Land Office Frauds

March 25, 2016

By Amorin Mello

New York Times

December 9, 1858


Land Office Frauds.



Correspondence of the New-York Times.

SUPERIOR CITY, Wis., Thursday, Nov. 25.

I am booked here for another winter, but fortunately with no fear of starvation this time.  We have been most successful the last Summer in our Agricultural labors.  The clay soils about here has proved marvelously fruitful, and where we expected little or nothing it has turned out huge potatoes that almost dissolve under the steaming process, and open as white as the inside of a cocoa-nut ; mammoth turnips, as good as turnips can be ; cabbages of enormous size ; and cauliflowers, that queen of vegetables, weighing as much as a child a year old.  There is no reason to fear for the future of this country, now that we can show such vegetable products, and talk of our gardens as well as of our mines, forests, furs, and fisheries.

We are not without our excitements here, too ; though we have no model artists, or theatrical exhibitions, to treat our friends with.  But our little city is now in a state of commotion produced by causes which often agitate frontier life, and sometimes reach the great center with their echo or reverberation.  The Land Office is the great point of interest to frontier men, and the land law is the only jurisprudence save Lynch law, in which we are particularly interested.  And as we have no means of reaching the great Federal legislature, through our Local Presses, we are always glad of an opportunity to be heard through the Atlantic organs, which are heard all over the country, and strike a note which the wind takes up and carries not only to San Francisco, but up here to the mouth of the St. Louis River, the hereafter great local point of Pacific and Atlantic intercommunication.

Eye of the Northwest, pg. 8

The Eye of the Northwest, pg. 8: James Stinson; Benjamin Thompson; W. W. Corcoran; U. S. Senator Robert J Walker; George W Cass; and Horace S Walbridge.

23rd United States Attorney General Caleb Cushing speculated in the St. Croix River valley for land and copper during the 1840s.

Five or six years ago a few American pioneers – stalwart backwoodsmen, undertook to select a town site out here, and did select one in good faith, and with clubs and muskets in had fought off from their premises a gang of Indians who were claiming to preëmpt it as “American citizens.”  The Indians, however, were backup up by a Canadian white man by the name of STINSON, and some of the great speculators who were engaged in another town enterprise alongside here, and this “Indian war” was protracted in the local and general Land Offices some two or three years, when Mr. M’CLELLAND, then Secretary of the Interior, made a final adjudication of all the legal questions involved in the controversy, and sent it back to the Land Office to ascertain and apply the facts to the law as settled, on great deliberation by himself and Mr. CUSHING.

More Proprietors of Supeior from The Eye of the North-west, pg. 9.

More Proprietors of Superior from The Eye of the North-west

, pg. 9: [names are illegible]

4th United States Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland
5th United States Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson.

Meanwhile the original settlers and occupants maintained their adverse possession against the Indians and all the world, and expended a good deal of money in erecting buildings and a pier, and in cutting out streets and in laying out their town, and in carrying on their litigation, which was by no means inexpensive.  M’CLELLAND’s determination of the law in their favor encouraged them to go on and incur additional expenses ; and they parted with diverse interests in the town site, some by assignment to persons who advanced money, and some by sale on quit-claim to persons who covenanted to make improvements.  They made application to the proper office to enter the site, and nobody objected but the Indians – and the Indians were nowhere.  So things stood when the case went back to the General Land Office, and to Mr. Secretary THOMPSON.  The worthy Secretary, for some cause altogether unaccountable, adopted the extraordinary (and under the decision of the Supreme Court illegal) course of reversing the final judgement of his predecessor in this very case, (an exercise of power entirely unheard of in a case of mere private right,) and of rejecting the claim of the original occupants and settlers, though it was not contested by somebody who had a better right.

Madison Sweetzer was using Sioux Scrip to claim land, but does not appear to be a mixed blood member of the Sioux/Lakota/Dakota nation.
Commissioner of the General Land Office Thomas Andrews Hendricks later became the 21st Vice President of the United States.

You may well imagine that this decision excited no little astonishment here.  All the land stealers looked upon Superior City as vacant ground.  They thought the men who selected and settled the town site were outlawed, and had no interests.  Some supposed that the Land Office would put the ground up at auction.  A chap by the name of SWEETZER came on here fresh from the General Land Office, and undertook to lay Sioux scrip on the whole site.  Another – one JOHN GRANT – made application to preëmpt a portion of the site – and, what is the most remarkable feature about this business, GRANT was permitted to enter it as a preëmptor, though it was notoriously a selected town site, and in the adverse possession of town claimants half a year before GRANT ever saw it.  This outrage created a great excitement for a small place.  The Register, Mr. DANIEL SHAW, excuses himself by saying that he was almost expressly ordered by HENDRICKS to issue the certificate to GRANT, but this we do not believe in these parts.  SHAW is clever, and covers his tracks, but nobody here supposes that the Commissioner ever countenanced such a gross violation of a public statute, without a motive.  And what motive could the Commissioner have?

But, besides these movements, one of the Indians – ROY by name, who was defeated as one of the claimants by preëmeption – is now seeking to locate his Chippewa scrip on the town-site, and it is supposed that the same influences which urged him as an American citizen will support his claim as an Indian.  A white man by the name of KINGSBURY, encouraged by the disregard of law exhibited by the local office, has made a claim on another part of the town-site.  This purports to have originated in the fourth year of a litigation between the town claimants and the illegal preëmptors, and is supposed to be stimulated and encouraged by the Register.

Subsequently to his original rejection of the town-site claim, Mr. Secretary THOMPSON issued instructions to permit the entry, and the County Judge made application on the 18th instant, under the law of the United States, May 23, 1844.  On this being known, some of the persons heretofore claiming under the original settlers and occupants (who had selected the town and paid all the expenses of the settlement) came together and formed an organization as a city, under a recent law of Wisconsin, the object of which they declare to be secure to themselves a title from the United States to the lots they specially occupy, and to sell the balance to defray their expenses in entering and alloting the land!  The men whose rights vested under the absolute decision of Secretary MCCLELLAND, and who did all that they could do to enter the land, and paid the money for it more than two years ago, – the men whose “respective INTERESTS” the statute of 1844 recognizes and was designed to protect, – these men are all ruled off the course, and the men claiming under them have conspired to divide the land and its proceeds among themselves.

Preemption Act of 1841

Of course these iniquitous and illegal proceedings are all within the reach of the Courts – but they are the legitimate consequence of Mr. JACOB THOMPSON’s repeal of so much of the Preëmption Law of 1841 as excludes from preëmption those portions of the public lands that have been “selected as the site of a city or town.”  Mr. THOMPSON has overruled all his predecessors, all the Attorney-General, all the local offices, all the lexicographers, and the English language generally, by deciding solemnly that “selection” does not mean “selection,” but means something else – or more particularly nothing at all.  Because, says he, if adverse “selection” excluded a preëmptor, then a preëmptor might be excluded by a false allegation of selection.  Was there ever such an argal since Dogberry’s time?  The Secretary has discovered an equally efficient “dispensing power” with that of King JAMES of blessed memory, and one which his brethren in the Cabinet may use very efficiently, if Congress does not look into the subject and fix some limits to it. For now, not only the Secretary, but the Commissioner, and the Register and Receiver, all think that they are at liberty to treat the repeal by the Secretary as an effective nullification of the law of the land.

Receiver Eliab B Dean Jr and Register Daniel Shaw were at the Superior City Land Office.

If Congress would amuse their leisure a little by looking at these land office operations on the verge of civilization, they would strike a placer of corruption.  Let them open the books and call for the documents, and see what Dr. T. RUSH SPENSER, late Register of the Willow River District, says of his predecessor and successor, Mr. JOHN O. HENNING, and then ascertain by what influences HENNING has been reappointed, and SPENSER transferred to Superior.  Let them find out what Receiver DEAN said of Register SHAW, and what Register SHAW said of Receiver DEAN, and why DEAN was dismissed and why SHAW was retained.  It will be rare fun for somebody.  The country ought to know something about the Land Offices, and such an investigation as this would enlighten the country very materially.  I hope it will be made, and that the country will learn how it is that more land has been entered in this district by Indians, foreigners, and minors than by qualified preëmptors, and all for the benefit of a few favored speculators.