Buena Vista County, IA
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CHAPTER 4

THE SWAMP LAND CONTROVERSY

W. S. Lee returned to Wisconsin in the summer of 1859 and brought back with him the first members of the Norwegian colony which was to develop and help to build the community of Sioux Rapids.  These five men were Knudt Stennerson, O. O. Rang, Christian Johnson, and Henry and Ole Gullickson.

Abner Bell and Henry Gullickson, both bachelors, moved into the upper story of Christian Johnson’s log cabin.  Gullickson was Mrs. Johnson's brother.  The two men slept on the floor and cooked their meals on Mrs. Johnson’s stove downstairs.  They had a small ladder to climb up and down from their attic accommodations.  Johnson's cabin was considered a fine home for the time.  The walls were about three feet high on the sides and a man could walk through the center of the cabin without stooping to avoid hitting his head on the rafters.

H. S. Lee laid the first floor of sawed lumber in the county, in what was believed to be Buena Vista County's first frame house.  He had the lumber brought from the village of Peterson where John Gilbert owned and operated a portable sawmill.  Lee also dug the county’s first well, in 1861.  Up to that time he and others had obtained water from springs and from the Little Sioux River.  Lee's well was probably similar to that described by W. F. Couch..."ten feet deep and shored up with what we called "nigger [sic] heads."  The pump was not a pump at all, but consisted of a long pole with a hook on one end, by which the water was drawn up in a four foot well anywhere and have five feet of water."  Surely to some of the settlers it must have seemed that the water on the ground was a full foot deep in the swamplands.

Buena Vista County's first murder took place in 1859.  It was the result of ill feeling between Enoch Taylor and Ambrose Mead, who illegally claimed Taylor's land.  Mead hated his quiet, industrious neighbor and sought to drive him off the desirable acreage.  He watched Taylor and was ready at any time to start an open fight.  Learning that a friend, J. Bicknell, had sold some rails to Taylor for building purposes, Mead got his son and O. M. Barker, a neighbor, and they went to the Bicknell claim and began loading the rails into their own Wagon.  Taylor came by and, seeing them, told them the rails were his.  Barker became so angry with Taylor that he stripped off his coat, grabbed the younger Mead's revolver and stood prepared to fight.  Surprised at this, Taylor closed with him, attempting to get the gun away from him.  Barker resisted and Taylor soon fell, mortally wounded by three bullets which were fired during the brief struggle.  The news that Taylor had been murdered soon spread.  Everyone was shocked and the new county officers were called upon to punish the criminal.  Barker was followed to Spirit Lake where he was caught and brought back.  There was no jail in Sioux Rapids so he was held in the Woodbury County jail at Sioux City.

In October of that year Barker was tried in Sioux Rapids and found guilty.  He was sentenced to the Fort Madison Penitentiary but while on the way escaped from the Sheriff and fled to the eastern coast.  From there he left the United States in a ship and was never again heard from.  His punishment was exile instead of jail sentence.  The Sheriff was charged with bribery but no one could prove that he had purposely let Barker escape and the matter was dropped.  The trial and charges of this murder cost the new county of Buena Vista $2,000.

The next year Moses Van Kirk, the new county judge, gave a contract to James Gleason and John Stanley to build a bridge over the Little Sioux River at Sioux Rapids.  Gleason and Stanley were to receive 5,000 acres of swamp land to pay for the bridge.  According to Iowa law this contract was illegal because swamp lands were not supposed to be used to pay for bridges.  The bridge was built by another contractor, Jasper Lindsey, but a flood the following year washed it out.  The county was bonded for the sum of $18,000 to rebuild it and other bridges.  Of this amount $12,000 went to Lee, who evidently took the second contract, and $6,000 went to Isaac Enders to bridge the sloughs and creeks of the county.

Few bridges were ever built and all this time the county’s financial state grew worse and worse.  The tax levies brought in little money, there were so few settlers, and improvements which were needed and voted always took more money than was in the treasury.  County warrants were issued freely to pay bills but as these could not be redeemed in cash they depreciated in value until they were only worth from 20 to 30 cents on the dollar.  Contracts had to be given on that basis and then the depreciated warrants were to be kept over for several years until the county could pay them in full and with interest.  In this way the county was always losing money on contracts and was always in debt.  

A county census in 1860 showed only 57 residents in Buena Vista and the population did not grow appreciably in the next five years.  But some people came every year.  The State census for 1869 showed a population of 242.

In 1861 Isaac Enders obtained a contract to build a schoolhouse in Lee Township, and Hiram and William Brooke took another contract to build a schoolhouse in section six in Barnes Township.  Although a special election was called and the contracts were ratified, these buildings were never finished.

In the fall of 1861 John Cofer came from O'Brien County to open negotiations for the purchase of all the swamp land in the county.  These lands were considered worthless at that time for not only did the settlers doubt that they could ever be drained but they considered land without trees as worthless anyway.  Many of them thought just as old man Evans had when he said:  "All these folks that are rushing to the prairies...will starve out and come back.  God makes trees grow to show men where the good land is."

Two years earlier county officials had experienced a disagreeable episode on account of the swamp lands.  They had hired J. S. Ringland to survey that territory.  He was to be paid according to the number of acres surveyed.  After 16 days of work, Ringland finished his report, sent it to State officials in Des Moines, and handed in his bill.  Abner Bell immediately raised objections.  He had been following the work of Ringland and his assistant and claimed that the two could not possibly have covered the entire county in 16 days with any degree of accuracy.  Moreover, Bell stated that "during the time the men were supposed to be at work locating the swamp lands they were in fact lying in camp on a hill near Sioux Rapids, drinking whiskey, playing poker and telling stories."

Bell hurried to Peterson and had a lawyer draw up a written protest.  Then, mounting his horse again, he rode almost day and night in the hope of beating Ringland's report to Des Moines.  There is no actual record to show whether or not he was successful, but apparently he was, for no lands were patented to the county then or later.

Some time [sic] afterward, in 1861, W. S. Lee investigated the matter.  John Cofer had then offered to buy all the swamp land in the county in return for a contract to build a courthouse.  Cofer, a rather notorious land dealer, was no doubt a smooth and convincing talker, but he made the mistake of outlining his proposal to Lee.  Lee liked the idea, and intended to use it for his own benefit.

How Cofer must have raged when he learned that Lee had tricked him!  There was nothing he could do about it, however.  Taking advantage of his office as county clerk, Lee persuaded the other county officials to deed to him the right, title and interest in 64,880 acres of swamp and overflowed lands for the nominal sum of 16 cents per acre, in return for which he contracted to build a courthouse at Sioux Rapids and a bridge over the Little Sioux River at Linn Grove.

It may well be asked how such an astonishing agreement could be made, allowing Lee to have something more than 100 square miles, more than one-sixth of the county's total area.  Even in the wettest times, Buena Vista County never had that much real swamp land.  The explanation seems to be that the surveyors, who were paid by the acre, simply reported most of the timberless country which they considered worthless anyway, as swamp land.

Overflowed lands were granted to the State of Iowa by Congress in 1850, and again by the State of Iowa to each county in which they were located in 1855.  They were to be competently surveyed and the report approved, but though such had not been the case in Buena Vista County, Lee was given the contract.  He started work on the courthouse, having large numbers of trees cut down and trimmed, but for some reason he never did anything more.  He left the lumber lying on the ground, to be picked up later and used by the settlers.  By 1865 the affair had not made any progress.  Lee had not built either courthouse or bridge.  Instead, in that year, he turned his building contract over to Richard Ridgway, who had not come to the county until 1863.  However, Lee had such a strong influence over the other county officials that they agreed to let him do as he wished.  Lee at the same time retained the swamp lands which he regarded as already belonging to him.  He resigned his position as county treasurer and went east to sell the lands, making an enormous profit.  A man named Porter B. Roberts, who bought the rest of the area, resold the land in small acreages.

Richard Ridgway did not build the courthouse or construct the bridge for which he had contracted.  Like Lee, he cut some timber and let it lie around to be picked up by the settlers.

It was nearly 20 years later, in 1882, when all of the officials who had "run the county" were out of office, that the courthouse swamp-land deal was straightened out.  Abner Bell was one of the principal witnesses for the county.  In fact, people thought that Bell was really behind the legal action.  Richard Ridgway and William Brooke were among the other witnesses.  W. S. Lee himself swore that he had entered into contract in good faith, and knowing that the law did not authorize the exchange of land for courthouse purposes, stated that the building he had proposed to put up was intended as a seminary.  Bell contended that Lee had intended to build the courthouse, but in any case 5,000 acres of the swamp land were to be transferred to Lee only when "the building material for the courthouse was actually prepared and on the ground."  Probably that was why Lee had cut the wood for the building but never had done anything else.  The lumber was "on the ground."  At any rate, the court decided against Lee and he and all the people who had purchased from him lost their claim to the lands.

What had the county officers used for a courthouse back in the 1860's when both Lee and Ridgway neglected to build the quarters for which they had contracted?  The answer is simple.  Lee's brother-in-law, George W. Struble, and Mrs. Struble and their children, moved to Sioux Rapids from New York in the fall of 1863.  They built a two-story log cabin and made it a gathering place for the community.  The county court convened in the wide living room often adjourning to allow Mrs. Struble to set the table for dinner.  The meals she prepared were enjoyed by the judge, the lawyers, the jury, and all the members of the court.  The board of supervisors also met in this room.  This was all very convenient to the scheming Lee.  He or his relatives heard almost every word that was ever uttered about the business of the county and could thus control affairs for their own profit.  Oliver Moore and David Farnam, two other settlers living in Sioux Rapids at the time, were also relatives of Lee.  As if that were not enough, Charles Lee, a brother, moved to the county in 1861.  In January 1862 he was appointed county treasurer.

Struble's cabin was well built.  The door was fastened with a huge log chain and the windows had thick shutters of walnut, tough enough to withstand an attack from Indians.  It is said that Struble acquired his land from a well known [sic] Indian ca1led "Feather in the Lake."  The 160-acre tract was located just outside of the limits of Sioux Rapids.  Before long Struble replaced the cabin with a frame house which was later used for many years as a hotel.  This was not the first hotel, for William Swiford built the first in the town, but it was the most popular and became known far and wide for its cheer.  In its office or barroom many political meetings were held.

There were as yet no railroads, and the people of Buena Vista County were far from any lanes of communication and travel, except the stagecoach.  During a blizzard in 1865, every sign of a road or a trail was “whited out."  It was impossible to go to the mill, and when flour gave out the people had to grind their corn in a coffee grinder and live on that.  As soon as the stage route was open again, Struble sent to Sioux City for a 56-pound sack of flour, which cost him $6.25.  There was no flouring mill in the county until 1870.

During 1861, the year that John Cofer visited the county with his swamp-land proposal and Charles Lee came out to join his brother, the American Civil War began.  For a long time there had been ill feeling between the people of the North and those of the South over the slavery question.  During the election campaign of 1860 the Southerners had threatened secession and disunion in case Abraham Lincoln should be elected.  Lincoln won, and on April 12, 1861, not long after his inauguration, Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter.  This was believed to be the beginning of a well organized [sic] plan to destroy the Union.  Three days later, on Monday, April 15, President Lincoln issued the proclamation declaring war on the South and asking for 75,000 volunteers.  As it turned out, many thousand more men were needed, and the war lasted four years, much longer than anyone had anticipated.  Following Lincoln's request, Governor Kirkwood of Iowa sent out a call for the first regiment from the State.  Iowans responded and played an important part in winning the Civil War.  However, Buena Vista County was still isolated and was slow to get news of the events happening in the outside world.  There were so few residents, and these were so occupied with their own affairs, that none volunteered to serve in the army during that first year.

But in the summer of 1863, Charles Lee resigned his county office and enlisted, going to Burlington to enter the army for service during the rest of the war.  At the time he left there was only $69.20 in the county treasury and a record of 13,000 acres of entered lands. The tax money collected that year amounted to $1,500.

The constant struggle to pay expenses, raise crops and keep on the watch for hostile Indians took most of the settlers’ time and energy.  The Sioux, led by Little Crow, rose against the whites in New Ulm, Minnesota, in the summer of 1862 and the massacre that resulted was enough to scare the people of northern Iowa and put them on guard.  It was not surprising that Buena Vista residents felt little interest in the Civil War, of which they knew almost no details, and which was being fought hundreds of miles away.

Finally, as more men were needed in the Union army, a draft went into operation and in Buena Vista County two men were drawn, Oliver Moore and Henry Gullickson.  Neither went, for substitution was allowed.  Moore sent George Ditton as a substitute, and when Gullickson was not accepted, Knudt Stennerson went in his place.  Both men survived, but Peter Holland, who in 1864 resigned his job as one of the county supervisors and joined the army, was killed and buried in Tennessee.  The rest of the people, at last aroused and anxious to help with the war, voted a bond issue of $20,000 to help transport fighting men to the front.

Iowa Writers’ Project.  Buena Vista County History.  Storm Lake, Iowa:  Work Projects Administration, 1942.  20-25.  Print.

Contributed anonymously

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