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Constitution and Records
of the Claim Association of
Johnson County, Iowa.

by Benjamin F. Shambaugh (1894)


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II. History of the Johnson County Claim Association.

After extended inquiry I am led to believe that the Claim Association of Johnson County was, in its organization and administration, one of the most perfect, not only in Iowa, but in the West. And of still greater importance is the fact that this Association has left adequate manuscript records, --records so complete that they afford invaluable material for the study of claim associations in general.

At the first session of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa, which met at Burlington in the winter of 1838-39, an act was passed providing for the location of the Seat of Government of the Territory in Johnson County. Up to this time the few settlers who had made improvements in Johnson County had not felt the necessity of organizing a claim association. But when they learned that the Capital of the Territory was to be located in their county, they immediately set about to organize an association for the better protection of what they called their "rights in making and holding claims." After several preliminary meetings a constitution was adopted March 9th, 1839, at a meeting attended by nearly every settler in the county. Samuel C. Trowbridge, who at that time held the office of Sheriff in Johnson County, was made the first president of the Claim Association.

The Johnson County Association received the hearty support of the inhabitants of the entire county. Men of all classes and positions signed the constitution and became members. Along with the signatures and marks of unknown "squatters" are the names of Robert Lucas, at that time Governor of the Territory, S. C. Hastings, delegate to the Legislative Assembly and subsequently Chief Justice of Iowa and also of California, William McCormick, Judge of Probate, William C. Massey, Constable, and Robert Walker, Justice of the Peace.

The constitution and resolution were, for the most part, strictly observed throughout the county. Indeed, I have been able to learn of only two cases of "claim jumping." In the one instance the offender was soundly whipped and thus brought to recognize the regulations of the Claim Association as the supreme law of the community against which no man dared raise his hand.

The other case is related by a member of the Association as follows: "In the month of November, 1839, a man named Crawford took possession of a claim lying about one mile north of Iowa City, that belonged to William Sturgis, and refused to give it up. The Marshal of the Claim Association notified all the members to meet in Iowa City on the 7th day of November at ten o'clock a.m., sharp, at the tavern of Asaph Allen. When the time came, about sixty stalwart men were on hand, who marched in a body to where Crawford had built his cabin. They found a good substantial log house, with clapboard roof, and Mr. Crawford on the inside finishing it off ready for occupancy. The company surrounded the house, and then called a parley. The trespasser was asked if he was willing to abandon his claim. He refused to leave and cautioned those present not to molest him at their peril. Mr. Stugis then came forward and offered to pay him for what labor he had done if he would relinquish all claims to the premises without any further trouble. This offer was also refused. Without a moment's delay, the men ascended the corners of the house, and in fifteen minutes there was not a vestige of it left standing. Mr. Crawford was left in amazement, with axe in his hand, in the center of the vacant space once occupied by his cabin. Some of the parties suggested that the Iowa River was not far away; but milder counsels prevailed, and the company dispersed. But soon after this the members of the Association were again notified to meet, and were informed that Crawford had rebuilt his house, and was occupying it with his family. The members of the Association made arrangements with Walter Butler to take care of Mr. Crawford's family, and procured a team to bring them down to town. A committee then started ahead with the team to take charge of Mr. Crawford's wife and children. They met Mr. Crawford in a more meek and humble mood than when they last parted from him. He said he was willing to settle the matter; so he and Mr. Sturgis held a private conference, and in a short time Mr. Sturgis announced that the trouble was adjusted to his (Mr. Sturgis') full satisfaction. The company then dispersed and went quietly to their homes; and the Association was never again called out for such a purpose. Mr. Crawford afterwards made an attempt to bring some of the parties before a legal tribunal for punishment; but, as it was almost impossible to find a judge, lawyer or juror in Iowa who was not a claim-holder, his effort was not not crowned with much success." (note: From an unfinished history of Johnson County by Cyrus Sanders and Henry Felkner.)

From the minutes of the its meetings we learn that the Johnson County Association was concerned with but two government land sales. The one held at Dubuque in 1840; the other at Marion in 1843.

In January, 1840, the President of the United States issued a proclamation declaring that a public sale of lands would be held at Dubuque in the month of May, and that township seventy-nine in ranges five and six west of the fifth principal meridian would be among the lands offered for sale on that day. This proclamation took the settlers of Johnson County by surprise. They hardly expected that these lands would be brought into market so soon after the surveys had been made. A meeting was called, and a petition, requesting a postponement of the sale of lands in Johnson County, was sent to Washington. About the 1st of May it was announced that the sale had been postponed until the 3rd day of August, 1840. At a meeting of the Claim Association on the 10th of July, 1840, S. H. McCrory was elected "bidder," and Cyrus Sanders "assistant bidder," for townships seventy-nine north, range six west of the fifth principal meridian, and seventy-nine north, range five west of the fifth principal meridian.

Cyrus Sanders, a member of the Association, gives the following account of the sale: "On the 30th day of July a number of settlers started to the land sales that were to take place at Dubuque on the 3rd of August. A majority of them were provided with money to buy their claims, though some were expectant of meeting capitalists at the sale, of whom they could borrow the money. Some forty or fifty settlers composed our company and we started for Dubuque in two-horse wagons, supplied with provisions and camp equipage. We traveled by easy stages, and reached Dubuque on Saturday, August 1st. On Monday morning early we had made all arrangements for the sale. The bidder and assistant bidder had furnished themselves with large plats of the two townships to be sold, with each claimant's name plainly written on the subdivision which he wished to purchase. When the time came for the sale to begin, the crier stepped out on the platform, and inviting the bidder and assistant to take places on the platform beside him, took hold of one side of the plat, and began at section No. 1, and called out each eighty acre subdivision as rapidly as he could speak. When he came to a tract with a name written on it, he would strike his hammer down, and give the name to the clerk. He thus proceded, taking the sections in numerical order. The two townships were offered in less than thirty minutes. During this time the claimants stood in a compact semicircle in front of the platform in breathless silence, not a sound being heard except the crier's voice. The purchasers were then admitted, two or three at a time, to pay for the land and receive their certificates. This was a tedious process, as the land office accepted no money for land except United States coin, or notes on the State Bank of Missouri. Nearly all the money paid was in silver, and it consumed a great deal of time to count it and sort out the spurious coin. On the 5th of August we started for home, many of us enjoying the comfortable feeling of being owners of real estate for the first time in our lives."

In the minutes of February 11th, 1843, I find it recorded that S. H. McCrory and Robert Hutchinson were elected "bidders" for township seventy nine north, range six west of the fifth principal meridian; Henry Felkner and Cyrus Sanders for township eighty north, range five west of the fifth principal meridian. It is further recorded that, "On motion the association adjourned to meet at Marian on the 20 of this month." Aside from these two fragments I have found no information relating to the land sale at Marion in 1843.

Soon after the land sale at Marion the Claim Association of Johnson County disbanded. During the four years of its existence the settlers were secured in their rights to their claims. They were fully protected against the "speculator," "land shark" and "claim jumper." And finally, at the government land sales they were privileged to purchase their claims at the minimum price of $1.25 per acre. Having obtained patents to the land from the government, the settlers no longer needed the protection of the Claim Association. The conditions which called it into existence having been eliminated, the Association itself dissolved.

There were two things that made the Claim Association of Johnson County especially necessary to the welfare of the early settlers. First, the location of the Seat of Government of the Territory of Iowa in the county brought on a flood of immigration. And this influx of "new-comers," and land speculators would undoubtedly have deprived many honest and industrious settlers of their claims and improvements had it not been for the powerful arm of the Association. Second, Congress, in an act providing for the donation of a section of land to the Territory of Iowa for the purpose of erecting public buildings thereon, reserved the contiguous sections from sale, either at public auction or by private entry. This clause, which prevented many settlers from purchasing claims which they had made and improved before the location was made, was not repealed for over three years. During this period the claim-holders were in special need of the protection of a claim association.



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