The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



The presidential campaign of 1848, the war with Mexico and State politics absorbing the attention of the people, county questions were for a while overshadowed by national issues, the Sigourney party and the Lancaster party both became either Whigs or Democrats, and the location of the county-seat for a while was of less importance in Keokuk county than the acquisition of Mexican territory.

There were those, however, who constantly and hopefully looked forward to the time when the county-seat would be brought back to the former location. They were men of sagacity and patience, and did not propose to give the Lancaster party the advantage which would fall to the latter by their own rashness and ill-timed agitation. The northern part of the county was rapidly filling up and their chances of success improving each year. They felt that they could wait so long as waiting improved their chances of ultimate victory, consequently they divided their time between business and national politics.

In 1853 there was considerable talk about another change of the county-seat, but no open and organized effort was made; skirmishers were sent out to feel the enemy, with instructions not to bring on an engagement. In 1854 the movement assumed definite shape and petitions were circulated. In the winter of this year a pressure was brought to bear upon the legislature which resulted in the passage of the following bill:

          "An Act to Relocate the County Seat of Keokuk County"

"Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Iowa, that at the August election, to be held on the first Monday in August, 1855, there shall be, at the several places of voting in Keokuk county, in the State of Iowa, a poll opened for the purpose of determining by ballot whether the county-seat shall be removed from its present location in the town of Lancaster, in said county, to the town of Sigourney, in said county.

"Sec. 4. That if there shall be a majority of votes cast at said election in favor of removing the county seat of said county to the town of Sigourney, in said county, the county officers of said Keokuk county shall remove their offices, and the books, papers, records, and other personal property of their respective offices, belonging to said county, to said town of Sigourney so soon as the county judge of said county can procure proper rooms for the temporary use of their respective offices; Provided, Said removal shall not take place until, by proper bonds and securities, said Keokuk county is secured in the sum of five thousand dollars, to be paid into the treasury of said county, one-half on the first Monday in January, 1856, the other half on the first Monday in January, 1857, to be secured on or before the first day of October, 1855.

"Sec. 5. That in case said county-seat is removed to Sigourney, the lot-holders in the town of Lancaster shall be indemnified, said indemnity to be assessed by three disinterested commissioners, viz.: William P. Organ, of Washington county, James Bridges and Henry Blackburn, of Mahaska county, who shall first be sworn to the faithful discharge of their duties as such commissioners, and shall proceed to discharge the same, and make their return thereof to the county judge of said county on or before the first day of December, 1855, and said county judge shall give each claimant an order on the treasury of said county for the amount assessed to him, as in other claims against said county."

Under this special act the election was held at the time named, and from the abstracts returned to the county judge it appeared that there was a majority against the proposed removal. This result, however, was arrived; at by the action of the canvassers, who threw out the vote of certain precincts on the ground of alleged irregularities. From the total vote as cast it appeared that there was a majority of seven in favor of the removal. It was the duty of the county judge, however, to declare the result as certified to by the canvassers, and the verdict was against the proposed removal.

The matter was thereupon taken to the District Court, and is known in the court records as the case of Price and Wait vs. Harned et al. It appears that the plaintiffs, being citizens of the county, and having voted at said election, claimed that their votes had not been properly canvassed; that a majority of the votes was in fact cast for Sigourney, and that the canvassers had improperly and illegally excluded the returns from four townships of the county, and which votes, if counted, would show a majority in favor of Sigourney; and they therefore claimed that the county officers should remove their offices to Sigourney. For the purpose of compelling this removal, the plaintiffs presented their sworn information to the Hon. Wm. H. Seevers, judge of the District Court, praying for a writ of mandamus compelling Harned, who was then county judge, to order the removal of the said offices. The district judge decided in favor of Sigourney, and ordered the removal.

The county officials who represented the case of Lancaster, and who were the defendants in this case, appealed from the decision of the District Judge, and the case came before the Supreme Court at the next term. The case was ably argued pro and con, J. C. Hall, of Burlington, appearing for the appellants, and D. Rorer, of the same city, appearing for the appellees. The decision, which was against Sigourney, was given by Chief  Justice Wright. The opinion is somewhat lengthy. We give only the closing paragraph:

“Very great injustice may have been done by the first canvass. If so, we have no doubt but the writ of mandamus could properly issue to compel the board to correct the mistake and do their duty. And upon such correction, if the majority was in favor of Sigourney, it is just as clear that upon a failure of the county officers to remove, they could be compelled to do so by mandamus. While we would not say that the alternative writ might not issue, commanding the canvassers to correct the canvass, and upon such correction commanding the county officers to remove their offices; yet we think the better practice would be to first compel the board to act so as to correct the canvass. When this has been done, and the duty of the county officers clearly fixed, so that their duty can be said to be 'specially enjoined,' and they refuse, then let the mandate of the court issue, commanding them to act. And less objection, it is believed, obtains to this course, from the fact that the law contemplates speedy action. The defendants may be required to answer forthwith. The very nature of the writ carries with it the necessity of prompt and decisive action on the part of the court. By pursuing this course, confusion will be avoided, and each tribunal and officer held liable for their own actions, for their own contempts, and their own costs, and this, too, it is believed, without any prejudice to the rights of the relators.

"Judgment reversed and cause remanded." 

This apparent victory for Lancaster caused great satisfaction to the friends of the latter place, who gave themselves over to a season of rejoicing. But their triumph was of short duration; in fact, it proved in the end to be the very best thing that could have happened for the friends of Sigourney, for they got the county-seat the next year, and that, too, without paying any indemnity whatever to the lot-holders of Lancaster.

A general act, entitled "An Act in relation to County-seats," was passed by the legislature, and approved January 21, 1855, which provided that any county-seat might be re-located by taking the following course: A petition, signed by at least one-half of the qualified electors, must be presented to the county judge, asking for a re-location. The county judge must then order a vote to be taken, at the next April election, between the place designated and the existing county-seat. If the point designated in the petition obtain a majority of all the votes cast, the county judge must make a record thereof, and declare the same to be the county-seat, and remove the records and documents thereto as early as practicable thereafter."

Accordingly, a petition was circulated early in the year 1856, and it having been made to appear that a majority of the qualified voters had signed the petition, the county judge, the Hon. S. Harned, ordered a vote to be taken at the ensuing election on the first Monday in April.

The result of this election was that a majority of the votes cast were for removal to Sigourney. Upon the canvass of the votes and this fact appearing, Judge Harned declared Sigourney the county-seat. The several county officers, with their official records and books, accordingly removed from Lancaster to Sigourney on the 12th of April, 1856—just eight years, eight months and five days from the time that the clerk's office was removed from Sigourney to Lancaster, and over eleven years from the time when the question first began to be agitated.

The county-seat was now back at Sigourney, but the contest was not yet ended; the case must first be taken to the District and Supreme Courts before the friends of Lancaster would submit. Sigourney had set Lancaster a good example in the matter of litigation, and the latter were not slow to profit by it.

At the term of the District Court next following the removal of the county-seat, the case was taken into the courts. It is known in the court records as "Casey vs. Harned." The plaintiff applied for and obtained a writ of certiorari, directed to the county court, in substance requiring that court to return the facts attending said election and removal. The return being made and the case heard, the action of Judge Harned in ordering the removal of the county-seat was affirmed.

The case was then taken to the Supreme Court, Knapp & Caldwell appearing for the appellant, and Seevers & Seevers appearing for the appellee.

The main point which the attorneys for the appellant attempted to make and upon which they chiefly relied for a verdict was the fact that the special act under which the vote of August, 1855, had been taken was missed subsequently to the general act under which the election of April, 1856, had been held. They claimed that the special act of January 24th, 1855, in effect repealed the general act of January 22, 1855, so far as it concerned Keokuk county; that after having held an election to determine whether the county-seat should be removed from Lancaster to Sigourney, the latter indemnifying the former, and it being decided against removal that Sigourney could not now come in and under the general act procure a removal without paying any indemnity. It was also held that in the special act it was provided that in case there was a majority against removal then Lancaster should forever remain the county-seat.

Chief Justice Wright gave the decision which was in favor of Sigourney, affirming the judgment of the lower courts. In substance the court held that the word forever ment only until such a time as it should be legally otherwise ordered, and that it cannot be the effect of a special act to repeal a general act. We give the concluding paragraph of the opinion:

"We conclude, therefore, that the right of the citizens of Keokuk county to vote on the subject of the relocation of their county-seat under the act of January 22d, 1855, was not taken away by the special act of the 24th of the same month; and consequently that the county judge of that county being properly petitioned had full power to submit such question to a vote of the people at the April election, 1856. And we thus determine that the judgment of the District Court must be affirmed without considering the objection that the relator, Casy, had no right to institute this proceeding; without deciding whether the special act is public or private in its character, and without noticing the further point, that if the special act repealed the general act, pro tanto, the statute would be rendered thereby unconstitutional, in view of the provisions of the constitution which require all laws of a general nature to have a uniform operation. These questions it is unnecessary to enter upon at this time.

Judgment affirmed."

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!


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