Historical Readings

There are many dates to celebrate in Iowa City's historic beginning. Honoring the 175th anniversary of this great city's founding is one. Milestones and anniversaries come but once a year, therefore it's important to recognize them as they occur.

Iowa Through the Years by Cyrenus Cole

This particular book was previously owned by Irving Weber and contained his pencil and ink underlinings.

On the first day of June, 1833, the Indian title to the lands of the Black Hawk Purchase expired. On that historic day the white men did not wait until daylight to enter this new promised land. At the three ferries (hastily established at Dubuque, Burlington, and Rockingham) long lines of covered wagons waited their turn to cross the river. Where there were no ferries, men crossed in boats, swimming their horses beside them. All they needed was an axe with which to “blaze” what they claimed and a gun with which to defend themselves and to shoot game for subsistence.

The firstcomers followed the streams along which grew the trees out of which they could build cabins and make fuel when winter came. But all did not select land for cultivation: many looked for possible mill sites, and even town sites. Many of the mills they planned where never built, and many of the towns they platted refused to grow.

. . . Not many fields were planted during the first year, and fewer yielded harvests. The planters had arrived too late in the season and the prairie sod was too hard to subdue. A little sod-corn and a few vegetables were the limits of production, but the squatters did not need much more than what they could obtain with guns and fishhooks. A few necessities could be obtained from boats on the Mississippi. Wild fruits and berries served as luxuries, and nuts became staple articles of food in winter.

Before the snows began to fall that year, many of the men and nearly all of the women and children recrossed the river to find shelter with friends and relatives in Illinois. This proved to be a wise precaution, for the winter of 1833-1834 was “one storm after another”. The snows were so deep and the cold so severe that most living creatures disappeared from the land. There was little left to hunt to keep the larders filled. Cooped up in the snow-covered cabins, many of the squatters faced near starvation before the winter was over. (sic)

When the subject of a permanent capital for the Territory of Iowa was raised in the First Legislative Assembly, the committee to which it was referred ventured no farther west or north than Mount Pleasant. The proposal was ridiculed and more than a score of counter proposals were made. To end the strife among the towns, Thomas Cox, a member from Jackson County, proposed that a capital city be built to order “at the most eligible place” in one of the new counties of the Second Black Hawk Purchase.

When the matter came up in the Council (the upper house) Stephen Hempstead of Dubuque expanded the Cox proposal in this form: “That the commissioners hereinafter mentioned, or a majority of them, shall, on the first day of May, in the year eighteen hundred and thirty-nine, meet at the town of Napoleon, and proceed to locate the Seat of Government at the most eligible point within the present limits of Johnson county.” During the later discussion in the House, Mr. Cox injected the words “to be called Iowa City”. In that form the bill was finally passed and approved. Three commissioners were then elected in a joint session of the two houses: Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds, and Robert Talson. (sic)

The Story of Iowa The Progress of an American State by William J. Petersen, Vol. 1

Where should the capital be placed?

. . . (John Ronalds and Chauncey Swan) next duty was to examine the geology of the site to make sure that an abundance of stone suitable for building purposes was readily available – because in those days the transport of stone over any considerable distance was a prohibitive task. So, on May 3, the two turned geologists and wandered along the banks of the Iowa where the water had exposed the rock strata. They soon found the “marble quarry” of which they had been informed and they agreed that the limestone was satisfactory in both quality and quantity.

This left but one more chore; the exact location of the site of the proposed capital and of the quarry had to be precisely determined. The United States official surveyors had not yet reached that part of Iowa hence the commissioners were compelled to make their own “unofficial survey.” Here their clerk John Frierson, who was an experienced surveyor, proved of value. He shortly announced that the “eligible point” and the “marble quarry” were located on Section 10 of Township 79 North in Range 6 West of the Fifth Principal Meridian.

So the two commissioners prepared a wooden post or slab and erected it at a point which was not far from where the Old Stone Capitol now stands. On this post they inscribed these words: SEAT OF GOVERNMENT CITY OF IOWA May 4, 1839. Two days later, the third commissioner, Robert Ralston, arrived and approved what his two associates had accomplished. (sic)

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers by Benj. F. Shambaugh

What should the capital be named?

Founded by government, christened by government, located by government, its site donated by government, planned by government, surveyed by government, its principal building erected by government, Iowa City was without a local government for fourteen years. Nor was there any form of voluntary or extralegal direction given to local affairs during the years preceding the incorporation of Iowa City in 1853.

To be sure the Iowa City community enjoyed the peace of the United States and the peace of Iowa: its inhabitants were under the protection of the laws of the Nation and the police statutes of the Territory (later the State). But there was no mayor to appeal to, no council to petition, no police to preserve order, no municipal lighting, no municipal water, no municipal sewage, no municipal improvement of streets and parks. There was, however in the situation an advantage that seemed to mean much to the citizens: they were free from annoying municipal regulations and they were not called upon to pay city taxes. And so all attempts to incorporate the town were rejected for fourteen years.

. . . The adoption of the Constitution of 1857 did not provoke popular demonstration at Iowa City.

During the late forties and throughout the fifties the people of Iowa City were deeply interested in the establishment of a State institution of higher learning in their midst . . .

. . .And so, the citizens of Iowa City were deeply concerned with legislation pertaining to the State University of Iowa which had been established by the First General Assembly in an act approved on February 25, 1847. While this act had located the University at Iowa City . . . On the assumption that the capital would soon be removed to a more central point in the State, the public buildings at Iowa City and the lots upon which they were located were donated to the University. (sic)

“Athens of the Midwest”, Proceedings of the Old Settlers of Johnson County at their Annual Reunion August 17, 1899

. . . Dr. B. F. Shambaugh who chose for his subject “The Pioneer.” . . . To be called upon to address Iowa pioneers is always an honor. It is more than this – it is a rare privilege . . . For, to stand face to face with pioneers is to inspire feelings of reverence and foster a wholesome respect for our ancestors. To study the lives and characters of the pioneers of Iowa is to strengthen our confidence in the future of this commonwealth. For the Iowa of today and tomorrow is largely determined by those who first settled upon this hills and prairies. “It is with a reverence such as stirred by the sight of the head-waters of some mighty river” that we turn to the consideration of the character of the pioneers of Iowa . . .

They were young, strong, and energetic men, hardy and adventurous. Caring little for the dangers and toils of the frontier, they extended civilization and reclaimed for their industry of the world vast forests, prairies and deserts. By their industry they added much to the utilities of the country. They made roads, built bridges and mills, cleared the forests, broke the prairies, erected houses and barns, planted orchards, and defended the settled country against the Indians. Especially were they distinguished for their intelligence, hospitality, independence and bold enterprise . . .

Nor are we surprised to find the pioneer had these characteristics. It is simply indicative of a more or less perfect adaptation to the conditions of his life. In the first place only strong independent hearts ventured to the frontier. A weaker class could not have hoped to endure the toils, the labor, the pains and the loneliness of pioneer life.

Hugh H. Tarbet now of Victor, Colorado, where he is a popular justice of the peace and notary public . . . received a copy of The Republican's 150,000 edition, and in reply writes a brief letter . . . “Editor Republican: This morning as I entered my office, I found The Republican upon the floor, it having been thrown over the transom by some one.

“Imagine my surprise when I read ‘Iowa City' on it. Thirty-six years ago I left Iowa City to join the United States navy, and have not seen a copy of The Republican since until today. I notice names of some old pioneers, and it seems like turning back to the first pages of my life, and it brings to remembrance things that were almost extinguished in my mind.

“The white bread of my life was eaten in Iowa City and I cherish ‘the Athens' as one of the dearest spots on earth. I cannot contemplate it without feeling a peculiar sensation within my breast.

“The old stone church,' ‘the American house;' ‘the Crummy house,' where stages used to stop; the Capitol, and LeGrand Byington making a 4th of July speech on the front steps; the late Senator Moses Bloom, the clothier, making a talk to the boys going to the war, from the top of a box car at the Rock Island depot; Judge Malcom Murray bidding the 22nd Iowa goodbye and his ‘God bless you; I swore you all in and May God spare you to come back, that I may swear you all out.'

“These things and many more crowd upon my memory until I am unfit for business for the day.

“Yes, Iowa City is a lovely place. In all my wanderings I have not found its equal. (sic)