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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




Three important dates in Iowa history should be remembered in reading the story of Iowa's Capitals.  They are:  1836, when Iowa land became a part of Wisconsin Territory; 1838, when the Territory of Iowa was organized; and 1846, when Iowa became a state.


The first legislature of Wisconsin Territory met at Belmont, Wisconsin.  The place was not satisfactory to the legislature and they decided on a new location, that of Madison, now the capital of Wisconsin.  Since it would take time, however, to build a new capitol, the Hon. Jeremiah Smith, Jr., who was a member of the legislature from Burlington, then called "Flint Hills," offered to put up a building in his city to be used as a temporary capitol.  The offer was accepted and the next legislature of Wisconsin met there in 1837.  Mr. Smith's building burned soon after the legislature met and the members had to be housed in other buildings.

The third session of the Wisconsin legislature was being held in Burlington during the summer of 1838, when the news came that Congress had organized the new "Territory of Iowa."  President Van Buren appointed Robert Lucas, of Ohio, as its governor and told him to select a place for the capital.  Gov. Lucas made a trip up the Mississippi River, visited the important towns, and then decided on Burlington for the capital of the new territory.


The first legislature of the Territory of Iowa met in Zion Church in November, 1838.  It decided to change the location of the capital, in order that it might be nearer the center of population.  Travel at that time was difficult and it took some of the first legislators a long time to get to Burlington.  Three members of the legislature were appointed to choose the new location, with instructions to put it in Johnson County.  They chose a hill on the Iowa River and called the place, "City of Iowa."  There was but one log cabin at the place at that time.

Mr. C. Swan of Dubuque, one of the three men who selected the site, was chosen to plan the city and the new capitol.  He was also appointed to oversee the erection of the building.  Work on the new capitol was started in 1839 and the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1840.  The stone and lumber for the new building were found near Iowa City.  A great celebration was held at the laying of the cornerstone and Governor Lucas delivered an address.

On April 30, 1841, Governor Lucas issued a proclamation whereby the capital was officially changed from Burlington to Iowa City.  Since the new building was not yet completed, a large, two-story frame building, called the Butler Hotel, was for a time used by the state officials.  Some of the business of the state continued to be done at Burlington for several years.


Soon after Iowa was admitted to the Union and the boundaries of the state were known, people again began to talk about a new location for the capital, nearer to the center of the state.  The legislature in 1847 appointed a group of men to select a location for a new capital.  These men decided on a place in Jasper County as the best site and named it Monroe City.  The place was surveyed and lots were sold.  But the next legislature decided that the capital should not be moved and Monroe City was soon forgotten.  It is said that most of those who bought town lots in the "new capital" had their money given back to them.

Other places were now suggested for the capital, among these being Oskaloosa, Pella, Fort Des Moines, and Red Rock.  Some legislators were opposed to moving the capital on account of the expense to the state.  Because of this, some towns offered free land for the capitol and also offered money with which to build it.  Gradually, Fort Des Moines came to be more and more favored as the most desirable place.  It had many advantages, such as nearness to the center of the state, a river (the Des Moines) by which it could be reached by steamboat, and location in a rich agricultural region that was covered with timber and underlain with coal.


In 1854 the legislature decided to move the capital and voted that it should be located within two miles of the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.  A hill a short distance from the former river was selected and a three-story brick building erected.  Governor Grimes approved the new building, and in October, 1857, state officials began to move the seat of government.

There were no railroads west of Iowa City when the capital was changed and since winter was approaching, the moving became quite a task.  The Western Stage Company offered free rides for the officials.  The moving of the equipment, however, was not so easy.  Four large safes and several loads of furniture were hauled on sleds, drawn by oxen, for a part of the way.

When the third convention met in the "Old Capitol" at Iowa City in 1857 to draft the constitution which we now have in Iowa, it provided in that constitution that the capital of the state should be located at Des Moines.  This constitution was adopted by the people at an election held during the summer of 1857 and the location of our capital was thereby definitely fixed, as the legislature had voted.

As the population and wealth of our state grew, it became necessary to provide for a larger capitol.  The present splendid building was dedicated in January 1884, although it was not completed until 1886.  Its total cost was $3,296,256.

The capitol grounds at first covered but four blocks.  In order to enlarge it and to make of it one of the most beautiful capitol grounds in the country, the legislature in 1913 added more ground, so that now it includes eighty-four acres.


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