|JOHNSON COUNTY IAGenWeb Project|
By Bob Hibbs
This sketch of the first courthouse in Iowa City is strikingly similar to the Napoleon image with stone substituted for wood. The drawings were created for the Old Settlers Association in 1909 at a time when few could recall the appearance of either building. A description of the fire ruins of the Iowa City structure cites brick rubble, rather than stone.
Although fewer than 250 settlers were present to participate in 1837 and 1838, Johnson County did not escape the ubiquitous squabbles over the plum of being designated as “the” county seat town.
Fought in virtually every county in the American Midwest, the county-seat battle was incarnated in Johnson County as Osceola versus Napoleon. Ironically, neither town actually existed; in fact, the only three communities existing in the county at the time all were established by Native Americans.
Further, the non-existing towns were actually the same site, unclaimable Native American land until another “purchase” became effective on Oct. 21, 1837. The site is near present-day Napoleon Park along Sand Road at the southern edge of Iowa City.
curious surviving record of the squabble is replete even with poetry, perhaps
foreshadowing Iowa City’s later claim as “the Athens of the Midwest,” a
late 18th and early 19th century puffery allusion to its seat of learning.
ostensibly won, being designated the county seat by Wisconsin territorial act of
June 22, 1838, just 11 days before the Territory of Iowa was created. But, when
officials of the new territory decided the following year to locate its capital
somewhere in Johnson County, the thought became widely accepted that the county
seat would flow into the new capital after a site was selected in May 1839.
Nov. 14, 1839, when the U.S. postmaster general appointed Chauncey Swan as the
new local postmaster, he also designated the post office name as Iowa City.
“Thus Napoleon was snuffed out,” notes an 1883 history of the county.
federal government allowed newly-forming county governments pre-emptive claim at
no cost to a quarter section of land, or 160 acres,
allowed government to take a site and force anyone on any part of it to choose
an unclaimed alternate site. The modern counterpart is the right of government
to use a process called eminent domain to take property and pay the owner for
County eventually chose the area from Court Street (the initial southern
boundary of Iowa City) south to Benton Street and from
territories were allowed to choose a full section of land, a square mile or 640
acres, to establish its capital. The new Territory of Iowa picked the area now
called Section 10 of Iowa City Township in then uncharted wilderness.
now the heart of Iowa City between Court and Brown streets, stretching from
Summit Street to approximately the Iowa River, but actually crossing the river
near Iowa Avenue to take in the area east of what is now North Riverside Drive,
including the Levitt Center and Hancher Auditorium sites.
the latter 1830s, the sometimes light-hearted struggle between Osceola and
Napoleon resulted in surviving poetry.
was the name of a Native American Seminole of Florida who starved himself to
death while being held prisoner. A few lines of the lengthy “Ode to Osceola”
in Johnson County run like this:
supporters of Napoleon fired back with their own salvo. A few lines of it
Some early Johnson County settlers seemed to have enjoyed their political battles.
steeple atop Old Brick Church.
Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.
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