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April 22: A Case of Claim Jumping

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In 1880, Heber Creel was a Second Lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry stationed at Fort Totten at Devils Lake. There, he created detailed maps of the lake and the adjacent reservation. A year later, he was building a telegraph line to the railhead at Larimore when he was drawn in by increasing speculation about where the railroad was next headed. As interest in the land around Devils Lake increased, the 27-year-old got land fever, resigned his post and bet on the lake’s northern edge.

Creel brought in a variety of former military men, frontiersmen and speculators to help him establish a townsite that he named Creel City. He and his cronies set about gaining control of as much land as possible. They filed claims, squatted and used legal mumbo-jumbo to convince newcomers that the land was already taken, and by the spring of 1883, they had gained control of several thousand acres.

Fred and Charles Ward, sons of a wealthy Chicago businessman, had come to Dakota to go into the real estate business. When they asked about the land on which Creel’s boys were squatting, they were warned to keep moving. The Ward brothers waited and watched, soon discovering that one of Creel’s men, John Bell, had used his claim shack to straddle two adjoining claims.

According to North Dakota historian, Frank Vysralek, the Ward brothers went to the U.S. Land Office in Grand Forks to investigate Bell’s land claim and learned that Bell had legal claim to only one piece of the land. The other parcel was open to contest.

Accounts agree that by this date that year, 23-year-old Fred had placed a claim shanty on one of the parcels. Fred, his 27-year-old brother and a man named Jack Elliot were in the shanty on this date when John Bell and some friends showed up. An argument broke out between the two parties, and when Bell left, he warned that they’d be back with help.

That night, people heard gunshots, and at dawn, they went to the disputed claim shack to investigate. Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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