Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Preemption of Land Dates Back to 1602

A bit of a misnomer appears on the website of the history of Birmingham, in terms of land sales in Van Buren County, as well as a couple of typographical errors. 

The county was organized in 1836, as a block of land carved out of the Black Hawk Strip, which had "opened for settlement" on June 1, 1833.  The only problem presented to buyers was, that government land sales had not yet been set up in that part of the country. 

Officially, land has to be surveyed and registered before the government can sell off portions to citizens.  People were pouring into the area, first a part of Michigan Territory, then organized as part of Wisconsin Territory, and finally Iowa Territory. 

No surprise...the government has always been slow to act.  The military had been very successful in keeping settlers out of this vast region before June 1, 1833.  They patrolled the area near the borders.  When they discovered violaters, they confiscated their possessions, burned whatever buildings had been constructed, and chased them back into Missouri or Illinois.   

After the territory was opened for settlement, it was much harder to stem the tide of immigration as people wouldn't wait for government bureaucracy to take hold.  It was important to get into the territory fast and grab some land before speculators purchased all the choice parcels.  

As was the case in other parts of the country, speculators swarmed in to grab up properties they in turn could sell at huge profit.  They would often loan settlers money to buy properties, charging them exceedingly high interest.  To protect settlers and prevent these unfortunate happenings, the government fell back onto an old custom--that of preemption of land. 

Preempting land dates back to December, 1602.  In simplist terms, it gives the purchaser the right to buy land before others.  The right is given to an actual settler who then takes residence or makes improvements on a piece of public land. 

Surveying of Van Buren County happened during the summer of 1837 and into early 1838.  When this task was finally completed throughout the territory, government land sales and auctions legally began.  The nearest government land office was set up in Burlington, and sales began in December, 1838.  

The auctions brought settlers or representatives of the settlers from each region as the land in their township came up for bid.  Each parcel was called out.  In case of registered claims, if no speculator or other settler bid on the land as it was called out, the person occupying the land was issued the deed of ownership as per the going government price of $1.25 per acre. 

Through the method of preemption, in most cases the person occupying the land had purchased his claim from a bonifide government agent who operated his business and was paid by the U.S. government.  To prevent speculators from buying the land out from under the settler who had preempted the land, claim clubs were formed or community leaders attended the auction in solid force as a means of protection.  There was still much unclaimed land for which  speculators could buy and make a huge profit. 

Most of the villages of Van Buren County had already been established long before official land sales and auctions.  In each case, a representative was chosen who had a list of registered property dwellers, and each was issued a legal deed in due time. 

People should take care in assuming that everyone who bought land in the county before December, 1838 was a speculator.  Preemptors of land were sometimes speculators, but in the majority of cases these original settlers bought their land legally according to the loophole in the system that the government provided.   

Preemption laws were designed to favor the settler or person who occupied public land.  The stipulation was simple: the preemptor had to provide improvements.  Since "improvements" wasn't spelled out in exact detail, clearing of land, erecting a "lean-to" shanty, or making a claim pen of logs usually was enough to qualify.  Surveyors made note of those occupying land who "had made improvements." 

When the surveyors came through the Keosauqua area during the summer of 1837, my ancestors Susanna and Asahel Fellows moved into their claim house which as yet had no windows, doors or floor....just to be on the safe side, to show that they were occupying their claim.   

Asahel had paid agent Anson $800 for a 700-acre parcel in the fall of 1836, more than two years before the official land sale took place.  Thousands of other Iowa settlers bought their land in similar fashion.

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