1838 to Today – Unity Through Diversity.

Looking back together – so we might go forward together – as one.

In previous posts, we’ve given you much history about the earliest days of pioneer settlement in Johnson County. While we may never recover all the details, most historians today believe that the first person of European descent to visit here regularly was a fur-trader named Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps. Around 1832, Phelps canoed up the Iowa River to the mouth of Snyder Creek, just south of modern-day Iowa City. There, he re-united with Chief Poweshiek and his Meskwaki tribe, long-time “customers” of Phelps when the tribe lived on the banks of the Mississippi.

In 1832, all Meskwaki (Fox) and Sauk tribes were expelled from their lands on the Great River via the signing of the Black Hawk Treaty. Thus, between 1832-1837, these peaceful tribes were given “permission” to live just west of the newly-acquired Black Hawk Purchase – see map below.

This rare 1835 map from Albert Lea shows the American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and identifies Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. In 1832, Meskwaki & Sauk tribes were pushed westward from the Mississippi River, given “permission” to live in Keokuk’s Reserve or west of the Black Hawk Purchase (yellow) line. Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition.

A few years later – circa 1835 – this same fur-trading business that was established by Phelps, aligned itself with the American Fur Company, and was managed by John Gilbert, a New Yorker, looking for a new start in the West. When Gilbert arrived, there were roughly 1,500 – 2,000 Meskwaki people living on/near the eastern banks of the Iowa River, by far the largest population anywhere at the time. That brings us to our story for today.

John Gilbert’s Trading Post – Johnson County’s first “community” settlement.

Early writings of those who helped settle Johnson County indicate that by 1837, John Gilbert, who was the first fur-trader to actually live on the banks of the Iowa River (1835), had built his own trading post (see pics above), recruiting others to join him here, with the explicit purpose of building a full-fledged settlement they called Napoleon. Gilbert – a wise, if not a bit crafty, businessman – had deepened the working relationship Sumner Phelps had built with Powesheik, and through that mutual friendship, built a sweet spot where other rugged pioneers who wanted to pursue a life of independence could come and safely settle, knowing that, for the time being, all could live side-by-side in peace.

January 1838 As we’ve discussed elsewhere, a “business meeting” – held at Gilbert’s trading post – was conducted in order to draw up an “official” proposal requesting Territorial development that included a post office, roads, and bridges for Johnson County.

Records (above) show that there were only seven people at this first Johnson County “business” meeting. That’s not surprising – considering the small population of Napoleon. But what does catch our attention in the recorded minutes is the list of who “officially” attended…

Five white men: Pleasant Harris, I.N. Lesh, Eli Myers, Henry Felkner, and John Gilbert. No surprise here, right? But now – look who else was at the meeting…

One black man: Mogawk – a long-time employee of the Phelps fur-trading family.

One Native American woman: Jenny (or Jennie) – another co-worker at Gilbert’s trading post.

Seven people with different backgrounds but one common goal. And according to the historical records, all were living side-by-side – working together for the community’s advancement. One diverse team – living in uncharted territory and facing an unknown future – all the while, peacefully co-existing with their neighbors – the Meskwaki tribes – about 1,500 in population – led by…

Two Meskwaki chiefs: Poweshiek and Wapashashiek.

Hmm. Think of it. Author Linda Rigel – in her writings below – calls this rag-tag 1838 Johnson County community…

It’s this January 1838 exaggeration – little white lie – by Gilbert on the population of Johnson County that actually ended up benefiting the county. Governor Dodge (Wisconsin Territory) took that number and approved the request for a United States post office to be started in Napoleon. Read more about that story here.

Now, with your kind permission, I’d like to return to the present, keeping in mind that at our county’s very beginnings, the dream of men and women of different color and creed coming together as they worked for a common goal was apparently the goal. If you recall, there was a special day in our nation’s history – August 28, 1963 – when another prominent voice called out for such a dream…

1968 – The Memorial Service for MLK on the steps of Old Capitol. Read more here.

I look around Johnson County and Iowa today, and I wonder to myself… are we getting any closer to MLK’s dream? So much tension. So much division. So much hatred.

But wait. If you look closely enough, there are signs of hope.

As I see it, there’s a lot of good reasons to have hope that MLK’s Dream can still come to fruition. Here at Our Iowa Heritage, we want to do our part as well. That’s why, as we write posts about the history of our state, our county, and our community, we not only want to share the powerful stories of those names most everybody knows, but we also want to strive to bring you those uplifting stories of women and men who, for no other reason than racial or sexual prejudice, have been overlooked in our history.

Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline…

Who knows, maybe going Back To The Future might be a good idea. If we can strive for the diversity surrounding a common cause that was evident in John Gilbert’s Trading Post in January 1838 – maybe we can see it all come ’round once more!

In 2022, Iowa City historian Marybeth Slonneger and I have brought together a diverse team of volunteers – The Friends of Johnson County Remembrance Park. And in September 2022, we plan to dedicate a small piece of historic land off Sand Road in Iowa City for the purpose of promoting Unity Through Diversity.

Looking back together – so we might go forward together – as one. Remembrance Park is devoted to the memory of the earliest Johnson County residents – the Meskwaki tribe, to Jenny – a Native American woman, to Mogawk -an African-American man, to the Phelps brothers – early fur traders in Johnson County, and to the handful of settlers who helped set up our county‘s government in January 1838. It’s this small group of individuals who guided our course towards a spirit of diversity – a hope we desire to carry forward today. Read more here.
DYK-8/5/2022

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

Be It Resolved, Henry Felkner, History of Johnson County, Iowa, Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities and Villages from 1836 to 1882, 1883, pp 583-584

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36, 2009, pp 213-214

Civil Rights: Celebrating 50 Years of Higher Quality Through Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Commission, 2015


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