Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs

Saturday Postcard 184: County Seat Matters


court house

  Fur trader John Gilbert, first sheriff Samuel Trowbridge and other pioneers who supported designation of Napoleon as Johnson County seat “chipped in together” to built a two-story frame cabin that became the first county courthouse. It was located near what today is Napoleon Park on Iowa City’s southern edge. The image has been digitally repaired and enhanced.

JC Court house

    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.




By Bob Hibbs


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.


The 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.  


Napoleon 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.  


On 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.  


The federal government allowed newly-forming county governments pre-emptive claim at no cost to a quarter section of land, or 160 acres, 
within their boundaries for the purpose of selling lots to settlers to fund the new government and its first buildings. Private claims typically cost $1.25 an acre.  


Pre-emption 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 it.  


Johnson County eventually chose the area from Court Street (the initial southern boundary of Iowa City) south to Benton Street and from 
the Iowa River east to near Gilbert Street, selling off most of the claimed area as lots, but retaining the current square block site of the Courthouse as its home base.


New 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.  

It’s 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.  


During the latter 1830s, the sometimes light-hearted struggle between Osceola and Napoleon resulted in surviving poetry.  


Osceola 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: “And long his memory will be dear; his name still sacred shall remain; for him a monument we’ll rear on Iowa’s fair and flowery plain. We’ll build a 
city to his name – with church and stately tower adorn; high as the heavens shall reach its fame, and in it none shall hunger, thirst or mourn.”


The supporters of Napoleon fired back with their own salvo. A few lines of it follow. “Vain, feeble worm! Presumptuous boy! How vain conceit doth lift thee up! ‘Ere long shall trouble mar thy joy, for bitter sorrow thou shalt sup.” And later: “Thy boasted church and stately tower, and monument with all its fame, shall fall before my potent power, nor dare to speak thy plebian name.”


Some early Johnson County settlers seemed to have enjoyed their political battles.


Next Saturday: A steeple atop Old Brick Church.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 
He may be reached at 338-3175 or at


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