Iowa City’s Top 50 Influencers: Part One – 1832-1845.

Back on February 9, 1979The Iowa City Press Citizen ran a special seven-page section called Chronology 1841/1979 and it featured Iowa City’s famed historian – Irving Weber – and his look at 25 People Who Left Their Stamp On Iowa City. You can check it out here.

So, here we are – forty-four years later – and I’d like to offer you my version of Weber’s salute to those who have greatly influenced our city. I’ve been posting stories about Iowa City, Johnson County, and eastern Iowa, now, for several years, and here’s my list of Iowa City’s Top 50 Influencers over the first 100 years or so of our fair community’s existence.

This page features the First 25, and as you can see, each of the 25 names has a brief overview with a link(s) to read more, if you like. Enjoy!

Here’s a link to the Second 25 – Iowa City’s Top Fifty Influencers (TFI) – 1846 to 1939.

So very often lost in our American story is the epic adventure of the Sauk Tribal Chief Black Hawk and his amazing home of Saukenuk. Located in the Rock River Valley – directly across from today’s Davenport – this thriving city of 6,000 souls was one of the largest Native American communities in North America. Sadly, by the 1830’s, Black Hawk and his tribe were faced with starvation and needed Saukenuk to survive. The result was the Black Hawk War (1832) and an embarrassing black eye for the American westward movement. Many don’t realize that the name of our state – Iowa – can be traced back to a phrase in Black Hawk’s Algonquin language – kiowa – which means “this is the place.” And it was The Black Hawk Purchase of 1833 that opened Iowa to white settlers – which eventually led to the exploration of Johnson County, and the creation of Iowa City. We all owe so much to Black Hawk and his fight against injustice.
Black Hawk Of Saukenuk.
Iowa – This Is The Place.
Our Indigenous Land Acknowledgment.
During a very volatile time in Iowa history (1830-1854), the Meskwaki Tribal Chief Poweshiek did a masterful job of maintaining peace, yet never sacrificing his strong principles – believing that all men should live in freedom. After the Black Hawk War (1832), Chief Poweshiek, Chief Wapashashiek, and Chief Totokonock led their people to relocate their Meskwaki communities onto familiar summer hunting grounds located near the Iowa River – in today’s Johnson County. The largest community, headed by Poweshiek, was about five miles south of today’s Iowa City. Just north of Poweshiek’s camp was another village led by Wapashashiek, while a third village, led by Totokonock, was twelve miles south of Iowa City on Sand Road at the mouth of the English River, just west of today’s Lone Tree. One biographer states…“those who knew Poweshiek called him a man of great energy, a wise counselor, and the soul of honor…one who remembered kindness, and his word could be relied upon.”
Chief Poweshiek – The Roused Brown Bear.
Meskwaki People – True Native Iowans.
Preserving The Meskwaki Language of Iowa.
Fur traders were the first European pioneers to travel up the uncharted inland waters of the Mississippi River. One entrepreneur from Illinois, who had a striking resemblance to another man from the Prairie State – can you guess who? – was one of the first white men to set foot – around 1832 – in what would soon become Johnson County – establishing trade with the Meskwaki tribes living on the Iowa River. A good friend and fair trading partner with the Sauk & Fox people, Stephen Sumner Phelps‘ Native American nickname was Wah-wash-e-ne-qua – an Algonquin word that translates – Hawkeye! While Phelps never settled in Johnson County, he certainly can be credited as the earliest Iowa pioneer who befriended Poweshiek and his tribe, opening doors for others to follow in his example.
Stephen Sumner Phelps – The Original Iowa Hawkeye.
1820’s/1830’s – Phelps vs. Gilbert.
In 1835, a 27-year old Tennessee lieutenant traveled up and down the Des Moines River valley with a Regiment of U.S. Dragoons. Their assignment was to map out this uncharted prairie the Sauk and Fox tribes called kiowa – this is the place. The expedition was a success, but it wasn’t until Albert M. Lea – that soldier from Knoxville – published his notes in book form (1836) when Americans united around the name – Iowa – when describing this beautiful land west of the Mississippi River. His book also included a large hand-drawn map, neatly folded and stored in the back of the book, and it was this map that gave early settlers a clearer picture of the opportunity that awaited them in this land Lea called The Iowa District.
The Book That Gave Iowa Its Name.
Albert Lea’s 1835 Map of Iowa.
This fur-trader/land investor first ventured into the Iowa River valley around 1836, establishing a full-service trading post that replaced the temporary American Fur Company post that the traveling fur-trader – Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps – started around 1832. Over the years, John Gilbert has been heralded as the first white man to set foot in Johnson County and the first to build a trading house here. Yet, there’s a dirty little secret we must tell you. Not only didn’t John Gilbert do these things, his real name was actually John W. Prentice! Yet, despite these reports, Gilbert/Prentice was, in fact, the first permanent white settler here, and was instrumental in bringing others to the area, thus becoming the “founding father” of the little community of Napoleon – Johnson County’s predecessor to Iowa City.
Will The Real John Gilbert – Please Stand Up?
The Story of Napoleon, Iowa – 1832-1839.
The U.S. Post Office Comes to Johnson County.
With the creation of Johnson County (1837), John Gilbert went to work, calling for a “business meeting” (January 1838) where a diverse team of six men and one woman met to draft a strategic plan that would be presented to the Iowa Territorial legislature, requesting major funding for roads, bridges, and a post office! The plan worked and over the next year, big preparations were made to make Johnson County the home of Iowa’s new capital city! The exciting story here is that in Johnson County’s earliest moments, we find both diversity and acceptance of differences operating in a corporate setting with Mogawk – an African American man, and Jennie – a Native American woman playing a role in this historic beginning.
The Johnson County Business Meeting That Changed Iowa History.
Courting Johnson County.
Johnson County Remembrance Park.
In 1836, a visionary born in Wales came to Dubuque after serving as a civil engineer who helped with the construction of America’s first interstate railroad – a 60-mile stretch between Petersburg, Virginia and Blakely Depot, North Carolina. You see, John Plumbe, Jr. was a dreamer, and after moving to Iowa, he came to believe that the best future for America would be achieved thru a coast-to-coast railway system. His first step was to convince Congress to finance a set of tracks from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, but in 1838, legislators told Plumbe that it would be easier to build a railroad to the moon than to develop a transcontinental railroad! Discouraged but not done, Plumbe went on to other interests, authoring his classic book, Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin (1839) – one of the earliest works published west of the Mississippi advocating immigration. In it, he maps out, for the first time, Governor Lucas’ vision for Johnson County’s “City of Iowa” – Iowa City.
John Plumbe, Jr. – Engineering a Railroad to the Moon.
The Mapping of Iowa City – 1832 To Today.
On July 4, 1838, Iowa, which had been part of Wisconsin Territory since 1836, officially became a separate U.S. Territory, and President Martin Van Buren decided to look to Ohio, hand-picking his friend, the 57-year-old Robert Lucas, as Iowa’s first Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. On August 15th of 1838, the new Territorial Governor and his small traveling party arrived by steamboat in Burlington, and over the next three years, Lucas built new roads, envisioned a government-supported education system, and moved the capital to a more central location – creating Johnson County’s City of Iowa (Iowa City). In the process, Lucas established Iowa as one of the most progressive territories in the West.
Ohio’s Robert Lucas – Life Before Iowa.
Welcome to Iowa, Governor Lucas.
Iowa Territory 1838-1846.
Iowa City’s Humble Beginnings.
Without a doubt, the nickname, Hawkeye, goes with Iowa like summer sweet corn goes with butter. So, how did the name come about? We’ve got the facts, and they all date back about 1838 in Burlington, Iowa. Two men – Judge David Rorer and Newspaper Editor James G. Edwards – both became concerned that Iowa would be given an unflattering label by its regional neighbors, so they decided it would be better if Iowans created their own nickname. Based on their mutual friendship with the famed Sauk Chief – Black Hawk, and the Johnson County fur-trader Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps, Edwards & Rorer combined their ideas with the lead character out of The Last of The Mohicans, and we now have the unique nickname – we’re all Hawkeyes from Iowa.
Burlington & The Hawkeye State.
Iowa Newspapers – The Early Years.
Many people don’t realize how very close we, Iowans, came to never having this new community called Iowa City. It was in January 1839 – in Burlington – where one man’s vote made all the difference. Governor Lucas had just brought forth his controversial idea of creating a whole new capital city – one that would be centrally-located in Johnson County. Many legislators hated the idea – primarily those who preferred a southern location, or selfishly wanted the new capital in their own county! After much debate, it all came down to a single vote, with Iowa City winning – 13 yea – 12 nay. So, here’s a tip of the old hat to Laurel Summers of Parkhurst, Iowa – Territorial Representative from Scott County – for casting that one vote that ended the tie – making Iowa City the new capital city of Iowa! Without your vote, Mr. Summers, we’d all still be sitting in Burlington!
Laurel Summers – The Man Who Saved Iowa City.
January 1842 – A Letter From The Fourth Assembly.
On May 4, 1839, a three-man committee stood atop a beautiful piece of Johnson County land overlooking the Iowa River. As Chauncey Swan drove a stake into the ground, Iowa City had its humble beginnings, and over the next ten years, this same faithful man proved time and time again why he has long been designated the Father of Iowa City. Swan had served as postmaster back home in New York before coming to Iowa. Now, once again, as Iowa City was taking shape, he was appointed as postmaster for Johnson County, and as building superintendent for Iowa’s new capitol, Chauncey contended with many setbacks. Arguably, the biggest blow came only nine days after the cornerstone was laid – July 4, 1840. That’s when the architect and building contractor, John F. Rague, suddenly left the project, leaving Swan with the added responsibilities of hiring and paying workers, drawing up contracts, purchasing materials, and supervising day-to-day construction.
Chauncey Swan – The Father of Iowa City.
Iowa City’s Humble Beginnings.
Old Capitol – The Icon Of SUI.
When Old Capitol Was The New Capitol: 1841-1857.
John F. Rague – Creator Of A Classic.
The Old Capitol Gem That Got Away.
In the fall of 1836, Philip Clark and his friend – Eli Myers – rode their horses from Elkhart, Indiana to Fort Armstrong (Rock Island, Illinois), understanding that a new land agreement was about to be signed between the United States and the Sauk and Fox nations. Once there, the men met John Gilbert, who persuaded them to come see the new Iowa land that was becoming available. By the following spring (1837), Clark & Myers and their families had become some of Johnson County’s first white settlers. One year later – on May 1, 1839 – three Territorial commissioners were to report to Johnson County, with the assignment of picking the location for the new Iowa capital city. By mid-day, only one man – Chauncey Swan – had arrived, leaving the good people of the county seat of Napoleon wondering if the whole project would be lost. Thankfully, a 35-year-old farmer named Philip Clark saved the day! He mounted his horse, made a 35-mile trip through the wilderness, fetching a second commissioner – John Ronalds. They arrived in the nick of time – saving the future hopes of Johnson County before the strike of midnight.
The Midnight Ride of Philip Clark.
Philip Clark – Johnson County’s Irish Settler.
Under U.S. law, when a new Territory was established in the west, that territorial government was allowed to choose a full section of land – one square mile or 640 acres – to establish its capital. So in May 1839 – when Chauncey Swan and his companions staked out an uncharted piece of wilderness located on the Iowa River – legally called Section 10 – Township 79 North, Range 6 – West 5th Principal Meridian in Johnson County – the next move was to employ Col. Thomas Cox and Gen. John Frierson as surveyors, and L. Judson as the draftsman to prosecute the work. By July 4, 1839, L. Judson presented his final product – the very first map of Iowa City – one square mile with 100 surveyed blocks in the center. Each of those city blocks measured approximately 2.35 acres each (320 ft x 320 ft) – and each of the surveyed blocks was sectioned into eight lots measuring 80 x 150 feet. Welcome to Iowa City!
Iowa City’s Humble Beginnings.
1839 – The Twenty-Four Streets Of Iowa City.
The Mapping of Iowa City – 1832 To Today.
In 1839, a brick-maker from Connecticut was assigned by Territorial Governor Robert Lucas to recruit Iowa militiamen for the border squirmish that was brewing on the Iowa/Missouri border. Iowa City was abuzz at the time, but no sooner did Sylvanus Johnson get there, the ‘Honey War’ was over, leaving him with no money and no job. So, Johnson did what he does best – make bricks. In the process, he ended up becoming one of the founding pioneers of Iowa’s new territorial capital. Over the next few decades, Johnson’s brickyard located in Outlot 24 – at the corner of Burlington and Gilbert Streets – produced much of the red brick that gave early Iowa City and the State University of Iowa (SUI) its identifiable 19th-century look.
Sylvanus Johnson – Mr. Red Brick.
SUI Red Brick Campus –The Golden Age Of The State University of Iowa.
Mechanics Academy: The Cradle Of SUI.
In 1837, a lawyer from New York made his way to Burlington, just in time for the explosive growth surrounding Iowa’s new Territorial capital. Over the first year, Charles T. Mason – who was appointed as Iowa’s first Chief Justice – and his two fellow judges – Joseph Williams of Bloomington and Thomas S. Wilson from Dubuque – traveled extensively around the counties of Iowa, overseeing court proceedings as needed. But during the early summer of 1839, a civic case was brewing, and it all exploded in early July, culminating in this new Supreme Court’s very first assignment. The case was entitled: In the matter of Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus, and it focused on a Missouri farmer and the ownership issue surrounding his slave, Ralph, who was living and working in Dubuque. On the afternoon of July 4, 1839 – Independence Day – the huge decision was announced. Judge George T. Mason, along with his two fellow judges, ruled that Ralph, the 44-year old slave from Missouri, was now a free man – a decision that truly bolstered the abolitionist, anti-slavery movement across Iowa for years to come.
Charles T. Mason – Here Comes The Judge.
Ralph + Wilson + Mason = The Road To Freedom.
T. S. Wilson – Dubuque’s Good Neighbor.
Judge Williams & Legal Troubles in Bloomington.
Fales To Mason – Iowa City To Burlington – 1850.
In 1838, when Iowa became a U.S. Territory, there were less than 23,000 people in the entire region, with most of Iowa comprised of either rich prairie-land or forested woodlands, with countless creeks and rivers winding their way southward toward the Mississippi River. Transportation, at the time, was pretty much limited to waterways, via canoe or raft, or by walking and/or riding by horse or mule on the limited number of trails that had been cut through the prairies by Native Iowans. Robert Lucas – in one of his first acts as governor – asked the U.S. Senate to fund a Military Road running the length of the Territory from Dubuque to the Missouri border. After an extensive survey of the land, Lyman Dillon, a young farmer from Cascade, was hired to plow up a furrow from Dubuque to Iowa City (86 miles), marking the pathway for road construction workers to follow. Beginning in the fall of 1839, Dillon took a large sod-breaking plow with a team of five oxen, a horse-drawn covered wagon for provisions, and under the guidance of an army engineer, spent 10 grueling days, plowing up, what later would become known as, Dillon’s Furrow.
Lyman Dillon – Plowing the Straight & Narrow.
On the Road to Iowa City.
Henry County to Iowa City – The Red Ball Route.
In his June 1838 journal entry, Theodore S. Parvin makes his first mention of his dream of going west to Iowa Territory. In July, young Parvin was introduced to Ohio’s former governor – Robert Lucas – who had just been appointed to the governorship of Iowa Territory by President Martin Van Buren. That conversation quickly led to Lucas inviting T.S. to accompany him to Iowa as one of his private secretaries. Over the next few decades, Parvin had his hands in numerous Iowa City-based projects, including jobs like – 1) serving as Iowa’s first governmental librarian (1839), 2) encouraging Iowans to vote down a premature and politically-motivated drive to statehood (1844), 3) serving as an early supporter of the fledgling State University of Iowa (1847), and 4) helping organize the State Historical Society of Iowa (1857).
Parvin & Aldrich – Making & Collecting Iowa History.
Welcome to Iowa, Governor Lucas.
In 1834, Massachusetts native John B. Newhall arrived in Burlington, opening up a general store with two relatives. Over the next fifteen years, Newhall – who wrote editorials for the Burlington Hawk-Eye newspaper, and was known to his readers as Che-Mo-Ko-Mon – became nothing short of a regional celebrity. Between 1840 and 1846, Newhall authored three guidebooks that proved to be invaluable for those who were relocating to this beautiful “this is the place” land called Iowa. His 1840 Sketches of Iowa also provided us an amazing first look at Iowa City as it was in its infancy – literally, only months after its creation in May 1839. Two years later, Newhall was one of those illustrious travelers who came into Iowa City on June 20, 1841 on the steamboat Ripple, and was one of the featured speakers at the festive gathering that celebrated this special event.
J.B. Newhall – Iowa’s First Rock Star.
1840 – Sketches Of Iowa City – J. B. Newhall.
Steamboat’s A-Comin’ – Maybe?
1846 – A Glimpse Of Iowa City – J. B. Newhall.
In 1841, the new capitol building in Iowa City was far from completion, but the Iowa Territorial Legislature in Burlington told the good people of Johnson County that they’d be willing to meet in Iowa City in December if there would be free meeting space available. In all honesty, those legislators who made this disingenuous offer, actually hated the idea of moving Iowa’s Territorial capital to Johnson County, and were looking for any excuse to show that Iowa City was just a joke. So, in the spring of 1841, they threw out this invitation, believing nothing would come of it! But wait! To the rescue was Iowa City’s Walter Butler – a good man with a generous heart, and some amazing carpentry and construction skills! In just a few months, Butler put together a large meeting hall, offered it to the Territory for free, and, miraculously, Iowa City hosted its first Territorial Legislative Assembly in December of 1841!
Walter Butler – A True Servant’s Heart.
January 1842 – A Letter From The Fourth Assembly.
When Robert Lucas came to Iowa from Ohio in August 1838 to take up his newly-appointed assignment as Territorial Governor, he brought with him two young assistants – Theodore S. Parvin and Jesse Williams. Over time, Williams not only served as one of Lucas’ private secretaries, but he was also assigned as Territorial Auditor (1840), Territorial Agent (1841), and Territorial Secretary (1845). It was during his one-year stint as Territorial Agent (1841), when the construction of Iowa Territory’s new capitol in Iowa City was not going well. Funding was very limited and Williams was given the job of coming up with some creative fund-raising – which he did by connecting with one of Dubuque’s earliest settlers – Edward Langworthy. As it turned out, Williams saved the capitol, but it cost him his job.
Jesse Williams – Rescuing Iowa’s New Capitol – 1841.
Old Capitol – The Icon Of SUI.
When Old Capitol Was The New Capitol: 1841-1857.
John F. Rague – Creator Of A Classic.
The Old Capitol Gem That Got Away.
In 1836, The Dubuque Visitor became Iowa’s very first newspaper, and between 1836 and 1860, over 200 newspapers sprung up in this new land called Iowa. Yet by the start of the Civil War (1861), over half of those small-town weeklies had crashed and burned. In 1841, just as Iowa City was preparing to host its first Territorial Legislative Assembly, two young entrepreneurs came to town, going head-to-head as they published Iowa City’s first two newspapers. William Crum moved his paper in from nearby Bloomington (Muscatine), renaming it The Iowa City Standard – just in time to cover the big story of the steamboat Ripple chugging up the Iowa River. Thomas Hughes and his Iowa Capital Reporter arrived soon after, publishing his first edition on December 4 – two days before the Iowa Legislature opened its first Iowa City session. While neither man stayed with their newspapers long term, selling their interest to others who successfully came after them, both men greatly influenced the early history of our fair community.
The Iowa City Newspaper Wars.
Iowa Newspapers – The Early Years.
The Daily Iowan – The Newspaper For Hawkeyes.
Born in New Hampshire in 1818, Gilman Folsom caught the “go-west-young-man-go west” bug, moving to Iowa City in 1841. Coming here to practice law, Folsom had a rough go of it in his first few years, but eventually, he became a very well-known and well-respected Iowa Citian – serving in the Iowa House of Representatives for two terms (1850-1854). Gilman married Emily Arthur in August 1843, and took over his late father-in-law’s ferry business in Iowa City in 1845. By the late 1840’s, people were clamoring for a bridge of any kind to replace the slower ferry service. Thanks to Gilman Folsom, Iowa City’s first bridge was constructed (1854), connecting both sides of the river on the National Road – which today is the Iowa Avenue Bridge. Thanks, Gilman, for being the first to ‘bridge’ the gap!
Gilman Folsom – Crossing The Iowa River.
Letters To Gilman Folsom – Iowa City Pioneer.
Folsom’s Fury – Building A Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Tracking Down Iowa City’s Boyd Wilkinson.
The Bridges of Iowa City.
Just as it is today, dissension and division caused a church divide in the Presbyterian Church of Iowa, and by 1842, there were two Presbyterian churches in Iowa City – one that had a traditional reformed theology, and the other – a more modern, less formal belief system. With the financial support of the American Home Missionary Society, Rev. William W. Woods was one of the first evangelists to bring the gospel message to Iowa City in order to care for souls. As pastor of the New School Stone Church – part of the new Des Moines Presbytery – Woods helped build a state-wide network of churches that expanded steadily with Iowa’s westward expansion. Over the remainder of the 19th century, there were many godly men and women who came here, influencing, in a positive way, the fabric of our society.
Rev. W.W. Woods – Bringing The Gospel To Iowa City.
1848 – Iowa City’s Hum-Dinger of A Bell Story.
Josias & Christiana Ritter – Iowa City Church Planters.
Johann F. Doescher – Breaking Down Walls That Divide.
Heinrich Wehrs – Iowa City’s Frontier Pastor.
In 1843, Walter Terrell built a dam and a three-story grist (flour) mill on the Iowa River just north of Iowa City – what is today, directly in front of the Mayflower Apartments. Settlers from the surrounding area came to Terrell’s Mill to grind corn, oats, rye, and wheat, and it prospered for nearly forty years. Even after The Mill closed (1881) – due to excess flooding – this section of the Iowa River became the city’s playground – which included the infamous Island. About 75 yards long and 25 yards wide, with a heavy growth of trees, The Island was a popular spot for boating, canoeing, swimming and picnicking, and it is said to be the place where “many a lover’s troth was pledged there.” By 1906, Iowa City opened a new city park directly across from the now-abandoned Terrell’s Mill.
Walter Terrell & His Waterworks.
Let’s Go To City Park!
Let’s Go To City Park! (Part II)
When Iowa became a new U.S. Territory in 1838, Governor Lucas appointed three judges to oversee the judicial needs of the people – Charles T. Mason – from Burlington – was appointed as Iowa’s first Chief Justice, and his two fellow judges were Thomas S. Wilson from Dubuque, and Joseph Williams of Bloomington (Muscatine). Each covering a section of the Territory, Williams was assigned the middle – which included Johnson County. In our collection, we have a wonderful example of the kind of work Judge Williams had on his plate. On February 10, 1845, the Clerk of the District Court, Johnson County, Iowa Territory – working on behalf of Williams – wrote to the Sheriff of Bloomington, asking for his help in a land dispute. Written from his desk in the Old Stone Capitol, this stamp-less letter provides a wonderful look at life in the Territory of Iowa.
Judge Williams & Legal Troubles in Bloomington.
Ralph + Wilson + Mason = The Road To Freedom.
Charles T. Mason – Here Comes The Judge.
T. S. Wilson – Dubuque’s Good Neighbor.

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