Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan is suggesting the county’s residents might want to reconsider its namesake, Richard M. Johnson.
Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States, was a slave owner who had a “confusing” common law marital relationship with one of his slaves, while still considering their children his property. During his military career, he killed the famous Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. By 2017 standards, this is not a glowing resume.
So Sullivan wonders whether Johnson County should pick a different namesake from a more historically suitable list of folks with the last name Johnson. He likens the discussion to the ongoing debate over confederate monuments.
We’ll give Sullivan credit for shining a light on Iowa history. Iowa’s 99 counties got their names during a period straddling statehood in 1846, from the 1830s to the 1850s. And the names, not surprisingly, reflect the priorities of the period.
That’s why 13 Iowa counties have names tied to the Mexican-American War, fought in 1846 to 1848. Twenty-three counties are named after military leaders, including some of those Mexican war figures. Eleven are named after presidents, and three, including Johnson, after vice presidents. Several are named after Native American leaders, tribes and historical figures.
But there are a few mold-breakers. Bremer County is named after Fredrika Bremer, a feminist reformer and popular author of the day, known as the “Swedish Jane Austen.” Humboldt County is named after a German explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. Kossuth County’s namesake is Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian political leader who got his start as a journalist.
Louisa County, legend has it, is named for Louisa Massey, a 16-year-old who shot a man who planned to kill her brother.
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Fascinating history. Rewriting it now would be like putting vinyl siding on a log cabin. Something would be lost behind a new, fake, glossy facade. And today’s namesake pick could look just as ill-conceived in 100 years.
As for confederate monuments, many were erected long after the Civil War in an effort to defy and block the drive for civil rights. Unlike those monuments, Richard M. Johnson has hardly been an obstacle to equality and progress in Johnson County.
Truth is, Iowa’s counties each have distinct identities transcending their original names. Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa and well known for its solidly liberal politics, is a good example.
It has a strong identity. How do we know? When Sullivan’s idea made headlines, we’re betting a lot of folks thought “Only in Johnson County.” Don’t change a thing, People’s Republic.
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