Long before Iowa became a state (1846), the proud Meskwaki people lived on the rich prairie land adjacent to the many rivers that flowed into the Father of Waters – the Mississippi River. The first settlers that came west into what is now called Johnson County were fur-traders. One family, the Phelps from Illinois, built an extensive network of trading posts on these rivers, partnering with the Meskwaki tribes to provide valuable furs to potential buyers back east. Sumner Phelps (below left) along with his brother, William (below right) formed S.S. Phelps & Company in the 1820’s, and it’s Sumner’s trading post that was first built in Johnson County in the early 1830’s. Read more here.
Mid-1830’s – Johnson County, Iowa – John Gilbert’s Trading Post.
By the mid-1830’s, another fur-trader from back east, John Gilbert, built yet another trading post on the Iowa River, locating it just north of the original one. Unlike his one-time partner, Sumner Phelps, who only visited here on occasion, Gilbert decided to settle on the land, working alongside the Meskwaki chiefs Poweshiek, Wapashashiek, and Totokonock, who had encampments along, what is today, Sand Road on the Iowa River. The largest community, headed by Poweshiek, was about five miles south of today’s Pentacrest. Just north of Poweshiek’s camp was another village led by Wapashashiek, while a third village, led by Totokonock, was twelve miles south of Iowa City on Sand Road at the mouth of the English River, just west of today’s Lone Tree. It’s estimated, by 1838, that there were approximately 1,500 Meskwaki people in Johnson County. Read more here.
January 1838 – Unity Through Diversity – Our Johnson County Heritage.
With Johnson County being established by the Wisconsin Territorial legislature – December 1837 – several pioneers, led by John Gilbert, met in January 1838 for Johnson County’s first business meeting – held at his trading post. The goals were simple: pull together a written proposal that would be taken to Territorial legislators in Burlington, requesting of them funding for Johnson County roads, bridges, and postal service. Read more here.
Iowa City historian, Henry Felkner, who was a part of this gathering, recorded what happened at this first Johnson County business meeting, and here is ‘The Resolution” the business meeting produced…
Taking a Roll Call for this 1838 Johnson County Business Meeting…
One Native American woman:
Jennie – an older Native Iowan woman from the Winnebago tribe, working for the Phelps Brothers Fur Trading Business – a predecessor to John Gilbert’s trading post (pre-1835).
One black man:
Mogawk – a tall, African-American man who rescued fur-trader William Phelps from a deadly gunpowder explosion while working on the Des Moines River.
Five white men:
Henry Felkner – a farmer and sawmill operator, arriving here in May of 1837, and historian who wrote about early Iowa City in 1883.
John Gilbert – a fur-trader from New York, Napoleon’s first permanent resident, arriving around 1835, replacing Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps as the on-site trader for the American Fur Company.
Judge Pleasant Harris – a Quaker born in North Carolina, moving here from Indiana with his wife, Hannah, in May of 1837.
Isaac N. Lesh – Judge Harris’ son-in-law from Indiana, arriving here with his wife in August of 1837.
Eli Meyers – one of Johnson County’s first farmers, arriving with Philip Clark from Elkhart County, Indiana in May of 1837.
As we mentioned earlier, this very first Johnson County business meeting was held in John Gilbert’s trading cabin located smack-dab in the middle of three Meskwaki tribes, estimated to be about 1,500 in population, all of which were led by Native Iowan chiefs, Poweshiek, Wapashiek, and Totokonock, three strong-willed men who desired to live peacefully alongside their white brothers and sisters, who apparently wanted the same.
A very diverse group – joined together for one common purpose. That’s our Johnson County heritage. Historian Laura Rigel calls this unique 1838 Johnson County experiment in diversity: A Dream City.
Might this also be our future? Read more here.
Remembrance Park is a small place of refuge where one can go to not only reflect upon the rich heritage of diversity we have in Johnson County, but to also dream of a day when our county can be a place of hope and refuge for all – regardless of race, color, sex, or creed.