Trail of history
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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.
On 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.
Also, Napoleon and the Art of Propaganda runs now through Jan. 29 at the Old Capitol Museum in conjunction with the UI Museum of Art.
Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t just the namesake for a failed settlement here, he influenced the future of this area directly. All of the land that eventually became the State of Iowa was included in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when Napoleon sold French-controlled land in North America to Thomas Jefferson. This acquisition by an expanding United States led to a new round of exploration. A book in Special Collections contains the results of these voyages: Zebulon Pike’s An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi, printed in 1810.
But how does the thread of these events bring us to the War of 1812? Pike’s explorations led to the creation of a series of forts along the Mississippi River. One of these, Fort Madison, was situated in the place where the town bearing its name now sits. It was at this spot in Iowa, in 1813, that a confrontation between Sauk Indians, led by Black Hawk, and U.S. soldiers stationed at the fort became the western-most conflict of the War of 1812.
By 1813, upon learning of the war between the United States and his British allies, Black Hawk led a siege of the fort that resulted in its eventual abandonment. Recent work by the Office of the State Archaeologist has uncovered evidence of this War of 1812 battle. Objects from these excavations, along with books from the period in Special Collections, will be displayed this fall at the Old Capitol Museum in an exhibition titled Conflict on the Iowa Frontier: Perspectives on the War of 1812, opening Oct. 11.
Choosing the books and documents to include in an exhibition like this is always a lesson in the ways seemingly unrelated objects complement each other. In Special Collections, the books and documents that have been passed down from generation to generation frequently reveal webs of connection. These stories are almost always more complicated, ambiguous, and interesting than any single narrative can encompass—that’s why we collect and preserve, and that’s why the study of these sources is as vital as ever.