Iowa Heritage Digital Collections
State Library of Iowa

1838-1840, Robert Lucas


1838-1840, Robert Lucas



Robert Lucas, 1st governor of the Iowa Territory, was born April 1, 1781 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the son of William and Susannah (Barnes) Lucas. He was educated in mathematics and surveying by private tutor. Around 1800 Robert Lucas settled with his family in what in south-central Ohio and began working as a surveyor. He joined the Ohio militia in 1803 and the U.S. Army in 1812, eventually attaining the ranks of major general in the militia and lieutenant colonel in the army. During the War of 1812, he served in campaigns under Generals William Hull and William Henry Harrison. In 1810 Lucas married Elizabeth Brown. They had one daughter, Minerva, before Elizabeth died of tuberculosis in 1812. In 1816 Lucas married Friendly Sumner. He and Friendly had seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood. Lucas began his political career as an Ohio Democrat. Between 1808 and 1832 he was elected twice to the Ohio House and seven times to the Ohio Senate. He was elected governor of Ohio in 1832 and again in 1834. In 1832 he presided over the first Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. When an act of Congress created the Iowa Territory in 1838, Lucas saw an opportunity to influence the formation of a territory and eventually, he hoped, a state. In July 1838 President Martin Van Buren appointed him as Iowa Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Lucas's vision for the territory included establishing a system of free public schools, building territorial roads, and organizing a well-equipped militia to ""defend ourselves against any Indian force that could be brought against us.""He chose books for a territorial library and asked the legislature to hire a librarian and provide for additions to the library. He entreated the legislature to establish a strict criminal code, including laws against intemperance and gambling, vices he termed ""the fountains from which almost every other crime proceeds."" Although there was ongoing strife between Lucas and the legislature over spending and his use of executive power, the assembly did pass laws that realized part of Lucas's vision. Lucas also asked the legislature to appoint commissioners to determine a permanent site for a capital (what would become Iowa City was chosen in 1839) and suggested that they bring the matter of statehood to the people, which they did. The populace voted against the measure. Lucas also had to contend with a conflict with Missouri over Iowa's southern boundary. The dispute, caused by differing interpretations of border descriptions by Missouri and Iowa surveyors, erupted when Missouri officials tried to collect taxes in the disputed area. Lucas sent representatives to Washington to appeal for Iowa but also called out the militia. In 1850 the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the conflict in favor of Iowa. After the Whigs won the 1840 presidential election, President Harrison appointed a Whig as Iowa's governor. Lucas was disappointed at being replaced. When a Democrat was again elected to the White House in 1844, he hoped to be reinstated but was not. After leaving the governor's office, Lucas remained in Iowa and eventually settled with his family near Iowa City. Arguably, Lucas's postgubernatorial contributions are as significant to Iowa's development as those he made as governor. As a delegate to the first state constitutional convention in 1844, he served on the committee to define the powers of the executive and on the Committee on State Revenue. He was also a member of the Committee on State Boundaries and advocated for boundaries from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers and to the St. Peter River in the north. Those boundaries were sent to Congress with the state constitution. Although Congress wanted a smaller Iowa, Iowa's final boundaries were close to those Lucas had proposed. In Ohio, Lucas had advocated the building of canals. As Iowa governor, he pushed for the establishment of roads. Finally, his interest turned to railroads, and he participated in two railroad conventions in 1850. He had not completely given up politics, though. In 1846 he put himself forward unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate to become the first governor of the new state. His last venture into politics is probably the most surprising. After being a Democrat his entire political career, he put his support behind the Whig candidate in the 1852 presidential election and became active in the local Whig Party. Soon afterwards, Lucas and his wife, Friendly, decided to spend the remainder of their lives in Iowa City. In 1844 they purchased 80 acres just south of town, and built a house reminiscent of their home in Ohio. Nestled among a grove of plum trees, the house was dubbed Plum Grove. Robert Lucas died February 7, 1853.


State Library of Iowa and State Historical Society of Iowa


1838; 1839; 1840;


Leigh Ann Randak - Iowa Biographical Dictionary


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