"SHSI Certificate of Recognition"
"Best on the Web"

Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

HAM, Mathias

From Encyclopedia Dubuque
Jump to navigationJump to search


Photo source: History of Dubuque County, Iowa.

HAM, Mathias. (Knox Co., TN, Apr. 12, 1805--Dubuque, IA, Mar. 8, 1889). Ham's parents moved to Missouri when he was fifteen years of age. He lived there and traded on the river, and came to Dubuque (or where the city is now located), in 1827. He permanently settled in this area in 1833.

Although interested in MINING and smelting, Ham secured permission to operate FERRYBOATS at EAGLE POINT where there was a site called Ham's Landing. Among the "firsts" credited to him were shipping the first boatload of dressed pork from Galena by river to New Orleans, constructing the first blast furnace and public school in Dubuque, and making the first bricks in the city. (1)

He surveyed Ham's Addition to Dubuque and owned twenty-five thousand acres of land including CITY ISLAND that was originally known as Ham's Island and stretched along the river three miles. (2)

From a site he chose, it is believed Ham quarried the stone used to build a two-story home in the early 1830s. His work as a contractor involved in the construction of the DUBUQUE CUSTOM HOUSE AND POST OFFICE may have given him access to stone which did not meet the approval of government engineers. This authorities believe was used to build the front portion of HAM HOUSE. (3)

Ham managed a wide-variety of business ventures including mining, smelting, brick making, and lime kilns. A widely repeated story credits Ham's nickname, "the "Sauerkraut King," to his cultivation of cabbage which was often made into sauerkraut for pioneers.

Ham's financial status rose and fell several times. Caught up in the excitement of RAILROADS, he became president of the DUBUQUE & TURKEY VALLEY RAILROAD CO. only to lose most of his wealth when the infant venture failed. Ham entered the construction business in the young and thriving Dubuque and helped build the city's first public school by donating the lumber.

In 1857 Ham was listed as the fifth wealthiest person in Dubuque County. (4) With one of the city's most visited ITALIAN VILLA ARCHITECTURE 23-room homes known as the "southerner's open house,", he hosted General U. S. Grant; Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin; and high society locals. HAM HOUSE was completed just as he lost nearly his entire wealth in the financial crash of 1857, one year after the death of his first wife Zerelda. He worked the rest of his life to maintain his family in comfort, but he was never again to know his earlier wealth.

In addition to his business ventures, Ham was a life member of the board of trustees of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa and an alderman of the fifth ward.



1. "Local Legend-the Ham House," Telegraph Herald, May 21, 1976, p. 60

2. "An Early Mansion of Stone," Telegraph-Herald, February 18, 1934, p. 5

3. 'Ham House Named National Historic Place, Telegraph Herald, July 25, 1976, p. 5

4. "Local Legend..."

Oldt, Franklin. The History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880, p. 799