Maps help us navigate our way through life. In our favorite city, Iowa City, there certainly is always an abundance of 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 this community nestled in the Iowa River valley.
1832 – Iowa City – Johnson County, Iowa.
The one map that might best display what “Iowa City” might have looked like in 1832 might be this one:
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 tribes, ran alongside the larger “road” used by our native friends, now called the Iowa River.
1832-1836 Fur Traders and Meskwaki Tribes.
Above is a map of Iowa in 1833 – just prior to the Black Hawk Purchase opening to white settlers. This 1833 map 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.
1837 – The Little White Lie That Brought Johnson County Political Favor.
Johnson County was established in December 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.
1838 – Searching for a New Territorial Capital – A Place Called “Iowa City.”
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.”
Below are two published maps of Iowa Territory in 1838. As you can see, Johnson County is located near the center (north/south) of the Black Hawk Purchase, and with a proposed “Iowa City” located here (i.e. the farthest point west in the territory), combined with future land expansion, placing the capital city in Johnson County made perfect sense.
1839 – Iowa City Begins.
By 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 – The L. Judson Map – The First Map of Iowa City.
“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 map, drawn up by L. Judson. It 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.
1840 – 1845 All Roads lead to Johnson County.
1842 – Iowa map – Sidney E. Morse and Samuel Breese.
1846 – Statehood Finally Arrives.
1846 Map by Samuel Augustus Mitchell – prior to statehood in December.
1854 – Iowa City Map – J.H. Millar & George H. Yewell.
1868 – Iowa City Map – A. Rugar.
1875 – Johnson County and Iowa City maps – A. T. Andreas.
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).
1880’s – 1920’s – Iowa City Maps – The Sanborn Map & Publishing Company.
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.
1930 – Iowa City and State University of Iowa maps – SUI.
Present Day Iowa City.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.