Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


The busy port of Burlington was alive with activity in 1840 as more than twenty retail and wholesale merchants operated shops along the waterfront. Two steam ferries carried new immigrants and their belongings across the Mississippi, while three livery stables and three blacksmiths were kept busy caring for their animals. A jeweler, six tailors, a hatter and two shoemakers provided residents, surrounding farmers and pioneers with an array of commodities. Also available were two tinners, two butchers, two drug stores, three bakers, a crockery and glassware store, a dry goods store, fish markets and five or six groceries. Mail service was provided by coach three times per week.

Some of the 1600 residents were manufacturers, making chairs, cabinets and carriages. Hotels and rooming houses thrived, and bars and cellars provided nightly entertainment.

By horseback and steamboat, the youth of the East and South were steadily arriving here in droves, along with lawyers, executives and legislators.

As capital of the new territory, Burlington was hospitable and generous to law-makers, providing larger and better rooming accommodations than had been found in Belmont. Here they were greeted with fresh water, clean tumbler glasses, and delicious food courteously served. Diners feasted on venison, prairie chicken, wild goose, duck and fish prepared “according to order,” by several French chefs at the Exchange House.

Visitors, office seekers, legislators, immigrants, traders and farmers trampled the clay streets which bounded a few squares of business along the river and the village vibrated with preparation in an urgency expected to be found in St. Louis or New Orleans. Six or seven doctors treated accidents and sicknesses while a dentist offered his services.

When the Panic of 1837 hit the rest of the country, Burlington was experiencing rapid growth. But fever struck the little village in September, and entire families were sick. Hard times followed in 1838 as money ceased to circulate and became scarce. One shop keeper was forced to sell out on credit. Although he had $2500 in notes due him, he could not raise enough money to buy a bushel of corn meal for his family!

Nevertheless, in spite of hard times, steady immigration continued and steamboats crowded the port. Often three or four docked on the same day bringing immigrants to Iowa from every part of the world. Horses, cattle and mules crowded the ferries and news and gossip came from everywhere. Flatboats carried Iowa products of vegetables, beef, pork and tallow away from the port of Burlington, which by 1839 had become the commercial center for four counties containing an estimated 15,000 people.

People from every state of the Union flocked to the frontier village on November 19, 1838 when land offices officially opened for the sale of public land. A large crowd of several thousand settlers encamped in and around town were kept peaceful as they gathered to hear Governor Lucas address them on settlers’ rights. Township bidders were equipped with maps, plats and descriptions of land that had been sold, and claimants crammed into the offices. Auctions and sales were continuous. In an explosion of activity, hundreds of claims were sold the first day and settlers paid for their land in a variety of currency, gold, and Spanish coins.

In the first two weeks alone, sales netted $295,000 at the government rate of $1.25 per acre. Speculators and land sharks hovered around town, offering loans at 20-28% interest. But it was one of the most orderly transfers of land in US history, as an estimated 90% of the land sales fell into the hands of actual settlers.

With a mixture of pride, enthusiasm and optimism, the town’s population climbed from 1,200 in 1838 to 1,600 by 1840. Two newspapers, the Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser and the Hawkeye and Patriot registered births and deaths and kept a fairly accurate record of town progress.

Suddenly, the settlement became the object of recollections as some native youngsters now reached six or seven years of age! Burlington had witnessed river traffic, immigration, retreating Indians, the fury of land offerings, and the birth of local government. Sixty or seventy buildings were built that year, and many of them were three-story brick.

In 1840, the thriving community offered excellent educational facilities, churches, cultural activities, recreation and a social calendar. Highly civilized, it could no longer be considered a remote, back woods frontier outpost. It had grown into a cosmopolitan, exciting hub of commerce and politics.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick