Rivers Attracted Pioneers to Region

Postcard #1

pioneer cabin

The double cabin of pioneer trader John Gilbert is seen in a depiction from the cover of the 1909 yearbook of the Old Settlers Association of Johnson County. Gilbert moved to what is now Johnson County in 1826 as an agent for the American Fur Company. His first cabin was between two American Indian towns located on and beyond what is now the southern edge of Iowa City.

Homesteaders were required to erect a cabin to claim 40 acres for $1.25 each. Cabins were enlarged and embellished as seen in this one drawn in pen and ink by noted local early 20th century photographer, author and artist Bertha Horack Shambaugh. 

By Bob Hibbs

Johnson County is favored by a river, Iowa City was bestowed upon it in 1839 and the University of Iowa gifted to Iowa City in 1847. 
they flourish as an exciting, healthy, productive and comfortable place to live, raise an educated family and retire.

Creation of an American Mid-west is rooted in Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, which in large measure 
extinguished claims by England, Spain and France to the continental heartland drained by a mighty Mississippi.

Marquette and Joliet made explorations in 1804, and Zebulon Pike traveled to the Mississippi headwaters in 1805, giving vague 
definition to 
what is now Iowa. Americans replaced French traders in pushing the frontier to the mouth of the Des Moines and Iowa rivers.

It is highly probable that Johnson County was first touched by that push in 1822 when Sumner Phelps canoed the Iowa River to 
build a cabin 
for American Fur Company at the mouth of Snyder Creek just south of modern-day Iowa City.

He initiated a fur trade, and in 1826 was succeeded by New Yorker John Gilbert.

Gilbert built his own trading post in 1837 and died in 1839 before he could be told he had been named the first local postmaster.
He was buried nearby, then years later the remains were moved to an unmarked grave in Oakland Cemetery. The location is now lost.

He was eulogized by a contemporary as "a fine scholar and an excellent businessman, a remarkable man for the position he occupied." 
A principal 
Iowa City thoroughfare is named for him.

Gilbert had enticed Philip Clark and Eli Myers to Johnson County from a treaty signing in Davenport in September 1836. They returned 
Indiana the following spring with families to claim homesteads.

A year later Clark established a town, which he called Napoleon, on his farm. Although never more than a cabin and a two-story frame 
house, it became the first county seat.

Clark and Myers would be drawn to the California gold fields in 1849, where Myers died in Sacramento in 1850. Clark returned to cast a 
long shadow in early local history.

Before European settlement, there were three towns in what became Johnson County, all near the river. The largest, headed by 
Poweshiek, was about a mile south of today's Iowa City. A mile north of Poweshiek was one headed by Wapashashiek near what today 
is the southern edge of Iowa City. Torokopock headed a community three miles west of today's Lone Tree.

All were Sauk (Asakiwaki, people of the yellow earth) and Fox (Meshkwahkihaki, or Mesquakie, people of the red earth), who were 
Algonquin-speakers originally from the northeastern United States forced west by European settlement to a center near Rock Island.

"Algonquin" comes from "alligewinenk" which means "come together from distant places." The language is described as "soft and 
musical in comparison with the harsh guttural Narcoutah (language) of the Sioux," some of who also lived in Iowa.

An estimate published in 1883 placed the 1830s population of the Poweshiek community at 1,700 to 2,000, a level Iowa City wouldn't 
reach until the 1850s.

From Johnson County, Indians were forced to Fort Des Moines in 1843 and to Kansas during 1845 and 1846.

Descendants joined in repurchasing Iowa land and founding a Mesquakie settlement in the 1880s that flourishes today on 6,000 acres 
bought through the years in Tama County. Since that site is not from governmental grant, but purchased, the area is not a "reservation" 
in the word's typical meaning.

The county seat was moved from Napoleon to Iowa City on Oct. 8, 1839, with relocation of sparse records, and by law the following Dec. 31.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

Copyright 2003 by Bob Hibbs

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