Iowa City Parks

Napoleon Park

by Amos Stailey-Young


From indigenous land to softball fields

When naming this new park in 1977, the city decided on “Napoleon” since that was the name of the original territorial settlement. The history of this first colonial settlement lies somewhere between historical fact and local legend. The story begins in 1838 when Philip Clark, owner of what was then called the Charles Showers Farm, decided to make his land the new capital of Iowa. Clark hired George Baumgartner, a surveyor from Muscatine, to stake off his 742 acre farm, segmenting his large tract into a town complete with streets, blocks, and lots. On the Fourth of July, 1838, the first courthouse of Johnson county was dedicated. This historic courthouse stood until 1872-73, when it burned down in a fire.

The town of Napoleon, however, was not to be the new capital of Iowa, nor the seat of Johnson County. Locals tell of Iowa City’s founding through the story of the midnight ride of Philip Clark. The settlement needed a majority of commissioners to select the site for the new seat of government for the Territory of Iowa. But on the day selected for the meeting, May 1st, 1839, only one commissioner, Chauncey Swan, was present at the town of Napoleon. Required to meet before midnight of May 1st, Philip Clark volunteered to make the 35 mile ride to fetch John Ronalds of Louisa County and bring him back to the town in under twelve hours. Completing the task five minutes before midnight, what is now Iowa City was selected as the seat of governance for the new Territory of Iowa. On the following day, May 2nd, the new site of the capital was chosen where the Old Capitol Building now stands.

This historical account of settlement is not without political aspects. While the official history of settlement, in terms of government recognized property ownership, does not begin until March 9th, 1839, when the “Claim Association of Johnson County” was founded, many settlers had already begun cultivating the area. In the rush of land claims that followed, the “squatters” protected themselves against incoming settlers. However, this did not defend them against appropriation for government use. In most cases, claimants were not reimbursed for claims appropriated by the U.S. government. Land values would be deeply affected by where the site of the new capital would be located. Rather than the expansion of an existing settlement, the formation of Iowa City meant the creation of an entirely new town around the chosen site. Those who owned land near the site chosen but not in locations that would mean the loss of land to the government, were in the best position to financially benefit.

The colonial trading post in Napoleon was built in that location so it would be close to the Meskwaki tribe that lived nearby. The history of American settlement, which officially begins in 1839 when land claims gained national recognition, obscures the much longer human habitation of the region. While vague awareness of the Meskwaki Chief Poweshiek makes it into the official record, archaeological remains of various peoples living in the area have been found dating at least as far back as 800 B.C., but perhaps further. A long history of habitation has been uncovered by archaeological digs in the area, from the arrowheads of hunter-gatherer societies, to the pottery and art of settled cultures. The official history of settlement obscures this much longer history of human habitation.


Construction on sewage line. 1996 – From parks department files

Issues of land use came to the fore when on April 15, 1996, the city began construction of a new sewage line through Napoleon Park. While appearing simply as a site of recreation, underneath Napoleon Park and the adjacent river path are two overlooked histories: that of settlement and that of waste management. These two quite different histories met during the construction of the new sewage line. The purpose of this new sewage line was to connect Iowa City’s two treatment plants. Attempting to schedule the construction around the softball season so as not to disrupt play, the city did not adhere to the Sensitive Areas Ordinance and perform the necessary archaeological surveys. This oversight became a controversial issue in local newspapers, and the city was eventually forced to halt construction in order to allow for these surveys.

The construction of this new pipeline made visible issues which are often forgotten. Land management is a deeply political issue, and the use of Napoleon Park as a site of recreation and contact with nature was originally dependent on the displacement of indigenous peoples, which is revealed by the historical and archaeological record. Waste management is another key issue. As the history of Mesquakie Park indicates (an old dump ostensibly turned into a park), many sites along the Iowa River are important regarding waste and pollution. Parts of Napoleon Park had to be cleared of waste material in order to make it functional as a park. Debris still litters areas of the river, and the knowledge of the sewage line running under Napoleon Park alerts us to the continued need to deal with the waste we create and to protect such natural areas.

Although waste is obviously destructive of environments, there are other more subtle ways in which our activity affects the ecology of the location. Although they are seemingly harmless, softball fields require a lot of space for recreational use, and such a large use of land reveals how we value certain activity over others as a culture and a community. Privileging recreation such as softball necessarily removes many kinds of native plant and animal life, and this displacement reminds us of the similar expulsion of indigenous peoples. In order to create space for play, we have to limit ecological diversity to a great extent. Of course, softball is a very enjoyable sport for many people, and there is nothing inherently wrong with such an activity, but the necessary removal of ecological diversity raises key questions of how we should relate to the environment around us. Should we develop areas exclusively for human use, for particular groups of people, or should we consider the needs and desires of plants and other animals when we decide how land will be used? 


Benjamin F. Shambaugh. Iowa City: A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1891.

“Irving Weber’s Iowa City: Napoleon Park.”

William E. Whittaker. “The Archaeology of Iowa City.” Newsletter of the Iowa Archeological Society Fall and Winter 2014, Issue 230, Vol. 64 No. 3 & 4.

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