Iowa City – A July 4th Celebration.

Since Sandy & I will soon be returning to Iowa City, making it our home again after 30 years, I thought I’d celebrate by sharing a wonderful piece of July 4th history from the city that I’ve come to love.

After 30 years in Cedar Rapids, my wife, Sandy, and I moved back to Iowa City in August of 2020. This post was written on July 4, 2020 – three days after we signed a purchase agreement on a small town-home located only a few blocks from my parent’s Iowa City home where they lived from 1966 to 1994. Yes, the old Hawkeye – and his wife who loves Northwestern – were coming back home to Iowa City!

For those who don’t know the story, Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, with statehood coming in 1846. Burlington, a bustling Mississippi River community located to the far south, had served as a temporary capitol in the past, but as Iowa, now a U.S. territory, expanded in population, its citizens insisted upon a more-centralized location for its capitol city.

On January 21, 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas issued the following 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”.

By early May, those commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were surveying Johnson County along the Iowa River in search of the perfect location. Their search ended on a rolling hillside just about 2 miles north of the little community of Napoleon – founded July 4, 1838 – overlooking the Iowa River. On May 4, 1839, a small ceremony was held with a dedication stake being driven into the ground. Iowa historian, Benjamin F. Shambaugh gives us this overview…

Two months after surveyors planted the dedication stake into the ground — on July 4, 1839 — the first map of Iowa City was signed and approved. To celebrate Independence Day 1839, Chauncey Swan, the surveyors and crew held a small picnic near the future capitol building site. Once again, here’s Shambaugh’s report…

“That was Iowa City in July, 1839 — a map, a paper plat, recorded in the office of I. P.  Hamilton, the recorder of Johnson County,” Benjamin F. Shambaugh wrote in his 1939 book, The Old Stone Capitol Remembers.

Below is Cyrus Sander’s first-hand account of that July 4th celebration – published in 1880…
The 21-year-old Ohio-born pioneer, Cyrus Sanders, was present at this July 4, 1839 celebration, writing about the day in his journal. Click here to read from Sander’s 1839 journal.

One year later – on July 4, 1840 – the new capitol’s cornerstone was laid, with Robert Lucas, the first governor of the Territory, officiating. I love the details…so here, once again – from Shambaugh’s book – is the full story!

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.

Happy July 4th, 2020. Here’s to Independence! Here’s to Iowa City! Happy 181st Birthday, dear friend. We will be there soon. And may there not be a drunken man (or woman) to be seen on that day!

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

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, 1939, State Historical Society of Iowa

History of Johnson County – July 4, 1839, Cyrus Sanders, The Iowa City Daily Republican, September 22, 1880

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