The Mapping of Iowa City – 1832 To Today.

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Maps help us navigate our way through life. On this page, enjoy some of the many maps the good citizens of Johnson County have used over the last 200 years to navigate around our community nestled in the Iowa River valley.

This is what Iowa City most likely looked like around 1832 when the first fur traders began regular visits to the area – working hand-in-hand with the Meskwaki people.

The one map that might best display what “Iowa City” might have looked like in 1832 might be this one above. Archaeological evidence now indicates that this Native Iowan trail – we now call Sand Road – was the first “road” in Johnson County. That trail – worn into existence by the footsteps of numerous Meskwaki people – ran alongside the larger “road” used by our Native American friends – now called the Iowa River. Click here for more about the archaeological history of Johnson County

Iowa District in 1833 – just prior to the Black Hawk Purchase opening to white settlers. This 1833 map (above) traces the Des Moines River and, if you look closely, you also see to the north, the Iowa River. When fur traders began canoeing the many tributaries of the Mighty Mississippi, the Des Moines received the most attention. But in 1832, most historians believe that Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps – who had been trading with the Sauk and Fox tribes along the Mississippi since the late 1820’s – followed the tribes as they were forced westward by the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832. Three Meskwaki (Fox) tribes moved onto familiar land they had used as summer hunting camps located on the Iowa River, just west of the Black Hawk Purchase boundary line – in and near the Keokuk Reserve – a 400-square-mile strip of land running along the Iowa River that was given to the Sauk chief for not participating in the 1832 Black Hawk War.

In 1835, Albert Lea mapped out a good portion of east-central Iowa, and when he published his map of “Iowa Territory” he showed an interesting view of what would later become Johnson County. Upon closer look (below) we find that Lea mapped out alongside the Iowa River:

1) Trding H. – we know this was the “first” American Fur Company trading post (house) on the Iowa River, built there by Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps (circa 1832), and…

2) Poisheik’s V. – indicates the presence of Chief Powesheik and his tribal village built near the Iowa River (circa 1832) after being displaced from their villages on the Mississippi River by the Black Hawk Treaty.

So, as best we know, this is the most accurate Map of Johnson County (Iowa City area) prior to John Gilbert arriving on the scene (circa 1835).

Johnson County was established on December 21, 1837 by the legislature of the Wisconsin Territory – meeting in Burlington – one of thirteen new counties established by that body in a comprehensive act. Prior to this, the Black Hawk Purchase was composed of two large counties: Dubuque in the north, Des Moines in the south.

By 1837, John Gilbert and other white settlers had established a small vibrant community along the Iowa River, calling it Napoleon. So, with the help of some little white lies about population, Gilbert convinced the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, meeting in Burlington, that Napoleon and Johnson County should be awarded a post office – the sign of “political favor” for any fledgling community located on the edge of civilization.

Read more about John Gilbert and his interesting ways of convincing the Territorial Legislature in Burlington that Napoleon was a worthy choice for “political favors” such as being chosen as the site for a new Johnson County post office.

In the 1830s, Johnson County was a crossroads for the fur trade between Meskwaki and European Americans. Just south of present-day Iowa City there were two Meskwaki summer villages and the first European-American settlement of the area. In Cynthia Peterson’s 1997 archaeological report, Peterson notes… “The placement of the Meskwaki villages, and the trading posts, and an Indian trail (which later became Sand Road) that predates 1833, were all factors in the eventual location of the capital of Iowa Territory at present-day Iowa City.”

Below are two published maps of Iowa Territory from 1838 when Iowa was still a part of Wisconsin Territory. As you can see, Johnson County is located near the center (north/south) of the Black Hawk Purchase.

Henry J. Abel – “Map of the Settled Part of Wisconsin Territory” – 1838.

Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).

L. Judson – “Iowa – A Sectional Map of the Black Hawk Purchase with a part of Illinois and Wisconsin” – 1838. Judson’s map is the first separately published map of Iowa – showing the eastern part of the territory and the early towns being settled. Judson also issued a smaller scale map of Iowa and Wisconsin in the same year, and several maps of parts of Wisconsin, and towns in Wisconsin and Michigan. He also issued maps of Iowa City (see below) and Bloomington (Muscatine) in 1839.
In the 1930’s, artist Mildred Pelzer produced eight murals depicting early Iowa City. Here is her sketch “Locating The Capitol – 1839” Read more here.

July 4, 1838 – Iowa Becomes a U.S. Territory – On this Independence Day in 1838, Iowa was officially separated from Wisconsin Territory, decided by an Act of Congress that had been passed earlier that summer (June 12) in Washington D.C. The new governor of Iowa Territory, Robert Lucas, announced that Burlington would remain as the “temporary” capital of Iowa, only until such time when a more centrally-located capital city could be determined. On January 21, 1839, 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 1839, three commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were about the business of surveying Johnson County in search of the perfect location for Governor Lucas’ “Iowa City.” Read about that story here.

1839 – John Plumbe’s book, “Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin.”
This rare book from 1839 provides us with the one of the earliest overviews of Iowa Territory. In the back of his book, Plumbe included a large fold-out map which indicates the new “City of Iowa” as it had now been established as the new Iowa Territorial capital city!
Info on Plumbe’s map from book’s 1948 reprint – introduction by William J. Peterson.
In the archives of the State Historical Society of Iowa, there are several different copies of the map that have been found. Above and below are two “rough” copies, assumed to be plotted out by Judson, himself.

“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 Shambaugh

The first surveying of Iowa City, done in 1839, resulted in a series of maps, drawn up by L. Judson. This map became the city’s blueprint for the first 20 years of existence and has served Iowa City historians well over the years, as it represents our fair community as it was…in the beginning.

Under U.S. law, when a new Territory was established in the west, that territorial government was allowed to choose a full section of land – one square mile or 640 acres – to establish its capital. As we’ve told you elsewhere, in May 1839 – Chauncey Swan and his companions staked out an uncharted piece of wilderness located on the Iowa River – legally called Section 10 – Township 79 North, Range 6 – West 5th Principal Meridian in Johnson County. By July 4, 1839, that piece of land – one square mile – had been surveyed and drawn out by L. Judson on the map you see below.

Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s map, was one square mile (640 acres) of land – with 100 surveyed blocks in the center. Each of those city blocks measured approximately 2.35 acres each (320 ft x 320 ft) – and each of the surveyed blocks was sectioned into eight lots measuring 80 x 150 feet. Click here to read more about the original layout of Iowa City and its street names.
Here is one page from engineer/surveyor R. C. Tilghman’s 1839 journal – it shows Johnson County with Iowa City to the north (labeled Seat of Government – Iowa Territory), to the south (middle of map) is “Town of Napoleon.” The black line from north to south represents the proposed Military Road, and dotted lines represent Native American trails. Click here to read more about The Military Road (1839-1840).
J.H. Millar of the firm Bryan & Millar, Panora, Guthrie Co., Iowa (mapmaker) / G.H. Yewell (illustrator) / Cook, Sargent & Downey (publishers) / W. Schuchman, 3rd St. Pittsburgh (lithographer), IOWA CITY AND ITS ENVIRONS. Iowa City: Cook, Sargent & Downey, 1854. Click here to read about H.D. Downey & the CS&D Bankers – publisher of this beautiful map.
In 1854, a beautiful map of Iowa City was compiled and drawn by J. H. Millar. It featured twelve amazing sketches created by Iowa City artist, George H. Yewell. Click here for more information.
This 1868 map drawn by Albert Rugar has become a classic for Iowa City historians. It’s surprisingly accurate, locating sites such as the original 4-building SUI campus, Plum Grove (Governor Lucas’ farm), the two Iowa River bridges built in 1860, and even includes a steamboat chugging up the river on its way to the Port of Iowa City.

In 1870, the publishing company from Geneva, Illinois – Thompson & Everts – published a multiple-page atlas of Johnson County and Iowa City – featuring maps and 10 pages of etchings.

In 1875, A.T. Andreas published his massive Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, which included very detailed maps of Johnson County (above) and Iowa City (below).
1875 – Plan of Iowa City, Johnson Co. (with) Plan of Marengo, Iowa Co. (with) Plan of Le Claire, Scott Co. – published by the Andreas Atlas Co., Lakeside Building, Chicago, Ill. Engraved & printed by Chas. Shober & Co., Props. of Chicago Lithographing Co.
Sanborn maps are detailed maps of U.S. cities and towns in the 19th and 20th centuries. Originally published by The Sanborn Map Company in New York City, the maps were created to allow fire insurance companies to assess their total liability in urbanized areas of the United States.
The University of Iowa has detailed campus and city maps going back into the 19th century. Above is the Iowa City & University map from 1930.
(M-0136) What better way to conclude this page than with our street sign from Iowa City’s “first & foremost” street – Iowa Avenue!

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

Aerial Photo of Iowa City, Iowa, Greg Comer’s America From The Sky

Iowa. A sectional Map of the Black Hawk Purchase with a part of Illinois And Wisconsin, L. Judson, David Ramsey Map Collection, 1838

Sand Road/Sand Lake/Glacial History, Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, Sarita Zaleha, Iowa City Parks

1839 Map of Iowa City by L. Judson from Nineteenth Century Home Architecture of Iowa City, Margaret N. Keyes, University of Iowa Press, 1993, p 4

1839 Map of Iowa City by L. Judson, University of Iowa Digital Library

1854 Map of Iowa City & Environs by J.H. Millar, University of Iowa Digital Library

1854 Map of Iowa City & Environs by J.H. Millar, Boston Rare Maps

1868 Bird’s eye view of Iowa City, Johnson County, A. Rugar, Library of Congress

1870 Combination Atlas Map – Johnson County, Thompson & Everts, University of Iowa Digital Press

1870 Combination Atlas Map – Iowa City, Thompson & Everts, University of Iowa Digital Press

1870 Combination Atlas Map – Iowa City, Thompson & Everts, Historic Map Works

1875 Map of Johnson County, Iowa, A.T. Andreas, David Rumsey Map Collection

1875 Plan of Iowa City, Marengo, & LeClaire, A.T. Andreas, David Rumsey Map Collection

1900 map – Iowa City 1 – Huebinger Survey and Map Publishing Co., Historic Map Works

1900 map – Iowa City 2 – Huebinger Survey and Map Publishing Co., Historic Map Works

1900 map – Iowa City 3 – Huebinger Survey and Map Publishing Co., Historic Map Works

Photos from: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, pp 20-21

Source for multiple Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps – Library of Congress

Source for multiple Iowa City & Johnson County maps – Historic Map Works

Source for multiple Iowa City & Johnson County maps – Old Maps Online

Source for multiple Iowa City & SUI maps – University of Iowa Digital Library


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