Jefferson County Online
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Retrospective - Land Sales,
Squatters and Speculators

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 364-368, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.



The preceding pages of this volume cover a period of nearly three years. Within that time there were many occurrences of interest to the settlers, as they will be to their descendants and successors, that will be made to form a separate chapter.


The first sale of Government lands in this section of the Black Hawk Purchase commenced in November, 1838. The land office at that time was located at Burlington. Many of the settlers who came to the country and made claims in 1836-37-38, had no means, except, perhaps, a yoke of cattle, or a pair of horses and a wagon, in which they hauled all their earthly possessions. Some of them, as for instance, John Huff, didn't have even that much. When he came to his claim, on the 17th of June, 1836, his earthly possessions were carried on horseback from the home of some of his wife's relatives, near Lowell, in the southeast part of Henry County. They were set down on the claim without any place for shelter. But a shelter was improvised from forks and poles and the bark of trees. Many of the other settlers commenced in nearly the same way. This class of settlers, the bravest among them all, trusted to luck and their own brave hearts and industry to earn the means to buy their claims when the land sales came on. Some of the other settlers were in better condition, and brought money with them, or knew where to get it, when the time came to perfect their titles by "bidding in" the land covered by their claims.

The Burlington land sales of November, 1838, constituted an epoch in the history of this country, and was one of extraordinary interest to two classes of people. First, to the settlers who wanted homes, and had braved the exposures incident to frontier life to secure them; and second, to the "money-sharks" and "land-grabbers." The latter class, as soulless as the managers of a Chicago savings-bank, were always ready to take advantage of the poverty of a settler, and either loan him money at "50 per cent," or buy his home from under him.

In other pages of this book, reference is made to the manner in which the settlers protected themselves and each other in their legitimate rights. It was also stated that a record was kept of every claim made in the several townships. After this register or record was completed, the Claim Association in each township elected a bidder to attend the land sales and "bid in" for the occupant each particular claim, as the description of the land was called by the land-office authorities. In this way, every bona-fide settler was protected in his rights. The law never did and never will protect the people in all their rights so fully and so completely as the early settlers of Iowa protected themselves by these claim organizations. They secured justice to all, and, at the same time, fully paid the Government for the lands occupied by them, and who, by their prudence and industry laid the foundations of that economy that has made the commonwealth of the "Beautiful Land" the garden-spot and granary of the world.

"Squatters and Speculators at the First Land Sales," is the title of an article written by Hawkins Taylor, Esq., and published in the July (1870) number of the "Annals of Iowa." Although the paper relates more particularly to Lee County, it describes so accurately the scenes considered here, that a few paragraphs are transferred to this history of Jefferson County:

"The land officers at Burlington, Gen. Van Antwerp and Gen. Dodge, most heartily entered into the spirit and interests of the settlers at the land sales, in securing them their lands, for which the early settlers honored Gen. Dodge, politically, as few men were ever trusted by any people. Gen. Van Antwerp, fortunately or unfortunately for himself as a politician, never went to the people for office; he was of the old Knickerbocker chivalry -- was educated at West Point, and always wore a 'boiled shirt' and starched collar. He was full of grit, always true, but never of the masses. God bless, as He will surely do, the 'Old Settlers,' generally and collectively, of that day.

"Strange as it may seem to people at this day of free lands to all who will settle upon them, at that day, the settlers on public lands were held as 'squatters' without any rights to be respected by the Government, or land speculators. Many amusing indicents happened at the land sales, one of which I will relate:

"'There were thousands of settlers at the sale at Burlington, in the fall of 1838. The officers could sell but one or two townships each day, and when the land in any one township was offered, the settlers of that township constituted the army on duty for that day, and surrounded the office for their own protection, with all the other settlers as a reserve force, if needed. The hotels were full of speculators of all kinds, from the money-loaner, who would accommodate the settler at 50 per cent, that is, he would enter the settler's land in his (the speculator's) own name, and file a bond for a deed at the end of two years, by the settler's paying him double the amount the land cost. At these rates, Dr. Barrett, of Springfield, Ill., and Louis Benedict, of Albany, N.Y., loaned out $100,000 each, and Lyne Sterling and others, at least an equal amount, at the same, or higher rates of interest. The men who came to Iowa now cannot realize what the early settlers had to encounter. The hotels were full of this and a worse class of money-sharks. There was a numerous class who wanted to rob the settlers of their lands and improvements entirely, holding that the settler was a squatter and a trespasser, and should be driven from the lands. You would hear much of this sort of talk about the hotels, but none about the settlers' camps. Amongst the loudest talkers of this kind was an F.F.V., a class that has now about 'give out.' This valiant gentleman was going to invest his money as he pleased, without reference to settlers' claims. When the township of West Point was sold, it was a wet, rainy day. I was bidder, and the officers let me go inside of the office. Just when I went into the office, 'Squire John Judy, who lived on Section 32 or 33, whispered to me that he had been disappointed in getting his money, at the last moment, and asked me to pass over his tract and not bid it off. I did so, but the Virginian bid it off. I was inside and could not communicate with any one until the sale was through, and, as I did not bid on the tract the outsiders supposed it was not claimed by a settler, and the moment the bid was made, the bidder left for his hotel. As soon as I could get out, which was in a few minutes, and make known that Judy's land had been bid off by a speculator, within five minutes' time not less than fifteen hundred of as desperate and determined a set of men as ever wanted homes, started for the bold bidder. Prominent in the lead was John G. Kennedy, of Fort Madison, who enjoyed such sport. Col. Patterson, now of Keokuk, a Virginian by birth, but a noble, true-hearted friend of the settler, and who had been intimate with the Virginian, made a run across lots and reached the hotel before Kennedy and his army. The Colonel informed the bidder of the condition of affairs, and advised him at once to abandon his bid, which he did, or, rather, he authorized the Colonel to do it for him. The Colonel went out and announced to the crowd that the bid was withdrawn, and that the bidder had also withdrawn himself. Both offers were accepted, but the latter was bitterly objected to, and only acquiesced in when it was found that the party had escaped the back way, and could not be found. This was the last outside bid given during the sale, and you heard no more talk about outside bidding around the hotel. The squatters' rights were respected at that sale.'

"I will give one case of hundreds and thousands that could be given, of the hardships of the early settlers: Alexander Cruickshank, an Norwegian sailor, and one of the noblest works of God, an honest man in all things, settled a few miles west of West Point, in Lee County, in 1831, and by hard work made him a large farm. When the sale of his land was ordered by the Government, he went to Western New York and borrowed $400 of his brother, to enter his land. This was when Martin Van Buren's specie circular was inforce, and certain designated banks were made Government depositories. Cruickshank, to be certain that his money would be 'land-office money' when he got home, paid a premium of three per cent, in New York, to get the bills of a city bank that was a Government-deposit bank. His brother gave him $34 to pay his expenses home. At that time there were no railroads. Alexander walked to Pittsburgh, and there took a boat to St. Louis. When he got to New Albany, Ind., the Ohio River was so low that there was no certainty of getting to St. Louis in time to get home by the day of the sale of his land, and he had no money to spare to go by stage. So he crossed Indiana and Illinois on foot, reaching home the Friday before the sale on Monday. When he went to Burlington he found that his New York money would not be taken by the land office, and he had to shave off his money that he had already paid a premium for to get 'land-office money' for 'land-office money,' and pay another premium of 12 percent, reducing his $400 to $350. To make up this $50, he had to sell off a part of his scanty stock at less than one-fifth of what the same kind of stock would sell for now. I remember the day Alexander started to New York to borrow the money to enter his land, and of asking him what he would do if he failed. His answer was, 'I will come home and try to borrow at the sale; but if I fail, and lose my land, I will cross the Rocky Mountains but what I will have and own my own land.' Of such stuff were the old settlers. Why should not the State be great and noble now?"

The squatters, in what is now Jefferson County, attended the land sales in force. James L. Scott was the bidder for the settlers in Township 71 north, Range 9 west (Cedar), and Frank Gilmer for the settlers in Township 71 north, Range 8 west (Round Prairie). They went to Burlington in wagons and on foot -- any way to get there and be present at the opening of the sale. They went prepared for a campaign of several days, taking with them cooking utensils, quilts, blankets, etc., fully equipped to "camp out" and wait till every settler had secured his claim. They went with determined purpose, and bound together "like a band of brothers," ready to stand by each other to the last. It was a dangerous undertaking for any "land-grabber" to attempt to bid against any of the hardy, honest squatters, a fact the sharks were not long in finding out. They governed themselves accordingly, and took good care not to give the despised squatters occasion for helping them away from the vicinity of the land office.

The pioneer settlers of the Forty-Mile Strip, and especially of that part of it whose history is under consideration, were a class peculiar to themselves. They possessed a keen sense of honor, and a steadfastness of principle and of purpose that admitted of no criticism. To the people of the present age it may seem a little remarkable, but it is a fact nevertheless, that but few disputes ever arose among the settlers about the boundaries of their claims. At that time, there were no laws to govern them except the rules adopted by claim associations. In almost every instance the people were a law unto themselves. The laws of honor prevailed to a much greater extent in those days than at present. Men regarded their individual word as good as their bond. When, perchance, disputes would arise, instead of seeking their adjustment in the courts of law, they were submitted to referees. This was notably so as regarded claim disputes, and the decision of the referees was final. No one thought of appealing from their judgment. The pioneers had all subscribed to the rules adopted by claim associations, and, be it said to their credit, they almost invariably kept their faith. As a case in point, the following report of the rulings of a "Claim Court" is contributed by W. B. Frame, a citizen of Round Prairie Township, who was familiar with the facts:

"The first settlers were very anxious to secure an abundance of timber. In a certain locality a Mr. Jones had 'blazed' out a claim of eighty acres of timber, which a Mr. Smith also claimed. As a consequence, a dispute arose between them. The Claim Committee was notified, and a day was appointed to meet the parties interested and their witnesses. The weather was cold and the ground covered with deep snow. The 'Court' met in the timber, where a huge log-heap fire was started. When the preliminary arrangements were completed, the parties were notified that the Committee had decided that the first thing to be done was to procure a jug of whisky, to be paid for by the contestants. The whisky was soon provided, and when the jug had twice made the circuit of the fire, the case was opened and the parties and their witnesses patiently heard. When the evidence was all in, the Committee retired to a fallen tree some distance from the fire, swept the snow from the log, and sat down to deliberate upon their judgment. After a brief consultation, they returned to the fire and declared themselves ready to report. The report was in the words fallowing (sic):

"'We find that, aside from this eighty-acre lot, Mr. Jones has claimed all the timber land he needs, and Mr. Smith has claimed all he can possibly purchase at the approaching land sale; therefore, we decide that Mr. Brown, who lately settled among us, and who holds a prairie claim, has no timber, and that, as he can get none within a reasonable distance, he shall have this eighty acres of timber."

"This finding of the Committee was final, and gave the claim to a good man who did not claim to have even the shadow of a claim to it. The contestants did not appeal, but paid the fees allowed the Committee by the rules of the Claim Association, as well as for the whisky. The jug again went around, and all present joined in a 'parting pull,' the 'Court adjourned,' and the settlers departed for their homes, fully satisfied there 'was many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.'"

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