We’re so excited that Dick Hakes wrote up this extensive article about Remembrance Park for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The article appeared in the April 8, 2022 edition.
Some 180 years ago, just south of Iowa City along the Iowa River, pioneer fur trader John Gilbert was scrabbling for a living by procuring fox, deer, beaver and raccoon pelts for his Eastern customers.
His log cabin trading post was one of three established by early fur traders in this vicinity, all apparently on friendly terms with three Meskwaki tribal villages a few miles away.
Gilbert probably did not envision a future where the Iowa City skyline to the north would be punctuated by impressive silhouettes of towering hotels, condominiums and hospitals. His immediate goal was to bring basic services like roads, bridges and a postal service to the region.
With that in mind, Gilbert hosted a historic meeting at his cabin in January 1838, according to a new book by local historian Marybeth Slonneger. Her “Remembrance Park,” released last month, details the life of pioneer fur traders and the Native population of the era.
Slonneger thinks Iowa City’s beginnings as a community of acceptance and diversity may have emerged at this meeting.
Her research indicates that, in addition to Gilbert and four other white male settlers, those at the meeting included an older woman of the Winnebago tribe named Jenny who worked for Gilbert and spoke English. Also taking part: An African American man named Mogawk who was employed by other early traders and who was alleged to have saved one of their lives during a “deadly gunpowder explosion while working on the Des Moines River.”
“So, represented here you had a female who was also a Native, a Black man, plus early white fur traders, farmers and other settlers coming together in what was an important meeting on the future of the area,” Slonneger said.
“I think it is a beautiful concept,” she continued, “and I think this is a good time to dwell on this wonderful heritage of diversity in our county.”
The region was part of the Wisconsin Territory at the time. The attendees at this historic meeting eventually agreed Gilbert and Judge Pleasant Harris would take their infrastructure concerns to the territorial legislative session in Burlington for action.
Slonneger calls it a somewhat rare time of “peaceful coexistence” between Native tribes and the new settlers — a period that would not last long as exploration and exploitation advanced westward. The local Meskwaki, said to be part of an area Native population of nearly 1,500 at the time, were soon forced to relocate to Kansas.
“It’s hard to say because of the scant information that has been passed down to us,” Slonneger said, “but it appears that the Meskwaki seemed to genuinely care for Gilbert and honored him after his death in a quite poignant ceremony. How long that relationship had existed and how deep it was is not truly known.”
“Remembrance Park” offers some 160 illustrations within its 313 pages. You can learn more at www.johnsoncountyremembrancepark.org, where you can also view four watercolors by Iowa City artist Jo Myers-Walker, who was recently commissioned to help illustrate the story.
Slonneger’s book also proposed the creation of a wildflower park south of town to connect with this historic time. That park is now becoming a reality.
She and Marty Boller, another local historian, are spearheading the effort and have connected with a landowner for public use of a triangular tract to serve as a small prairie park. You’ll find it south of town at the intersection of Sand Road and Napoleon Street, across the road from where Gilbert’s cabin was said to have been located.
The tract is less than an acre and has been restored by the owner with prairie grasses and the native wildflowers Slonneger illustrates so carefully in her book through expert photography. The owner’s family will retain ownership but has agreed to open the land to the public and allow a committee of volunteers to help maintain it. A commemorative marker is being considered for the new park, now bordered by what was once known as Gilbert Creek.
The park organizers say the small tract will not be a spot for picnicking or other recreation, but visitors will be welcome to park at the access point off Napoleon, enjoy the scenery and, in the author’s words, “quietly contemplate where the roots of Johnson County took hold.” Donations toward the project can be made through the book website at www.ouriowaheritage.com.
Press-Citizen writer Dick Hakes interviews us for his article (above)
Slonneger and Boller plan a commemorative dedication of the park this summer. They have already been in contact with a descendent of the original Phelps family of early fur traders, also active here at the time, and are hopeful she will attend. They would also like a representative of the Meskwaki Nation to take part, possibly to offer a Native ceremonial blessing, plus city and county leaders and school classes.
“This was Native land before any of the rest of us were here,” said Boller, adding that the park organizers want to make sure the “first Iowans” heritage of the site is respectively and properly acknowledged.
“Gilbert left only the slightest trace of his life, plus a street named after him,” Slonneger wrote, “but a significant understanding of the fur trading era may be traced through the forgotten Phelps family.”
She thinks the rigors of trying to survive in what was then a wilderness helped to bond the Native American and Anglo-American cultures out of necessity.
“The Phelps brothers and John Gilbert were alone and at risk in this environment,” she said, “but building alliances with the Meskwaki benefited them as well as those they traded with. Unfortunately, the story had a sad ending when the Meskwaki lost their land.”