The History of Keokuk County, Iowa


The most bitter and unfortunate controversies which ever occur are those growing out of county-seat controversies.  They engender animosities which are transmitted from father to son, and the strife in which people thereby become embroiled lasts from generation to generation.  By reason of the ill-feeling thus engendered, the material progress of a community is retarded, and the evil effects produced on the manners and morals of a people are truly deplorable.

Keokuk county has been peculiarly unfortunate in this respect, and although more than twenty years have elapsed since the last county-seat contest, the vicious effects of the early struggles over this question are still discernable.

The county-seat question was one of the first to be agitated.  The controversy began with the organization of the county in 1844 and continued till 1857, a period of thirteen years.  During this period there never was a time when this was not a question of dispute.  There were times when the rival factions ceased from actual hostilities and became comparatively quiet.  But these seasons of short peace with but this brief quiet, was but the stillness which precedes a storm, an armistice entered into by the tacit consent of the belligerents during which time they were laying their plans and burnishing their weapons for a fiercer conflict.

The south-eastern part of the county being the first to be settled, there was at first an effort to get the county-seat in that locality.  It was argued that the seat of justice should be located with reference to the center of population rather than a geographical center.

The attempt to fix the county-seat within the bounds of Richland township has already been alluded to; also the appointment, by the territorial legislature, of a locating commission, has been mentioned in connection with the organization of the county.

As a result of this first contest the report of these commissioners appears on the county records; it is as follows:

"Record of the returns of the locating commissioners, appointed to locate the seat of justice of Keokuk county:

To the Honorable Board of Commissioners of the County of Keokuk:

"The undersigned having been appointed commissioners to locate the seat of justice for said county, met according to the provisions of said act, and having been duly sworn, proceeded to examine said county, and after an extensive examination have selected the north-east quarter of section No. two in township seventy-five (75) north, range twelve (12) west, and have consequently designated the same as the seat of justice for Keokuk county, and have called the same Sigourney.

"All of which is respectfully submitted.

"Sigourney, May 10, 1844.       "Geo. H. STONE.
                                                        "JOHN A. STEWART,
                                                        “SAM'L SHUFFLETON.

“S. Shuffleton dissents from the above selection."

"Board of commissioners of Keokuk county to George H. Stone for six
                      days services locating county seat, Dr  …………………  $12.00
              "John A. Stewart, seven days  …………………………………    14.00
              "S. Shuffleton,               "          …………………………………    14.00

"I do hereby certify that the foregoing is a correct record of the return of the locating commissioners appointed by the legislative assembly to locate the seat of justice for Keokuk county.

"Attest:                                              EDOM SHUGART, Clerk of Board."

At another place the fact has been referred to that the commissioners did not favor this selection, and on the petition of eighty citizens of the county they took official action whereby the seat of justice was directed to remain at Richland. Notwithstanding the action of the board, Judge Williams-and his appointee to the office of clerk, Mr. James, proceeded in conformity with the decision of the locating commissioners, and at the first term of the-District Court held at the new county-seat, the judge made an extra judicial decision which induced the board to reconsider their former action and remove their headquarters to Sigourney.

Thus for a time it seemed that the question of a county-seat had been, finally disposed of, and that the location was permanently fixed; but not so, for while the friends of Sigourney were triumphant in having gained their point, and laboring under the delusion that the matter was permanently fixed, were investing their means and employing their energies to build up. the town, there was not by any means a general concurrence in the selection of the location, and those opposed to it were quietly but industriously engaged in working up a sentiment hostile to Sigourney and laying their plans to bring about a removal.  Presently the fact became known that a petition was in circulation asking for authority from the legislature to relocate the county-seat.  The friends of Sigourney, upon hearing of this, circulated a remonstrance.

The legislature before which this petition would be presented convened in May, and the one chief business of the leaders of one faction was to circulate a petition, of the other, to circulate a remonstrance; the all-absorbing topic of conversation, discussion and dispute, was the county-seat; in the language of one "who was there to see,""from the rivers to the ends of the county the news was agitation, and the talk county-seat."

On the eve of the great battle which was to decide the matter there was a review of the forces, and it was found that the number of names on the petition considerably outnumbered the names on the remonstrance, and, consequently, the friends of Sigourney saw that if the legislature were to be influenced by the number of names, they would be compelled to enter the lists under a great disadvantage.

The petition was carried to the legislature by J. B. Whisler, and S. A. James was deputed to present the remonstrance. The latter shrank from the responsibility; he was wholly inexperienced in legislative diplomacy, had barely an acquaintance or two in either body whose "appreciation of good dress,"he says, "he could not hope to gratify in his homespun attire."But go he must, and go he did.  On his way through Washington he contrived to borrow some clothes, among other articles a blue cloth coat with pretentious buttons. Equipped with these borrowed "store clothes,” which fitted "like the bark on a tree,"and letters of introduction from the same party who was sole proprietor of the clothes, he arrived at the capital, Iowa City, a few hours in advance of the enemy.

It is a fact here worthy of note that Washington as a town had always been favorable to the interests of Sigourney, while Fairfield had always opposed those interests.  These preferences had probably originated in the topography of the country which regulated to some extent the travel and traffic of the county. Another reason might be adduced in the fact that Sigourney and vicinity had been settled by Washingtonians, while people from Fairfield had settled in the south part of the county.  The cause of these preferences have long ceased to exist.

On the 26th day of May Mr. James and Mr. Whisler conferred together and erased from both the petition and the remonstrance what they regarded as improper names.  A majority of over fifty was found to be in favor of the petition.  The papers were all placed in the hands of Col. Shelledy, member from Keokuk and Mahaska counties.  On the 27th a bill was introduced to relocate the county-seat by commissioners.  On the 28th this bill was read a second time, and a third time, and passed by a majority of one vote.  On the 23d the bill was read the first time in the senate, and on the 30th it was referred to a select committee, which reported, the next day, against the bill.  The house refused to concur in the report and the senate laid the bill on the table by a vote of eight to five.

This was the end of the matter for that session, and Mr. James says, "we joyfully wended our way homeward, being the first to break the news to the town whose inhabitants had awaited our return with much the same feeling that a party interested in a verdict awaits the coming of a jury."

Whether Mr. James' success may be attributed to the influence of the blue coat, the favorable impression produced by the letters of introduction, or the persuasive eloquence of the gentleman himself, cannot be determined at this late day.  It will be safe to assert, however, that his success resulted from all three causes, and especially the blue coat, since his influence was most marked in the senate, which always has had the reputation of being an aristocratic body, and very susceptible to display of any kind.  Whether or not Mr. James returned the coat is not a matter of speculation.  There is the very best of evidence that he did.

For a short time after the action of the legislature had been made known, affairs were comparatively quiet, and the people of Sigourney were jubilant.  The young town was the scene of great activity, new arrivals being reported each day, and new business enterprises being engaged in.  This quiet, however, was destined not to be of long duration.  Early in July the county-seat question again began to be agitated, and it was generally understood that another fight was to be made before the legislature during the coming winter.

When the legislature met, the controversy was again taken before the legislature.  This time the lobby was increased from two to six individuals.  Col. Crocker, Richard Quinton, and another individual being sent in the interests of the petition, and Dr. Weeks, A. H. Haskell and G. M. Holliday representing the people of Sigourney.

In this contest before the legislature the petitioners were successful, as the following extract of a bill passed, and approved January 9, 1846, will show:

"An act to provide for the appointment of Commissioners to re-locate the County-seat of Keokuk county:

"SECTION 1.  Be it enacted by the Council and House of Representatives of the Territory of Iowa, that Joseph Foster, of the county of Van Buren, Joshua Owens, of the county of Lee, and John Brophy, of the county of Clinton, be and hereby are appointed commissioners to re-locate the county-seat of Keokuk county.

"SEC. 3. Said commissioners when qualified shall proceed to select a suitable site for the county-seat of said county; taking into consideration the relative advantages and disadvantages of different points, the present and future interest and convenience of the population of said county; and among the several points so examined including the town of Sigourney, they shall select such point as they may deem most suitable for the county-seat of said county.

"SEC. 5. That if the commissioners shall determine that Sigourney is a proper and suitable point for the county-seat of said county, said decision, properly certified, shall be reduced to writing and filed with the clerk of the board of county commissioners of said county and the same shall be and remain the county-seat of said county as provided by law; but if any other point should be selected as aforesaid then the clerk of the board of county commissioners shall give at least twenty days notice by posting up the same in at least four of the most public places in said county; that at the next August election, a poll will be opened, for the qualified electors of said county to determine by ballot which of the two points, the one so selected by the commissioners or the town of Sigourney shall be the county-seat of said county.  Those voting for the town of Sigourney shall write the word, "Sigourney,"on their ballots. Those voting for the point selected by the commissioners as aforesaid shall write on their ballots the name agreed on by the commissioners for the new location, and whichever point shall receive the majority of votes cast at said election shall be and remain forever afterward the county-seat of Keokuk county.

"SEC. 7. That if the qualified electors shall decide at said election in favor of the new location made by the commissioners aforesaid then the commissioners of said county shall immediately proceed to make a survey of said new location, and as soon as the plat of the survey of the new location is filed and recorded in the office of the clerk of the board of county commissioners the said commissioners shall make such indemnity to the lot holders of the town of Sigourney as they may have sustained to reimburse them for any loss or losses sustained by the removal of the county-seat; Provided, that any person aggrieved by the decision of the board of county commissioners under and by virtue of this act may take an appeal to the District Court as in other cases."

This act narrowly escaped defeat in the House of Representatives, and was only saved by the act of William Thompson, the chief clerk. The bill had passed the House by a bare majority, and on the same evening it was ascertained that upon a reconsideration of the vote the bill could be defeated. The rules of the House provided for a reconsideration of any vote on the following day.   An extract of a letter from a Des Moines county member, to Dr. Weeks, will further explain this:
                                                                                     "IOWA CITY, January 11, 1846.
     "DEAR SIR:—There was an effort made in the House to reconsider the vote in the passage of your bill, but the chief clerk had taken said bill to the council, and they had concurred in the amendment made by the House.  It was an oversight of the clerk, and caused great interest and excitement.
                      "Yours with esteem,
                                                                                                                                                          “JOHN D. WRIGHT."

It was generally regarded, however, by the friends of Sigourney, as an intentional act of the chief clerk, done for the accommodation of the opponents of Sigourney.  Whatever may have been the facts, so confidently was this believed in all parts of the county, that, when the said chief clerk afterward became a candidate for nomination to congress, the two southern delegates from Keokuk county warmly sustained him for nomination, while the two northern delegates as decidedly opposed him.

Mr. Brophy did not meet with the other commissioners, so that Mr. Foster and Mr. Owen proceeded to make the selection.

It seems that the commissioners had imbibed the idea that the law contemplated indirectly that their business, was to make a selection other than Sigourney.  This was most attentively impressed upon their minds while traveling over the county.  The great argument being that if a new point were selected, and on a vote Sigourney should win it, that then the war was at an end, but that if Sigourney were selected it was only to be only a prolonged and continued struggle.

Laboring under these impressions, and with a view to the earliest termination of the strife which was telling, with disastrous effect, upon the whole county, more, doubtless, from these prudential reasons, than from the merits of the two places, the commissioners selected another point for the county-seat, and designated it by the name of Lancaster.

This location was owned by J. B. Whisler, who kept a dry goods store, and which had previously been known as Lafayette.

The ensuing August election was to determine "forever"this vital question, and, metaphorically speaking, the houses of York and Lancaster began to marshal their forces for a renewal of the "War of the Roses."

The strife was a fierce one, and full of personal animosity.  Those who were on the defensive fought as only men will fight when their property is at stake.

During the canvass it became necessary to use great circumspection as to one's associates and friends.  If a southerner were treated with marked civility and cordial welcome, there were those who branded the entertainer as a traitor, and an anti-Sigourneyite.  The oldest resident of Sigourney, and one who, more than any other, had thus far distinguished himself as a friend of Sigourney, was charged with aiding and abetting the cause of Lancaster for the sole reason that he refused to break off old personal friendships.

The feud existing between the clan of Grant and that of McPherson, as described by Sir Walter Scott, although older and deadlier, could not have been more real than the feud between the clan of Sigourney and that of Lancaster, and North Skunk was the Rubicon at whose banks a Caesar might well pause before crossing.

The time for the final struggle at last arrived, and Lancaster won by a majority of sixty-four.  At the next meeting of the board of county commissioners the result was declared, and the county-seat ordered to be removed.  This seemed to virtually end the contest; but not so.  Having been defeated in the legislature and at the polls, the cause was now carried into the courts.  In accordance with the order of the board, all the county offices were moved to Lancaster, except that of the clerk of the District Court.  Instead of moving his office, the clerk, Mr. James, set off in company with Mr. Joseph Knox, for Muscatine, where they employed R. P. Lowe, Esq., to enjoin the removal of the district clerk's office from Sigourney, and to prevent the county commissioners from taking further steps to advance Lancaster as a county-seat.

A few days after the return of Mr. James the injunction was granted, and was based on the allegation of Mr. Knox, that the law authorizing the vote was unconstitutional; that he had purchased town lots of the county as county-seat property; that this peculiar quality in such property was a vested right which could not be taken under the constitution; and if it were constitutional the county-seat could not be removed until the indemnity was all paid, as provided for in the act.

The case came up for hearing in the fall term, 1846, when a change of venue from the judicial district was asked for by the board of county commissioners.

The motion was granted, and the cause sent to Burlington. At the spring term of the District Court, held at Burlington, in 1847, a decision was made in favor of Mr. Knox, the complainant.  The county commissioners appealed to the State Supreme Court, and in June, of the same year, the decision of the District Court was reversed, the injunction dissolved, and the bill of Mr. Knox dismissed.

It was now nearly one year that the clerk had prevented the removal of his office from Sigourney by permitting himself to be enjoined, but now legal restraint seemed to be at an end.  There yet remained, however, one forlorn hope, one step more possible to be taken, and Mr. Knox decided to take it.  This was to carry his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.  For this purpose Mr. Knox went to Iowa City.  It was thought that an appeal to that court, with the filing of a supersedeas bond, would continue to restrain the clerk's office at Sigourney.

It was also well known that those who were in the interests of Lancaster were wide awake, and that an order to remove the office would be brought from the District Judge, Cyrus Olney, as soon as obtained.

To avoid service of notice of this 'kind for removal, and to give Mr. Knox time to return with his supersedeas, Mr. James, the clerk, "was not at home,"or, in other words, he secreted himself at the house of one Cook.

When Mr. Knox returned the clerk acknowledged service of the notice of supersedeas.

Two days after this Mr. James received a letter from Judge Olney, of which the following is a copy:

"FAIRFIELD, July 26, 1847.

"DEAR SIR:—I have received official notice from the clerk of the Supreme Court that the bill of Mr. Knox against the commissioners has been dismissed, and the injunction dissolved, and Lancaster decided to be the county-seat.  It, therefore, becomes my duty to hold the District Court at Lancaster, while that decree remains unreversed.  The public records should also be kept there, and the public business transacted there. If you find it inconvenient to attend yourself at Lancaster, you can act through a deputy except during court.
                                           "Respectfully yours,
                                                                                                                                                    “CYRUS OLNEY."

Upon receipt of this letter Mr. James replied, stating the condition of the case, and the collision, as he deemed it, in the jurisdiction of the two courts. Mr. Olney's reply, which came a few days afterward, was quite unequivocal, and left no doubt as to the course he must pursue in order to avoid a contempt of court. It was as follows:

"FAIRFIELD, August 5, 1847.

"Sir:—The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Knox vs. The Board of Commissioners of Keokuk County makes it my duty to hold the District Court at Lancaster, you are therefore notified hereby, and required to remove your office, as clerk of said court, to the latter place, as soon as possible.        "Yours, etc.,
                                                                                                          "CYRUS OLNEY,

Still hoping that the Supreme Court would shield him from the power of the district judge to punish for contempt, Mr. James forthwith repaired to Fairfield to consult with Judge Carleton, whom he knew to be then at that place.  The integrity and ability of Judge Carleton were above suspicion.  Upon having a confidential conversation with him, he advised Mr. James, that, under the circumstances, it would be the safer course to remove the office.  This was accordingly done on the 7th day of August, just one year and one day after the vote was taken on the removal of the county-seat.

After the removal of the office, Mr. Knox obtained a rule from the supreme court requiring the defendants to show cause why they should not be held to answer for a contempt in disobeying the injunction.  This rule was heard at the June term, 1848, of the Supreme Court, and so much of the decision as relates to the merits of the case is hereby appended:

"At the July term of the court the injunction was dissolved and the bill dismissed.  The parties were thereby restored to the same position they occupied antecedent to the issuing and service of the writ of injunction.  If it was made the duty of the defendants to remove the records of the county to Lancaster by the vote of the people of Keokuk county, which was shown to be the fact by the testimony which formed the basis of the action of the court in dismissing the bill and dissolving the injunction, that duty became revived by removing the restraint with which they were surrounded by the effects of the injunction upon its dissolution. But it is contended that the appeal of the cause to the Supreme Court of the United States continued the injunction in full force.  If this position be well taken, and we are not disposed to question it, yet we are at a loss to know how the defendants are in contempt of this court.  The decree of this court was, that the bill be dismissed and the injunction dissolved, and although by operation of law, case having been appealed, the injunction may not have lost its power, still the defendants, in the absence of the appeal, are but carrying out he decree of this court by removing the records to Lancaster.

"The mere taking of the appeal, then, we think, could not place the defendants in contempt of this court by disregarding an injunction it has dissolved, although the effect of the appeal is to preserve the writ in full force.

"Rule dismissed."

Thus ended the first county-seat contest.  Some of the people who had settled in Sigourney followed the county-seat to Lancaster, others moved to other parts of the country, while many settled down in Sigourney, determined that the county-seat should again return, and to this hope many of them clung through the changing vicissitudes of the next decade, at the end of which time their hope was realized.

The indemnity guaranteed by the re-locating act was ordered to be paid from time to time by the board of commissioners, but the amounts received by the lot-holders was a poor return for the loss of the county-seat.  Although beaten at length in the courts, Mr. Knox made a record which inspired the commissioners with great care and caution in their subsequent dealings with him.  This is illustrated by the wording of the following order made by the board with reference to Mr. Knox's indemnity:

"Ordered by the board, that Joseph Knox be allowed the sum of one thousand, six hundred and fifty dollars as his indemnity in full for losses sustained in consequence of the removal of the county-seat from Sigourney, the indemnity being allowed on the following lots, to-wit: Lot No. 6 in block 2, lot 7 in block No. 6, lot 1 in block 8, out-lots 15, 16, 17 and 18, and that the clerk of this board be required to issue said amount upon the treasurer in two orders of the sum of five hundred dollars each, and the residue in fifty-dollar orders, to complete the said amount of sixteen hundred and fifty dollars; provided, and it is understood that this order is made with the understanding with the said Joseph Knox, that no appeal shall be taken by him to the District Court of this county from this allowance or decision of the board.

"And it is further ordered, that the clerk of this board make out to the said Knox, under his hand and the seal of this board, a certificate of the settlement of this indemnity, and that he certify in said certificate that this board has released the said Knox from any and all obligations on his bond in the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa, for the taking to the Supreme Court of the United States the case of Joseph Knox, complainant, and the Board of County Commissioners and Samuel A. James, defendants, which release is hereby granted and made."

The county-seat having thus been removed to Lancaster, and the lot-owners of Sigourney having been indemnified, in a measure for the depreciation of the value of real estate, the county-seat war was for the time-being ended in the third year after it began.

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!

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