The Letters Of Governor James W. Grimes.

As Iowa’s third governor (1854-1858), James W. Grimes led the way for Iowa to change direction politically – moving away from old-school Democrats who were sympathetic toward the South’s view on slavery, to the formation of a new party that would stand with the anti-slavery and abolitionist movement. You can read more details here.

On this page, we’d like to offer you a deeper look into the life and times of Governor Grimes. We’ll do so, by taking a look at three different personal letters written by Grimes during his earliest years in Iowa – 1839, 1840 & 1850.

Born on October 20, 1816 in Deering of Hillsborough County in New Hampshire, James Wilson Grimes graduated from Hampton Academy and attended Dartmouth College. He studied law, moved west, first to Alton, Illinois in 1835, and in 1836, at age 20, commenced practice in Burlington, Iowa. A farmer as well as a lawyer, Grimes entered into politics by serving as a member of the Iowa Territorial House of Representatives in 1838–1839 – in Burlington, and again, in 1843–1844 – in Iowa City. Before being elected as Governor in 1854, Grimes was also a member of the Iowa General Assembly (1852-1854).

So now, let’s take a look at these three letters. The first was written only three years after Grimes arrived in Burlington…

Deering, New Hampshire was James W. Grimes home, and as you can see, Francestown is only seven miles south of there. Our letter comes from Grimes’ law office in Burlington…

(JP-072a) This rare postal cover & letter is written by James W. Grimes, postmarked on June 27, 1839 in Burlington, Iowa and addressed to Dr. Thomas Eaton in Francestown, New Hampshire.

As you can see from the letter’s contents (below), Grimes is following up with Dr. Eaton concerning property – most likely in Iowa – that was under the ownership of Eaton’s son – Harvey. It appears that Harvey was Dr. Eaton’s son, and possibly with other family members, had moved westward, purchased land, and was homesteading prior to his sudden death. The letter also offers Grimes’ condolences to Dr. Eaton for the death of his son. It sounds like James knew Harvey well, both from back home – Francesville is only 7 miles south of Deering, NH – and here in Iowa. We’ve added some punctuation and other corrections to make the letter a bit easier to read…

Burlington, Iowa – June 25th 1839
Dr. Thomas Eaton

Dr. Sir. Your favor of 13th of April was duly received by course of mail, but not in time to lay it before (your son in law) Mr. Dudley. I have been in the neighborhood of Harvey’s former residence and made inquiries as to his property since I (received) yours of the above date. A number of my friends in that county have kindly volunteered to inform me whenever any comes to their knowledge & to make exertions to as certain where it may be. I have understood that Mr. Dudley was satisfied with what he found, and if I mistake, not a certain Esquire Tompkins shew me a letter to him to that effect.

Any assistance that I can, in any manner, render to you or yours is at your service. I (despair) with you the loss of your of your son and believe I can imagine your grief at his death in a distant land. I have been acquainted with him from my infancy and knew his virtues and worth. It would have been a great satisfaction to me to have been able to be with him in his last illness, but I knew not of it ‘till after his death. He had many warm friends in this country, and had won the esteem of all who were acquainted with him. Will you be so kind as to present my regard to the members of your family & to my parents & friends if you should chance to see them.

I am with the highest consideration and respect – Your obedient friend and servant.
Jas. W. Grimes

Our second letter comes one year later, and once again, has to do with a land transaction – most likely in Iowa. Grimes mails this letter from Bloomington (Muscatine) while away from his Burlington law office…

(JP-072b) This rare postal cover & letter is written by James W. Grimes, postmarked on June 2, 1840 in Bloomington, Iowa and addressed to Joseph Roby, Esq. in Brockport, Monroe County, New York.

We know that Grimes, once he opened up his lawl office in Burlington in 1836, was involved with land investments, so this letter back East to New York is obviously following up on legal matters surrounding a property deed between the Roby’s in New York and a Benjamin Week (in Iowa?) concerning a piece of property owned by a Higly. James is writing this letter while he is in Bloomington (Muscatine), and it must have some urgency since he wanted to get this matter dealt with before returning home to Burlington.

Bloomington I.T. June 1st 1840

Dr. Sir. Your favor containing a deed of the Higly tract to Benjamin Week & one written subsequent thereto have been (received). The deed is very imperfect. 1st there are no witnesses. 2nd it is not properly acknowledged, the (commissioner) of deeds not being known to our statute. 3rd It was not signed by Mrs. Roby. You will please forward a deed to Benjamin Week acknowledged by you and Mrs. R. before a notary public – witnessed by at least two witnesses. You will run no risqué (risk) in sending a general (warranty) deed & had better do it. I have (received) $25.00 for corn & have a large quantity on hand. When I get home I will send you a statement.

I am yours in haste – Jas. W. Grimes

So now, we arrive at letter #3 – a personal letter from James to his sister, Sarah, who lives back home in New Hampshire. We’ve moved on by one decade from our last letter. It’s now 1850, and James, his wife Elizabeth, and his extended family are walking through a trying time for most Americans. In 1849-1850, a massive outbreak of cholera swept across the country. Our letter speaks to the horrors of the disease and gives us a view of the closeness of the Grimes family…

(JP-072c) This rare postal cover & letter is written by James W. Grimes, postmarked on July 18, 1850 in Burlington, Iowa and addressed to his sister – Miss Sarah C. Grimes back home in Hillsboro Bridge, New Hampshire.

James – born in 1816 – was the youngest child of John & Betsey Grimes of Deering in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire. Sarah – born in 1814 – never married, living until age 68 in Hillsborough County her entire life. James and Sarah had three siblings – Jane G. (b-1800), and Susan (b-?) – both who remained in New Hampshire, and David W. (b-1810) who relocated to Burlington, Iowa with his brother, James. BTW – Susan married Alden Walker in New Hampshire, and had 3 children – one of which was John C. Walker (b-1835) – who came to Iowa to live with James & his wife Elizabeth after Susan died in 1846. Watch for his name in this letter!

Burlington, Iowa – 17th July 1850

My dear Sister. I just this moment (received) your letter of the 8th July and I hasten to reply immediately. I am sorry to learn that Father is failing. I want you to have a good copy of mother’s likeness taken & one of father no matter what they cost. Have them executed by a good artist. I have some here but they are miserable things so far as execution is concerned. Do not fail to have them executed.

The cholera has been raging most fearfully here. Elizabeth (James’ wife) is still down with it, though she is recovering. In some families, there have been as many as five deaths out of seven persons & three families that I know of have been entirely swept away. We have all been well except my wife. All business is suspended, stores shut, houses deserted & more than half the citizens fled from the city. There cannot be (any) women obtained to (care for families) and what little is done towards that is done by males.

Much like COVID-19 in our lifetime, cholera swept through America in 1849-1851. In St. Louis 4,557 died, Cincinnati – 5,969, and Detroit – 700. In every town across the Midwest, deaths totaled 5–10% of the population. You can read more here.

I attended the funeral of Mrs. Gov. Clarke yesterday & there was not a lady present & only five gentlemen, one of whom was the preacher. I attended another yesterday & there was no woman present but the preacher’s wife.

Territorial Governor James Clarke (1845-1846) came to Burlington in 1837 and was co-publisher of the first newspaper in town. Clarke became both the postmaster of Burlington and later its mayor, and in 1845, was named the third and last governor of the Iowa Territory. After his term as governor, Clarke returned to Burlington to run the Gazette/Advertiser, and was elected the first president of the Burlington school board. In July 1850, Clarke lost his wife (July 16) and infant son to the cholera epidemic that swept through Burlington and other Mississippi River towns. Two weeks later – on July 28 – Clarke, himself, age 38, also died.

I have no fears of the disease myself. Almost all the cases that have occurred may be traced either to irregular habits or to fear. There is nothing in the world so much calculated to induce the disease as nervous irritability & fear. One is sure to have the cholera if he makes up his mind to have it. John (Walker) has sent you a paper of yesterday which will give you some idea of the prevalence & fatality of the disease among us. You need not be frightened about us for we are determined not to be sick. John is very uneasy. He is not very much disposed to go to school and is rather lazy. He would much rather read novels than study. I have kept him at school until the cholera broke out & shall send him again when the school is resumed. He is a smart boy but he is too national.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, James’ nephew – John G. Walker, age 15 – was living with James & Elizabeth. While the Grimes had no children, they did adopt two daughters, and opened their home to others in need. The idea of being “too national” probably meant “too worldly” with John’s interests focusing far outside the bounds of a getting a good education. Records show, however, that John C. turned out just fine – graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy at the head of his class in 1856. Before he was done, he became an highly-decorated Admiral in 1894! More on John C. Walker later.

I would like much to be at home this summer. I would like to see you all. Give my love to Mrs. Foster. I would be pleased to see her. Give my love to all & believe me to be your affectionate brother. Jas. W. Grimes

# I would write more, but I am compelled to act the nurse, cook, physician etc. We can’t get a girl & there is no one to administer to my wife and to cook for the family but myself.

With Elizabeth still getting stronger, and no outside help available to hire, it appears that James has become the primary house keeper for the Grimes family – more details later!

You can read much more about Governor James W. Grimes here. Sadly, on February 7, 1872, Grimes died at the young age of 55, and is buried in the Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington. Below is an obituary from The Muscatine Weekly Journal

Following Governor Grimes’ death in February 1872, it was announced how his vast resources would be distributed. As you can see (below), his sister, Sarah C. Grimes, and his nephew, John C. Walker (mentioned in our letter above) were both well taken care of. Sarah died, at age 68, on November 24, 1882 and is buried in Appleton Cemetery in Deering of Hillsborough County, New Hampshire.

And then, there’s the story of James’ nephew – John C. Walker. Apparently, Grimes’ worries and concerns over the young 15-year old back in 1850 were unfounded…

John Grimes Walker (March 20, 1835 – September 16, 1907) was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire to Alden and Susan (Grimes) Walker. After his mother died in 1846, John was sent to Iowa to live with James & Elizabeth. Walker was appointed a midshipman, graduating at the head of his class at the Naval Academy in 1856! He served throughout the Civil War, eventually becoming a highly-decorated admiral in the United States Navy. Two destroyers have been named USS Walker in his honor!

Finally, we come to James’ wife – Elizabeth Sarah Neally Grimes – born in 1824, and dying, at age 66, on June 22, 1890. Elizabeth and James were married in 1846, and Elizabeth was living at the home of one of their adopted daughters (see below) in Washington D.C. when she passed. Like James, Elizabeth is buried in the Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington.

Above – The 1850 U.S. Census shows James & Elizabeth living in Burlington with a 5-year old adopted daughter named Lavina N. Two other children are listed – Stephen Tindall – age 8 (bi-racial), and nephew John G. Walker – age 15. Below – the 1860 U.S. Census once again shows Lavina N. – age 16, another adopted daughter – Mary N. – age 11, and Edward Neally – age 22 – most likely a nephew of Elizabeth.

One obituary states…

Elizabeth Sarah Grimes was one of Burlington’s pioneer women, and her life, as that of her husband, has been woven inseparably into the history of this city. Her maiden name was Neally, and she was married in Burlington to the late Senator James Grimes in 1846. Her home for a number of years has been in Washington, where during her husband’s lifetime and public career much of her time was spent.

Below is yet another obituary that honors Elizabeth…

We hope you’ve enjoyed this insightful look into a handful of letters written by Iowa’s third governor – James W. Grimes. One amazing man – one amazing family!

We have one more letter from James W. Grimes. It’s a rare one from 1853, written by Grimes to his friend Judge Charles T. Mason who has just been appointed to head up the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. You can read it here.

Godspeed – James & Elizabeth Grimes, sister Sarah Grimes & nephew John C. Walker. Thanks for this amazing look at life in Iowa during these early years: 1839 – 1850.

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

Deering, New Hampshire, Wikipedia

Francestown, New Hampshire, Wikipedia

Brockport, New York, Wikipedia

Hillsboro Bridge – History of town of Hillsborough (also written as Hillsboro),
Hillsborough County, New Hampshire

The Stone Arch Bridges of Hillsborough, Visit Concord NH

The Black Cholera Comes to the Central Valley of America in the 19th Century – 1832, 1849, and Later, William J. Daley, National Library of Medicine

Cholera – 1849, IAGenWeb-Scott County

James W Grimes,1850 United States Federal Census,

James W Grimes,1860 United States Federal Census,

John Grimes Walker, Wikipedia

Admiral John Grimes Walker, Find-A-Grave

Death of Senator Grimes, Muscatine Weekly Journal, February 16, 1872, p 1

James Wilson Grimes, Find-A-Grave

Mr. Grimes’ Bequests, Muscatine Weekly Journal, February 23, 1872, p 2

Sarah C. Grimes, Find-A-Grave

Death of Mrs. Grimes, The Oskaloosa Herald, June 26, 1890, p 2

Elizabeth Sarah Neally Grimes, Find-A-Grave

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