Iowa City’s Humble Beginnings.

Did You Know? the audio version – May, 4, 2022
Click here for a complete timeline on Iowa’s “territorial” history (1803-1838).

On Independence Day-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. On that day, July 4, 1838 – the new governor of Iowa Territory, Robert Lucas, announced that Burlington would remain as the “temporary” capital of Iowa, but only until such time when a more centrally-located capital city could be determined. Throughout the region, there was a buzz about the future, and the thought that there would be a new territorial capital brought up a spirit of competition that, sadly, nearly tore the Territory apart just as it was beginning.

Click here to read more about this first white settlement in Johnson County.

On that same July 4th in 1838, sixty miles northwest of Burlington, in newly-formed Johnson County, a group of pioneers, under the leadership of businessman John Gilbert, held a festive Independence Day celebration on the banks of the Iowa River in their small community known as Napoleon.

In July of 1838, things were really looking up for the good people of Napoleon. In June, the Territorial Legislature in Burlington named John Gilbert’s little city as the “official” county seat for Johnson County, and because Gilbert and his small band of fellow townspeople had diligently pressed for continued recognition – see the story of Johnson County’s first board meetingJohnson County was also about to be granted a U.S. Post Office – with service to Bloomington (Muscatine), and a new Territorial road that would connect citizens with Oquawka, Illinois – another major port on the Mississippi River. Read more about John Gilbert’s push to make Napoleon an important political player.

It’s at this big July 4, 1838 Independence Day party in Napoleon where Chief Poweshiek, the kind-hearted Meskwaki chief, gave a farewell speech. Knowing full well that he and his tribe were going to be expelled from Johnson County, forced westward by the ever-increasing expansion of white settlements, Poweshiek spoke these powerful words…

I want to live where men are free! Soon I will go to a new home. You will plant corn where my dead sleep, our town, the paths we have made, the flowers we have loved will soon be yours. I have moved many times, I have seen the white man put his foot in the track of the Indian and make the earth into fields and gardens. I know I must go far away and you will be so glad when I am gone. You will soon forget the lodge fires, and the meat of the Indian has ever been free to the stranger.

This unfinished mural by Mildred Pelzer Roused Bear 1838 – depicts the earliest days of Iowa City. Read more here.

Sadly, within a year of this speech, Poweshiek’s words would find fulfillment: the Meskwaki tribe will be relocated into central Iowa, John Gilbert – the mastermind of Napoleon, and its first postmaster – will suffer a premature death (March 1839), and his little community of Napoleon will soon meet its demise, as an alternative location just two miles north of his trading post will be chosen for future expansion – a new city named Iowa City.

This transition away from Napoleon actually started on January 21, 1839, when 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 spring 1839, three commissioners – Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston – were chosen and soon they were preparing themselves to gather in Johnson County with the assignment to choose an appropriate location for this newly- planned City of Iowa – as it was sometimes called.

Iowa historian Benjamin Shambaugh, in his 1893 book on Iowa City history, offers this overview of these earliest days in Johnson County (above).

This unfinished mural by Mildred Pelzer Locating the Capitol 1839 – depicts the earliest days of Iowa City. Read more here.

On May 1, 1839, two of those commissioners – Chauncey Swan and Robert Ronalds – met in John Gilbert’s trading house in Napoleon to “officially” begin the search. Gilbert had died earlier that spring, but his trading post was still the primary meeting place for pioneers living in Johnson County. It’s estimated that less than 500 white settlers lived in the county at this time, but when Gilbert and his friend, Pleasant Harris, did their sales pitch to Territorial legislators in Burlington back in January of 1838, he told a little “white” lie (excuse the pun), saying the population of Johnson County was “about 1,500” – with Gilbert conveniently failing to mention that 97% of that number came from the three Meskwaki tribes living here in 1838! More details here.

Above is a photo of Chauncey Swan and Jo Myers-Walker’s watercolor of John Gilbert’s Trading Post in Napoleon. Click here to read more about the importance of these early trading posts in Johnson County.

The Midnight Ride of Philip Clark – This is one of the most exciting parts of the early Iowa City story. Click here to read the details.

Click here to read about Remembrance Park – a new effort to recognize the importance of these earliest days in Johnson County history.
Here’s the oath that Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds took that late night of May 1, 1839 in John Gilbert’s trading post in Napoleon. Read more about Swan, often called the Father of Iowa City, here.
This view of the Iowa River might just be the way it looked on May 4, 1839.

The next day, May 2, 1839, the search began, ending two days later on a rolling hillside overlooking the Iowa River, just about two miles north of Napoleon. One writer states that the commissioners described the wooded site as “shaped like an amphitheater.”

On May 4, 1839, a small ceremony was held in that “amphitheater” with a surveyor’s stake being driven into the ground. Historian Benjamin Shambaugh states it this way…

Interestingly enough, on this important day when Chauncey Swan drove that stake into the ground in Johnson County, he was fulfilling a vision offered three years earlier by Lieutenant Albert M. Lea in his ground-breaking book, Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase. Written in 1836 (pp 37-38), Lea found himself discussing the formation of a new capital city called by the name – Iowa.

Lt. Albert Lea’s map of the Iowa District included the proposed city of Iowa on the Mississippi River – 1836.

As a matter of fact, on his 1836 map, which was part of his book, Lea plotted this new City of Iowa on the Mississippi River – located at the mouth of Pine Creek, about ten miles north of Bloomington (Muscatine). Yet, even as he wrote these words calling for a new capital city for the District of Iowa, he also projected that long-term, because of population growth, this new City of Iowa will need to be located further west, in the Iowa River valley – exactly where Iowa City is located today! In the book, The Old Stone Capitol Remembers (1939), Iowa historian, Benjamin Shambugh, explains it well…

Click here to read more about Lt. Albert Lea and the ‘prophetic’ words he wrote about the Iowa River valley in 1836.

The name “Iowa City” appears in the official diary of Theodore S. Parvin, secretary to Governor Robert Lucas, who on May 13th, set out from Bloomington (Muscatine) with the Joseph Williams, Territorial Judge, to attend court for the first time in Johnson County. On May 17th, Parvin sketched out a map of the city in his journal, labeling it… “a map of the City of Iowa.” Later that same year, the Dubuque entrepreneur, John Plumbe, Jr. published his book about Iowa and in it, his map included the “City of Iowa” (see below).

1839 – John Plumbe’s book, “Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin” 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! Click here to read more about John Plumbe, Jr.

Here’s how one historian reported on what happened in Iowa City in the months following that infamous day when that surveyor’s stake was driven into the ground – May 4, 1839…

On May 7 (1839) the other two commissioners chose (Chauncey) Swan (as) Acting Commissioner of Public Buildings. The Acting Commissioner would be the most directly involved of the commissioners in overseeing the surveying and platting of Iowa City, the selling of city lots, and the hiring of an architect and building contractor for the capitol. He would also give the legislature progress reports. In the summer of 1839 Swan moved with his family to Iowa City and immediately took up his responsibilities. The commissioners had procured surveyors to lay out the capitol, and that summer Swan oversaw the surveys, (finalized) the spot for Capitol Square, and arranged for maps to be made and distributed in preparation for the sale of lots, the receipts going toward the capitol’s construction. Swan coordinated the land sales, which began in August 1839, collected payments, and kept track of receipts.

Click here to read about the sale of the first lots in Iowa City.

(P-0263) This is what Iowa City most likely looked like around 1839.

On July 4, 1839, another big Independence Day celebration was held. This time, the party wasn’t in Napoleon, but on that beautiful hilltop overlooking the Iowa River. Benjamin Shambaugh continues…

“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 21-year-old Ohio-born pioneer, Cyrus Sanders, was present at this July 4, 1839 celebration, writing these beautiful words in his journal (above). Click here to read more from Sander’s 1839 journal.

L. Judson’s 1839 proposed city map of Iowa City. This first map of Iowa City – situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian – was signed and approved. Click here to read more about Iowa and the early maps that helped settlers find their way across this beautiful land.

Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s map, was divided into blocks 320 feet square with lots 80 x 150 feet. With six exceptions, the streets, which ran east and west and north and south according to the compass, were all 80 feet wide. The exceptions were Iowa Avenue (120 feet wide) and Washington, Jefferson, Capitol, and Madison (100 feet wide). Streets from west to east: Front, Madison, Capitol, Clinton, Dubuque, Linn, Gilbert, Van Buren, Johnson, Dodge, Lucas, and Governor. Streets from north to south: Brown, Ronalds, Church, Fairchild, Davenport, Bloomington, Market, Jefferson, Iowa Avenue, Washington, College, and Burlington.

Read more about these earliest days of Iowa City – and the planning that went into its design.

Click here for more about Johnson County remembrance markers.

Issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Iowa Territory, the United States Postal Service issued this stamp (below) in 1938, which features the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City.

(S-0041) Read more about the 1938 Iowa Territorial Celebration.
(C-0020) This cover is very rare indeed.  While Des Moines was picked as the First Day of Issue City for the Iowa Territorial Centennial Stamp issued on August 24, 1938, Iowa City really had more significance in Iowa Territorial history. Fortunately, a wise and historically-aware stamp collector got this cover postmarked in Iowa City on that same day!
Click here to read about Remembrance Park – a new effort to recognize the importance of these earliest days in Johnson County history.

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

Chauncey Swan, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, U of I Library website

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36, 2009.

Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, pp 1, 25-29.

Johnson County, Iowa and the Counties of Iowa, Remley J. Glass, Klipto Loose-Leaf Co, 1940, p 91

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, 1939, State Historical Society of Iowa, p 53

City of Iowa, Albert Lea, History of Iowa Volume I, Chapter XIV,

The Book That Gave Iowa Its Name, editor Benjamin F. Shambaugh, 1935 reprint of Albert Lea’s 1836 book “Notes on the Wisconsin Territory Particularly with Reference to The Iowa District or Black Hawk Purchase,” State Historical Society of Iowa, pp 37-38

Midnight Ride of Philip Clark, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Palimpsest, May 1939 Volume 20-Number 5, Article 4

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 307-309.

St. Mary’s Church – Iowa City – Diamond Jubilee, Joseph Fuhrmann, May 21, 1916

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, p 21

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