Over the years, the legend of John Gilbert has grown. Most school kids in Iowa City, for example, would tell you that Gilbert, the first white man to arrive in Johnson County, arrived here in 1826, set up the first trading post with the Meskwaki tribe, and then became the first man to settle down here, establishing the little community of Napoleon by the sweat of his own brow.
Nice story, huh? But, in truth, only about half of this first paragraph is true!
So, in order to set the record straight, I’ll approach this historic overview by offering you:
Truth be told – John Gilbert was not who he said he was! Records show that Gilbert’s real name was John W. Prentice – business man and land speculator from New York!
A rather shady fellow, John W. Prentice – of which no birth records have ever been identified – made a series of bad investments in canal construction projects back east. And once his debts began to mount up, Prentice apparently jumped ship, following new business opportunities in the West where he could hide his identity from his creditors.
Over the last 100+ years, some Iowa historians have incorrectly identified John Gilbert as the first white man to arrive in Johnson County – stating that his arrival happened in 1826. Over the last few decades, overwhelming evidence now points to another early fur trader, Stephen Sumner Phelps, as the first trader to canoe up the Iowa River, and he did just that, in my estimation, around 1830-1832. Read more on this controversy here.
Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps, an independent fur-trader from Yellow Bank (Oquakwa) Illinois, had been working with the Sauk and Fox tribes up and down the Mississippi River since 1825. Around 1832, as the Black Hawk War came to an end, all of his Sauk and Fox fur-trading connections were forced westward into the river valleys of east-central Iowa. Following these tribes as they moved west of the Black Hawk Purchase, Phelps canoed up the Iowa River around this time, meeting with his long-time business associates, Chiefs Poweshiek, Wapashashiek, and Totokonock, all now living on uncharted land just outside the six million acres purchased by the government – near where Snyder Creek and the English River dump into the Iowa River. As a traveling fur-tradesman, Sumner Phelps built the first trading post in Johnson County, completing that work on one of his canoe trips between 1830 and 1832.
Records indicate that John W. Prentice, using the name, John Gllbert, found a new life by becoming a fur trader, eventually joining up with one of the fastest-growing companies in the West – the American Fur Company (AFC). A.T. Andreas Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa (1875) says this about Gilbert and his history before coming to Iowa…
By 1835, as more and more land investors and fortune-seekers were moving westward into this unexplored place called Iowa, it was vital for the American Fur Company to have on-site representatives, guarding their established business from possible competitors and securing the area for future expansion. For John Gilbert and AFC – it was a win-win. AFC got their on-site manager while Gilbert could hide away from his creditors back east while also using his business skills and his land speculation interests to make a whole new start in the West. According to the most reliable records, this transaction between AFC and Gilbert happened around 1835, with Gilbert settling here, replacing Sumner Phelps’ role of trading with the Meskwaki tribes in the Iowa River valley.
Which, now, brings us to some positive facts about John Gilbert…
While Sumner Phelps was the first white man to set foot in Johnson County (circa 1832), he never lived here. John Gilbert, on the other hand, moved to Johnson County around 1835 and became a true mover-and-shaker for all things Iowa. Jack T. Johnson, in his 1939 article, Napoleon on the Frontier, introduces us to this first white settler of Johnson County…
Historian Laura Rigel, tells us a bit more about this New Yorker-now turned Iowa resident…
Little is known about Gilbert’s life before he appeared at the mouth of Snyder Creek in Johnson County. Sometime in 1835, he visited Poweshiek’s village a mile north on the Iowa River and received permission to live on Meskwaki land in exchange for two barrels of whiskey. Poweshiek reportedly sealed the deal by liberally sampling Gilbert’s wares. Gilbert traded at Snyder Creek until 1837, when he built a second, larger post less than a quarter mile from Poweshiek’s village, and struck out on his own as an independent trader. Settlers testify that Gilbert spoke Meskwaki “with some French thrown in,” and he may have learned the trading business at Green Bay in then Michigan Territory.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in addition to exchanging trade goods for furs, skins, deer tallow, and bees wax, Gilbert was also a small-time land speculator, surveying future towns, locating mill sites, and buying interests in the land around his post. In 1838, for instance, Gilbert hired surveyors to lay out two “paper towns” on the Iowa River: Se-pa-na-mo, or Stump Town, at the juncture of the Iowa and English Rivers, and Napoleon (at present-day Napoleon Park in south Iowa City). He also participated indirectly in the construction of two sawmills, one at Old Man’s Creek, and the other on the Dubuque Road at Rapid Creek, and made at least one trip to Lafayette County, Indiana to sell land he had purchased downriver near Wapello.
John Gilbert’s Trading Post was located in Napoleon, Iowa – built in 1837 – and was the site of the very first Johnson County business meeting – an eventful gathering that truly shaped the future of both Johnson County and Iowa. Read more here.
Without a doubt, between his arrival around 1835, his decision to go it alone as an independent contractor in 1837, and his initiative to bring advancement to the region in 1838, John Gilbert had his hands in nearly every major decision surrounding Johnson County and his little, home-grown community of Napoleon. Sadly, Gilbert died in March of 1839, just a few days before he was to be sworn in as Johnson County’s first postmaster – a political appointment by President Martin Van Buren.
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.
John Gilbert was buried in 1839 near his trading post – with many Johnson County pioneers and Meskwaki tribespeople in attendance. Several years later, as his beloved community of Napoleon gave way to Iowa City, his remains were moved to an unmarked grave in Oakland Cemetery. At his funeral, Gilbert was eulogized by a contemporary as…
A fine scholar and an excellent businessman, a remarkable man for the position he occupied.
Sadly, for John W. Prentice, changing his name didn’t do too much to improve his luck! Not only did he die an early death – complications from gonorrhea – he was, at the time of his demise, once again deeply in debt – this time to the companies that had supplied his new Johnson County trading post. Yet, despite his troubles, Prentice (aka John Gilbert) did make a big impact in people’s live – leaving a huge foot print in Our Iowa Heritage.
Today, John Gilbert has a major street in Iowa City named after him, and, as we said at the top, most school kids, including the late Iowa City historian Irving Weber, have believed that he’s the tops when reviewing Johnson County history!
Below is a “replica” of John Gilbert’s 1837 Trading Post that, today, sits in City Park in Iowa City. Here’s a tip of the old hat to John Gilbert – One of Johnson County’s finest movers & shakers!
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