Truth is, everybody wants to be a part of something big. That was no different in the 1830’s than it is today.
When John Gilbert invited Philip Clark and Eli Myers – Elkhart County, Indiana farmers – in 1836 to join him in the unsettled wilds of Iowa District/Wisconsin Territory, his dream was to take his little settlement of Napoleon, nestled alongside the Iowa River, and turn it into a bustling community. As it turned out, Gilbert was so determined to ‘get-r-done,’ he even stretched the truth (or broke it?) when asked by a legislator in Burlington about the size of his little town.
Historian, Laura Rigel, tells us more about this “little” deception that brought a post office to Napoleon, the first step in getting your town on the map!
In the winter of 1837/38, it was lonely along the Iowa River. Most of the Meskwaki were away at their hunting camps, and the young white men who helped build (John) Gilbert’s new (trading) post had migrated to Muscatine or New Boston (Illinois) to earn winter money by chopping wood for steam boats on the Mississippi. Isolated and bored, Gilbert and a restless Pleasant Harris (January 1838) decided to walk through the snow to Burlington to petition the territorial legislature for roads and a mail service. When they arrived to present their case, Governor Dodge asked Gilbert for the population of the settlement around the trading post, and Gilbert responded, “Fifteen hundred.” The governor was surprised at the large number and, when Gilbert was asked “how he dared tell the governor such a lie,” his response was, “he did not ask what color they were.”
In truth, there were less than 50 white settlers in Johnson County (Napoleon) at the time, while the Meskwaki tribes had over 1,500 souls living in two large villages along the Iowa River. Rigel continues…
The joke, of course, is that Gilbert counted the Meskwaki villagers as legitimate residents despite their color. By playing upon the governor’s ethnocentric, racist assumptions, he used the large Meskwaki population to obtain a post office for Johnson County. But Gilbert’s response to Dodge also registers the degree to which the Meskwaki counted a great deal (albeit at great cost to themselves) in the economic and political founding of Johnson County. (Chief) Poweshiek’s and Wapashashiek’s villages made up the single most substantial and significant population in Johnson County: without them, neither the fur trade nor the land business, nor the state capital would have emerged on the Iowa River when and where it did.
Based on the inflated numbers Gilbert gave Governor Dodge, the Territorial legislature, as they gathered in Burlington during the winter session of 1837/38, looked at Johnson County as a prime location for future development. And as the saying goes, the rest…is history.
So here are the facts: Johnson County had its beginning on December 21, 1837. In January of 1838, when Gilbert told his Napoleon ‘little white lie,’ the population was less than 50. By 1838, when Iowa became a territory, there were 237 souls living here. By 1840, that number had grown to 1,504, ballooned to 4,472 in 1850, and by 1860, Johnson County had a population of 17,573.
So, with John Gilbert’s population exaggeration, Napoleon was given the political favor needed to designate it as the County Seat of Johnson County by the Wisconsin Territorial Act of June 22, 1838 – just 11 days before the Territory of Iowa was created. By 1839, John Gilbert’s little burg was then awarded Johnson County’s first post office, with Gilbert, himself, being appointed postmaster! Sadly, Gilbert was not able to live out his dream, suddenly dying only days before his commissioning in March of 1839.
Before he died, Gilbert and his Napoleon friends succeeded in building Johnson County’s first court house…
The day John Gilbert died in March 1839, everything was looking pretty good for Napoleon to become the big city he had dreamed it would become. Johnson County was now established, Napoleon was the county seat, and a court house had been built. Even the Territorial governor, Robert Lucas, had announced that the Territory would be relocating its capital from Burlington to a more centrally-located area, and based on the political favor given Gilbert earlier, the rumor mill pointed directly toward Johnson County as being the host site for that new capital. By April, word arrived in Napoleon that the Territorial commissioners would be coming in May to pick their site for the capitol building, so Napoleon resident, Frederick Irish, was chosen to escort Dubuque legislator, Chauncey Swan, to the trading house of the late John Gilbert. Read more here.
All those Napoleonic dreams came tumbling down on May 4th, 1839 when commissioner Chauncey Swan decided to place his first surveying stake in a hillside about two miles north of the Johnson County Court House in Napoleon. You see, it was decided earlier by Governor Lucas that no existing city would be given the honor of being chosen as the capital. In true wisdom, Lucas knew that in order to avoid all the political positioning associated with such a decision, the best solution was to start fresh – with a new city in a new location. Read more about the early history of Iowa City here.
Much to the dismay of those living in Napoleon, the Johnson County county seat was moved to Iowa City on October 8, 1839, with relocation of the post office completed by November 14, 1839. A new court house was completed by 1842, so apparently county business was conducted in the home of F.M. Irish, who bought property in Iowa City in 1839.
(P-0301) The Richardsonian Romanesque style courthouse in use today was designed by the firm of Rush, Bowman and Rush of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was bid at a cost of $111,000 and built by the firm Rowson & Son of Johnson County. The cornerstone was laid in December 1899, and the building’s tower is based on Henry Hobson Richardson’s design for the spire of Trinity Church in Boston. The building was dedicated on June 8, 1901.
One county – Two cities – Four court houses – Over 180+ years.
(P-0300) 1914 – Photographer Fred Kent captures Old Cap with the tower of the Johnson County Court House in the background.
But wait . . . there’s more!
Lulu M. Johnson (left) with members of her Sunday School class in Gravity, Iowa – circa 1920.
On June 24, 2021, Johnson County, Iowa did something counties rarely do. Originally named for the ninth Vice President of the United States, Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841), the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to change our county’s eponym (namesake), placing Lulu Merle Johnson (1907-1995) into that lofty position. Johnson was a BA and MA graduate of The University of Iowa (1930), the second African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in History, and the first to receive a Doctorate of any kind in Iowa!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.