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What kind of name is Chauncey for a building? —Anonymous, via the Your Village feature on LV’s homepage.
In most cities, The Chauncey would be a wonderful or terrible name, depending on personal preference, but in Iowa City it is historic. Like the park and the parking ramp next to it, the new 15-story mixed-use building borrows its name from Chauncey Swan, who’s been called “the father of Iowa City.”
There’s no record of Swan being given that title during his lifetime, but if anyone deserves it, it’s him. He was largely responsible for the site and original shape of Iowa City.
Chauncey Swan was born in New York, sometime during the last few years of the 1700s. In the mid-1830s, Swan, his wife Dollie and their four children moved to Dubuque, where Swan hoped to make a fortune mining lead. It didn’t happen. He did, however, set up a successful distillery at Catfish Creek, two miles outside Dubuque.
Swan may have lacked skill (and luck) in mining, but he made up for that with skill (and luck) in politics.
Back in New York, Swan had been postmaster of the town of Otisco. Postmaster was a highly desirable job in 19th century America, providing a steady income and instantly giving the holder a certain local prominence. The job usually went to a well-connected member of whichever party controlled the White House. Swan, a Democrat, was a loyal supporter of Andrew Jackson, and that was enough to get him appointed while Jackson was president.
When the Iowa Territory was created in 1838, the Democratic Party dominated the territory and Washington D.C. Swan saw a chance for something better than distilling and prospecting for lead.
Dubuque County elected him to the territory’s House of Representatives. The new legislature met in Burlington, but Gov. Robert Lucas wasn’t happy with Burlington. He pushed a bill through the legislature creating a new territorial capital named Iowa City.
Lucas appointed Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston to determine where to build Iowa City. After the site was selected, Lucas appointed Swan “acting commissioner” in charge of planning the city. President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, made Swan Iowa City postmaster in 1839.
His tenure as postmaster ended in 1841, when William Henry Harrison became president. Harrison, a Whig, replaced Democratic postmasters with loyal Whigs. (Actually, John Tyler did most of the replacing. Tyler was Harrison’s vice president, and became president when Harrison died 31 days after being sworn in.)
Although Swan lost the post office, he didn’t have to worry. Lucas had appointed him Superintendent of Public Buildings, which put Swan in charge of construction of the new (now Old) capitol building.
In 1842, with the Democrats temporarily out of power — Tyler had appointed Whig John Chambers governor of the Iowa Territory — Swan looked for other work. That year, he opened Swan’s Hotel at the corner of Jefferson and Capitol Street.
The following year, Swan became president of the Iowa City Manufacturing Company — a grist mill, despite its industrial-sounding name — but the company soon went out of business.
The hotel, however, was a success. Swan’s Hotel was known for its barroom, which a contemporary called “the only good tavern ever established in Iowa.” (Ironically, Swan was also a founding member of the Iowa City Sons of Temperance.)
In his personal life, Swan suffered major losses in Iowa City. In 1839, his youngest child, Cordelia, became the first person to die in the new city. And early in 1847, his wife Dollie fell ill and died.
About six months after Dollie died, Swan married Mary Walker, an Iowa City widow with a 10-year-old son.
The marriage appears to have been happy, but the two were separated in 1849, when Swan joined the California gold rush. He was part of a group of 70 local gold-hunters nicknamed the Iowa City Argonaut, who set out for California on May 6, 1849.
At first, they followed the Oregon Trail, which was as welcoming as the virtual one people remember from elementary school.
“The colera [sic] was ahead of us (we judged by the graves),” Swan wrote to Mary in his first letter from the trail.
The Argonauts reached the safety of Salt Lake City before winter turned brutal. In spring, Swan joined a party headed south to the Old Spanish Trail, which led to Los Angeles.
Swan loved L.A., even if he never learned to spell its name.
“I think that De Los Ge Angeas (City of Angels) is the best place in the world,” he wrote to Mary in late 1850.
Things changed when he finally headed north to the goldfields. Swan was shocked by the violence, greed and corruption he saw. He also found his luck mining gold was no better than his luck mining lead.
“If ever I committed one fault worse than all, it is coming to this place for if ever there was a Hell on Earth, California is its location,” Swan wrote to Mary in July 1851. He said he was trying to save enough money to get home, and told her she would always be on his mind, until “this heart of mine will be cold in death.”
Swan left California at the end of 1851, traveling by ship. It was a long journey and at some point, he fell ill. Chauncey Swan died in 1852, before the ship reached port. He was buried at sea.
By then, the other two men who selected the site of Iowa City had been honored by having their names attached to public spaces — a street for Ronalds, a creek for Ralston — but Swan received no such honor until 1994, when the city named its newly acquired small, downtown park after him.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 271.