When Opportunity Knocks . . .

It is August in the Midwest and we all know without a doubt that the weather around here can be brutal (Heat Wave: 1936).  There’s no need to dwell on the heat or the humidity.

So today’s post will avoid the topic of heat and focus instead on a little anecdote from Davenport’s past. 

In the fall of 1840, the town of Davenport was growing.  Important ordinances and resolutions were being created by a Mayor and several Trustees; it would be three more years before the term Alderman was used in council proceedings.  Men with names like Eldridge and LeClaire who are still remembered today fill the handwritten council books.  These men of longevity and health would greatly influence the development of Davenport and Scott County.  Other names are less known like Nichols, Whiting and Burnell.  These men (and their families) also  helped develop this area, but their time in Davenport was shortened by western movement or, sadly, death.

But empty Trustee seat could not be allowed to stall progress.  When the city lost a trustee, or even a  mayor, outside of election time, it appears the matter was resolved quickly and without much fuss.  One example is the passing of Trustee Captain William Nichols in September 1840. 

The September 26, 1840 entry from Council Proceedings April 14, 1839 – February 7, 1850 opens with the acknowledgement of Trustee Nichols’s death.  The council resolved to wear for 30 days a badge of mourning and to attend the funeral and burial that afternoon as a group.  Sympathy was to be extended to the widow and an announcement placed in a newspaper called the Iowa Sun stating the council sympathized with the family’s loss. 

By the next council meeting held on October 31, 1840 it was time to focus on town business once again.  Finding a replacement to fill Captain Nichols spot was at the top of the agenda.  An election was held immediately by those council members present – all four of them.  Trustee John Forrest nominated a gentleman named Strong Burnell.  Burnell was unanimously elected by Mayor Thorington, Recorder Frazer Wilson, and Trustees Seth Whiting and John Forrest – a landslide victory.

The next step was to send someone to fetch Mr. Burnell.  As recorded in the council proceeding recorded in now faded ink, “Mr. Burnell being sent for, appraised, and took the oath prescribed by law as Trustee of the town of Davenport and took his seat as such.”  (Pg. 28) Then the men passed an ordinance to prohibit shooting or discharging fire arms in the town of Davenport.  Near the end of the meeting a resolution was issued permitting Antoine LeClaire to rename the streets running East and West in town from the Native American names originally bestowed upon them (by Mr. LeClaire) to the numbered street system that still exists today.  Town business had resumed without missing a step.   

There is the old saying, “Opportunity Knocks.”  In Mr. Burnell’s case this might have been literal. 

One can imagine the different scenarios that could have played out that day.  We will leave it up to the reader to decide what Strong Burnell knew or didn’t know about the  “private election.”  What would the council have done if Mr. Burnell was out of town?  What was he doing when he was notified?

Feel free to sit awhile (in, we hope,  a cool setting) and ponder these questions.*   History can be a pleasant distraction.

(posted by Amy D.)

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*You might also ponder how large the firearms problem  might have been in Davenport at that time.  And why Antoine LeClaire wanted to rename the streets he had named only a few years before.     We hope to tackle the answers in later posts—we have very good air conditioning!

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