Old Cap Classroom

Old Cap Classroom: Chauncey's Swan Song

Chauncey's Swan Song


1. Review the "History" section of this website, and take notes about Chauncey Swan.
2. Read the following biographical information about Swan.
3. Writing as if you were Chauncey Swan, compose a letter to a friend telling her/him why you are leaving Iowa City. Use these questions to guide you:
    What opportunities make you want to leave Iowa City?
    What family issues have a bearing on your departure?
    What work and/or political issues influenced your decision to leave the place you have lived in for more than ten years?
    Can you "read between the lines" to imagine what Swan might have been feeling?
    What other information from the Tour and History sections can help give you ideas about Swan's life?

Chauncey Swan came to Iowa to mine lead and left years later to mine
gold. In between he became an important figure in the birth of a territorial capitol.

January 1839

Swan is appointed commissioner, along with John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, to locate the permanent seat of government in Johnson County.

May 1, 1839

The commissioners were to meet in the town of Napoleon "on the first day of May, in the year eighteen hundred and thirty-nine . . . and proceed to locate the seat of government at the most eligible point within the . . . limits of Johnson County." (Benjamin Shambaugh, The Old Stone Capitol Remembers, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1939, p. 44 quoting Journal of the House of Representatives of the First Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa [1838] (Burlington: Clarke and McKenny, Printers, 1839), pp. 162-63.)
"May 1st, 1839. Chauncey Swan, one of the commissioners appointed under the act of the Legislative Assembly of Iowa entitled 'an Act to locate the Seat of Government and for other purposes,' met at the town of Napoleon in the county of Johnson this day at 9 o'clock A. M. A quorum not being present, other commissioners were sent for. 11 o'clock P. M. John Ronalds, another one of the Commissioners appeared and was qualified after which the board adjourned until tomorrow morning 10 o'clock." Shambaugh, p. 46; quote from Journal of Proceedings of the commissioners).

May 4, 1839

Commissioners select a site two miles north of Napoleon on the Iowa River.

May 7, 1839

Chauncey Swan appointed Acting Commissioner. He begins work on the capitol by engaging surveyors and equipment.

June, 1839

"In the month of June, immediately after my return to Du Buque, after making the location of the seat of government, I procured tools and assistance and returned to Iowa City, and commenced opening the rock quarry. In doing this, I felt that I was doing my duty not only to the location itself, but to the Territory at large, in endeavoring to ascertain the quantity and quality of the rock of which it was proposed to procure the material for building the future capitol of Iowa. I furnished the provisions for this undertaking, for which I make no charge." (Personal journal of Chauncey Swan, as quoted by Shambaugh, p 112).

September 10, 1839

Swan's five-year-old daughter, Cordelia, dies in Iowa City. She is buried in Oakland Cemetery.

November 12, 1839

Swan hires John Francis Rague as contractor and architect of the new capitol.

December 3, 1839

House of Representatives passes a resolution demanding a copy of all contracts entered into by Chauncey Swan as Acting Commissioner.

January, 1840

Legislature passes act requiring the commissioners to adapt a plan for a building that would not cost more than $51,000.

July 4, 1840

Cornerstone is laid for the capitol.

July 13, 1840

Rague resigns as architect and builder. An editorial in the Burlington Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot on July 23, 1940 says: "We have been informed by Mr. Rague, Architect and Contractor of the Iowa Capitol, that on account of failure of the Quarry, the commissioners and himself have amicably canceled the contract. . . We understand the original plan of the building will be preserved."

November, 1840

Prompted by local interests and partisan politics, the Third Legislative Assembly passes a resolution to send a committee of three to Iowa City to "examine the Public Buildings, both as to the amount and quality of the work done, the materials on hand, the books, papers, and records of the Acting Commissioner." (Shambaugh, p. 124)

December 17, 1840

Legislative committee arrives to begin investigation into Swan's activities. The committee refuses dinner with local citizens and does not allow Swan to be present during the examination of witnesses. Swan, believing that his personal enemies will be testifying against him, requests to be present. The committee responded that they, "are not aware that they have received testimony from persons who are your personal enemies. The committee conceives that the acting commissioner is not on trial before them and consequently has not a right to be present except by courtesy of the committee." (Shambaugh, p. 125)
The committee submitted a report to the legislature that cleared Swan of any wrongdoing.

January 14, 1841

Legislature passes act to abolish the board of commissioners and create the offices of a Superintendent of Public Buildings and a Territorial Agent.

January 15, 1841

Governor Lucas places Chauncey Swan's name in nomination for the position of Superintendent of Public Buildings. The motion fails by a vote of nine to four. The Legislative Assembly adjourns the next day.

January ?, 1841

Governor Lucas, who has been given the power to fill vacant positions, appoints Chauncey Swan as the Superintendent of Public Buildings.

December 13, 1841

Swan reports to the legislature that the walls of the building are 30-35 feet high and that a temporary roof has been constructed to protect the interior over the winter.

January 5, 1842

Swan informs the legislature that $33,000 is needed to complete the capitol. It is Swan's last official act as superintendent of public buildings.
"Swan's tenure as both acting commissioner and superintendent of public buildings was under scrutiny by the legislature from time to time. His handling of both the contract with Rague and the capitol construction funds had been criticized. Nevertheless, the majority report of an 1841 investigating committee exonerated Swan of all charges, and he remained in office until William B. Snyder was appointed building superintendent by the new territorial governor, John Chambers." (Margaret N. Keyes, Old Capitol Portrait of a Landmark, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1988)


Swan buys the National Hotel in Iowa City and changes the name to Swan's Hotel.
"Likewise, Swan's Hotel, formerly known as the National Hotel, had been repaired and improved. With a large addition erected during the summer, it was 'sufficiently commodious to accommodate a large number of visitors. Its enterprising proprietor, C. Swan, is well known to the public, as one who will make those who favor him with their custom, well satisfied that they gave him a call.' (Shambaugh, p. 286)

February 11, 1847

Swan's wife, Dolly, dies in Iowa City and is buried in Oakland Cemetery next to Cordelia.


Swan leaves Iowa City for California, presumably to participate in the gold rush. He never returned to Iowa City. Stories of his death vary. One account has him dying aboard ship in New York harbor after making the voyage from California via Cape Horn to New York City. Another account says simply that he was lost at sea.

Additional reference: Highlights of Iowa City History 1838-1988, by Mary Ann Woodburn

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