Iowa Heritage Digital Collections
State Library of Iowa

The History of Iowa's Capitol City

Wisconsin Territory Legislative Meeting Place

Temporary Capitol, Belmont, Wisconsin.

Iowa as a Territory

One of the most important Acts that Congress passed was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It set up a system of government for the territory that became the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. It was a model for other U.S. territories to follow when they wanted to become states. The United States government opened Iowa for settlement by non-native people in 1833. Law enforcement was lax in the area and the need for a formal structure of government led to the attachment of the "Iowa" area to Michigan, with a capital at Detroit in 1834. As Michigan prepared for its own admission as a state, Iowa was transferred to the Wisconsin Territory in 1836.       

Sketch of first Burlington, Iowa building to house the Legislature

Legislative Building in Burlington, Iowa.

Iowa's First Legislative Building

Major Jerry Smith, a member of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature representing Des Moines County, offered to build a "suitable" building for the Legislature to meet if they agreed to move the territorial capital to Burlington, Iowa. In 1837, Major Smith built a two -story frame building, 40 x70 feet. The House of Representatives occupied one floor, and the Council occupied the other. Major Smith's sturcture burned down on December 12, 1837.

Old Zion Methodist Church in Burlington, Iowa

Old Zion Methodist Church, 1838.

Old Zion Church Held Session 

Temporary quarters for the Legislature were in the Zion Church in Burlington. The 26 members of the House occupied the first floor and the 13 members of the Council occupied the basement.  The Council moved out of the basement for the next legislative session and used space in the Catholic Church. This move was necessitated because of the damp conditions in the basement of the Old Zion Church.