Ansel Briggs was 40 years old when he became the first governor of the new state of Iowa on Dec. 3, 1846. He took over for territorial Gov. James Clarke, a President James Polk appointee, in the capital in Iowa City.
The only other state officers were Elisha Cutler, secretary of state, Joseph T. Fales, auditor, and Morgan Reno, treasurer.
Ansel Briggs wasn’t all that excited to be the first governor of Iowa, but neither was anyone else.
When he agreed to put his name in the running, he seemed to think he’d likely lose and go back to fulfilling his stagecoach contracts from his from home in Andrew, in Jackson County northeast of Maquoketa, and running mail lines between Dubuque and Davenport and between Dubuque and Iowa City.
Instead, Briggs, who had been a member of the Territorial House of Representatives for four years and Jackson County sheriff for two years, won by a narrow margin of 247 votes. The count was 7,626 for Briggs and 7,379 for Thomas McKnight.
Briggs, a Democrat, gave a short inaugural address on Dec. 28, 1846, the day Iowa became the 29th state.
“From my want of experience in the affairs of civil administration, I must naturally feel a great degree of embarrassment in my present position; but that feeling will be greatly lessened from the hope and belief which I entertain, that in your character of representatives of an enlightened constituency, you will kindly extend me your aid and indulgence,” he said.
“The circumstances under which you assemble are to us of a novel, interesting and important character. We have passed from a dependent Territory to an independent and sovereign State, and it is a subject of congratulation that we shall no longer be denied the blessings and privileges consequent upon this great change.”
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He then told his listeners that since he had learned of his election only four days before, he had no immediate plans for governing. That was unnecessary anyway, he said, because Clarke had done such a great job steering the state through the transition from territory to state, and the Iowa General Assembly, with a new state Constitution approved by voters in hand, was ready to put the new government in motion.
Iowa’s state boundaries were among the first concerns of the new governor and Legislature. On Jan. 16, 1847, Briggs began the arduous task of setting the state’s southern boundary, a matter of some disagreement with Missouri.
When it was discovered no funds were available to survey the lines, Briggs authorized a loan from the superintendent of public instruction, giving his personal promissory note to secure the loan. By the time the survey was done in October 1850, the money had been repaid.
Briggs established the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Feb. 25, 1847. He strongly advocated placing agricultural science into school curriculums and also supported running a rail line from Keokuk to Dubuque and from Dubuque to Milwaukee.
Briggs asked his secretary of state to find a suitable block of marble for Iowa’s contribution to the Washington Monument. The block is inscribed: “Iowa. Her affections, like the rivers of her borders, flow to an inseparable union.”
Iowa’s first governor was considered an honest, respectable and straightforward man but perhaps not the best-equipped for leading a state.
When he left office in 1850, he said he hoped Iowa would be “ever distinguished for virtue, intelligence and prosperity.”
Briggs returned to Andrew but left to pursue mining endeavors in the West. He died in 1881 at his son John’s home in Omaha at age 75.
Iowa mourned his death. Flags at the state Capitol — by then in Des Moines — flew at half-staff, and guns were fired at half-hour periods through the day.
By the time of his funeral, 10 other governors had served the state: Stephen Hempstead, James W. Grimes, Ralph P. Lowe, Samuel J. Kirkwood, William M. Stone, Samuel Merrill, Cyrus Carpenter, Samuel J. Kirkwood (for a second time), Joshua Newbold and John H. Gear.
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In 1896, Charles Aldrich, curator of the Iowa State Historical Society, was trying to find a signature of Iowa’s first governor. Finding none at Iowa City, he sent George Van Houten to Briggs’ home in Andrew, where he came up empty, through he did find the widow of Briggs’ private secretary, only to learn she had destroyed her husband’s old papers.
But T.S. Parvin of Cedar Rapids knew Briggs well and had a few documents bearing the governor’s signature.
He said Briggs, even though he was governor, rarely spent time in Iowa City, preferring instead his small grocery store in Andrew. Parvin recalled the small frame building as having few groceries, but it did have a row of whiskey barrels and demijohns (large bottles), attesting to the bulk of the store’s business.
In 1884, a bill was introduced in the Iowa Legislature supporting erection of a monument at the site of Briggs’ grave in Omaha, but nothing came of it.
In 1909, though, the General Assembly authorized funds to have Ansel Briggs’ body disinterred and moved to Andrew. Iowa Rep. J.W. Ellis, who represented Jackson County, steered the bill through the Legislature and personally supervised the move of the governor’s remains to Iowa in May 1909.
The monument erected at the gravesite was dedicated Sept. 22, 1909. It weighed nearly 30,000 pounds and was 20 feet, 8 inches high.
Andrew’s population in 1909 was about 300, but 5,000 people attended the dedication of the monument.
Former Gov. William Larrabee addressed the audience for 20 minutes. W.C. Gregory, curator of the Jackson County Historical Society in Maquoketa, told of the efforts to secure the $1,000 to move the former governor’s remains to Andrew and erect the monument. A band played patriotic tunes, and salutes were fired by the Maquoketa militia.
Nannie Briggs Robertson, Briggs’ granddaughter, drew away the flag that covered the monument.
The state, by then, had grown from 150,000 when Briggs was governor to 2.5 million people.
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