If we go back to the beginnings of Iowa City, we must first address the curious story surrounding the little community that preceded it: Napoleon, Iowa.
Named for the famed French emperor – Napoleon was established as Johnson County’s first white settlement in 1838. But in order to tell you that story, we need to go back to the late 1820’s and early 1830’s. You see, several years before Napoleon became a settlement, this land surrounding the Iowa River became the temporary home to three large Meskwaki tribes – a proud people who tended this land for several generations before a small handful of fur traders from the east came calling.
So, before we go any further, allow me to introduce you to the main characters in our Napoleon story…
- Chief Poweshiek: The Meskwaki chief, along with Chief Wapashashiek, and Chief Totokonock, relocated their villages on the shores of the Iowa River, near Snyder Creek and the English River, around 1832, following the Black Hawk War that forced the Sauk and Fox tribes out of their homes along the Mississippi River. Prior to 1832, these same Meskwaki tribes would travel throughout what is today eastern Iowa, hunting and fishing on the land as the seasons changed. It’s believed that today’s Sand Road in Iowa City was once a well-established north/south trail used by the Meskwaki tribes during their summer hunting seasons. Click here to read more.
- Stephen Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps: A traveling fur-trader from Illinois, who, along with his brothers, formed an independent fur-trading company that networked the white community back east with the Sauk and Fox tribes – first along the Mississippi River (1825-1832), then along the banks of the Des Moines, Iowa, and Cedar Rivers of eastern Iowa, after these same tribes were forced westward after the Black Hawk War (1832). By 1834, the American Fur Company had persuaded the Phelps Brothers to continue their successful trading business through their larger organization. Click here to read more.
- John Gilbert: A fur-trader/land investor who was brought in on a permanent basis, first by the American Fur Company around 1835, to establish a full-service trading post, replacing the smaller post established in the early 1830’s by the traveling fur-trader, Sumner Phelps. Gilbert was the first white settler in Johnson County, and was instrumental in bringing others to the area, thus becoming the “founding father” of the little community of Napoleon. Click here to read more.
- Wheaton Chase: Sumner Phelps’ brother-in-law, who settled on the Iowa River soon after John Gilbert arrived around 1835. It’s believed that Gilbert separated from the American Fur Company (1836), going independent as a trader, and that Chase was brought in by American Fur to replace him.
- Philip Clark and Eli Myers: Based on the persuasive recommendations of John Gilbert, these two men from Elkhart County in Indiana were the first white settlers to purchase land in Johnson County (1836) and relocate their families here. By 1837, there were roughly thirteen households that made up the little community that would become Napoleon. Click here to read more.
So, let’s start our Napoleon story by telling you more about the first fur trader to step into the beautiful valley surrounding the Iowa River – today’s Johnson County.
Some historians may differ on this, but many today, believe the American fur trader, Stephen Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps, canoed up the Iowa River (early 1830’s) into what is now Johnson County, looking to re-establish trading partnerships with the Meskwaki tribes, the same communities he had peacefully co-labored with when they had their camps up and down the upper Mississippi River Valley.
Reliable Johnson County records indicate that Sumner’s original trading post, circa 1832, was located near the mouth of Snyder Creek (see map above), about five miles south of modern-day Iowa City. It’s important to tell you here that while Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps was the first white man to step into the Iowa River Valley, he never settled here. Phelps, in a sense, was a traveling salesmen, canoeing up and down the rivers of eastern Iowa, trading furs and other assorted items with the Sauk and Fox tribes. His trading post on the Iowa River was never used as a permanent residence but simply as a stopover “motel” whenever he visited the Meskwaki people here. His brother, William, established a more permanent residence (trading post) further south on the Des Moines River (Iowaville), and together with another brother, Sumner ran S.S. Phelps Company – a very successful independent fur-trading business with its home base on the Mississippi River near Oquakwa Illinois.
In 1834, the Phelps brothers sold their successful business, partnering with the American Fur Company – one of the largest fur trading companies in the U.S. and Canada. As a result of that transaction, Sumner made fewer trips up the Iowa River, inviting a young businessman from New York, named John Gilbert to take over his on-going trading partnership with the Meskwaki tribes. Gilbert was looking for a new start in the West – so, in order to escape some heavy debts back in New York, he moved here, becoming Johnson County’s first white settler. When Gilbert arrived (circa 1835), there were roughly 1,500 Meskwaki people living on the eastern banks of the Iowa River – by far the largest population of Sauk and Fox anywhere at the time. A.T. Andreas Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa (1875) says this about John Gilbert…
This rare 1836 map from Lt. Albert Lea (above left) shows the first American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and identifies Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition. By 1837, Gilbert decided to venture out on his own, leaving the American Fur Company, and as a result, built a much larger trading post further north of the original post (above right). Soon after that transition, Sumner Phelp’s brother-in-law, Wheaton Chase, came to Johnson County to take over the American Fur trading business, and in the true spirit of competition, built a new trading post right across the road – just south of Gilbert’s!
In 1836, John Gilbert, quite the businessman, enticed Philip Clark and Eli Myers, farmers from Elkhart County, Indiana, to relocate their families to this new community that was developing along the Iowa River. Over the next two years (1836-1837) more settlers came west, joining Gilbert, Clark, Meyers, and others in building what would soon become a very diverse community – men, women, children – all with different backgrounds, but working together to start a new life in this new land called Iowa.
By the summer of 1837, things were looking up for Gilbert and the little community he had established. Historian Laura Rigel provides us with more details…
Gilbert’s gamble on the land along the Iowa River was paying off. Now his post was servicing new settlers as well as supporting trade with the Meskwaki. With the help of local men in need of work, he built his second, larger trading post (1837) closer to Poweshiek’s village and broke off his association with the American Fur Company (preferring to become an independent broker). He was so confident of his move that, on the Fourth of July, 1837, he held a grand opening for the new post with a whiskey celebration for both the neighboring Meskwaki and the new male settlers. Henry Felkner rode to Muscatine for whiskey, while the other Yankees made a U.S. flag on which they attempted to sew an eagle, but instead made a goose, surrounded by scraps of red, white, and blue. The participating Meskwaki responded to the festivities with “She-mo-ko,” an expression that is hard to translate except, perhaps, by rolling your eyes to indicate that something is “too much,” or “over the top.”
Soon more emigrants followed. John Cain, William Sturgis, S.B. Mullholland, and the Earhart brothers all roomed at Gilbert’s trading post that summer until their claims could be staked and shelters raised. By the end of 1837, thirteen more white families had settled in the vicinity of Gilbert’s trading post, which served as a combined inn, tavern, grocery store, and city hall, as jumping-off place and catalyst to settlement. By summer’s end, Gilbert had begun to dream of founding the future seat of Johnson County on the land around his post.
In December 1837, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, meeting in Burlington and responding to the rapid growth of the Iowa District (as it was called), established fifteen new counties in Iowa, one of which was Johnson County (see maps above). John Gilbert, the eternally-unabashed promoter, saw this as his opportunity to build the city he had long dreamed of. In January 1838, while the snow was flying, Gilbert called for a business meeting – to be held in his new trading post – with the specific purpose of drafting a statement on behalf of the newly-formed Johnson County – requesting immediate action from the Territory in building new roads and bridges while also guaranteeing that Napoleon would be the site for a new Johnson County post office – a sure sign of progress for any forward-thinking community in the West!
Over the next six months (January to June 1838), the friendly competition was on. On one hand, John Gilbert had already established Napoleon on the banks of the Iowa River. But let’s be honest here. Napoleon was only a small gathering of less than 50 white settlers! On the other hand, Pleasant Harris, who was from South Bend, Indiana, had a dream of forming a new city called Osceola. Historian Henry Felkner tells us more…
On June 22, 1838, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature made the call – Napoleon was declared the county seat for Johnson County. Immediately, everybody shook hands and in the spirit of true reconciliation, Gilbert called for yet another big celebration party!
Records show that on July 4, 1838, the good people of the little town of Napoleon gathered once again, for a big celebration, inviting the Meskwaki tribes to join in the party. For more details about this gathering, click here.
That summer, with their city now being chosen as the county seat, the citizens of Napoleon teamed together to build Johnson County’s first court house (see above). Located near what is today Napoleon Park on Iowa City’s southern edge, John Gilbert, Samuel Trowbridge (Johnson County’s first sheriff), and others built a two-story frame cabin that served as the first county courthouse until 1839 when the county seat transferred to Iowa City. Read more here.
As we said – things were really looking up for our little town of Napoleon as 1838 came to a close. But suddenly – on January 21, 1839 – everything changed!
From his temporary Territorial office in Burlington – Iowa became a separate U.S. Territory on July 4, 1838 – Governor Robert Lucas made a huge announcement about the future of Iowa…
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.”
This decision to build a brand new capital city versus moving into an existing community changed the course of Iowa history, and in no small way, crushed John Gilbert’s not-so-secret hope that his centrally-located county seat of Napoleon might one day become the host of Iowa’s newly-formed Territorial government.
While the people of Napoleon were greatly disappointed at Lucas’ decision, the one ray of true hope that kept them going was the knowledge that the governor and most of the Territorial legislators wanted Johnson County to be the site of this new capitol city, sometimes called the City of Iowa. So now, rather than looking to Napoleon for their future, many put their hopes on having land that would be located very close to this new city that was being planned. As it is with all events like this, land speculators began flooding into Johnson County, hoping to cash in on this new ground-floor opportunity.
But, here’s the rub – Johnson County is a pretty big piece of land. Where will the legislative commissioners decide to place their new city? Hmmm. Curious minds want to know!
All of these questions were answered – while all hope for Napoleon’s survival died – on one beautiful day in early May 1839 when Territorial commissioners – Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston – identified a perfect spot for the new capital – a rolling hillside just about two miles north of Napoleon, overlooking the Iowa River. It’s here, on May 4, 1839, with a surveyor’s stake being driven into the ground, when Iowa City had her humble beginnings while also giving Napoleon her final death blow. Read more here.
Jack T. Johnson, in his 1939 article, Napoleon on the Frontier, describes it this way…
Today, in Iowa City, there’s just a handful of physical reminders of Napoleon – Johnson County’s first white settlement…
Napoleon Park – 28.8 acres located off Sand Road south of Iowa City – has been built where the small community of Napoleon once stood.
The Terry Trueblood Recreation Area (above right), located just off Sand Road, is the largest green space that sits upon the land that was once the home of Meskwaki tribes that co-labored with the early fur traders like Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps, John Gilbert, Wheaton Chase, and others.
Finally, Remembrance Park is the newest spot off Sand Road that offers a tip of the old hat to the diversity of the people who worked together during these early years in Johnson County history. Learn more here.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882, author & publisher unknown w/ quotes from early settlers Cyrus Sanders, Henry Felkner, Iowa City, 1883, pp 168, 176, 207, 290, 301-2, 307.