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Chambers, John
(October 6, 1780–September 21, 1852)

–lawyer, Kentucky legislator, Whig congressman, and second governor of Iowa Territory—was born at Bromley Bridge, Somerset County, New Jersey, the youngest of Rowland and Phoebe Chambers's seven children. The family moved west to Washington, Mason County, Kentucky, where John clerked in a store and briefly attended Transylvania Seminary in Lexington before being admitted to the bar in November 1800.

    Elected to a single term in the Kentucky legislature in 1812, he joined General William Henry Harrison's staff during the War of 1812 and then returned to his law practice. He was elected to three additional legislative terms (1815, 1830, 1831) and three terms in Congress (1828-1829 and 1835-1839). Chambers married Margaret Taylor on June 16, 1803; two daughters were stillborn before she died at age 28 on March 4, 1807. He married her half-sister, Hannah L., on October 29, 1807; they had twelve children before she died on November 11, 1832. After Chambers campaigned for Harrison's 1840 election, the new president offered to appoint him U.S. trea surer. He refused, but on March 25, 1841, 10 days before the president's death, he agreed to become the second governor of Iowa Territory. Chambers arrived in Burlington with household slaves on May 12.

    Although a Whig, Chambers's relationship with the Democratic legislative majority was less divisive than that of his predecessor, Robert Lucas. However, he considered Iowa City too isolated and traveled to the newly relocated capital only when politically necessary. In 1842 he built "Grouseland" on approximately 1,000 acres near Burlington. In messages to the legislators, the governor encouraged public education, construction of a penitentiary and permanent capitol, and improvements to Mississippi River navigation.

    As a new governor, Chambers sought to understand the volatile relationship between settlers and the Sauk and Meskwaki. He consistently supported Indian agent John Beach's effort to keep out white squatters before formal treaties could be negotiated. Chambers, Wisconsin Territorial Governor James Doty, and U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas H. Crawford met with Sauk and Meskwaki leaders October 15-17, 1841, to purchase their Iowa land. Three military forts were to be built to protect the tribes from their traditional enemy, the Sioux.

    Keokuk, the principal Sauk negotiator, refused to sign the treaty, but increased pressure from settlers, tribal poverty, and accumulated debts to traders convinced him to reopen talks with Chambers a year later. The two parties signed a treaty on October 11, 1842, by which the Sauk and Meskwaki sold nearly 10 million acres of land at 10 cents per acre and agreed to move into Kansas within three years. Governor Chambers consistently condemned traders for selling liquor and charging exorbitant prices for often inferior goods. In July 1843 he was sent to negotiate a similar land purchase treaty with the Winnebago at their Turkey River Agency but was unsuccessful. Finally, he joined Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsay in October 1849 in a failed effort to convince the Sioux to give up their land in Minnesota and Iowa.

    Like other Iowa territorial governors, Chambers supported statehood despite the resistance of fellow Whig legislators. His first message reminded partisan opponents that the recently passed Distribution Act provided states (not territories) with funds from the sale of public land to offset the increased financial burden of statehood. But voters rejected his call for a constitutional convention in August 1842. Two years later however, 63 delegates met in Iowa City from October 7 to November 1. Statehood legislation was approved by Congress and signed by President John Tyler on March 3, 1845, with one significant modification: Northern congressmen hoped to create five new states out of Iowa and Wisconsin territories and therefore changed the northern and western boundaries to significantly reduce the size of the proposed state. Although Chambers thought boundaries were a federal, not territorial, responsibility, Iowa voters disagreed and in an unprecedented action rejected the modified constitution and thus statehood.

    After Democrats won the 1844 presidential election, James Clarke replaced Chambers as governor. Chambers continued to reside at Grouseland before deteriorating health convinced him to return to Kentucky. He died at his daughter Matilda Brent's home in Paris, Kentucky, and was buried in the family plot at Cedar Hill in nearby Washington.
Sources The John Chambers Papers are held at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. The Autobiography of John Chambers was edited by John C. Parish (1900), who also wrote a full biography, John Chambers (1909). See also Donald J. Berthrong, "John Beach and the Removal of the Sauk and Fox from Iowa," Iowa Journal of History 54 (1956), 313–34; Thomas A. McMillan and David A. Walker, Biographical Directory of American Territorial Governors (1984); and Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 2 (1958).
Contributor: David A. Walker