Leo Ryan Articles

Capoli: The Village History Forgot

This article by Br. Leo Ryan, CSV, was published in Bulletin No. 233 of the Iowa Postal History Association in the third quarter of 2005.

Before the United States became a country (July 4, 1776) and before Iowa was a territory (February 6, 1838) or a state (December 28, 1846) and long before Allamakee County was established (January 15, 1849) Capoli existed. Capoli (CAP-oh-li) was the name given to an important riverboat and explorer landmark along the Mississippi River. Capoli designates a unique, geologically dramatic, two-mile angled bluff rising 420 feet above the Mississippi, just below present day Lansing, Iowa.

Capoli village and post office took their name from this neighboring bluff. Capoli was settled on a small tract of land on the south side of Paint Creek at the point where the Creek empties into the Mississippi.

Capoli was a small, once promising briefly important but now a village lost in county history. The Capoli post office was established February 16, 1852, four and one half months before the village was formally surveyed and platted on June 30, 1852.

Capoli Bluff exists today as a permanently protected 170-acre strip of bluff line known as “The Buckmaster Conservation Easement”. The Capoli Bluff Easement represents a voluntary land protection agreement between the owners, Raleigh and JoEllyn (“Joey”) Buckmaster, and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. The Buckmaster Easement keeps the land in private ownership while restricting uses like construction or grazing that could damage its natural resources.

Cathy Engstrom, Communication Director, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation wrote the following about Capoli Bluffs in Iowa Natural Heritage: “Prehistoric cultures thought this place was sacred and left archeological traces of their presence. Early white explorers like Major (Stephen H.) Long, noted its landmark bluffs in their journals and drawings.” Major Long, U.S. Topographical Engineer wrote in 1817 “Just above this … is Garlic Cape (Cap a’l’ ale which has been yankcerized into Capoli) remarkable from the singularity of its appearance.” (Engstrom, Cathy, “Agreement Protects Bluffs, History” Iowa Natural Heritage, Winter 2005, p. 4.)

Allamakee County historian, E.M. Hancock, wrote “It (The village Columbus) was often called Capoli, from the name of the bluff at the base of which it lay, which appears in the narratives of early explorers as ‘Cap-a-l’ail’ in Schoolcraft, or as ‘Cape a’l’ale Sauvage’ as in Beltrami.” (Hancock, E.M. The Past and Present of Allamakee County Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement. Chicago: The S. J. Publishing Company, 1913, p. 267.)

The Buckmaster Easement “protects the most sensitive natural areas (which) include native prairie, scenic woodland and other distinct natural environments. (It) is one of the longest, single ownership, protected bluffs along the Mississippi between the Quad Cities and the Twin Cities” The ancient Capoli bluffs site “provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, including timber rattlesnakes, falcons, eagles and many species of migratory birds. (Unsigned article, “Two Miles of Mississippi River Bluffs Protected by Conservation Agreement”, The Tapestry Magazine, Vol. IV, No.2, February 2005, p. 28.)

Capoli village enjoyed its moments of greatest importance in 1851 the year before it was even surveyed and platted. The citizens of newly organized Capoli were ambitious for their village. They entered the First Allamakee County Seat Election in April 1851 proposing that Capoli be chosen as the seat of county government.

In that First County Seat Election (April 1851) Capoli competed with Vailsville (now Harper’s Ferry) and “Smith’s Place” (Reuben Smith’s Mill in Post Township). In that election none of the villages received a majority vote.

A second election was immediately organized for May 1, 1851. Vailsville withdrew. Capoli won by a small majority (said to be 14 votes). Thus, Capoli became the First County Seat of Allamakee County. The Capoli post office was established February 16, 1852. Lyman W. Low was the first of four postmasters.

A spirit of rivalry soon arose between citizens of Capoli and citizens of near-by Lansing, two miles north also on the Mississippi. E.M. Hancock describes the “jealously on the part of Lansing… toward her next door neighbor, (which) induced her to attempt to deprive (Capoli) of her honors and the advantages accompanying them.” Hancock continues: “Proprietors [of the (Capoli) boat landing] and their friends were too powerful to warrant a direct issue, so Lansing resorted to a strategy and urged the propriety of a relocation of the county seat at the geographical center of the county.” (p. 132)

On December 4, 1852 a group of citizens met at Ezra Reid’s farm (Ludlow Township) and drafted a petition to the Iowa General Assembly “to have another point designated as the county seat.” In January 1853 the Legislature accepted the petition and appointed a three-man commission to determine the location.

Capoli was the county seat so the Commissioners, Clement C. Coffin (Delaware County), John S. Lewis (Clayton County) and Dennis A. Mahoney (Dubuque County) met first in Capoli.

Since Sec. 3 of the Legislative Act, specified locating “the County Seat as near the geographical center”, the Commissioners naturally began their search away from the Mississippi River towns of Capoli, Johnsport, and of course, Lansing itself. The petition and the subsequent decision of the Commissioners was to have an immediate consequence for Capoli and contributed to its decline. The effect for Lansing came in later years when Lansing coveted and aggressively sought the County Seat for Lansing itself. Central location and availability of spring water were primary provisions of the Act. The commissioners rejected Makee Ridge and Union Prairie for lack of adequate spring water.

The Commissioners recommended the George Shattuck farm with multiple bubbling springs. The proposed town site was immediately named Waukon. The Commissioners requested Mr. (Rev.) John Hanley, Jr. of Lansing to christen the spot. The “proposed town site” was called Waukon after a Winnebago Chief, John Waukon, friend of Rev. Hanley.

A Third County Seat Election was called Monday, April 4, 1853 to ratify (or reject) the decision of the Commissioners. Voters ratified the Waukon decision over Capoli by 245 votes. Capoli immediately challenged the vote in the first term of the District Court to be held in Waukon (June 1853). The Waukon vote was confirmed. On August 23, 1853, the Waukon post office was established. Scott Shattuck, son of George Shattuck, was appointed the first postmaster.

Capoli lost the County Seat to Waukon, but Waukon’s hold was tenuous. It took eight County Seat elections between 1853-1869 and a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court (June 15, 1867) to finally confirm Waukon as the County Seat.

Meanwhile, Capoli citizens were active to protect their interest. In early 1853, a motion prepared by Ben M. Samuels, Esq., appealed on behalf of the proprietors of Capoli, to adjourn the District Court in Capoli. The First District Court in Allamakee County had been held in Capoli in 1852.

The entire petition is too lengthy to quote here but briefly it argued that relocation of the County Seat was unconstitutional (i.e. 10th Article U.S. Constitution -“No state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.”) Proprietors of Capoli had deeded two acres (The minimum required by the Legislative Act of 1851) and thereby had “A contract with the county”. Also, Capoli had “A substantial legal interest in the county seat”. The 1851 Legislation provided that “The point receiving the largest number of votes shall be and remain the permanent seat of justice of said Allamakee County”. The only other condition being that within ten days after the election the location must make and execute “a satisfactory and sufficient deed for at least two acres of land…”. Capoli had done so.

The Court overruled the motion. The Court ruled that Capoli had, in law, acquired no interest in the matters and that no contract existed. Further, (still quoting the Lansing Intelligencer), “The Legislature did not by that word (permanent) intend to make the act, immutably durable -that even if the Legislature had so intended it was an excess of Legislation and consequently void.” (Hancock p.134)

The Fifth County Seat Election (April 4, 1859) became a contest between Waukon and Lansing. Miffed (and threatened) by Lansing’s aggressiveness, a committee of Waukon civic leaders was organized “to select an eligible point on the Mississippi other than Lansing through which Waukon might transact her shipping business.” Capoli and Johnsport (another Allamakee County “Ghost Town”) were considered.

he Committee concluded, “There was no one point to which they could in good faith pledge their support.” (Hancock, p. 134) Waukon won this election by 420 votes.

On December 3, 1860 a new petition was presented in County Court for the relocation of the County Seat at “The Point”, a location between Lansing and Capoli. Old foes were now friends. “The Point” was a location on the North shore of Paint Creek. Known locally as North Capoli, it was never recognized as a distinct town. North Capoli abutted the southern, but an unincorporated section of Lansing. To bring the County Seat to “The Point” appeared to accommodate the hopes of the citizens of both Lansing and Capoli.

Shrewd businessmen, Elias Topliff and J.M. Rose as “Trustees of the Columbus Land Company No.1” platted North Capoli April 16, 1860. Topliff and Jones (sic), Alex McGregor and others of McGregor’s Landing appear to have been the originators of this village site and landing. (W.E. Alexander, History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties Iowa, Sioux City, Iowa: Western Publishing Company, 1882, p. 397.)

The Court ordered a Sixth County Seat Election for April 8, 1861. “The Point” received 1,257 votes; Waukon received 1,231. “The Point” was chosen the new County Seat by 26 votes. The Court House records and furniture “were immediately transferred to that place”. (Hancock, p. 136)

Waukon citizens were stunned. They immediately petitioned the Board of Supervisors for another election. The Board accepted their petition (Oct. 14, 1861) for another election in Apri11862. Again “The Point” (North Capoli and South Lansing prevailed by 22 votes. “The Point” received 1,332 votes against 1,310 votes for Waukon). These two elections proved in hindsight to have been the historic zenith of Capoli, albeit North Capoli/South Lansing as a village.

An Eighth contest was approved by the Board of Supervisors in June 1864 to be held concurrent with the General Election, November 8, 1864. For the third time the election was extremely close: “The Point” 1,205 votes; Waukon, 1,136 or “The Point” by 69 votes. But this election was to spell the end of the real County Seat contests.

The vote was complicated by an irregularity. When the Board of Supervisors met to canvas the November 8 vote, the votes cast by citizens of Franklin Township were still unreported. The Board completed the canvas without the Franklin Township vote.

Waukon immediately challenged the decision. “The Point” called for a change of venue to Delaware County. The Delaware County District Court ordered the Board of Supervisors to include the Franklin Township votes. That decision added 23 votes. Waukon was now the victor with 1,228 votes over 1,205 votes for “The Point”.

The proponents of “The Point” (by this time mostly Lansing interests) appealed the Delaware District County Court decision to the Iowa Supreme Court. The Supreme Court accepted the petition but did not decide the case until June 15, 1867. The Iowa Supreme Court confirmed Waukon as the County Seat of Allamakee County.

Again the Court House records and furniture were moved September 3-6 from “The Point” to Waukon. Waukon has remained the County Seat ever since.

The waiting period for the Iowa Supreme Court decision (1864-1867) contributed to the demise of Capoli. The existence of a post office was one measure of the importance and vitality of a community. Capoli had so declined in importance and postal revenue that on June 30, 1865, the government discontinued the Capoli post office.

The postal history of Capoli parallels the political uncertainties and apparently the economic demise of this once promising village. Norman E. Erickson, our fellow Iowa Postal History Society (IPHS) colleague, can be credited with prompting me to research Capoli and to write this article. He first wrote me from his Apache Junction, Arizona winter residence after reading the Iowa Natural Heritage article about the Buckmaster Conservation Easement of Capoli.

Norman raised the question whether I had ever seen a cover with the Capoli postmark. I had not. The Lloyd Clark Allamakee County Collection did not include a Capoli cover. Our Iowa Postal Historical Society (IPHS) Bulletin editor, [Dr. Bill Dahl]] remarked that neither had he ever seen a Capoli cover. Perhaps some other IPHS members have a Capoli cover in their collection.

Capoli has an interesting postal history. Guy Reed Ramsey in Postmarked Iowa (Crete, Nebraska: J-B Publishing Company, 1976) lists Capoli among the discontinued Allamakee County Post Offices. His entry reads: “Capoli, two miles southeast of Lansing on the Mississippi river. (SW Sec. 33, Lansing Twp 100N R6W) established February 16, 1852. Lyman W. Low; discontinued July 30, 1856” (p. 10)

However, The Official Register of the United States records Capoli postmaster appointments, compensation, and net proceeds through June 30, 1865. (Cf. The Official Registers of the United States 1852-1853 through 1863-1865.)

The Ramsey date of “1856” is probably a typing transposition of 1865. Likewise his “July” should also have been “June”.

During a visit to the U.S. Postal Service Archives, Washington, D.C., Historian Megaera Ausman directed me to the bi-annual The Official Register of the United States in the archives of the Postal Service. By consulting The Official Register for the seven¬ year period from 1852-1853, through 1863-1865, I was able to reconstruct some history of the Capoli post office.

The table which follows identifies the years of operation, the Postmaster, his compensation and the net proceeds to the U.S. Government. The postmaster at establishment, Lyman W. Low, served only one term. Orin S. Conkey was postmaster for six years, during the period of greatest political turmoil. John H. Tierney served two terms. Postal volume increased slightly during the period 1861-1863. M. Harmon served one term and was the postmaster at the time of discontinuance, June 30, 1865.

The period of the Capoli post office included three County Seat Elections. The Sixth County Seat Election of April 3, 1861 and the Seventh County Seat Election of April 1862 both favored ‘The Point”. This site was the accommodation reached by Capoli, North Capoli and the southernmost section of Lansing. Pressure to name the “The Point” was an initiative dominated by Lansing citizens. Lansing was growing in importance while the importance of Capoli was rapidly declining.

By the time of the Eighth County Seat Election (November 14, 1864) Capoli was no longer a viable village. M. Harmon had the dubious distinction of being postmaster when the post office was discontinued June 30, 1865.

A philatelic note indirectly related might be inserted here. Earlier in connection with the development of North Capoli, we earlier cited historian W.E. Alexander. He wrote that “Alex McGregor and others of McGregor’s Landing, we believe, were the original locators of this village site and landing (p. 398). James S. Leonardo discusses McGregor’s Landing in his monograph on The Introduction of Adhesive Postage Stamps in Iowa 1845-1853. (Iowa Postal History Society Monograph #1, 1996) Leonardo notes “McGregor’s Landing, and Farmersburgh are the only two Iowa post offices with known carry-in usage of both the 1847 and 1851 issues during the period covered by this study.” (p.98)

The cover he illustrates from McGregor’s Landing (January 1, 1852) includes a letter datelined “Ly Brand” (Allamakee County) and written by Jacob Ly Brand. Later, May 12, 1852 there was a post office at Lybrand, five miles northwest of Postville. Lybrand was renamed Myron, April 21, 1868 and the post office was discontinued February 11, 1895.

After the Capoli post office closed, Capoli seems to have disappeared in the history of Allamakee County. In W.E. Alexander’s History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties Iowa (1882) the village where the Paint Creek enters the Mississippi is described as Columbus but with an aside: “It is sometimes called Capoli”. (p. 398) Alexander describes our Capoli, as “A few little old buildings, out of repair, comprise all that remains of its original glory.” (p. 397)

Perhaps the influence of “The Trustees of the Columbus Landing Company #1” simply caused the area to be known as Columbus. There was never a post office Columbus nor a post office at North Capoli. Lansing had become the dominant Allamakee County Mississippi River town.

The other Allamakee County historian, E.M. Hancock borrowed extensively, often without attribution, from Alexander. Somewhere between 1865 and 1882, Capoli became Columbus for these two historians.

Throughout the Hancock history as far back as the First and Second County Seat Elections (April and May 1851) Hancock continuously refers to Capoli as Columbus. E.M. Hancock was writing his Allamakee County history over a 30-year period. He contributed the early chapters to the Alexander volume (1882). His own Allamakee County history was published in 1913. Clearly, over time Columbus not Capoli had become the locally accepted designation of the area at the mouth of Paint Creek. How and when did this change of name take place?

Recently, I consulted the current archivist of the Allamakee County Historical Society, Ada Marie (Mrs. Leslie) Kerndt about the Capoli/Columbus name change. She had no records except what appears in W.E. Alexander and E.M. Hancock.

The mystery of the disappearance of Capoli and the renaming of the area Columbus requires another cycle of research. However, we do now know the history of the Capoli post office. We face another mystery about whether there are any Capoli covers in existence. And, if so, where can they be found?

Despite these political and philatelic mysteries, the archeological and geological wonder known as Capoli Bluffs remains as the Buckmaster Conservation Easement. The village, the first seat of Allamakee County government, and the post office may have disappeared, but the spirit of Capoli, the Capoli Bluffs and Capoli as a riverboat landmark survives to this day.

You can learn more about the Buckmaster Eastment here. The Buckmaster family’s website is here: The cabin at the top of Capoli bluff is now a short-term rental.