Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth- Century United States

By James Willard Hurst | Go to book overview
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I
THE RELEASE OF ENERGY

ONE day in February of 1836, in the scarce-born village of Pike Creek on the southeastern Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan, Jason Lothrop--Baptist minister, schoolteacher, boarding house proprietor, and civic leader--set up on a stump a rude press of his own construction and with ink which he had made himself printed a handbill setting forth the record of the organizational meeting of "The Pike River Claimants Union . . . for the attainment and security of titles to claims on Government lands."

The settlers whose Union this was had begun to move into the lands about Pike Creek beginning in the summer of 1835. They were squatters; put less sympathetically, they were trespassers. They might not lawfully come upon the lands before the federal survey was made, and this was not completed in this area until about February 1, 1836; they might not make formal entry and buy until the President proclaimed a sale day, and Presidents Jackson and Van Buren withheld proclaiming these newly surveyed lands until 1839; they might not establish claims by pre-emption, for the existing pre-emption law expired by limitation in June, 1836, and was not immediately renewed because of objections to speculators' abuses. These were formidable legal obstacles. The settlers reaction tells us some basic things about the working legal philosophy of our nineteenth-century ancestors.

Jason Lothrop recalled twenty years later:

Much conflicting interest was manifest between the settlers, from the first, in making their claims. Some were greedy in securing at least one section of 640 acres for themselves, and some as much for all their friends whom they expected to settle in the country. Before the lands were surveyed, this often brought confusion and disputes with reference to boundary lines, and still greater confusion followed when the Government surveys were made in the winter of 1835-36. These contentions often led to bitter quarrels and even bloodshed.

The settlers met several times to discuss the need of a more orderly framework within which growth might go on. Finally their discussions pro

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