowa finally became its own U.S. Territory, President Martin Van Buren looked to the great state of Ohio to pick our first governor. On August 15th of 1838, the new Territorial Governor and his small traveling party arrived by steamboat in Burlington. Over the next three years, Lucas moved the capital to Iowa City, establishing Iowa as one of the most progressive territories in the West.

Laurel Summers – The Man Who Saved Iowa City. Many people don’t realize how very close we came to not ever having an Iowa City, Iowa. It was in January 1839 in Burlington where one man’s vote made all the difference. 13 yea – 12 nay. Here’s a tip of the old hat to Laurel Summers of Parkhurst, Iowa – Territorial Representative from Scott County – for voting in favor of making Iowa City the new capital city of Iowa!

Philip Clark – Johnson County’s Irish Settler. In 1836, two brave souls from Indiana met up with John Gilbert at Fort Armstrong on the Mississippi River. Within a year, Philip Clark and Eli Myers had moved their families to what would eventually become Johnson County, Iowa. Here’s the amazing story of one man’s transition from being an Irishman from Indiana into one of our area’s most famous farmers.

The Midnight Ride of Philip Clark. On May 1, 1839, three Territorial commissioners were to report to Johnson County, with the assignment of picking the location for the new Iowa capital city. By mid-day, only one man – Chauncey Swan- had arrived, leaving the good people of the county seat of Napoleon wondering if the whole project would be lost. Thankfully, a 35-year-old farmer named Philip Clark saved the day! He mounted his horse, made a 35-mile trip through the wilderness, fetching a second commissioner – John Ronalds. They arrived in the nick of time – saving the future hopes of Johnson County before the strike of midnight.

Iowa City’s Humble Beginnings. Iowa City was named the capital of the new Iowa Territory soon after the territory’s inception in 1838. After the U.S. Government bought land west of the Mississippi called the Black Hawk Purchase, a new government began to take shape, and that became the humble beginnings of the new City of Iowa, now called Iowa City.

Chauncey Swan – The Father of Iowa City. On May 4, 1839, a three-man committee stood atop a beautiful piece of Johnson County land overlooking the Iowa River. As Chauncey Swan drove a stake into the ground, Iowa City had its humble beginnings. Over the next ten years, this same faithful man will prove time and time again why he has long been designated the Father of Iowa City. Come read his Iowa story.

Surveying the Life of Cyrus Sanders – Iowa City Pioneer. In 1839, a 21-year-old Ohio native made his way west to Iowa. Back home, he’d learned the fine art of surveying as he worked for the Little Miami Railroad. So when he added that talent to farming, this young man made a successful transition from being a Buckeye to becoming a Hawkeye. Later in life, he became one of Johnson County’s most gifted historical writers.

Cyrus Sanders – My 1839 Iowa Adventure. Come on a one-year trek into unexplored Johnson County with a 21-year-old farmer/surveyor from Ohio who journaled his way through this amazing pioneer adventure. From Cincinnati to Burlington to Napoleon and Iowa City, follow Sanders’ path by reading directly from his personal diary.

Lyman Dillon – Plowing the Straight & Narrow. When Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, transportation options were very primitive. Governor Lucas asked the U.S. Senate to fund a Military Road running the length of the Territory from Dubuque to the Missouri border. After surveying the land, Lyman Dillon, a farmer from Cascade, was hired to take his team of five oxen and plow up a furrow from Dubuque to Iowa City (86 miles). Get the straight story here!

On the Road to Iowa City. In 1839, there were three primary routes leading in and out of Johnson County: the Iowa River, the Sauk & Fox trail, today called Sand Road, and a narrow pathway to Bloomington (Muscatine) where you could catch a ride on the mother of all highways, The Mighty Mississippi. Within five years, all roads in the Territory led to Iowa City, the new capital city of Iowa.

1839 – The Twenty-Four Streets Of Iowa City. Did you ever wonder how downtown Iowa City arrived at some of the street names we have? Sure, Washington and Jefferson are pretty straight forward, but what about Ronalds, Brown, Bloomington, and Dodge? Join us as we take a deeper look at the stories behind the 24 original streets of Iowa City.

1839-1842 – Iowa City’s First Hotels. Since Iowa City started from scratch in the summer of 1839, there were no accommodations for newcomers. But, thanks to a few enterprising pioneers, over the next four years, there were four hotel/taverns established around town – offering visitors a place to lay their head, a hot meal, and, of course, a few sips of fine whiskey to make the adventure a bit more tolerable.

Iowa City’s Good Doctor – Henry Murray. While there were a handful of other pioneers who preceded him in assisting those with minor medical issues, it was the good Irishman – Dr. Henry Murray – arriving here in the spring of 1839 – who became Johnson County’s first resident physician. Yet, not only was Murray an early pioneer, he and his family invested in our city through the turn-of-the-century, with the good doctor faithfully practicing his profession for nearly 40 years!

Sylvanus Johnson – Mr. Red Brick. In 1839, a brick-maker from Connecticut was assigned by Territorial Governor Robert Lucas to recruit Iowa militiamen for the border squirmish that was brewing on the Iowa/Missouri border. Iowa City was abuzz at the time, but no sooner did Sylvanus get there, the “Honey War” was over, leaving him with no money and no job. Johnson did what he does best – make bricks. In the process, he ended up becoming one of the founding pioneers of Iowa’s new territorial capital.

Clinton Street – Iowa City’s Center of Commerce. In 1839, a surveyor’s map marked out a city plan that included streets, parks, churches, homes, schools, government buildings, and a place where business would prosper. From the very beginning, Clinton Street was planned as Iowa City’s hub for commerce. Now, all these years later, it’s still the place where business thrives.

Ahoy, Frederick Irish – The Iowa City Sea Captain. In 1838, a whaling captain from New York City rode a horse to Iowa, eventually settling in Iowa City. F.M. Irish became an early mover and shaker of the city, serving as one of Iowa City’s first historians, writing a lengthy, first-hand account in 1868.

Iowa City’s Rose Hill – Irish’s Woods. Iowa City pioneer, F.M. Irish added 30 acres to his original log cabin property. By 1849, he had built Rose Hill, a home that stayed in the Irish family until 1964. At that time, the city purchased 17.5 acres of Irish’s Woods, making it into the first section of today’s Hickory Hill Park. Come take a walk through “The Woods” with us.

John F. Rague – Creator Of A Classic. In 1839, a $46,000 contract was let to the architect who designed the state capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. A friend of Lincoln’s, John F. Rague took the offer, designed our capitol, but left nine days after the cornerstone was laid. Come read the full story of this creative craftsman who ended up becoming Dubuque’s most renowned architect.

The Old Capitol Gem That Got Away. On occasion, a great treasure will appear on-line and, as it is in life, sometimes you win – and sometimes you lose. Allow me to cry in my beer and tell you about a rare letter concerning the construction of the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City that slipped through my fingers. Alas, come share my sorrow.

1840 – Sketches Of Iowa City – J. B. Newhall. In May 1840 – just as Iowa City was one year old – author and explorer John B. Newhall paid a visit to our fair community – writing up his delightful findings in The Burlington Hawkeye and Iowa Patriot. Calling Iowa City “magical,” Newhall went on to give Johnson County and Iowa City six full pages in his 1841 guidebook – Sketches of Iowa. And it was this volume that catapulted J.B. to national fame, making him one of Iowa’s earliest celebrities and a traveling spokesman on behalf of Iowa Territory.


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