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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Burrows, John McDowell
(May 8, 1814–April 11, 1889)

–prominent early Davenport settler and entrepreneur—was born to David and Anna (Mulford) Burrows in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, but the family soon moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Burrows's parents sent him to Lane College to study for the ministry, but he decided at the age of 19 that he was unsuited for the ministry and left the school after two years to train as a wood turner. He married Sarah Meeker Gamage on December 1, 1836. In 1839 he brought his family to Iowa Territory, purchasing 80 acres of land west of the new town of Davenport.

    Burrows's first crops were destroyed by poorly contained livestock. Never one to give up, by the end of 1839 he had built a small dry-goods store in Davenport, becoming the town's first permanent merchant, and had helped found the First Presbyterian Church. Two years later he went into partnership with R. M. Prettyman to establish Burrows & Prettyman. The business began buying and selling surplus wheat from Scott County farmers, the first enterprise in the county to do so. Burrows & Prettyman also bought and processed the first commercially packed pork in the county. In 1847 Burrows & Prettyman acquired a mill on the Davenport riverfront from A. C. Fulton and manufactured flour profitably for 10 years. Burrows invested his profits in many diverse businesses—building, manufacturing, shipping, and others—making him one of the wealthiest men in Davenport. He built a fine mansion, named Clifton, on a bluff overlooking the small cottage he had originally built on his land. Generous to a fault, Burrows used his money to assist and develop Davenport's business and community interests. Unfortunately, these financially blessed years marked the end of Burrows's good luck both in business and in his personal life.

    In 1857 a bank panic swept the nation, forcing Burrows & Prettyman out of business. Burrows's financial support of a scheme to expand the local economy by issuing vast amounts of currency (in the absence of banks, which were illegal in early Iowa) contributed to his demise. Burrows, having overextended his fortune, was left with almost nothing. Gathering up his remaining assets, Burrows started up the mill again to some success, but lost the uninsured building to fire in 1863. His next venture, another mill, paid for by his good credit and reputation for hard work, ran for three years before being destroyed by another fire, just as Burrows had managed to pay for its construction. Once again he started up a grain and commission business with his son Elisha, the only one of his eleven children still living. Although the business provided some financial relief, Burrows was not spared the loss of his wife in January 1879 or the death of his son a few years later.

    Burrows married Josephine Hersch on January 12, 1880, depending on her support through an illness-riddled old age. He moved across the Mississippi River to Rock Island, Illinois, a few years later. Suffering from heart disease and often unable to rise from his bed, he earned a little money by writing a personal account of pioneer life in Scott County and the developments he had witnessed through the decades. Fifty Years in Iowa was published in 1888.

    Burrows died on April 11, 1889, leaving only his wife, his brothers David and Lewis, and a legacy of friendship and perseverance in the face of adversity. As he proclaimed in his autobiography, "I do not regret, even now—when, after fifty years of exertion, I am overtaken with old age, ill-health, and poverty—that I cast my lot and united my efforts with those brave pioneers in laying the foundation of what we are all proud of—the beautiful City of Davenport, and the banner county of the State of Iowa, "˜Old Scott!'"
Sources include J. M. D. Burrows, Fifty Years in Iowa (1888); History of Scott County, Iowa (1882); Timothy R. Mahoney, "Down in Davenport," Annals of Iowa 50 (1990), 451–74, 593–622; and an obituary in the Davenport Morning Democrat Gazette, 4/12/1889.
Contributor: Sarah J. Wesson

Cite as: Wesson, Sarah J. "Burrows, John McDowell" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017