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The Luckiest Cuss in Burke County

The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, opened the west to settlement. Ordinary people, even freed slaves, could claim land and establish farms. In order to claim 160 acres of land, the claimant had to live there for five years and make improvements on it. Claims eventually numbered 1.6 million with settlers claiming 420,000 square miles.

It was rare for claims to be cancelled if the improvements were made, but when it did happen, the land could then be claimed by another settler. On this date in 1913, the Bowbells Tribune reported on a man named Dick King, who the newspaper called “the luckiest cuss in Burke County.”

Perhaps the unluckiest cuss was John Skinner, who had claimed land eight miles north of Bowbells. For some undisclosed reason, the government cancelled Skinner’s homestead entry and patent. The Land Office at Minot filed a cancellation of Skinner’s claim with the Burke County Register of Deeds on January 7. The news filtered out, and King realized it was a chance to acquire an established farm. He knew he would have to act quickly before anyone else came to the same conclusion.

On the evening of January 10th, King and another man set off from Burke County for Minot. They traveled through the night to cover the sixty-eight miles. They arrived at three o’clock in the morning, staking out a comfortable spot beneath the window of the Land Office.

A clerk eventually arrived and opened the window at 9:00 a.m. King jumped to his feet and immediately applied for the Skinner claim. No sooner had he filed and received his receipt than another man arrived to file on the claim. He was told he was too late. King had beaten him to the punch.

The Skinner claim was quite the prize. It was 160 acres, one hundred of which were already broken by plow, and the remaining was in pasture. The house was only a few years old and valued at $1,800. The barn, valued at $500, was also only a few years old. King could, indeed, be considered “the luckiest cuss in Burke County.”

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Bowbells Tribune. “Local Man Files on $4500 Farm.” 17 January 1913. Bowbells ND. Page 1.

History Channel. “Homestead Act.” https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/homestead-act  Accessed 12/13/2018.

National Park Service. “About the Homestead Act.” https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/abouthomesteadactlaw.htm  Accessed 12/13/2018.

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