James C. Jordan is the namesake for more than a dozen West Des Moines landmarks, including a school, a major thoroughfare and Iowa’s largest shopping center, Jordan Creek Town Center. 

Few of us today know who Jordan was. And that’s too bad, because the man was so much more interesting than the shopping mall. 

Without Jordan, West Des Moines would not be the size and shape it is today and Iowa City might still be the state capital. Without Jordan and men like him, pre-Civil War Iowa would not have been such an ardent opponent of slavery.

“The story of Jordan has been lost,” said John Norwood, a business consultant who is leading an effort by the West Des Moines Historical Society to restore Jordan to his proper place in history, along with the 160-year-old West Des Moines home where Jordan once hid slaves for the radical abolitionist John Brown. 

“Jordan’s name is synonymous with West Des Moines, but no one knows who he was,” Norwood said. 

James Cunningham Jordan was born in 1813 and grew up on a farm in Virginia, the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, Norwood explained. He lived in southwest Michigan and northwest Missouri before coming to Iowa in September 1846, three months before Iowa became a state.

He was 33 years old and married with four children when he arrived at Fort Des Moines, a loose collection of log buildings put up by Capt. James Allen in 1843 as protection from native Americans, most of whom had been removed from the area by 1845. 

Jordan pitched a tent seven miles west of the fort in a shaded area north of the Raccoon River. On the same site, he built a log cabin in 1848 and in 1850 began work on what would eventually become the two-story Victorian mansion known as Jordan House.

He farmed up to 1,800 acres and at one time had 700 head of cattle and 1,500 hogs. Jordan engaged in other pursuits, too, including banking and insurance. He was one of the founders of Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa.

Jordan was an active Whig, with sons named Henry Clay and John Quincy. His second wife was a relative of the Adams presidents. 

One of the state’s first Republicans, Jordan was involved in one of Iowa’s most controversial elections. 

In 1853, Jordan was declared the winner of a state senate seat by an 84-vote margin, but the result was overturned because of “irregularities” in Jasper County. Jordan’s opponent was seated in the Iowa Senate, but then unseated when the Jasper County disqualification was in overruled, returning the seat to Jordan.

In 1854, Jordan was a key supporter of legislation to move the state capital from Iowa City to a Des Moines. 

Jordan won a second term in the Iowa Senate in 1855 and one term in the Iowa House in 1879. He also served three terms on the Polk County Board of Supervisors. 

In the 1860s, he helped raise money to bring the railroad to Des Moines, and eventually West Des Moines, although the suburb itself was not incorporated until 1893, the year Jordan died. 

Norwood grew up in the history-rich Boston area and moved here in 2002. He joined the board of the West Des Moines Historical Society in 2010 and took over the presidency last year.

The society acquired the Jordan House in 1978 and turned it into a museum. Membership had dwindled to 85 but is now back to 150, following creation of a strategic plan in 2012. The goal is 600 members, including individuals and corporations. 

The plan called for raising $250,000, but Norwood said as much as $500,000 may be needed to make Jordan House accessible and establish a realistic operating budget.

For more information about James Jordan, Jordan House or the West Des Moines Historical Society, go to TheJordanHouse.org or contact John Norwood at john@tblventures.com.