Allamakee co. IAGenWeb

Chapter 7
Past & Present of Allamakee County, 1913



Upon the establishment of Allamakee county by the Legislature in February, 1847, it was placed in the Second Judicial District of the State, presided over by Judge James Grant from November 15, 1847, to the spring of 1852.

During the jurisdiction of Judge Grant there was no regular term of District court held in Allamakee county, and no venire issued for jurors. All the authorities agree that Judge T. S. Wilson held the first terms in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in the summer of 1852. But it appears well established that Judge Grant did appear and hear cases at the Old Mission – there being then no county seat – once, and possibly twice. Mr. Wm. C. Thompson, who was elected sheriff in 1851, stated in 1882, that a court was held there by Judge Grant, he thought, in the fall of 1849, that being the home of Thomas C. Linton, then sheriff, but that little or no business was done. The time was fixed in his mind by his returning to Wisconsin for his family that fall, and it was during his absence he understood this court was held. Mr. C. D. Beeman, another pioneer of ’49, thought the first court was held at Postville in 1851, at which a divorce was granted to Mrs. Post. But Judge Samuel Murdock, the first lawyer to settle north of Dubuque, was of the opinion that this was at the Old Mission. In a letter to A. M. May in December, 1893, published in the Waukon Standard, of which Mr. May was then the editor, Judge Murdock very judicially and entertainingly disposes of the question which had arisen, and from which the following quotations are here made:

“I infer there was a discussion as to two questions: First, when, where, and by what judge was held the first court in your county? Second, when, where, and before what judge did Mrs. Zerniah Post [the founder of Postville] obtain a divorce? And I am greatly pleased with the opportunity offered to settle these two questions, and moreover, to sustain and affirm the accuracy of Mr. Hancock’s history [published in 1882]

“I have before me, while writing this letter, biographical sketches of Judge Grant, Judge Wilson, and Mrs. Post, all either written or dictated by themselves, and from that of Judge Grant I find that he was elected judge of the District Court on April 5, 1847, and held the office five years to April, 1852, and that his district included Allamakee County. From that of Judge Wilson I find that he succeeded Judge Grant, and was elected April, 1852. In regard to Mrs. Post, she had three husbands, all of whom were personally known to me, but from some cause or other her biography is silent as to the second. She was first married to Joel Post, March 6, 1831, in the state of New York, and they settled where is now Postville, in 1841. After the death of Joel [January, 1849] she was married again to another person by the name of Post, a cousin to the former, and they lived together very happily for one or two years until one day she received a letter which informed her that her husband had a lawful wife still living in Rock county, Wisconsin, and presenting this letter to him, he broke down and confessed. All of this evidence of his confessions, letters, and facts, afterwards fell into my hands, and it was these that I subsequently used to procure her a divorce from this man Post.

“In January, 1852, Mrs. Post was married for the third time, to George S. Hayward, with whom she lived at intervals for several years. Mr. Hayward, was a quiet, kind, good man, but wayward, unsteady, unsettled, fickle, discontented, and had a passion for rambling, and left her and went to California, where he later met with an accident that put an end to his life. After he went to California Mrs. Post was greatly bothered and annoyed in the way of selling and conveying lots in her town (Postville), as every deed had to be sent to him for his signature, and she got tired of this, and the writer of this, as a member of the firm of Murdock & Stoneman, on the second day of May, 1863, filed a petition for Mrs. Zerniah Hayward for a divorce from George S. Hayward, which was granted by Judge E. H. Williams, September 29, 1863. [District Court Record “B”, page 345. There was a deed of separation between them dated October 11, 1855, in Deed Record “D”, page 58.] It will therefore be seen from these facts that she was three times married and twice divorced. Now, upon the condition that Mr. Beeman’s term of school [which he was teaching at Monona in 1851] continued from the fall of 1851 into January, 1852, which is very likely, then he did, no doubt, dismiss the Post children in January, 1852, to go and see their mother married to Mr. Hayward.”

Referring again to the court at Old Mission, Mr. Murdock says: “At this time that Old Mission farm on Yellow river was owned by Thomas Linton, from whom the township takes its name, and he had been appointed organizing sheriff of the county, and called the court at his place. Mr. Linton moved into Minnesota, and again into Oregon, where he and his wife died but he has a brother still living in Mitchell county, and not long since I received from him a letter, in which, in answer to my inquiry, ‘Where was the first court held in Allamakee county?’ he says; ‘At my brother’s house at the Old Mission on Yellow river, and my brother was the organizing sheriff of the county.’ This William Linton was then living in the north part of Clayton County within seven or eight miles of his brother, and they married sisters, so that he had every opportunity to know or hear all about the court being held there by Judge Grant.

“I think it was in the late part of the summer of 1851 that I was retained by Mrs. Post as an attorney to procure for her a divorce from her second husband Post, and I drew up the necessary papers, had them sent to L. B. Hodges, who was then living at Hardin, and who I think was acting as clerk of the court [Mr. Hodges was postmaster at Hardin in 1851, and was elected clerk in August. – Ed.], and I think I sent the notice and had it personally served on defendant in Rock county, Wis., and in the fall of that year I accompanied Judge Grant to Postville, where he took the testimony [this may have created the impression of a court held at Postville. – Ed.], and the next day we drove down to the Old Mission, where we were heartily greeted by Mr. Linton and his amiable wife, and after dinner the judge directed the Sheriff to open court, which was done, when the case of Post vs. Post was called, and no defendant appearing, he proceeded to make a record thereof, and entered a decree for the plaintiff. There was no clerk present, but I distinctly remember of the judge handing the records he had made, with all the papers, to Mr. Linton and directing him to see that they were filed in the clerk’s office. I make no doubt that if you inquire of those who now reside in the old building, they will have a tradition that the first court in the county was held in their house. In the afternoon I borrowed Mr. Linton’s rifle and went out to get a shot at some deer, which were very plentiful there at that time. We were hospitably entertained over night and I came home the next day.

“I have been thus particular to give you all the above facts that they may not only clear up controversy but that they may become and addition to the history of your county.”

Judge Murdock in this letter assumes that this was Judge Grant’s first court in Allamakee, in the fall of 1851, and if so Mr. Thompson was in error as to the year. In that case it is not explained how Mr. Linton would be the sheriff, as he was appointed as organizing sheriff only, early in 1849, and later the same year, Lester W. Hays was elected and was sheriff during 1851, in the latter part of which year W. C. Thompson was elected, according to good authority. We are led to the conclusion that Judge Grant first appeared at the Old Mission in a judicial capacity late in 1849; and again in 1851 to hear the Post case. The record of the County court shows on December 2, 1851, a warrant issued in favor of Lester W. Hays for services as sheriff in summoning grand and petit jury; but there is no record of any jury assembling until Judge Wilson’s term at Columbus in July, 1852.


The first term of District court of which there is official record remaining in the county archives was held at Columbus, then the county seat, Monday, July 12, 1852, presided over by Judge t. S. Wilson, who had recently succeeded Judge Grant, May 8, 1852. Leonard B. Hodges was the clerk, and Wm. C. Thompson sheriff. The first grand jury was empanelled as follows; Wm. H. Morrison, foreman; Edward Eells, John Clark, H. R. Ellis, R. Woodward, Jesse M. Rose, W. W. Willson, Darius Bennett, G. A. Warner, Henry Botsford, Truman Stoddard, Wm. Smith, A. J. Ellis, Jeremiah Clark, and T. A. Winsted.

The first petit jury was: Reuben Smith, A. W. Hoag, D. B. Clark, David Miller, John Stull, Charles R. Hoag, A. L. Barron, Thos. Cosgrove, and H. M. Willson.

The first term in Waukon was set for Monday, June 6, 1853; but it is recorded that “the presiding judge, in order to give time for the preparation of a suitable place at Waukon, the newly-selected county seat, by written order, directed that the court be adjourned till tomorrow.” June 7th the court was again adjourned one day. W. C. Thompson was sheriff; and R. Ottman, deputy clerk, acted in the absence of his superior, L. B. Hodges. Much delay in the business of the court was occasioned by the fact of jurors and witnesses having been summoned to appear at Columbus.

On the eighth the sheriff returned into court with the grand jury, and the court was opened with Judge Wilson of Dubuque presiding. Files of the old Lansing Intelligencer show that Judge Wilson arrived at Lansing on the seventh, on the steamer West Point, and opened the court the next morning in the courthouse at Waukon, which is described as being a small and rather inconvenient log cabin, ‘but considering that the official whose duty it was to provide suitable accommodations (referring to Elias Topliff, county judge) had refused to do so, and that the structure was erected by a private enterprise, as good as could be expected.” The difficulty arose from the unwillingness of Topliff and Hodges, who were interested in the town site of Columbus, to surrender the county seat from that place, as will be narrated in the chapter on county seat elections.

In the records of this June term at Waukon, appears the follow: “Then came Benjamin M. Samuels and moved the court to adjourn to Columbus, for the reason that Columbus was legally the county seat of Allamakee county; which motion, after the argument of counsel, was overruled by the court, where upon the counsel for the motion excepted.”

L. B. Hodges, clerk of the court, not appearing at his post, the sheriff was dispatched in search of him. When brought into court he resigned his office, and no proceedings were had against him. Lewis W. Hersey was appointed to fill the vacancy. After disposing of a good-sized docket of some forty-five cases the court was adjourned until November 7.

At this June term the grand jury consisted of M. B. Lyons, Joel Baker, J. W. Hoag, James Hoag, Harman S. Cooper, A. Cheedle, James S. Mitchell, Ezra Reed, Ezra Pettit, Robert Isted, David Jamison, Thos. Newberry, Henry Noble, Peter M. Gilson, and Henry Johnson.

It is interesting to note that at this early day there was a demand for divorces, one being granted at this term, and one case dismissed only to come up again at the fall terms, when two divorces were granted. There had been one granted at the Columbus term of court; and the famous case of Post vs. Post was the first case tried in the county, as before narrated.

The next term was opened at Waukon, November 7, 1853. Judge Thos. S. Wilson; S. Goodridge, district
prosecutor; L. W. Hersey, clerk; John Laughlin, Sheriff; Thos. A. Minard, deputy. There was a large number of cases on the docket, among them a number of indictments for gambling and betting, keeping gambling houses, selling liquor, and assault and battery. These were all continued under $200 bonds, and at a later term nearly all were dismissed. The first state case that came to trial was one against Grove A. Warner and James A. Davis for robbery. They lived near Merrian’s Ford, or later Myron, in Post Township, and Warner had served as clerk of Commissioners’ Court in ’49 and ’50 was a justice of the peace, and a shoemaker by trade. It seems that Thos. and Jerry Gorman came into possession of some $600 or $700 and in considering where to place it for safety against the time they should have occasion to use it, one of them consulted Justice Warner. Not long after the Gormans were robbed of all they had about them, which happened to be only about $60, they having found a depository for the main portion of their funds. Davis was convicted, at this term, the verdict being “robbery in the first degree,” and received a sentence of ten years in the state penitentiary. Warner disappeared, and his bondsmen forfeited his bail.

Judge Dean in 1880 wrote thus entertainingly of the first courthouse;

“Waukon, now having become the seat of justice by recent county seat election), and there being a term of the District court to be held in June following, some provisions must be made, and a proper place provided; so a purse of money and labor was raised, and a log cabin about ten feet by fourteen that belonged to Mr. Pilcher and stood near the place where Mrs. Cooper now lives (now owned by John J. Arnold), was purchased and moved to the new town site, and erected on or near the spot where the Mason House now stands. [Now the Allamakee. – Ed.] This was the first courthouse in the town. To this was attached a small board addition in the shape of a lean-to for a grand jury room, and in this building the Hon. Thos. S. Wilson of Dubuque held the first court ever held in Waukon, opening June 9, 1853. The building was so small that when the jury took a case to make up their verdict, the court, attorneys, and spectators took the outside, and they the inside, until they had agreed. During this court all parties here from abroad found places to eat and sleep as best they could, every log cabin in the vicinity being filled to overflowing.

“This little log cabin was so utterly lacking in size and accommodations for county business, that in the fall of the same year it was moved down on what is now Spring Avenue and used as a blacksmith shop, but was subsequently moved onto the farm now (1880) owned by Dr. Mattoon, and is used by the doctor as a corn crib; [a few years later it was demolished. – Ed.] and Sewell Goodridge, prosecuting attorney and ex-officio county judge, built a small frame building on the east side of Allamakee street, with hardwood lumber and basswood siding, made at some of the sawmills on Yellow River. This building was used for county officers, courts, etc., until 1857, when it became too small for the business of the county, and Elias Topliff, then county judge, built alongside of it another frame building about the same size, and the two were used for county purposes until the county seat was removed to Lansing, in 1861.”

The action of the County Court providing for this building is thus preserved in the court records; “one this 6th day of September, A. D. 1853, being the day (by previous arrangement) for entering into a contract for putting up a county building, the proposition of William Ramsdall being the lowest bid, it was ordered by the court (by said Ramsdall giving sufficient security) that the said William Ramsdall should have the contract, which contract was entered into for the amount of $325.” This was the first of the two small buildings referred to by Judge Dean, the second being added in 1857.

These little buildings having withstood the vicissitudes of nearly sixty years, having escaped the dangers of fire and storm to which many stauncher structures have succumbed, still stand on the spot where first erected, in mute appeal to the interest of all who possess a spark of reverence for the venerable, or near-venerable, or a sympathy for high estate brought low. Various have been their uses and occupancy since vacated by the courts of justice and the high officials of our county government in 1861. The writer of these lines has a vivid recollection of a line of men and “big boys” drawn up in the vacant room when used as a recruiting station, late in 1861, or 1862; and a strong impression was made upon his youthful mind by the wavering, but finally all-but unanimous, response to the call, “for three years or the war, two paces to the front!”

In 1859 and ’60 the present courthouse was built, completed in 1861. The contract was let to Chas. W. Jenkins and John W. Pratt for $13,500; of which sum Waukon contributed $5,000, and after the county seat was once more restored to her in 1867 the new building was occupied by the county and the little old frame buildings on the east side of Allamakee Street were sold, and are now occupied as a cabinet shop and a barber shop.

Herewith is presented a view of this little old original courthouse as it now appears, the last picture that it will be possible to produce as it has at this writing just been sold and will soon be replaced by a substantial structure.

~transcribed by Lisa Henry

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