Old Cap Classroom: 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.
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  (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
"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.
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."
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,
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
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
Additional reference: Highlights of Iowa City History 1838-1988
, by Mary Ann Woodburn