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Early Land Sales in West Point Township


Posted By: John Stuekerjuergen (email)
Date: 12/23/2015 at 15:48:21

West Point Township: An Early Defense of Settlers’ Claims

The first public sale of land in West Point Township took place on a drizzly Monday in November 1838. Here is some background. The area that now constitutes the state of Iowa was opened to settlement on July 1, 1833 by an Act of Congress. That followed the defeat of Black Hawk and his band in 1832. The first settlements in Lee County were along the rivers. The settlement of the interior of the county began in the fall of 1834, and possibly earlier.

The very first settlers oriented their claims to the creeks and timbers that provided water and building materials. They made no effort to set the boundaries of their farms in a neat north/south, east/west grid. That changed once the first surveys were completed. However, pioneers always risked potential changes brought by future surveys and political decisions. Initially, the land was divided into “settlements” rather than “townships.” The settlements were named after pioneers or landmarks such as creeks. Soon afterward, the townships were established with their present names.

--Territories Without Laws--

Although Iowa was part of the Michigan and then Wisconsin Territories at that time, there were no written laws about land claims. The settlers established their own rules, under which each settler could claim a half-section, ideally half timber and half prairie. Within three months he was required to build a cabin and plow five acres of prairie. That was enough to hold a claim for six months. Town sites were effectively squatter claims, but the adjacent landowners generally did not challenge them.

When the first formal government survey was made, it affected the boundaries of almost every settler’s claim. One man, for example, had a township corner in the middle of his tract. In the fall of 1838, the legislature of the new Iowa Territory decided to charge the settlers for the land they already occupied. In return, each settler would receive legal title to his parcel. Until these sales took place, the government viewed the early settlers as squatters. Another purpose of these sales was to generate cash to keep the new territorial government afloat.

The fear in all this was that newly-arrived opportunists would outbid the settlers who had already established their claims, built their homes, and farmed their land. In order to avoid this, the settlers in each township organized and appointed a bidder and a supporting committee of three to five. The bidder was to submit bids on behalf of the settlers. The committee was available to resolve disputes. First and foremost, the bidder aimed to protect the rights of the settlers.

--A Plan to Protect Settlers’ Rights--

Hawkins Taylor, a founder of the town of West Point, was appointed bidder for West Point Township. He made a map of the township and entered the name of each settler on his claim. Claim boundaries were adjusted as much as practical to fit the government survey. Finally, Taylor indicated the amount he was instructed to pay for each settler’s parcel. In some cases, he was told that relatives back east would assist the settlers with funding.

On that drizzly November day, the men of West Point Township rode on horseback to Burlington, the territorial capital, for the sale. There were around 2,000 men from various townships camped in and around the town for the sale. Most of them surrounded the building in which the sale was to be held, in order to discourage outsider bidders. The hotels were filled with speculators of all kinds. Some hoped to buy land at low cost. Others offered to lend money at usurious rates. Each dollar borrowed by a settler to fund a land purchase required the payment of double that amount after two years.

The West Point land was among the first to be sold. Almost all land was purchased with silver, as there had been a banking collapse in the prior year. No settler could claim more than 320 acres.

--A Near-Lynching--

The township’s sales went as planned except for one claim. A wealthy Virginian was staying at Fletcher’s Hotel on Jefferson Street near the river. He told Col. William Patterson, another West Point founder and fellow Virginia native, that he intended to bid on any land that interested him. Patterson argued against the idea, but to no avail. When John Judy failed to bid on his own claim in Section 33 (or possibly 35), due to lack of funds, the Virginian bought the claim out from under him.

As soon as Hawkins Taylor could leave the building, he told the waiting crowd what had happened. The men let out a whoop and, under the leadership of John Canaday of Ft. Madison, headed for Fletcher’s. Col. Patterson took a short-cut to the hotel in order to alert his friend. Patterson found the Virginian obstinate. However, when the outsider heard and saw the approaching band of men, he scribbled furiously on a piece of paper that he abandoned his bid. He grabbed his “carpet sack,” rushed out the back door, and hired a man to take him across the river. He was never seen again. In Taylor’s opinion, the Virginian had narrowly escaped a lynching.

--A Journey to Pay for Land--

An extreme example of the hardship this land sale forced upon the settlers was the case of Alexander Cruikshank. Having insufficient cash to buy his own land, Cruikshank traveled to New York to borrower money from his brother. There were no railroads at the time. To reach his destination, he went down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, and then walked the remaining distance. After getting $400 of paper bills from a New York bank, he walked back to Pittsburgh and went down the Ohio River to New Albany, Indiana. However, the river beyond there was so low he could not get back in time for the land sale. So he walked across Indiana and Illinois, arriving in Burlington on the weekend before the Monday sale.

When Cruikshank bid $400 for his claim, the Territory’s land agents said they would not accept his bank bills. However, he was able to trade the $400 in bills for $350 of silver. He then went home and sold some of his cattle at a distressed price to raise the additional $50.

Hawkins Taylor described the early settlers who attended this land sale as a band of brothers. No one returned home until every man in the Township had an opportunity to buy his land from the Territory.

(Various versions of this story appeared in the memoirs of Hawkins Taylor, the Keokuk Gate City, and the Annals of Iowa during the 1800s.)


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