What Cheer, Iowa

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What Cheer (pronounced 'WOT-cheer') is a city in Keokuk County, Iowa, United States. The population was 678 at the 2000 census.


The name What Cheer

When the future What Cheer was founded in 1865, it was named Petersburg for Peter Britton, the settlement's founder. This name was rejected by the Post Office, forcing a change of name. Joseph Andrews, a major and veteran of the American Civil War suggested the name What Cheer, and the town was officially renamed on December 1, 1879.[1][2]

Sources differ as to why the name What Cheer was chosen. The phrase what cheer with you is an ancient English greeting dating back at least to the 15th century.[3] One theory of the name is that a Scotch miner exclaimed What cheer! on discovering a coal seam near town.[2][4] A more elaborate theory suggests that Joseph Andrews chose the name because of one of the founding myths of his native town of Providence, Rhode Island. According to the story, when Roger Williams arrived at the site that would become Providence in 1636, and was greeted by Narragansett Native Americans with "What Cheer, Netop". Netop was the Narragansett word for friend, and the Narragansetts had picked up the what cheer greeting from English settlers.[1][5] It is possible that the connection between What Cheer, Iowa and What Cheer, the shibboleth of Rhode Island, was merely coincidental - the entries for these subjects are adjacent but not connected in the 1908 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana.[6]


Robert Forsyth, born in Kilmarnock, Scotland came to America in 1857, and made his way to Rock Island, Illinois, where he arrived penniless. He worked for most of a decade as a coal miner before coming to Petersburg, the future What Cheer. In the 1870s, he began buying coal lands around town, mostly on credit. When the railroad came to town, he leased his land to the coal companies and bought into a local drug store, eventually operating stores in What Cheer, Mystic and Jerome, Iowa.[7] Other Scots from the Kilmarnock region (Ayrshire) also settled in the area. Robert Orr came in 1875 after working in the coal mines of Colchester, Illinois. His son Alexander went on a successful career as a mine owner in Mystic.[8]

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