Muscatine County, Iowa
Muscatine Journal & News-Tribune
Centennial Edition
31 May 1940

Section 2 - Page 20, Submitted by Charlene Nichols Hixon, May 1, 2012

First Court Opned Here in 1837
Hon. David Irvin Was Presiding Judge;
17 Indictments Returned by First Grand Jury Impaneled

Muscatine county had only a few months previously been organized when the first district court of the United States for the Wisconsin Territory, of which this county was then a part, was opened in the town of Bloomington on Monday, April 24, 1837.

The record for this opening of court here reads as follows:

    “A district court of the United States of America in and for the county of Musquitine, Wisconsin Territory, on Monday the 24th day of April, A. L., 1837, was opened in the town of Bloomington by the judge of the second judicial district court, and associate judge of the supreme court of the aforesaid Territory: Present Hon. David Irvin, judge; W. W. Chapman, district attorney, U. S.

    “The court being satisfied of the character and qualifications of John S. Abbott, doth appoint him clerk of this court, and thereupon the said John S. Abbott, with John Vanater and Elsie Reynolds, his securities, appeared and entered into bond conditioned according to law and the said john S. Abbott as clerk took the oath of office.

    “Ordered by the court that the seal of which the foregoing is a true impression be the temporary seal of this court.”

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(The seal was a diamond-shaped piece of paper, fastened to the records by means of a wafer, and impressed with the reverse side of a U. S. dime.)

On motion of District Attorney Chapman, the following U. S. grand jurors, the first to serve in this county, were selected by the clerk: Robert Bamford, Benjamin Barton, Edward E. Fay, Robert C. Kinney, Jonathan Pettibone, Eli Reynolds, A. L. McRae, Joseph Mounts, Thomas I. Starke, Nathan Parsons, Samuel Parker, William Sparks, Christopher Barnes, John Briggs, Levi Chamberlain, Norman Fallington and Anderson Pace. Bamford was named as foreman.

This grand jury, after returning into court reported that they had no further business and were discharged. Immediately thereafter, on the same day, it was ordered that James W. Woods be appointed district attorney, pro tem, for Musquitine county.

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Woods’ first official act was to move that the first venire facias be set aside and a new one issued. The motion was sustained and a new grand jury venire, made up for the most part of those on the original list but containing some new names, was chosen.

Bamford was again chosen as foreman. Others were Robert c. Kinney, Jonathan Pettibone, Eli Reynolds, Joseph Mounts, Thomas J. Starke, Nathan Parsons, Samuel Parker, Wiliam Sparks, Christopher Barnes, John Briggs, Levi Chamberlain, Norman Fullington and Anderson Pace.

Two days after being sworn in, these men returned with 17 indictments, ranging in severity from selling liquor to the Indians to adultery and “assault and battery on the sheriff.” Probably the most unusual thing about this early grand jury was that it indicted two of its own members.

“Gaming,” selling “fire water” to the redskins still lingering in these parts and adultery appeared to be the most common offenses in these early days of the county’s history, judging from the list of indictments. Bootlegging to the Indians, however apparently was not considered a very grave offense, because bail on these counts was set for the sum of one dollar. The early minute books are full of quashed indictments and dismissals in these cases, and conviction was evidently was as hard to get then as it is now in liquor actions.

The first petit jury of the Musquitine county district court was made up of John G. Coleman, Samuel C. Comstock, John Hooliday, E. N.Thurston, Thomas Burdett, John Hesser, S. S. Lathrop, W. H. Sams, Hamilton Christy, Isaac I. Lathrop, and Addison Reynolds.

Main business to come before the first day’s session of the opening of court at Bloomington was the granting of four licenses to operate ferries across the Mississippi river. One went to Robert C. Kinney for a license to operate a ferry departing from the town at a “point south of the branch immediately north of the old trading house.”

A second went to James Chambers operating at the old town of Salem, a third to Moses Couch whose boat was to leave from a point a half-mile above the trading post branch and a fourth to S. C. Hastings who planned to operate from the town of West Buffalo.

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Alexander Walcott McGregor was admitted to practice as an attorney and “councilor-at-law” by the court during the day.

Judge Irvin also presided over the second term of court, but for the following term which opened Oct. 8, 1838, the Hon. Joseph Williams was the presiding jurist. M. D. Browning was appointed district attorney, pro tem, both for the United States and for the county of Musquitine.

This was the first court session to convene under the territorial laws of Iowa, the new territory having been separated from the Wisconsin Territory in June of that year. Officers were at once appointed for the new territory, including three judges. Charles Mason was named chief justice, and Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson were chosen by the president of the United States as associate justices.

One judge was assigned to each of the three districts which were set up and a district court was directed to be held in every organized county. Judge Mason presided in the southern district and made his home in Burlington; Judge Wilson, who resided in Dubuque, had he northern district; and Judge Williams, whose home was here, presided over the middle district.

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Individually the three were district judges, while together they constituted the supreme court of the territory. The supreme court sessions were held at Iowa City, the territorial seat of government. The minute book for the second day of the May, 1838, term carries the following succinct notation, but without any further explanation: “Owing to the uncomfortable condition of the court house, ordered that court adjourn until 2 o’clock this afternoon.”

Judge Williams continued to preside here throughout the entire territorial government period until 1846 when Iowa became a state. Upon adjournment of the first state legislature, he was appointed by Gov. Ansel Briggs as chief justice of Iowa. In 1848he was succeeded by Seranus C. Hastings, also of Muscatine, but the next year again gained a seat on the supreme bench and retained it until 1855.

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Under the constitution of 1846, Muscatine county was a part of the second judicial district. Judge James Grant of Scott county was the presiding jurist in 1847, succeeded by Thomas S. Wilson of Dubuque county in 1852.

Muscatine county was attached to the seventh judicial district, of which it is still a part, in 1857, and John F. Dillon of Scott county became judge in 1858. He was succeeded by J. Scott Richman of Muscatine in 1863 and by W. F. Brannan of Muscatine in 1872.

Probate work was first handled through a separate court, the first probate court in Muscatine county in 1838 having been presided over by the Hon. Arthur Washburn. The first probate matter was in the case of Harlow N. Orton, and is dated Nov. 8, 1838. It appears that Orton died intestate, leaving no widow, and Van Renssalaer Thompkins was appointed administrator of the estate of the deceased.

There were two other cases filed during 1837, in the estate of Lester Andrews, Benjamin Nye, administrator, letters dated Dec. 1; and Harvey M. Eaton estate, John M. Kidder administrator, letters dated Dec. 13.

Probate matters continued to be handled by the separate probate court until 1869 the circuit court was instituted which took over this work. It later reverted to the district court when the circuit court set-up was done away with.

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First evidence of a naturalization hearing to be conducted in the local court to be gleaned from the early records occurs on June 28, 1841 when six persons took the oath of allegiance to the United States of America.

They were Michael Howard, a native of Rosemont, Tipperary, Ireland; Christian Deitz, a native of the Kingdom of Wintemburg; and John Will, Nicholas Will, Henry Will and George Herchman, all from Bavaria in the empire of Germany.

“The room for the use of the court is finished in a style highly creditable to the taste and skill of the gentleman who was entrusted with the job, Mr. Wilson of this place,” read a story of Oct. 8, 1841 noting the near completion of Muscatine county’s early courthouse building.

“The courthouse in this place is nearly completed and the county commissioners have contracted for clearing up the public ground of it, which will add much to the beauty and appearance of our place,” the story read. Continuing, “We hazard nothing in saying the court room will compete with any room in the western country. Rooms for all public offices in the county are provided in the courthouse, with fire-proof apartments for the safety of the public documents.

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Early Attorney, Wife

Named by Gov. Lucas, at the time of the celebrated “Missouri War” as one of Iowa’s commissioners to meet the Missouri commissioners with a view to peaceable settlement of the difficulty, Atty. Stephen Whicher performed his task in an able manner. He and his colleagues accomplished their purpose by signing articles binding both sides to submit the state boundary dispute to arbitration in the national congress.

Only two other attorneys, S. C. Hastings and J. Scott Richman, were practicing the profession when Mr. Whicher settled here in 1839, coming from Dayton, O. He was born in Rochester, Vt., May4, 1798, and Married Mary Eliza Venable in 1826. She came here in 1839. Atty. Whicher died in Iowa City, Feb. 13, 856. Mrs. Whicher died in Cincinnati on May 2, 1880.

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