Iowa History Project







Burlington was the first capital of Iowa Territory.  Not until nearly twenty years had passed was the seat of government located at Des Moines, the present site.  The capital moved westward by degrees, being for some years at Iowa City.

Burlington has twice been a capital.  When Wisconsin Territory, which included what is now Iowa, was organized, in 1836, its Legislature met at Belmont, a small town which would now be in the State of Wisconsin.  The question of a permanent capital came up for discussion.

Some members of the Legislature were of the opinion that the Territorial limits of 1836 would not be changed for many years, and that, therefore, the capital should be located about midway between Lake Michigan and the Missouri River.  This would be on the banks of the Mississippi.  With a view of capturing the seat of government the town of Cassville was platted, on the east side of the Mississippi, about twenty-five miles below Prairie du Chien.

Others in the Legislature believed that with the increasing population Wisconsin Territory soon would be divided, and new Territories made.  The Mississippi River would be the natural division.  So these men thought the capital of Wisconsin should be located near what would be the middle of a new Wisconsin Territory.

Dubuque, Bellevue and Peru were the towns on the banks of the Mississippi seeking the honor of being chosen capital; Madison, now in Wisconsin State, was the favorite of the party opposing a Mississippi River site.

Dubuque County, of course, voted against Madison, but Des Moines County, the other of the two counties composing Western Wisconsin, voted for Madison, and Madison won the day.

The Des Moines County representives were pretty sharp.  By hook and crook they showed Burlington had more residents than Dubuque, and secured a provision in the law to the effect that Burlington should be the temporary capital, until Madison was prepared for duties.  Thus Dubuque and the other towns on the Mississippi were outwitted by Burlington.

The candidacy of Burlington was much assisted by the Hon. Jeremiah Smith, Jr., a member of the Wisconsin Legislature that decided the question of capital.  Before the government officials could settle at Madison public buildings must be erected there.  Belmont was so small, and the accommodations so meager, that the Territorial attaches did not like the idea of staying there until Madison was prepared.  Mr. Smith was one of the wealthiest men in the Territory.  He offered to put up a suitable building in Burlington for a temporary capitol, if the legislature would hold its next session there.

This was agreed to, it being understood the structure would cost $10,000.  Belmont, having enjoyed brief glory of a capital, lapsed into obscurity, and the site of the old town is now a farm.

The capitol at Burlington was to be used until March 4, 1839, unless the public buildings at Madison were completed before this limit.  But only a few meetings were held in the structure, for fire destroyed it during the second session of the Wisconsin Legislature, in the fall of 1837.  Legislatures used to assemble every year, instead of every two years, as now.

After the fire the Council, as the Territorial Senate was termed, met in the upper room of a store building; the House in a frame dwelling.

The third Wisconsin Territorial Legislature also convened at Burlington, in extra session, in the summer of 1838.  This session received the notice from Washington that Congress approved an act making Western Wisconsin a Territory, with name of Iowa.

Thus Burlington, having served as capital of Wisconsin Territory, was on the high road to farther honor.  It was expected that the town would be the capital of the new Territory.

July 4, 1838, Iowa Territory was organized.  Robert Lucas, of Ohio, was appointed governor, by the president, with power to select the capital, and to do a great many other things made necessary by the conditions encountered.  He was commissioner of Indian affairs as well.

Governor Robert Lucas was a distinguished man.  He had twice been governor of Ohio.  He had been nineteen years in the Ohio Legislature, had presided at the national convention which nominated President Jackson for a second term, and had served in the War of 1812.

Mr. Lucas was a native of Virginia, and at this time fifty-seven years old.  He was tall and spare, and bore some resemblance to Andrew Jackson.  His hair was tinged with gray, and was combined back without a part, so that it formed a ruff, or "top."  He was quiet and reserved in his manner.

The time allowed Governor Lucas to remove from Ohio to Iowa was very short, and his preparations were hurriedly made.  Before he transacted much business revolving upon him by reason of his new duties he made a tour of the river counties for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the people whom he was to govern.  He stopped a few days at Burlington, but did not at once choose it as the capital.

Before fall Governor Lucas had ascended the Mississippi from Keokuk to Dubuque, and had been entertained by Antoine LeClaire, and had learned a great deal about Iowa.  When the boar halted at the "landings," as the towns along the bank were termed, he gathered much information from the people whom he met.  Where Sabula now is there was such a crowd on the shore that the governor asked the captain of the Brazil:

"What is the trouble here?"

"They're voting.  This is a voting precinct," exclaimed the captain.  "Do you want to vote?"

The governor and party decided that they did.  The captain had the boat turned into shore, and his passengers stepped onto the bank and voted for Congressman.

After he had seen a number of towns in Iowa Territory, Governor Lucas selected Burlington as capital, until the legislature should change the location.

The Legislature convened in November, 1838, in Zion Church.  The Council had thirteen members, the House, twenty-six.

Zion Church deserves to be remembered.  It was the first brick church erected in Iowa Territory, and, besides serving as the first capitol of the Territory, was intimately connected with the growth of this section of the country.  It was the court house and was for many years the chief public building, place of amusement, etc., in Burlington.

The Council met in the basement, the House in the main room.  The pulpit was the speaker's desk.  Only three or four in the Legislature had had experience in such gatherings; therefore, this first general assembly labored under disadvantages.

The legislators came to Burlington on horseback, by stage, by steamboat, and on foot.  Winter set in unusually early.  Stationery purchased in the East was blockaded at St. Louis, by the ice, and it became necessary to hire teams to haul the supplies from that city to Burlington.  A library of statutes of other Territories and of States, procured for the instruction of the legislators, was left at St. Louis.  This increased the difficulties attending the first assembly.

The Legislature had a great amount of work to do.  It passed over 600 pages of laws, and although an extravagant policy was favored by many of the members, guided by the wise suggestions of Governor Lucas it inaugurated some beneficent measures.

The Legislature did not always agree with the Governor.  He recommended economy.  The Assembly, acting contrary to his advice, elected twice the number of officers that Ohio, a comparatively old State, possessed.  A member said:  

"Uncle Sam is a cow, and we will milk her freely."

As a consequence of this policy, when the Legislature adjourned it had not only used up all the appropriation voted by Congress, but had run in debt, while members had been so reckless that they were compelled to borrow money with which to secure passage to their homes.

The message of Governor Lucas to the Legislature was a wise and statesmanlike document-one of the very best ever delivered to any Iowa legislative assembly.  He recommended that land be procured for literary purposes-meaning for a State university-and in other ways showed that he was a broad-minded, far-seeing man.

In this first Legislature were several rather old characters.  The president of the Council was Captain Jesse B. Browne, who had been one of the officers stationed at Fort Des Moines No. 1.  He was six feet six inches, and with one exception was the tallest man in Burlington.  He was nicknamed the "tall cedar of Lebanon".  His rival in height was a Methodist minister.

Then there was Rober G. Roberts, of Cedar County.  He never was quiet, but roamed all about the House, joking with his fellow members.  He did not keep track of what was going on, and when a motion was put he would call.

"Mr. Speaker, if Cedar is in that 'ere bill I vote yea; if not, no."

In fun one day a bill was presented depriving the county of Cedar of representation in the House.  Roberts, being assured that "Cedar is in that 'ere bill", voted for it.  When he discovered what he had done, he begged that the action be reconsidered.  The other members assented, but after that Representative Roberts was always careful to understand what was before the House.

James W. Grimes, third governor of the State of Iowa, was a prominent member of the House; in the Council was Stephen Hempstead, destined to be the second governor.

While in Burlington Governor Lucas lived at the Burlington Hotel.  In the fall of 1838, Keokuk and his braves paid a visit to the Governor and other Territorial officers.  The occasion was one of much display and dignity.  Keokuk made an address, to which the Governor responded.  In the spring the Governor and party returned the courtesy.  Baggage wagons, tents, and cooking utensils were taken along, for the trip to the agency required some time.

A favorite garb in those days was the Mackinaw blanket overcoat.  Governor Lucas wore one reaching to his ankles, and having a broad, red stripe around the bottom.  The Governor was an earnest Christian; he regularly attended service at the Methodist Church,  and often, by invitation of the minister, would follow the sermon with an address to the congregation.

He had been appointed for three years, and in 1841 was succeeded by Governor John Chambers.  Governor Lucas then resided on a farm owned by him, near Iowa City.  Here, February 7, 1853, he died.

The first Territorial Legislature decided to remove the capital farther west.  A commission sent out to select a location in Johnson County, in May, 1839, fixed on a site at Iowa City, or City of Iowa, as it was thought the town would be called.  At this time the only building in sight from the spot where the stake had been driven was half finished log cabin.

April 30, 1841, Governor Lucas issued a proclamation changing the capital from Burlington to Iowa City.  Pending the completion of a capitol building, a two-story frame structure, called the Butler Hotel, was used as headquarters, and here, in December, 1841, the fourth regular session of the Iowa Territorial Legislature was held.  For five or six years, however, much of the executive business was transacted at Burlington.

Iowa became a State, with Iowa City still the capital.  But there was a feeling that the seat of government should be near the center of the area.  Des Moines was selected for the honor, and in November, 1857, the State effects were moved from Iowa City and the old capitol, to the new capitol, then hardly more than half finished.  It was not until the close of the year that the last loads of State goods - in bobsleds drawn by oxen - reached Des Moines.

The Western Stage Co. gave free transportation to State officials making the change.  The members of the Seventh General Assembly, the first Assembly to meet in Des Moines, came to the capital by stage and wagon.  Probably some walked.  Many legislators traveled over a hundred miles, with the thermometer twenty below.  No railroads penetrated to the capital then.

The capitol building was in the midst of heavy woods, with squirrels, quail and grouse abundant.  Along Four Mile Creek, to the east, were wild turkeys, and an occasional elk and deer.  There were no sidewalks near the capitol.  Hazel brush was dense.  Not far off was a pond containing musk rats.  The only bridge across the river was a pontoon structure.  The East Side, the side on which the capitol then, as well as to-day, was located, had about thirty houses.  Muddy lowland stretched between the capitol and the river.

The first governor of the State of Iowa was Ansel Briggs, who was elected October 26, 1846.  He was a native of New Hampshire, and in early manhood had operated a stage line.  He was an unassuming man, of pleasing address.  He was exceedingly plain in his dress and manners.  At this time many people in Iowa were opposed to banks.  Ansel Briggs won popularity by his stand on the question, and his utterance at a banquet,  "No banks but earth, and these well tilled," greatly assisted his candidacy for the governorship.

The most remarkable of the State governors, preceding war times, was James W. Grimes, third of the executives, and elected in 1854.  His administration required a man of strong character, for the slavery contest between the people of Kansas, who wanted slavery, and those who did not want it, was waging, involving Missouri and Iowa.  Governor Grimes was a bitter foe to slavery.  In his campaign he drove about from county to county, urging all the citizens to stand firm against the importation of slaves into the North. When Iowans who moved into Kansas to settle were maltreated by ruffians trying to keep anit-slavery people out of the Territory, Governor Grimes sent an indignant protest to President Pierce, demanding protection for Iowa emigrants.

Said Governor Grimes, in an address:

"As well attempt to dam the Des Moines River with prairie hay as to try to eradicate the aspirations for universal freedom from the soul of every American who appreciates his own liberty."

Governor Grimes was also opposed to intoxicating liquor, and would not attend a banquet at Burlington because champagne was to be on the table.

Governor Grimes' career was characterized by honesty of purpose and loyalty to principle.  He always meant what he said, and never was guilty of double dealing.  His life was especially beautiful because of his devotion to be wife and home.

The State has great reason to remember and be proud of Governor James W. Grimes.


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