SUI – The Early Days 1847-1860.

On February 25, 1847 – 59 days after Iowa became a state – the State Legislature, meeting in the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City, approved the recommendation that the State of Iowa sponsor a state university. In this second official act of the General Assembly, lawmakers declared that the fledgling school would serve as the state’s institution of higher learning, one that would provide the state with its future doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. In an 1878 publication on Iowa history, we find these details…

The first General Assembly, by act approved February 25, 1847, established the “State University of Iowa” at Iowa City, then the capital of the State, “with such other branches as public convenience may hereafter require.” The “public buildings at Iowa City, together with the ten acres of land in which they are situated,” were granted for the use of said university, provided, however, that the sessions of the Legislature and State offices should be held in the capitol until otherwise provided by law.

Click here to read more about the strange heavenly occurrences surrounding February 25, 1847 in Iowa City.

And while the idea of forming a new state university might have sounded very lofty, making the dream into a reality was quite another story. In truth, records show that for nearly a decade – 1847 to 1855 – nothing too much occurred in making anything happen in Iowa City.

Sadly, the wording used in the 1847 declaration set in place a battle over whether the state’s new endeavor would be a multiple-site campus training students across the state or one central campus bringing students to Iowa City. Since the University, in existence in name only, had no facilities outside of the already bustling Iowa statehouse, it was proposed that the multiple city option might be the best plan. Again, quoting from the 1878 article…

In January, 1849, two additional branches of the University – Fairfield and Dubuque – and three Normal Schools – Andrew, Oskaloosa, and Mt. Pleasant – were also established, all on equal footing, in respect to funds and all other matters, with the University established at Iowa City. At a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, held February 21, 1850, the “College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Upper Mississippi,” (was) established at Davenport, (and) recognized as the “College of Physicians and Surgeons of the State University of Iowa.” Soon after, this College was removed to Keokuk, its second session being opened there in November, 1850.

Meanwhile, back in Iowa City, very little was actually being accomplished…

From 1847 to 1855, the Board of Trustees was kept full by regular elections by the Legislature, and the Trustees held frequent meetings, but there was no effectual organization of the University (in Iowa City). In March, 1855, (the University) was partially opened for a term of sixteen weeks (in Mechanics Academy). (On) July 16, 1855, Amos Dean, of Albany, N. Y., was elected President, but he never entered fully upon its duties.

The University was again opened in September, 1855, and continued in operation until June, 1856, under Professors Johnson, Welton, Van Valkenburg and Guffin. In June, 1856, the faculty was reorganized, with some changes, and the University was again opened on the third Wednesday of September, 1856. There were one hundred and twenty four students – eighty three males and forty one females – in attendance during the year 1856-7, and the first regular catalogue was published.

A Normal School was an educational institution offering a comprehensive two-year curriculum created to train high school graduates to be teachers. As standards increased at the turn of the 20th century, most normal schools transitioned into “teacher-training colleges” or “teachers’ colleges” organized as part of a comprehensive university experience. Click here to read more about SUI’s Normal School -1855-1860.

At this point in time, the work in Iowa City was in real crisis. Finances were tight. Management was poor. And student recruitment at the university level, particularly outside of Johnson County, was next to impossible. The Normal School – a two-year training course for teachers – was progressing well, but the university programming was simply not attracting many from across the state. It was during this time, many nay-sayers suggested that the Iowa City campus was nothing more than Johnson County High School. From John G. Gerber’s book, A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa, we find this truth…

On September 3, 1857, ten years after its formal birth, the fledgling SUI in Iowa City finally got what it so badly needed; a state-directed game plan to pull back from a multiple-site campus approach and focus all state efforts on building one school in one city. This decision by the Iowa State Legislature came down in two articles:

Article IX, Section 11, of the new State Constitution provided as follows: The State University shall be established at one place, without branches at any other place; and the University fund shall be applied to that institution, and no other.

Article XI, Section 8, provided that: The seat of Government is hereby permanently established, as now fixed by law, at the city of Des Moines, in the county of Polk; and the State University at Iowa City, in the county of Johnson.

These two declarations by the Iowa State Legislature opened the door for the state-sponsored university to now focus exclusively on one campus in Iowa City and that one university would be given the Iowa Capitol Building when the state moved its government offices to Des Moines. In the Iowa Journal of History & Politics (1916), we find this interesting account of that pivotal Constitutional session in 1857…

The question of the permanent location of the capital came before the constitutional convention of 1857 in connection with the location of the State University. During the second week of the convention a resolution was offered to inquire into the expediency of permanently locating the seat of government, the State University, and the asylums for the blind and the deaf and dumb. The location of the University caused the greatest amount of discussion and it was largely in that connection that the capital was mentioned. The inclusion in the new Constitution of the compromise of 1847, whereby the State University was to be located at Iowa City whenever the capitol should be removed was persistently insisted upon, in spite of proposals to establish the University at the former site of Monroe City, to leave the matter to a vote of the people, or to rest the decision with the legislature. It was objected that such clauses would overload the Constitution with affairs of local interest. But the judgment of those who wished permanently to settle the question finally prevailed, and the convention incorporated (Article XI – Section 8) in the Constitution of 1857.

In order to validify the acts of State officers and to fulfill his duty…Governor James W. Grimes on October 19, 1857, officially declared “the Capitol of the State of Iowa to be established under the constitution and laws of the State at Des Moines in Polk County.” Although the new capitol building at Des Moines was still unfinished, the State officers had begun packing and moving the contents of their several offices by the first of October. Snow flew before the task was completed.

And so, the move of the state capitol to Des Moines began in earnest, prompting one Iowa City newspaper reporter to quip, “Let Des Moines have the politicians, we’ll take the professors!”

Click here to read more about the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines.

Again, quoting that 1878 article entitled The History of the State University of Iowa

In December, 1857, the old capitol building, now known as Central Hall of the University, except the rooms occupied by the United States District Court, and the property, with that exception, passed under the control of the (University) Trustees, and became the seat of the University. The old building had had hard usage, and its arrangement was ill-adapted for University purposes. Extensive repairs and changes were necessary, but the Board was without funds for these purposes. (On) March 11, 1858, the Legislature appropriated $3,000 for the repair and modification of the old capitol building, and $10,000 for the erection of a boarding house, now known as South Hall.

The Board of Trustees created by the new law met and duly organized April 27, 1858, and determined to (keep the Normal School open, but) close the University (portion of the school) until the income from its fund should be adequate to meet the current expenses, and the buildings should be ready for occupation.

On August 4, 1858, the degree of Bachelor of Science was conferred upon Dexter Edson Smith, being the first degree conferred upon a student of the University.

Diplomas were also awarded to the members of the first graduating class of the Normal Department as follows: Levi P. Aylworth, Cetlina H. Aylworth, Elizabeth L. Humphrey, Annie A. Pinney and Sylvia M. Thompson. Click here to read more about SUI’s Normal School -1855-1860.

Capitol Square became University Square with South Hall (left) approved in 1858.

By 1860, with the state government vacating Capitol Square in Iowa City, and state-sponsored money now flowing exclusively into Iowa City, SUI had the tools to actually become the state university that was originally planned.

(On) February 2, 1859, the Board met again and decided to continue the Normal Department, (and) at a special meeting, October 25, 1859, it was decided to re-open the University in September, 1860. (The part-time President), Mr. Dean had resigned prior to this meeting, and Silas Totten, D. D., LL. D., was elected President, at a salary of $2,000, and his term commenced June, 1860. At the annual meeting, June 28, 1860, a full Faculty was appointed, and the University re opened, under this new organization, September 19, 1860 (third Wednesday); and at this date the actual existence of the University may be said to commence.


DYK-January 3, 2022
DYK-January 12, 2022

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

Iowa As It Is – A Gazetteer for Citizens and Handbook for Immigrants, N. Howe Parker, 1855, pp 242-243

The State University – Iowa City, Johnson County, History of the State of Iowa, The History of Black Hawk County, Iowa, The Western Historical Society, 1878, p 188

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, p3, 2005

The Removal of the Capital from Iowa City to Des Moines, Iowa Journal of History & Politics Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1916), pp 56‑95


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