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History of Boone County, Iowa (Volume 1) online

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extent of the river land grant. This conflict of opinions led to a
correspondence between the officers of the state and the United
States, which resulted in the promulgation of an opinion of the secre-
tary of the treasury of the United States, on March 2, 1849, to the
effect that the grant extended to the source of the river. The secretary
of the treasury, who rendered this opinion, was Hon. Robert J.
Walker, in the last days of the administration of President Polk.

By reason of this ruling, on the ist of the following June, the
commissioner of the general land office directed the receivers of the
local land offices to withhold from sale all the odd numbered sections
within five miles of the river above the Raccoon Fork.

Up to this time, March 2, 1849, four rulings or conclusions had
been made and acted upon. As has already been stated the com-
missioner of the general land office had decided first that the river
land grant extended only to the Raccoon Fork; but in a subsequent
ruling decided that the grant extended to the north line of the state.
President Polk's proclamation of June 19, 1848, placing the odd
sections north of the Raccoon Fork upon the market, shows that he
did not think the grant extended above the fork. But the official
opinion of his secretary of the treasury. Robert J. Walker, given
March 2, 1849, to the effect that the grant extended to the north line
of the state seems to have changed his views so much that his procla-
mation was withdrawn and the sale of the odd sections above the
Raccoon Fork by the government discontinued.

The ruling was made by Gen. Thomas Ewing, who, under the
new administration of President Taylor, was appointed to fill the
office of secretary of the newly created department of the interior,
to wiiich all matters pertaining to the public lands had been assigned
by law.


On the 6th of April, 1850, Mr. Ewing declined to recognize the
grant as extending above the Raccoon Fork, without an explanatory
act on the part of Congress. The state appealed from this ruling to
President Tavlor. who turned to the matter over to Reverdy Johnson,
his attorney general. Mr. Johnson decided that the grant extended
to the north line of the state and that the ruling of Robert J. Walker,
on the 2nd of March, 1849, was a final adjudication of the subject.
This decision settled the question until the death of President Taylor,
which occurred July 10, 1850. Mr. Fillmore, the vice president, was
sworn in and a new cabinet was chosen.

On the 29th of October, 1851, the question of the extent of the
river land grant came up again. It was discussed by Fillmore's
cabinet, \\ iiich decided to recognize the claim of the state, to approve
the selection of the odd sections above the Raccoon Fork and to
permit the state to go on with disposal of the lands without prejudice
to their claimants. After this ruling the question of extent of the
grant rested until 1860, of which more will be said further on in this

Up to December, 1853, the state, through its board of public
works, carried on the work of improving the river, and the sale of the
lands included in the grant. A land office for the sale of these lands
had in tiie meantime been established at Ottumwa, Iowa.

On January 15, 1849, an act passed the Legislature to reorganize
the board of public works, making their official terms three years
instead of two, but the hrst term of the secretary was to be two years
and that of the treasurer one year. This would bring about the elec-
tion of one of tlie three members of the board every year instead of
electing all three of them at one time. The election was held on the
first Monday in August, 1849, and the following gentlemen were
chosen: President, William Patterson; secretary, Jesse Williams;
trcrasurer, (ieorge Gillaspy.

The wording of this reorganizing act shows that the law makers
of 1859 were not altogether satisfied with the doings of the board of
public work for the preceding years.

The next two years' experience with the reorganized board was
little more satisfactory than that of the Hrst board. 'I'iie result was
that in February, 1851, an act of the Legislature abolished the board
of public works, and in lieu of it the offices of commissioner and
register of the Des Moines River improvement were created and
filled by appointment of the governor. The gentlemen appointed
to fill the new oilices were: For commissioner, Ver Plank Van Ant-


wert; register, George Gillaspy. The Legislature seems to have
been very hard to please or else the men so far chosen were very
unsatisfactory. At all events the Legislature of 1853 made a law
providing that the commissioner and register should be elected by
the voters of the state at an election to be held on the first Monday
in April, 1853. The gentlemen elected were: For commissioner,
Josiah H. Bonney; register, George Gillaspy. In 1855, William
McKay was elected commissioner; in 1858, William C. Drake was
elected, and in i860 the office was abolished. In 1855, John C.
Lockwood was elected register, and in 1857 that office was abolished.

The legislative act of 1853, providing for the electing of these
officers, also empowered them to enter into a contract with some
individual or company to complete the improvement of the river,
and thus relieve the state of the prosecution of the work. To assist
these officers in making and entering into a contract of this kind,
Hon. George C. Wright, of Van Buren County, afterwards United
States senator, and Uriah Biggs, of Wapello County, were chosen
as assistants. These were the officers who entered into the historic
contract, first with Henry O. Reiley, and then with the Des Moines
Navigation and Railroad Company, to complete the work of the
improvement of the river.

For its services the navigation company was to have all the lands
included in the original land grant not already disposed of by the
state. This contract was made June 9, 1854. It was no doubt
entered into with good intentions on the part of the state officers, but
before the state got rid of the company it was woefully swindled.
In fact, the whole river land business from start to finish was poorly
managed by the state officers.

The company took charge of the work of the river improvement
on the date of their contract, and continued it until March 22, 1858,
at which time disagreements and misunderstandings arose between
the state and the company.

Prior to the time of entering into the contract with the Des
Moines Navigation & Railroad Company the state had sold 327,314
acres of the river land grant, the proceeds of which were paid out
for salaries, work and material furnished during the time the state
board of public works had charge of the improvement. Of the
amount of land above named, 48,830 acres were above the Raccoon
Fork. These 327,314 acres of land were sold at $1.21; per acre, the
proceeds amounting to $409, 142. It is a well settled fact that the state
was never benefited a single dollar for all this outlay of money. That


anv set of men sliouM fritter away such a sum of money without any
visible results seems incredible.

The Des Moines Navigation &: Railroad Company had charge
of the improvement from June 9. 1H54, to March 22, 18^8, a period
covering nearlv four years. During this time little progress was
made on the work of the improvement, and it was this slow and
dilatory progress that caused the disagreement between the company
and the state.

In pursuance of this contract the state on the 14th of May, 1S55,
conveyed to this companv 88,8153 acres of the land grant, and again on
the 6th of May, 18156, conveyed 116,636 acres more, making in the
two conveyances 205,489 acres. At $1.25 an acre, this amounted to
$2<;6,788. It is not to be wontfered at that the state should be dis-
satisfied over the expenditure of this amount of money with nothing,
or next to nothing, accomplished.

On the 22nd day of March, 1858, a proposition for settlement was
made by the state, by the terms of which the company was to execute
to the state a full release of all contracts, agreements and claims
against the state, including water rents and dredge boat and pav the
state $20,000, the state agreeing to convey to the navigation companv
all of the lands granted by Congress in the act approved August 8,
1846, which, up to that time, had been approved and certified to the
state by the general government, except such as had been sold.

Although the state gave the company sixty davs in w hich to accept
this proposition, it was accepted on the double quick, and the $20,000
was paid. In pursuance of this settlement the state deeded to the
navigation company 256,703 acres of land on the 3rd dav of Mav,
1858, and again on the iSth of May, 1858, another patent was issued
to the company by the state conveying 9,303 acres, making a total of
266,108 acres.

As already stated, 205,489 acres had been conveved to this com-
pany on May 14, 1855, and May 6, 1856, and in these two convev-
ances 266,108 acres more, making a total of lands received by this
company from the state of 471,597 acres of land, which, at $1.25 an
acre, amounted to $589,311. This settlement was one of the most
colossal swindles or blunders which, up to that date, had taken place
in the state. The navigation company seems to have iiad the Legisla-
ture completely under its control.

In this settlement the Des Moines Navigation & Railroad Com-
pany claimed to have expended on the improvement from first to
last $554,547.84. The state commissioner on examination of the work


figured the amount expended at $274,542. A joint committee of the
Legislature had also reported upon this expenditure, making it about
the same as the state commissioner had figured it. These figures are
given in the special message of Governor Ralph P. Lowe to the
Legislature, dated February 16, 1858, only one month and six days
before making the settlement with the company. The surprising
part of this settlement is that the Legislature gave to the company
lands amounting in cash to many thousands of dollars more than it
claimed to have expended, as the figures given show.

At the conclusion of this settlement all further thought of making
the Des Moines River navigable was abandoned. By this time the
people were completely disgusted with the navigation scheme and
had turned their thoughts toward a railroad.

March 22, 1858, an act passed the Legislature granting to the
Keokuk, Fort Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad Company all
the lands included in the River Land Grant not then sold by the
state or pledged to the navigation company in the settlement just
made. This grant was made to aid in the construction of a railroad
from the mouth of the Des Moines River to the north line of the
state, provided Congress would consent that the remainder of such
lands should be used for that purpose.

At'the fall election in 1858, the proposition to so divert the re-
mainder of these lands from the original purpose of improving the
navigation of the river, to the building of the railroad, was sub-
mitted to the people of the state and a large majority voted in favor
of it. After this decision of the people. Congress gave its consent
that the remainder of the lands might be so diverted.

As it afterwards developed the navigation company was really
the Keokuk, Fort Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad Companv, and
instead of improving the river it had been devoting a portion of its
time to the building of the railroad which, at the time of the settle-
ment, was completed from Keokuk to Benton's Port, a distance of
about forty miles.

Work on the railroad continued, and it was completed to Ot-
tumwa early in the year i860. About this time another conflict of
rulings took place in the land department at Washington. In 1859
the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad Company claimed a part of the
lands conveyed by the state to the navigation company, and a case
entitled "Dubuque & Pacific Railroad Company vs. Litchfield" was
tried in the Supreme Court in April, i860.


The court decided that the original river land grant did not
extend above the Raccoon Fork. This decision brought the sale
of the "river land," as it was then called, and the further extension
of the railroad, to a standstill. As a pacification to the settlers on a
considerable portion of these lands, the commissioner of the general
land office at Washington gave notice that none of the land would
be sold by the Government until the matter was thoroughly con-
sidered by Congress.

On the 2d day of .Marcii, 1H61 (112 stat. 2151) Congress passed
a joint resolution to quiet title to lands in the State of Iowa. This
joint resolution was simply intended to confirm the title of all bona
fide purchasers claiming title of these lands above the Raccoon
Fork, to whom the state, or any of its grantees, had conveyed title.

After the passage of this resolution, the river company claimed
title uniier it, but the courts decided that titles to real estate could
not pass by resolution, and that an act of Congress would be necessary
to pass title.

On the 12th of July, 1862, Congress passed an act extending the
river land grant of August H, 1846, from the Raccoon Fork to the
north line of the state. This act confirmed the title of the river
companv and the railroad company, giving them the privilege of
selling their lands to the settlers at an exorbitant price, a thing that
greatly troubled and discouraged the settlers on these lands. It was
thought when this act passed Congress that it would settle forever
the question of title to the land in dispute, but it worked such a
hardship to the settlers that further litigation followed.

From first to last this land grant seems to have been a stumbling
block among the officials at Washington. As late as 1863 a patent
was issued to Hannah |. Riley for 160 acres of land in Webster
County, signed by Abraham Lincoln. It seemed to the settlers that
this patent would hold the land, and that if it held good the Govern-
ment could convey also in like manner any of the lands claimed
bv the ri\er companv.

In 1868 a man named Wells, who was a grantee of the river
company, brought action to dispossess Mrs. Riley of the home on
which she held the patent referred to. The court decided that the
river land title was good and assessed the cost against Mrs. Rilev,
alter which papers for her eviction were issued and executed. This
was the last of the court decisions and under it most of the settlers,
who did not buy their homes at an advanced price, were forced of?
ol them by orders from the courts. Finally in iSq^ an act to indem-


nify the settlers was passed and the few remaining ones received a
small compensation for the home they were forced to leave. This
ended the historic river land troubles, extending over a period of
forty-eight years, beginning in 1846 and ending in 1894.


When the settlement between the Iowa Legislature and the Des
Moines Navigation & Railroad Company was made, in March,
1858, it was justly pronounced the most colossal swindle upon the
people of the state which up to that time had occurred within its
history. By the terms of that settlement the navigation company
received patents for 471,000 acres of Iowa lands, for which the state
did not receive the value of a penny. The river land grant consisted
of every odd numbered section within five miles of the Des Moines
River on both sides of the stream.

When the terms of this unfair settlement became known to the
people living along the Des Aloines River, they came to the con-
clusion that they had at least an equitable claim upon the timber
on the land the company had got for nothing. In Boone County at
that time there were thousands of acres of good river land timber.
The capital of the state had about that time been moved to Des
Moines and the city took on a building boom. Numerous citizens
of Boone County engaged in rafting logs to Des Moines, which were
easily disposed of at a good price. Many of these logs were taken
from the river land, for it was not looked upon as much of a crime
to take timber from the lands of the navigation swindlers. But it
was not long until the navigation company became informed of what
was going on and it sent men up to Boone, Dallas and other counties
to look the matter up. The plan devised by the company was to
brand all the logs found in rafts in the river, or that had been
placed upon its banks to be rafted. This brand was put on in a
way that it would not be easily noticed. When the logs were floated
down the river to Des Moines they were replevined by the naviga-
tion company, using their brand as evidence of ownership, and in this
way the rafters of the logs often lost them. In this way many logs
were also taken which did not grow on the river land, as it was called.

There were men engaged in rafting their own logs who some-
times lost them through this branding process. The branders became



very unpopular. 'I'hcrc was a braiuicr on the west side of the river
and one on the east side. The people engaged in rafting became
so exasperated at the branders that they went gunning for them.

in the early spring of i8(;9, a man named Farr, who was the west
side brander, was caught and severely whipped with switches. The
men who ditl the whipping were masked, so Farr could not recog-
nize any of them. After this man Farr was whipped he was turned
loose and ordered to leave the country as fast as he could go. This
command he obeyed as well as sore and lacerated limbs would

Having disposed of the west side brand-er the squad of gunners
proceeded to the river, where they came upon Captain Warner, the
east side brander, who was on a raft just in the edge of the water
on the east bank of the river, plving iiis branding iron and entirely
unconscious of the near proximity of the indignant rafters. With-
out giving Warner any notice of their presence or purpose, they sent
a volley of bullets across the swollen stream which whizzed so close
to his head that he retreated for Boonesboro with wonderful rapidity
for a lame man. Both of the branders returned to Des Moines and
reported to the company the dangerous condition of things up the
river and refused to serve any longer as branders.

D. O. Finch and M. I\I. Crocker, who were the attornevs for
the navigation company, raised a companv of men and went to
Boonesboro for the purpose, they said, of enforcing the law and of
prosecuting and punishing those who had so brazenly mistreated
Farr and Warner. The men who came up from Des Moines were
very boastful and overbearing, and their conduct soon aroused the
ire of those who had taken no part in rafting hjgs, or in the treat-
ment given to Farr and Warner. Several men were placed under
arrest, among whom was an aged man named Phipps, who had taken
no part in anything that had been done. In fact, Farr could not,
and did not identify any one who took part in whipping him, for
they were all masked. When Farr saw the venerable gray hairs of
Mr. Phipps, he ordered D. O. Finch to release him.

By this time the people were coming in from the country and
the excitement ran so high that it took hard work on the part of the
sheriff, \\'illiam Holmes, and other level-headed citizens to prevent
a bloody encounter between the aroused people and the company
from Des Moines.

Finally the attorneys for the navigation company were given
two hours' time in which to leave Boone County with their company


of men, and this time they made good use of and departed for their
homes. It was a wise and good thing for them that they did so, for
the people had borne witli these men as long as they could or would.

About si.\ months after this another very thrilling river land
incident occurred further down the river, which was known only
to a few people. In fact, it would have been stepping upon dan-
gerous ground to have given the affair much publicity at or near
the time it occurred.

The fact that Farr and Warner refused to serve any longer as
log branders did not deter the navigation company in the least. Tf
Farr and Warner would serve no longer, other men bold enough
to brave the dangers could be found. Money, they said, could do
almost anything, and, to be sure, they had it.

Finally two young men named Burril and Mercer, respectively,
were induced to take the vacant places. The navigation company
knew it could hold the rafted logs if they came down the river
branded, but if they were brought down the river without the com-
pany brand on them they stood but little show of making a valid
claim of them. Therefore, it was highly necessary that two shrewd,
bold and fearless men be sent up the river for this purpose. They
were instructed to brand all the logs found in rafts, or on the banks
of the river. They were also instructed to brand all logs found on
the river lands and to take the name of every man found on these
lands cutting timber. These young men were very wily and cautious
in all of their movements. They were determined not to be caught
or taken by surprise and disposed of in the way that Farr and Warner
had been. This they had vowed should never be. But it will be
shown farther on that neither of them was endowed with the spirit
of prophecy.

It must be remembered that many of the men who were taking
timber from the river lands were also shrewd fellows, who were
on the lookout for spies and branders. As a rule they were prepared
for an emergency at any time and knew how to extricate themselves
from difficulties and dangers. They fully believed that they had
as good a right to take and use the timber on these lands as the
swindling navigation company had. But they knew at the same
time that this company would be upheld by the courts and that they
would be prosecuted if sufficient evidence against them could be
secured. From the swindled people they had nothing to fear. From
the spies and branders the trouble, if any, would come.


On a beautiful afternoon in the autumn of 1859, while three men
were engaged in loading logs upon their wagons, the two astute spies
came upon tliem. I'hey were very clever, talked very nicely and
even assisted the woodmen in loading one of the logs.

On being asked what tiieir business was, one of them replied that
they represented an eastern coal company and that they were looking
up coal lands and securing long-time leases upon them. After the
conversation had run for some time, one of the spies said: "Would
you gentlemen be willing to lease the land you are now chopping off
for coal mining purposes?"

"No," said one of the woodmen, "we will not lease this land
for any purpose."

"We regret to hear you talk that way," one of them replied, "for
we have leased nearly all the land in this hilly region."

"Let me see one of your leases," said one of the woodmen. A
blank was taken from a large bill book and handed to him.

"No, no," said the woodman, "let me see one of the leases already
signed by one of tlic landholders in these parts."

"Yes, certainly," said the spy, "I will gladly do so." Hastily
putting the blank lease again into his pocket, he said with consider-
able anger, "if you doubt the truth of what I have told you I will
show you a document which has never failed to convince a timber
thief." So saying he commenced to draw a revolver from another

1 lie other two woodmen had watched and carefully listened to
what was going on and during the parley had adroitly changed their
positions, until they now stooii behind a large stump only a few feet

Just as the spy began to draw his revolver, two double-barreled
shotguns from across the top of the stump were leveled upon them
with the peremptory demand to hold up their liands on penalty of
instant death. This sudden and unlooked for change in the appear-
ance of things took from the spies their defiant attitude and their
defiant look, and immediately they became humble and submissive.
They were now caught and all they could do was to submit and
so up went their hands.

While the two woodmen held the spies under their guns, the
other woodman took their weapons, and in going through their
pockets tound the commission which authorized them to act as spies
and branders tor the navigation company.

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