The University of Iowa

Trail of history: UI Libraries Special Collections holdings weave webs of historical connections

September 20th, 2012

Zebulon Pike's maps
For more discussion about the life, times, triumphs, and defeats of Napoleon Bonaparte, join Joan Kjaer for WorldCanvass, Friday, Sept. 21, 5-7 p.m. in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol. More information.

(photo, right): One of Zebulon Pike's maps, from a UI Libraries Special Collections & University Archives exhibition opening Oct. 11 in the Old Capitol Museum titled Conflict on the Iowa Frontier: Perspectives on the War of 1812.


By Greg Prickman for Iowa Now

French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte will be hard to miss this fall, with a major University of Iowa Museum of Art exhibition and related programming and displays occupying spaces all over the campus. Meanwhile, across the country, the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 is being commemorated with events in the cities and ports that saw action during our last conflict with Great Britain. While connections between a French Emperor, a nearly-forgotten war, and the State of Iowa may seem remote, reminders of them are, in fact, all around us.

greg prickman portraitOn Labor Day my family and I took a bike ride on the trail around Sand Lake, just south of Iowa City. Heading south off of Gilbert Street, the road to the trail passes Napoleon Park. This fairly nondescript area is a pleasant location for recreation—but it is also a site with deep connections to our past. It was difficult to imagine, as I chased after my daughter speeding ahead of me on the path, but in the nineteenth century, the area around Napoleon Park was once the first county seat of Johnson County, home to a burgeoning settler’s trading community and a Meskwaki village.

On June 5, 1838, when the trading post had grown large enough to be incorporated, the first white settler in the area, John Gilbert, signed a document naming the new town Napoleon. The paper is held in Special Collections & University Archives in the Main Library, in a collection we simply call “Iowa Documents.” There is no evidence to suggest why Napoleon was chosen as the name, and regardless of the reason, the town was short-lived. Frequent flooding in the area prompted a move to the north, and the founding of Iowa City, proving just how strongly our fate has always been tied to the Iowa River.

Read the full story from Iowa Now.