Parvin & Aldrich – Making & Collecting Iowa History.

(L-0073a, L-0073b)

A very neat set of two letters came my way in April 2021. Both written in the latter part of the 19th century (1885 and 1891), I wish we had the postal covers to go with them, but the letters themselves are very important in honoring two early Iowans who made an important impact in preserving our rich Iowa heritage. Let me, first of all, introduce you to the two letters…

  • 1885 Letter from T. S. Parvin to Sir & Mrs. Charles AldrichApril 1, 1885 – Hand-written and signed 2-page letter – front & back – on Grand Lodge of Iowa letterhead talking about autograph collecting and The Aldrich Collection. Parvin also mentions his visit with the Aldrichs in Webster City, Iowa.
The city of Coralville, Iowa was named in 1866 shortly after Agassiz, a Harvard zoologist, spoke at the State University of Iowa about the “Coral Reefs of Iowa City” – noting the unique fossilized coral found in the limestone near the mills built alongside the Iowa River.
  • 1891 Letter from Charles AldrichAugust 30, 1891 – Hand-written and signed personal letter on The Aldrich Collection/Iowa State Library letterhead talking to a friend about a possible requisition of a letter signed by Louis Agassiz. Most of Charles’ letter is personal in nature commenting on the “quite cold” weather of August and expressing concern over how that might affect the already slow-ripening corn crop of 1891.

Theodore S. Parvin – educator, lawyer, librarian, and private secretary to the first Iowa territorial governor, Robert Lucas.

Born January 15, 1817 to Josiah and Lydia Parvin of Cedarville, Cumberland County, New Jersey, Theodore Sutton (T.S.) Parvin was twelve years old (1829) when the family moved to Cincinnati. There, he attended the public schools, graduating from Woodward College in 1835. Upon graduation, Theodore was hired to teach mathematics in the Cincinnati public schools, becoming the principal of the Third Ward School.

It was during this time that T.S. first met the young George H. Yewell – who eventually became Iowa City’s first famed artist. Young George was a student of Parvin’s during these Cincinnati years and became a long-time acquaintance after they both came west to Iowa City.

George Yewell painted this portrait (left) of his friend – and former teacher – Theodore S. Parvin on one of his trips back to his hometown of Iowa City – 1885.

In his journals of 1838, T.S. makes his first mention of Iowa Territory. In June, he wrote that his father was going to go by horseback, “intending to visit Iowa Territory, beyond the Mississippi River,” and by July, Theodore had determined that he, too, would go west to Iowa. Interestingly enough, about that same time, T.S. was introduced to Robert Lucas, former Ohio governor (1832-1836). President Martin Van Buren had just appointed Lucas to the governorship of Iowa Territory and by God’s Providence, invited Theodore to accompany him as his private secretary. Historian Jack T. Johnson describes Theodore’s move to Iowa in 1838…

On Wednesday, August 15, 1838, Lucas and his small party arrived in Iowa by steamboat. As private secretary, Theodore accompanied the governor up the Mississippi to determine the best site for a temporary territorial capital, which turned out to be Burlington. In September, he returned to Cincinnati to purchase stationery and supplies, and while there, arranged to have a shipment of books sent to Governor Lucas. It was this large selection of books that became the Territorial Library and the beginnings of the official State of Iowa Library that now resides in Des Moines.

The first purchase was for 238 books on a variety of subjects, including medicine, poetry, history, science, religion, travel, and education. Today, Old Capitol has 1,000 of the more than 1,500 books that were once housed the the Territorial Library. They are arranged according to Parvin’s original cataloguing system. Click here to view the Old Capitol library as it looks today.

From 1848 to 1850, T.S. Parvin was a County Judge. This was a position of much power and responsibility, because the county judge in those days had more power than the present board of supervisors. At the end of two years he resigned as County Judge and was elected for three consecutive terms as Judge of Probate Court. When the U.S. District Court for Iowa was organized in 1847, he was appointed its clerk, a position he held until 1858—eleven years. In 1858 he served a one-year term as Register of the State Land Office. In August of that year he appeared before the Hon. Thomas S. Wilson of Dubuque, then associate Judge of the Supreme Court of the Territory, by whom he was admitted to practice at the bar. At the first session of the Territorial Supreme Court of this state, T.S. was the youngest of twenty attorneys who were admitted to practice.

Click here to read about T.S. Parvin’s involvement with the 1844 drive toward Iowa statehood. An effort, filled with political power-plays, that failed, thanks to the leadership of Parvin and a handful of other young leaders.

In 1839, as the first “official” state librarian, T.S. Parvin also played an instrumental part in convincing Robert Lucas, the Territorial governor, to ask the U.S. Congress for a grant of land to be set aside for literary purposes. Congress responded positively to Lucas’ request, giving Iowa a grant of 72 sections of choice land to support the establishment of a university.

In 1847, now serving as a university trustee, Parvin was appointed to a committee to consider the proper instruction of natural philosophy at the university – the very first step in forming the State University of Iowa. And when SUI was reorganized – a decade later in 1857- Parvin was, once again, reappointed to the board of trustees, and elected curator of the cabinet of natural history and librarian.

In that capacity, T.S. was asked to prepare space at the university for a library and to procure books from the State Library that had been donated to the school. He also devoted a portion of his time to collecting and classifying specimens of geology and natural history, and in 1859, was named professor of chemistry and geology, being named chair of the Department of Natural History in 1861 and serving as a professor until 1870. Read more about Professor D.F. Wells – Parvin’s co-worker at SUI.

While in Iowa City, T.S. Parvin became one of the earliest organizers of the State Historical Society of Iowa, serving several years as its secretary (1864-1866) and as editor of the Annals of Iowa, a historical magazine published by the society.

(JP-010) This rare postal cover comes from the office of the Iowa State Historical Society and is postmarked January 21, 1865 – which means secretary T.S. Parvin sent this letter out from Mechanics Academy to Laurel Summers, the first representative to the Iowa Legislature from LeClaire Township – Scott County, Iowa.

Throughout his career, T.S. made large contributions to the library, newspaper files and general collections of the Society, and for more than thirty years was one of the most valued writers of historical and biographical articles for the Annals of Iowa and the Historical Record. Having been one of the first officials of the Territory and long associated with its public affairs, personally acquainted with prominent men of all parties for more than sixty years, T.S. was long regarded the highest authority on Iowa history and biography.

(BH-147) In Our Iowa Heritage collection is a very rare 1861 publication – a 14-page booklet that spells out the Constitution of the State Historical Society of Iowa as adopted in 1857.

An extremely active Mason, T.S. became a Mason in Cincinnati in 1838. After arriving in Iowa, he helped found several of the early Masonic lodges in Iowa, including those in Burlington and Bloomington (Muscatine).

He was involved with the formation of the Grand Lodge of Iowa in 1844 and was elected Grand Secretary, a position he kept until his death in 1901. In 1844, he recommended that the Grand Lodge of Iowa form a Masonic library. The resolution was approved, and a small allocation was provided in 1845. During its early years, the library was a nomadic institution remaining with Theodore, who was Grand Librarian. At various times, the library was located in Muscatine, Iowa City, and Davenport.

Click here to read about T.S.’s middle son – Newton R. Parvin – who continued the 80-year Parvin-family run as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Iowa.

(JP-014) This rare postal cover from July 1884 comes from T.S. Parvin’s office in Iowa City – the Librarian of the Grand Lodge of Iowa. Later in 1884, the library collection had grown and was moved to Cedar Rapids, where it remains as one of the premier Masonic libraries in the world. See the connection between the First Grand Master of Iowa, Oliver Cock (1844-1846), and T.S. Parvin.
Our 1885 letter comes from T.S. Parvin, after moving his office from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids, and addresses some of the historical gems found in The Aldrich Collection donated to the state (1884) by his good friends, Charles and Matilida Aldrich of Webster City.

Charles Aldrich – recipient of our letter – wrote this (below) about his friend, T.S. Parvin

According to one biographer, “Theodore S. Parvin was in public life from the time he crossed the Mississippi until he breathed his last. His life was filled with good works and they live after him.” Another writer adds…

No citizen of Iowa has done so much to collect and preserve its early records and history as Theodore S. Parvin.

Parvin married Agnes McCully on May 17, 1843, in Iowa City. They had six children. Sadly, Agnes preceded him in death on November 20, 1896, in Cedar Rapids. T.S. died at his home at Cedar Rapids on June 28, 1901 at the ripe old age of 84.

Charles Aldrich – newspaperman, editor, publisher, curator, conservator of Iowa history.

Born in Ellington, Chautauqua County, New York, on October 2, 1828, Charles Aldrich attended public schools and was a student at Jamestown Academy. In 1846 he entered a printing office, learned the trade, and in 1850, established a newspaper at Randolph.

In 1857, Charles came west to Iowa, locating in the frontier town of Webster City in Hamilton County, where he established the Hamilton Freeman newspaper in May 1857. In 1860, he was chosen Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives of the Eighth General Assembly and in 1862, was reelected to that post. In September 1862, Charles entered military service as adjutant of the 32nd Infantry Regiment, serving a year and a half. Historian L. N. Call writes this…

After his wartime service, he returned home to became editor of the Dubuque Daily Times, and in 1866, purchased the Marshall Times. That same year, Charles was re-appointed as Chief Clerk to the House of Representatives, and in 1881, elected by the good people of Hamilton County to serve represent them in Des Moines.

From early life, Charles was a collector of autographs, and along with his wife, Matilda Williams – married in 1851 – they accumulated a large and valuable collection of manuscripts, portraits, books and signed letters of famous individuals. During Governor Sherman’s administration (1884), Charles presented the Aldrich Collection to the state of Iowa, which became the core of the Iowa Historical Collection. Appointing Charles as curator in 1892, the state officially recognized the Iowa Historical Department the following year, giving office space in the state capitol building.

Our 1891 letter was written just prior to Charles’ appointment as the Historical Department’s first curator and briefly deals with his on-going search to find important historical pieces to add to his growing collection. His friend, Austin, has obviously found a collection of letters and Charles would like to obtain the one signed by Louis Agassiz.

Throughout the 1890’s, Charles, along with Iowa Senator William Boyd Allison secured a large collection of bird specimens – his wife Maltilda’s passion – American Indian baskets, and an important collection of southwestern American Indian pottery from the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of Ethnology for the Iowa museum collections. That same friendship with Senator Allison led to donations of historic military weapons from the Rock Island Arsenal, and as a newspaperman, Charles also began the collection of Iowa newspapers, which continues today, and offered his publishing expertise to the Annals of Iowa, upgrading this historical publication which was first established in Iowa City in 1863.

Charles’ contemporaries credited him as the first “Conservator of Iowa History,” seeing the importance of establishing and supporting a museum for Iowa. In the Historical Department’s first annual report in 1893, Charles wrote, “the State should build up and fairly maintain a great Historical Museum…such an institution should be kept growing, for a finished museum is a dead museum.” Charles Aldrich continued his work with the Historical Department until his death in March of 1908.

Theodore S. Parvin – January 15, 1817 – June 28, 1901 – came to Iowa in 1838 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Charles Aldrich – October 2, 1828 – March 8, 1908 – came to Iowa in 1857 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Webster City.

Two Iowa friends who left their unique mark in Iowa history.

Check out our list of Johnson County Historical Resources and our Iowa Historian Hall of Fame.

DYK – May 10, 2023

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

Theodore S. Parvin, Charles Aldrich, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 5 – Number 3, 1901, pp. 199-208

The Life and Labors of Theodore Sutton Parvin, Joseph E. Morcombe, The Grand Lodge of Iowa, 1906

Theodore Sutton Parvin, 1817-1901, The Iowa Legislature

Theodore S. Parvin, Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/Volume 4, Wikipedia

History of Grand Lodge of Iowa, A. F. and A. M., Joseph E. Morcombe, Grand Lodge of Iowa, 1910

Laurel Summers, History of the Township and City of LeClaire, History of Scott County, Iowa 1882,

Theodore Sutton Parvin, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Years Parvin Remembered, Jack T. Johnson, The Palimpsest, Volume 19 – Number 8 – Article 5, August 1938

Theodore S. Parvin, Wikipedia

Theodore S. Parvin – Lawyer, Librarian, Historian – Man of Many Hats, The Iowa Heritage Digital Collections

Theodore Sutton Parvin, George Yewell, National Portrait Gallery

Theodore Sutton Parvin, Find-A-Grave

Coralville History, City of Coralville, Iowa

Charles Aldrich, Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/Volume 4, Wikipedia

Charles Aldrich, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, The University of Iowa Libraries

Representative Charles Aldrich, The Iowa Legislature-Legislators

Tribute to Charles Aldrich, L.N. Call, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 8 – Number 8, 1909, pp 595-598

Celebrate 160 Years of the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa History, August 2, 2017

Charles Aldrich, Find-A-Grave

Matilda Williams Aldrich, Find-A-Grave

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