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Swan, Chauncey

–territorial legislator, Acting Commissioner of Public Buildings, and Superintendent of Public Buildings—was drawn from New York to Iowa by the prospect of money in lead mining. By 1837 he had settled with his wife, Dolly, and four children near Dubuque and had found some success in mining. In September 1838 Swan, a Democrat, was elected to the House of the first territorial legislature.

    In early 1839 the legislature voted to locate a permanent territorial capital in Johnson County. Swan was one of three commissioners chosen to locate the site for what would be called Iowa City. The legislature directed the commissioners to meet in Johnson County on May 1, but only Swan arrived that morning. At noon, Swan told the crowd gathered that at least two commissioners needed to be present or locating the capital would be postponed. He suggested that if one more commissioner could be summoned before midnight, the process could continue. A local farmer fetched John Ronalds from his home in Louisa County. In the official record, Swan reported that Ronalds arrived around 11:00 p.m. Local lore maintains, however, that Swan turned back the hands on his watch to ensure that Ronalds arrived before midnight.

    In the following days, a spot along the Iowa River was chosen for the new capital. On May 7 the other two commissioners chose Swan Acting Commissioner of Public Buildings. The Acting Commissioner would be the most directly involved of the commissioners in overseeing the surveying and platting of Iowa City, the selling of city lots, and the hiring of an architect and building contractor for the capitol. He would also give the legislature progress reports.

    In the summer of 1839 Swan moved with his family to Iowa City and immediately took up his responsibilities. The commissioners had procured surveyors to lay out the capital, and that summer Swan oversaw the surveys, chose the spot for Capitol Square, and arranged for maps to be made and distributed in preparation for the sale of lots, the receipts going toward the capitol's construction. Swan coordinated the land sales, which began in August 1839, collected payments, and kept track of receipts.

    Swan contended with many setbacks in the building of the capitol. Arguably the biggest blow was when architect and building contractor John F. Rague left the project entirely. Swan then added to his duties the responsibilities of building contractor, including hiring and paying workers, drawing up contracts, purchasing materials, and supervising day-to-day construction.

    Perhaps most frustrating for Swan was the legislature's lack of trust in him. In his position, Swan had taken on a significant amount of responsibility. For some, those responsibilities translated into considerable power. Not surprisingly, then, the legislature decided to investigate his work. In December 1839 the legislature asked for copies of contracts and financial records; the following year they sent investigators to evaluate the capitol's progress and review Swan's bookkeeping. No accusations of mismanagement were leveled against him, but the investigation likely led the legislature in January 1841 to divide the responsibilities of Acting Commissioner and create the positions of Territorial Agent, responsible for project finances, and Superintendent of Public Buildings, responsible for supervising the capitol's construction. Governor Lucas appointed Swan Superintendent of Public Buildings, a position he held until February 1842.

    Afterward, Swan remained in Iowa City and entered into several business ventures. He and his wife, Dolly, managed the Swan Hotel, site of many important events in Johnson County, from around 1841 until Dolly's death in 1847. In 1843 he was an organizer and president of the Iowa City Manufacturing Company, which built a dam and gristmill along the Iowa River near present-day Coralville. Unfortunately, within two years the company was bankrupt, and the dam and mill were sold.

    Also, while in Iowa City, Swan donated land and money to build the First Presbyterian Church, which he helped start; he was also a founding member of the Iowa City Sons of Temperance; and he served as Iowa City postmaster.

    In 1849, perhaps in the same way that he was drawn to Iowa in search of lead, he left for California in search of gold. He mined until early 1852. Letters to his wife, Mary (he had remarried), suggest that he had some success. He intended to return to Iowa City by way of ship around South America to New York and then by land but died at sea.
Sources include the Journal of the House of Representatives for the First and Second Legislative Assemblies of the Territory of Iowa, 1838 and 1839; Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Iowa City: A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa (1893); and Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh, The Old Stone Capitol Remembers (1939).
Contributor: Leigh Ann Randak