Iowa History Project







It must be remembered that after 1820, to 1834 what is now Iowa practically had no laws at all.  When the murder in the Dubuque mining camp occurred the settlers were obliged to form a court of their own to consider the case.  Even after Iowa was attached to the Territory of Michigan the laws in force west of the Mississippi, or in the Iowa District, were home-made laws, so to speak, made by the settlers to suit their life.  Until Iowa became a Territory, in 1838, the law of the people was largely the law of the land.

Settlers of townships organized among themselves, chose a tribunal or committee to consider the disputes, and guarded each other's interests against the machinations of outsiders and sharpers.

Courts held in Iowa before Territorial organization separate from that of Wisconsin was secured were few and far between.  The convention which met at Burlington in November, 1837, to consider the question of independence, drew up a memorial for Congress.  In this it was stated that while the district was attached to Michigan from June, 1834, to July, 1836, only two terms of court, a county court, had been held in each of the two counties.  And that all Western Wisconsin, for the period of sixteen months, had had but one session of judicial relief.

No wonder the settlers made their own laws!

There is some record of a court held in Burlington in April, 1835.  In the spring of 1837 Judge David Erwin held a term of court for Western Wisconsin, and in the spring of 1838 the Hon. Charles Dunn, who, with Judge Erwin, then composed two of the three judges assigned to Wisconsin Territory, held court at Prairie la Porte, in the newly organized County of Clayton.

It is to be regretted that  but slight report of the proceedings of these early courts has come to us for our inspection.  The country was rude.  The people were rough.  The court scenes must have been amusing.  Undoubtedly they were picturesque.

In July, 1838, Iowa Territory was organized.  Charles Mason, Joseph Williams and T. S. Wilson were appointed district judges.

They also were to constitute a supreme court, meeting together for the purpose of correcting errors that might have been committed by them in their respective circuits.  These three men, who were Iowa Territory's first judges, deserve to be remembered.  They were learned, highminded and eminent in their profession.  Judge Mason was a West Point graduate.

The first court of the Territory was held by Judge Wilson in November, 1838, at Prairie la Porte, Clayton County.  Prairie la Porte is now Guttenburg.  The settlement then contained only three houses, which were log cabins.  Delhi was another scene of an early court.  The people who attended court dined out of their wagons, the judge doing as did the rest.  The court-house at Delhi was a one-story log cabin on the bank of the lake.  The jury met in the loft above the main room of the cabin.  The floor of the loft was of loose boards, and when the jurors walked about the judge, sitting below, expected every moment that somebody would fall through upon him.

The grand jury held its sessions in a grove near by.  The foreman sat on a stump.  A man who was held to answer a criminal charge tried to crawl through the long grass, to hear what the jury was saying about his case, so that if it was going hard with him he might make his escape; but he was discovered and hustled away, out of earshot.

In Territorial days, and even thereafter, in newly settled communities, court was held in whatever building was most available.  It was liable to be a school house or a grocery store.  A grocery store-room constituted the first court-house in Jackson County.  This court was held in Bellevue.  Although the store-room was not occupied by the grocer, he intended to move in soon and use it as a dwelling house.  In the meantime some of his supplies were placed there, for keeping.  In order to provide space for the judge, a hogshead of molasses was rolled against the wall, and set on end.  One of the attorneys named James Grant had such a powerful voice that when he began to speak to the people who had been sitting in the shade of the trees, in front of the building, made a rush for the interior, thinking that a fight was in progress.

The court bailiff's name was Peterson.  He was only about five feet high, and was very broad and squat.  His legs were so short that he was lost in the throng.  He called:


No one paid any attention to him.

"Silence!" again shouted Peterson.

The men still pressed forward, and great uproar continued.

Then the bailiff thought of a scheme.  He saw the molasses barrel, standing on end, and he hopped upon it.

"Silence!" he yelled.  To emphasis the word he raised himself on tiptoe-and the head of the barrel gave way.  Into the molasses, up to his chin, sank Bailiff Peterson.  The court suspended proceedings until the bailiff had been taken to the river and washed.

Indians were frequent attendants at court, and figured in many of the cases.  Their sense of justice was keen, but their reasoning was odd.  Once this same Grant (afterwards Judge Grant) and Judge Samuel Murdock defended an Indian boy accused of killing a liquor dealer in the Winnebago reservation.  When the Indians met to consider the amount that should be paid the lawyers for services, an old chief arose and said:

"I was present at the trial.  I heard all the talk, but I did not understand a word.  I suppose the talking was good.  The little man talked the loudest, and according to my opinion he ought to have the most pay."

Judge Murdock had done the major part of the work in the trial, and had displayed great ability, but "the little man", Grant, received an extra $100 because of his loud voice!

One time, when court was being held at Garnavillo, in Clayton County, a stranger entered the tavern where a large crowd awaited dinner.  He asked for lodging.  He was seven feet tall, and attracted so much attention that the people decided to find out who he was.

Frontier residents did not stop for introductions, but rather enjoyed being blunt and straightforward.  So on this occasion the smallest man in the room was hoisted onto the shoulders of five other men, until his face was on a level with the face of the stranger.  The little man then said:

"Sir, I have come as a committee to ask you who you are, where you live, what business you have here, and from what breed of men you got those long legs."

"Sir, my name is Hutchinson, I reside in Iowa County, I am going to Fort Atkinson, and I got my long legs from Grandfather Long Shanks."

Supreme court was first held at Burlington; afterwards at Iowa City.  The judges who went from Dubuque to Burlington traveled by river when the weather permitted; in winter they journeyed on horseback.  The trip took five days.

The supreme court-room at Burlington was a tavern.  It is related that a man accused of stealing a rifle was acquitted, whereupon he promptly seized the weapon, which had been leaning against the wall, and made off with it.  His lawyer was furious, because this gun was to have been the fee!

The judges, attorneys and other persons attending the early courts were given but poor accommodations.  Some slept in wagons; some on the ground.  Indoors, hay spread on the floor of tavern or cabin was the bed of the majority.  This hay was apt to be swarming with fleas!

What actual beds there wee, were well crowded.  One young lawyer, fresh from the East, was horrified to see his bed-fellow, a stranger, pull from beneath his coat a long bowie-knife, and tuck it under his pillow.

In default of other design county clerks were instructed to use the eagle side of a half dollar as their seal.

The early settlers were largely their own physicians.  Distances were so great that by necessity the pioneers learned to car for their minor ailments.  The mother prepared does of "simples," made from plants perhaps growing right at hand.  If the case required moe skillful services father or the eldest boy saddled up a horse from the plow and rode with all speed for the nearest physician.  Forty miles at a stretch would be covered, through the night and storm, through mud and angry creek, until the doctor's cabin or boarding place was reached.  Then he would hasten to the patient, the messenger guiding him, for another forty miles.

The doctor's fee might be small, indeed, but the old physicians did not refuse attendance on this account.  The settler paid what he was able; if not in money, in whatever else the doctor would accept.

Calls were made on horseback.  Among the possessions of an old-time doctor were great "pill-bags," containing the mixtures popular in the days when used.  Like the country doctor of the present, the physicians who attended the settlers were dentists as well as medical practitioners.  For pulling teeth the "turnkey" was widely known.  It was an enormous, unwieldly instrument, but when it once grasped a tooth that tooth came out.  Settlers asserted that a "turnkey" would extract a stump from a field.

Among the early physicians were a number of ignorant, but shrewd men, who has prestige because of their knowledge of human nature, and because of their claims to an understanding of the properties of roots and leaves.  These were the "botanic" doctors.  One old chap said:

"I can't write, but I can read writin', an' I can sign my name."

He was satisfied with this.

The Indians knew a great deal - more than the whites - about the uses of plants, and had at their command a host of other remedies, as effective as simple.  "Indian doctors" were much in demand by isolated pioneers, and even were preferred by some people to regular physicians.

In speaking of the professions early represented in this section, mention must be made of the Dubuque Visitor, the first newspaper of what is now Iowa.  The Dubuque Visitor was started in May, 1836, with John king as publisher.  King was not a practical printer, and selected Andrew Keesecker to do the mechanical work.  Keesecker became one of the most famous printers Iowa has produced.  He was a fast compositor, but stuttered badly in his speech.

Keesecker and a fellow printer named Wood entered into a contest to see which could set up the Lord's prayer the quicker.  The "amen" at the end was to be pronounced audibly, as a sign that the prayer had been completed.  Wood pronounced the word first.  Keesecker said, indignantly:

"That's wh-what I've b-b-been tryin' t-to say this h-h-half hour!"



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