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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Thomas McKnight. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

MCKNIGHT, Thomas. (Augusta County, VA, Mar. 10, 1787--Dubuque, IA, Dec. 1, 1865). At the age of sixteen, McKnight's father gave him a few dollars and told his son it was time for him to go out on his own. In 1803, he invested his few dollars in a stock of goods, which he carried from door to door. A few years later, he extended his trade and travels to Nashville, Tennessee and, in 1809, to St. Louis, Missouri. (1)

McKnight formed a partnership with his brothers James and Robert, and Thomas Brady, with branches at St. Genevieve and St. Charles. In 1822, he was elected to the St. Louis City Council and served as a director of the first "Bank of Missouri." McKnight was a merchant in St. Louis in 1809, two years before a steamboat was built on the western river, eight years before steamboat trade reached St. Louis, over twenty years before a railroad was built on the continent, and thirty years before the telegraph was invented. He moved on to become the Assistant Superintendent of the Government of the LEAD mining district of Galena. (2)

Still standing in 1951 on SULLIVAN'S PICNIC GROUNDS, this log cabin belonged to McKnight, a friend of Julien DUBUQUE and a candidate for governor of Iowa. Efforts to locate the cabin in 2018 were unsuccessful. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

Peru, Iowa and Sinipee, Wisconsin were early settlements which challenged Dubuque for power. McKnight may have bet on Peru because he was a settler there in 1833. (3)

McKnight applied for a homestead of 640 acres "on the west bank of the Mississippi river (sic) and on the Macoquetty (sic)for the purpose of smelting lead on." He specified the grant must include "some cabbins (sic) of Mr. Geo. W. Jones which he built to keep some provisions in for the miners on the Macoquetty river." McKnight operated the first hot air smelting furnace in the area and a store. In that year, McKnight, with Patrick J. QUIGLEY, surveyed the site north of Dubuque known as Peru. In 1838 President Van Buren appointed him "receiver of the land office at Dubuque," an office he held until 1845. He was the register of the land office from 1849 to 1853. McKnight was later the postmaster of Peru. Land at the time was selling for twenty-eight cents per acre. (4) It was believed at the time that McKnight collected and paid more to the government under the LEASING SYSTEM than all his successors had in twenty years. Solon LANGWORTHY later claimed that McKnight prevented violence that would have developed from conflicting claims by his nerve, discretion and personal influence. (5)

On October 10, 1836, McKnight was among the three senators elected to represent that portion of Wisconsin Territory west of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. McKnight practiced law and in 1846 lost an election by only 247 votes to Ansel BRIGGS who became Iowa's first governor. (6)

McKnight was appointed by President Van Buren, Receiver of the Land Office at Dubuque, and continued through the next administration, and was removed by President Polk in 1845. Upon his administration coming into power, President Taylor appointed him Register of the same office, which he held until 1853. (7)

Upon his death, the OLD SETTLERS' ASSOCIATION held a meeting which was largely attended, and, although the weather was very inclement, the association and a large number of citizens accompanied the remains to their burial place in LINWOOD CEMETERY. (8)



1. Oldt, Franklin T. The History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880, p. 975

2. Ibid.

3. "Two Old Rivals of City of Dubuque," Telegraph-Herald, August 8, 1915, p. 17

4. "Log Cabin in Which U. S. Sold Land Century Ago Still Stands," The Telegraph-Herald, October 7, 1951, p. 17

5. Ibid

6. Oldt

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.