County Seat Contests; Selecting the "Old Stake"; The First Election; Second Election; Columbus Carries the Day; Lansing vs. Columbus; a Commission Selects Waukon; Commissioners' Decision Ratified at the Polls; Other Rival Claimants; Waukon Again Ahead; Lansing Once More in the Fight; Waukon Wins; Another Election, and Re-location of County Seat, this Time at "The Point"; A New Election, and an Appeal to the Courts; Waukon Finally Wins a Conclusive Victory; Interesting and Exciting Episodes.

History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties Iowa,1882
by W. E. Alexander
Sioux City, Iowa: Western Publishing Co., 1882
Reprinted by Winneshiek County Historical Society


The county seat contests since the organization of the county form an important feature of its history; but at times they created so much excitement and bitter sectional feeling that it is a delicate matter to treat of them even now in such a manner as would seem to all parties strictly impartial. Of course the location of the seat of county government at any place was considered to be a great advantage, and numerous villages, which can now hardly be called villages, at one time or another each had high hopes of securing a prestige thereby that would establish their prosperity on a permanent basis. They who entertained these hopes were doomed to disappointment, however, and when the contest was narrowed down to the principal towns of the county, they were moved by feelings of local advantage, public weal, or disappointment and revenge, and the contest between Lansing and Waukon was prolonged and bitter, until repeated decisions by the public voice settled it permanently in favor of the latter place.

In January, 1849, at the time of passing the act for the organization of Allamakee county, the General Assembly appointed three commissioners, viz.: Wm. Linton, John Francis and James Jones, to select a suitable location for the future county seat, and, as we have previously stated, they fixed upon a point in Jefferson township, since known as "The Old Stake". This selection was practically useless, however, as points of more importance were attracting attention, and at the April election of 1851 the question was submitted to a vote of the people, the contesting points being Vailsville (now Harper's Ferry), Reuben Smith's place on the Yellow River, in Post township, and Columbus, on the Mississippi. This election resulted in no choice, neither receiving a majority of the votes cast, and another was ordered for the first Monday in May. Vailsville being out of the contest at the election, Columbus received a small majority and became the county seat.

About this time there existed a spirit of rivalry between Lansing and Columbus, which developed into a jealousy on the part of Lansing (which had become an aspiring little town) toward her next-door neighbor, and induced her to attempt to deprive Columbus of her honors and the advantages accompanying them. Although Columbus had really no natural advantage which would entitle her to the county seat, except that of a boat landing, her proprietors and their friends were too powerful to warrant a direct issue, and so Lansing resorted to strategy, and urged the propriety of a re-location of the county seat at the geographical center of the county. Of course the settlers in the western portion were nothing loth to enter into this movement, and a meeting was held at Ezra Reid's, in Ludlow township, December 4, 1852, to consider the matter. Edward Eells was selected as chairman of the meeting, and John W. Remine, of Lansing, and C. J. White, of Makee, were secretaries. The result was that the General Assembly was petitioned to have another point designated as the future county seat of the county. In January 1853, the Legislature granted the petition, and for the purpose of selecting such point, appointed a commission consisting of Clement Coffin, of Delaware County, John S. Lewis of Clayton County, and Dennis A. Mahony, of Dubuque. The third section of the act establishing this commission, reads as follows:

"Said commissioners shall locate the county seat of the county aforesaid as near the geographical center as a due regard for the present and prospective interests of the county shall appear to them just and proper; they shall, also, be influenced by the comparative eligibility of locations, and the convenience of water, roads and building materials as also by the comparative facilities of acquiring for said county suitable building lots, or blocks, if the county seat should be located by them on private property."

The commissioners were directed to meet at Columbus, then the county seat, on the first Monday in March; and they performed their duty by selecting the point where Waukon now is, forty acres of land being donated by Geo. C. Shattuck for county purposes.

The decision of the commissioners was submitted to a vote of the people at the following April election, in 1853, and after an exciting contest was ratified by a two-thirds vote.

That the relocation of the county seat at Waukon was not accepted by the proprietors and friends of Columbus without a struggle, may be imagined. At the first term of District Court held at Waukon in June, 1853, Hon. Thos. S. Wilson, Judge, the matter was at once brought up, and we quote from an old file of the Lansing Intelligencer relating to it, as follows:

"A motion was made by Ben. M. Samuels, Esq., who appeared on behalf of the proprietors of Columbus, to adjourn the Court to that place. The grounds stated for this motion were; first, that the law providing for the re-location of the county seat, was unconstitutional, relying in support of the position, on the 10th article of the Constitution of the United States, wherein it is declared that, 'no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts." It was argued that the proprietors of Columbus, by deeding to the county two acres of land under the act of 1851, providing for the location of the county seat of Allamakee County, thereby made a contract with the county, and that the Legislature had no right to pass a subsequent act providing for a re-location. It was further argued that the town of Columbus was a close corporation and had acquired a substantial legal interest in the county seat, and that the Legislature, in passing the original act for the location of the county seat, had an eye to the permanent benefit of the town of Columbus. The act of 1851, authorizing the people to vote on the question, declares that ' the point receiving the largest number of votes shall be and remain the permanent seat of justice of said Allamakee County, provided that the owner or owners of such town or point, shall, within ten days after the result of said election has been declared, make and execute to the Board of Commissioners of said county, a satisfactory and sufficient deed for at least two acres of land in said point.' Considerable emphasis and reliance were placed on the word 'permanent', which appears in the clause quoted, and it was argued that inasmuch as the word appeared in the act, the Legislature had thereby forestalled all subsequent action with regard to the matter. The other objections, which were made, more particularly pertained to the action of the County Judge, who, it is well known, had refused to discharge any of the duties enjoined on him by the act of the Legislature. Some other reasons, of minor importance, were adduced, but for foregoing were the most noticeable. Mr. Samuels made quite a pathetic oration in behalf of Columbus (as a close corporation), and spoke in a very affecting manner of her alleged rights.

The motion was opposed by John W. Remine, Esq., of Lansing, and Jas. Burt, Esq., of Dubuque.

"The court overruled the motion, and gave at length, and in a very plain and clear manner his reasons. As to the objections on account of the unconstitutionality of the act, he said, that the town of Columbus had, in law, acquired no interest in the matter of the county seat, that no contract existed between the proprietors of the town and the county.

"With regard to the word 'permanent,' which appears in the act of 1851, he said that the Legislature did not by that word intend to make the act immutably durable---that even if the Legislature had so intended, it was an excess of legislation and, consequently, void. The Legislature could not pass a law and make it impossible to change or repeal the same by subsequent legislation.

"he further said that the duties required of the county Judge in the act, providing for the re-location of the county seat, were not discretionary. The District Court could compel the County Judge by mandamus to perform the duties required of him in the act-that if he refused to re-convey the land and lots spoken of in the act, to the proprietors of Columbus, he could be compelled."

At the March term of the County Court, 1856, a petition was presented, praying that the question of removal of the county seat from Waukon to Rossville be submitted to the people, and John T. Clark, prosecuting attorney and ex-officio county judge, decided that the question should be so submitted at the April election. A similar petition was also presented in favor Whaley & Topliff's Mill, in Center Township, and was likewise granted. This made a triangular contest, and Waukon received a large majority over both the other points, the vote being: Waukon, 617, Whaley 7 Topliff's Mill, 314; Rossville, 144.

Early in 1859, a petition was circulated by Lansing for submitting the question of removing the county seat to that place, and her citizens offered to donate suitable lots (Park Block) and erect a court house thereon to cost $8,000. At the same time $5000 was offered by Waukon to aid in the erection of county buildings at that place. A meeting was held at the latter place and a committee appointed, consisting of A. J. Hersey, John T. Clark, L. O. Hatch, W. S. Cooke, A. Hersey, L. T. Woodcock, W. W. Hungerford, J. C. Smith and Jehial Johnson, to select an eligible point on the Mississippi, other than Lansing, through which Waukon might transact her shipping business. At a later meeting the committee reported that there was no one point to which they could in good faith pledge their entire support, but suggested that Columbus was the nearest and most accessible point at which to transact river business, provided she would furnish the necessary facilities; and that Johnsonport was the best point for the transaction of railroad business, provided she would furnish ferry-boat connection with the railroad at Prairie du Chien, and other facilities. On March 7th, the petition was presented to the County Judge (G. M. Dean) by S. H. Kinne.

A motion was made by John T. Clark that the petition be dismissed on the ground that the Court had no power to order an election in April, as the April election had been repealed. Messrs. Clark and Hatch argued the question for the dismissal and G. W. Camp and L. H. Howe on the part of Lansing. Judge Dean reserved his decision until the following morning, when he granted the petition and ordered an election to be held on the 4th day of April. The contest was a hot one. It was originated by the most honored and influential citizens of Lansing; and all the means at their command were used on both sides to with the public favor. On the part of Lansing, John Haney and H. W. Houghton entered into bonds to the amount of $15,000 to guarantee the use of Park Block to the county as long as the county seat should remain in Lansing, and a number of her best citizens gave similar bonds for $16,000 that in case the county seat should be removed to Lansing they would expend $8,000 in the erection of public buildings on said block, to be the property of the county so long as the county seat remain at that place. While on the part of Waukon, seventeen of her most substantial men bound themselves in the sum of $10,000 that in case the county seat should remain where it then was the citizens of Waukon would pay $5,000, to be expended in the erection of county buildings on the land already owned by the county at that place. The verdict of the people was in favor of Waukon by a majority of 420, Waukon, 1,248; Lansing 828. Regarding this result as the end of controversy, and as evidence of the wish of the people that our donation should be used for the purpose for which it was offered, the County Judge, on the 2d of August, 1859, let a contract for the erection of a permanent court house (including a jail), at a cost of thirteen thousand six hundred and fifty-five dollars, five thousand dollars of which sum was paid by a transfer of the proceeds of the Waukon bond, and the remainder of which was paid by the county. The contractors were J. W. Pratt and C. W. Jenkins, and the building was erected and completed during the years 1860-61.

Again, on the 3d day of December 1860, a petition was presented to the County Court, Judge John A. Townsend, praying for the re-location of the county seat at the point between Lansing and Capoli, and an election was ordered, in accordance therewith, on the 8th day of April, 1861. This time one of the points raised was the legality of the contract for the erection of the county buildings at Waukon with first submitting it to a vote of the people, but this was virtually set at rest by the following correspondence:

Waukon Jan, 19, 1861.
M. McGlathery, District Attorney of the Tenth Judicial District:

Sir---Enclosed you will find a copy of a contract made Aug. 2d, 1859, by the County Judge of Allamakee County, for the erection of county buildings, the contractor's bill for work under the contract, and copy of submission by the County Judge to the people of the question of appropriating the swamp lands for the erection of buildings made Sept. 6th, 1859, which said appropriation was approved by the October election., 1859.

Please to favor the Board of Supervisors with an official opinion respecting the legality of the contract, and particularly the power of the County Judge to enter into a contract at that time for the erection of the buildings, at that cost, without first submitting the question of erecting the buildings to a vote of the people; or, in other words, is the county legally bound to pay for buildings under that contract.

Also an opinion whether it is the duty of this Board to issue warrants to the contractors for the payment of their bill out of the ordinary county funds (provided the contract be legal), or whether the contractors are limited by that vote to the swamp lands for their pay. You will observe that the submission of appropriation was made to the people after the contract was executed. As a matter of fact there are no swamp land funds in the treasury, nor are there likely to be soon, by which to pay the bills, nor is there any question raised as to the correctness of the bills or the estimates.

Please remit by mail your official opinion on the above points at your earliest convenience. Very respectfully,
Chairman Board Supervisors of Allamakee County, Iowa.

West Union, January 29, 1861.
M. Hancock, Esq., Chairman Board Supervisors Allamakee Co.:

Sir---Yours of January 19th, was enclosed contract between the county and Jenkins & Pratt, together with election notice, is at hand. At the time the contract was made the County Judge had the power to enter into a contract for building a courthouse and jail, and there was no law in force requiring him to submit the proposition to the people of the county. The contract is made in the name of the county and it is bound by it. This question is fully settled by the Supreme Court in case of State ex rel Brook vs Napier 7 Iowa, 423.

2. By act of January 25, 1855, where swamp lands could not be redeemed, counties could apply the proceeds of said lands to the erection of county buildings., provided the question is first submitted to the people. The swamplands themselves can only be appropriated as provided by the act of 1853. The submission to the people was done after the contract was made, and it formed no part of the contract, but was done for the purpose of avoiding heavy taxes, and the county is responsible to the contractors without any regard to the swamplands, as far as I am able to judge from the papers now before me.
Yours respectfully,
Milo McGlathery, District Attorney.

However, a certain effect remained, which, together with the combination of Columbus with Lansing, a bond entered into by their people to erect a court house at "The Point" without expense to the county, and the disaffection of Rossville people resulted in a re-location by a vote of 1,257 for the Point, against 1,231 for Waukon---a majority of 26 votes, and the county records and furniture were immediately removed to that place.

Believing that this combination of circumstances would not operate a second time; the people of Waukon the same year circulated a petition for the removal of the object of controversy to the new building at Waukon, and it was presented to the Board of Supervisors, October 14, 1861, and another election ordered to be held in April, 1862. Again was the ground hotly contested, and again was "The Point" victorious by a majority of 22-that place receiving 1332, against 1310 for Waukon.

Once more, in 1864, Waukon decided to make an effort to regain the seat of justice, and the contest waxed hotter than ever before. At this time there was a project to build a railroad up the valley of Paint Creek, by the Prairie du Chien and Cedar Valley R. R. Company, and a great deal of sport was made of this "paper railroad" on the part of Lansing people, who declared it to be an electioneering dodge to make votes for Waukon. In June the Board of Supervisors ordered an election to be held at the time of the general election, November 8th. Again the fight was very close, and when the Board met to canvas the returns, the result was found to depend upon Franklin tp., from which no record of the vote had been received, so the canvass was made without it, giving the Point a majority of 69-1205 for the Point, and 1136 for Waukon, and the matter was carried into the District Court, E. H. Williams, Judge. The Point took a change of venue to Delaware County, and when the decision there was rendered adversely to their interests, appealed to the Supreme Court, by which it was not decided until 1867, when it was adjudged that Waukon was rightfully the county seat, and the records were once more removed to that place, where they have since remained.

Pending this decision, in June, 1866, occurred the attempted removal of the records from Lansing by Sheriff Townsend and a posse of about thirty men from Waukon, which created a great deal of excitement at the time, as well as amusement for those who participated, and has since been a prolific topic of good natured raillery. After the case had been heard before the Distict Court for Delaware County, decision was rendered in favor of Waukon, and a writ of mandamus issued, ordering the Board to count the vote of Franklin township-the returns having been obtained---giving Waukon a majority of 23 votes. Whereupon the board appointed Sheriff Townsend as a committee to remove the records, which he proceeded to do. Meantime Lansing had taken an appeal to the Supreme Court, a writ of supersedens was issued and served upon the Board June 7th, only eight out of the eighteen members accepting such service, however. The Sheriff received no orders countermanding his authority to remove the records, and early on the morning of June 9th the "raid" was made. We copy portions of an account we find in the Lansing Mirror of June 12, 1866, omitting severe personal allusions. Some statements were of course somewhat colored to suit the excitement of the occasion, and the local feeling:

"On Saturday morning last, about the hour of eight, the sheriff of Allamakee county, a resident of the village of Waukon, followed by a picked posse of Waukon men, entered the court house at this place and attempted to remove perforce, with a shadow of authority, the county records to the above 7x9 village. So quietly and stealthily did the band of raiders approach the building that none of the officers were aware of their close proximity until Townsend hurriedly entered and passed from office to office, informing them that he was after the county records, and set his gang to cleaning out the several offices, not even giving the officials warning or time to pack up the documents in their possession. Teams were in waiting at the front door of the courthouse, and in the twinkling of an eye the most important records were loaded up and the teams put in motion for Waukon. Little or no resistance was made by the county officers, with the exception of Treasurer Healey, who was assaulted by one of the raiders, a brave officer, who during the late rebellion rose to the position of Colonel. The treasurer repelled the assault, and with his wounded the valorous colonel in the short ribs. Fifteen minutes had hardly elapsed after the departure of the robbers, until the road leading in the direction of Milton was thronged with our citizens, who were in for a little sport and the recapture of the records.

"The Lansing boys overhauled the teams in the vicinity of Milton. Mr. Darwin Shaw in the meantime had captured a horse near the road, and in hot haste rote into Milton and informed the citizens of that village what was on the tapis. They turned out en masse, and when the advance team made its appearance they halted it, and out came the contents of the wagon in less time than it takes to write this sentence. Several of the Waukon men showed fight, but they soon came to the conclusion that ' discretion was the better part of valor', and desisted from perpetrating summary punishment upon their pursuers. The stolen documents were recovered, placed in the Lansing wagons, and returned to their respective offices in the courthouse at Lansing.

"Cheer after cheer rent the air when the boys returned. They were enthusiastically received by the citizens. Hats were thrown skyward, handkerchiefs were waved, and lager quaffed. Quiet is again restored and the county seat remains at Lansing."

In August 1868, S. V. Shaw, Israel Bequette, and J. M. Rose published a notice that at the next September session of the Board of Supervisors, a petition would be presented asking that another election be ordered between Lansing and Waukon. The Board met on the first Monday in September, and it was concluded that all the business necessary to be done might be transacted in a short session, as owing to the pressure of 'fall work," etc., it was the wish of some of the members to be at home. Accordingly a committee on school tax levy labored a good share of that night to prepare their report, and Tuesday forenoon the remaining business was transacted and the Board adjourned sine die, by a vote of 12 to 3, three members being absent. Later in the day the Lansing petitioners put in an appearance, but the Board having adjourned no election could be ordered that year.

Early in the spring of 1869 the contest was reopened and waxed warm from the start. A petition for an election was widely circulated, as was a remonstrance to the same, and each party charged the other with obtaining many illegal signatures. At the June session of the Board, on the first day, the petition was presented and referred to a committee, and on the following day the remonstrance appeared and was also referred, and was found to outnumber the petition by 86 names---2122 on the remonstrance and 2036 on the petition. A majority report of the committee was made by D. Dickerson, J. S. Deremo, Jeremiah Leas, and S. F. Goodykoontz, stating their belief that a large number of signers to the petition had also signed the remonstrance, which would swell the majority of the latter over the petition by 150 to 200 names, and therefore recommended that no election be ordered. A minority report by G. Keralt, S. H. Haines and William Yeoman, was also submitted, representing it as their belief that the petition contained a majority of the names of the legal voters of the county, and that they were in favor of allowing the people to express themselves at the polls. After some close work the minority report was adopted and an election ordered by a vote of ten to eight.

One recourse was left to the Waukon managers, and proceeding to Decorah they laid the matter before Judge M. V. Burdick, who granted an injunction restraining the Board from taking any further steps towards holding such election, until permission should be granted. In the District Court a petition was filed asking for a writ of certiovari, commanding the Board to certify to said Court a record of its proceedings relating to the county seat, which was granted, and a special term appointed for July 7th for a hearing in such case. At the time appointed the case was heard and judgment rendered annulling and setting aside the order of the Board for an election. The defendant appealed, but after the election the previous decision was affirmed, at McGregor. Meanwhile, when the Circuit Court sat, in July, the injunction was dissolved and the election was held as ordered, October 5th, resulting in a majority of 254 for Waukon-1,544 to 1,290.

After this decisive quietus, there was a lull in the county seat war for six years, when, at the June session of the Board, 1875, a petition was presented containing 1,906 names, and another election was duly ordered to be held at the general election in October. During this summer was begun the construction of the Waukon and Mississippi Railroad. Realizing that it was "now or never" with her, Lansing massed her forces for the final conflict, and the campaign was pushed vigorously on both sides, resulting in the largest vote ever cast in the county, and a majority of 340 in favor of Waukon, she receiving 2,145 against 1,805 for Lansing. It is said that the reason for this large vote was the importation of Winneshick county voters on the west, and Wisconsin voters and river men on the east.


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