Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

West of the Bend

When George Duffield moved into the cabin on their claim with other members of his family, in April, 1837, they comprised the first family circle to reside west of the great bend of the Des Moines River, he said. What George called the family circle was composed of James and Margaret Duffield and their children—Maria, John, George Crawford, James, William, Joseph, Joshua Harrison, and Elizabeth. George was 14 years old and John was 20.

The rule of thumb for settlers in these parts was for them to stake their claim “’cordin to wood ‘n water.” There were plenty of timbered hills and rich sugar groves grew along Chequest Creek. The prairies, six miles to the west, served as open range for the livestock, but it was felt that these lands would never be settled because they were too far from wood and water.

James Duffield had chosen the site for his cabin to be in the border of an opening in the timber near a water spring, which fed a stream entering Chequest Creek, two miles above its mouth. According to George, James built the primitive cabin in 1836. At that time, the only other white person in the area was Samuel Clayton, who began living on his claim in November, 1836. Clayton soon erected a mill on Chequest Creek a short distance above the mouth. Indians lived near them as this was during the last few years that the Sac and Fox Indian tribe resided in the area.

In April, 1837 some of the Indians helped the family move their belongings across the Des Moines River near the mouth of Chequest Creek so that they could move into their cabin. Claim hunters were frequent visitors. Not a week went by but what there were five or six visitors at their cabin, which served as a hospice. Some stayed several days, as they would go out into the unclaimed territory searching for land of their liking. In the meantime, James Duffield picked up several other claims—all within the timbered hills, near water.

Another class of visitors was the smooth-talking speculator. George said that his parents did not withhold their hospitality from these strangers, although they withheld certain information that they shared with the other claim hunters who were looking for cheap homes—settlers like themselves.

The speculators did not hesitate to remind them that the U.S. Government still owned the land they occupied, and when it came time to purchase the land, anyone who had the means could acquire possession. George said that his parents were very apprehensive about the land sales. The children did not share the feeling of apprehension, although they did sense contention. 

Settlers claims and cabins were precious to them. In the summer of 1838, a plan was set afloat whereby the settlers banded together and an understanding was reached that at the land sales they would not bid against each other, and each one could acquire their land at the lowest government price. An attempt would be made to prevent outsiders from bidding on anything except unclaimed land portions.

Years later, George said that he tried in vain to find written evidence of these citizen agreements, but any that existed had been destroyed. The first of a series of settlers’ meetings was at the home of Uriah Biggs near Pittsburg. Lemuel G. Jackson was president; Biggs was secretary. James Knox was appointed bidder for the township. It was resolved “that our government is by the people, of the people and for the people—and we are the people.”

George said that there were two or three contested claims, but the local court settled them. When the first land sales took place in November, 1838 at Burlington each man was nervous and somewhat frightened, but their plan worked so well that other localities adopted the system. The people of West Point Township in Lee County were the first to adopt the plan without change. The system followed generally throughout the territory.

When James left home to go to Burlington, he traveled by horseback with a band of other settlers. The children watched him take a bag of shelled oats to feed his horse. In the bag he put $200—borrowed from Thomas Devin at 50% interest—and history records that the settlers carried weapons. If so, his was also inside this bag.

John C. Breckenridge (later vice president of the U.S.) stepped out and read the act of Congress proclaiming authorization of the land sale and announced that a penalty would be enacted if any act prevented open, free and honest competition in the auction. A silent smile on the settlers’ faces spoke their contempt.

Each time a settler’s claim came up and the dollar and a quarter opening bid was presented, each effort by the crier to raise the bid was met by silence from the crowd. At last, township 69, range 10 was announced. Duffield’s claim was the northwest quarter of the section. Knox, the bidder, shouted “one twenty-five.” The suspense of waiting was nearly unbearable. At last, “Sold! To James Duffield!” was called out. 

Honor bound, he waited until the sale ended because of the common interest of the group. The trip home was short. Joy immediately abounded when he came into view, because the family sensed from the way he rode tall in the saddle, that the dreaded event had gone well. Yes, they owned their claim—and nobody could say otherwise.

(some of the information is from “An Iowa Settler’s Homestead,” George C. Duffield, Annals of Iowa, Volume 6, October, 1903.)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick