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April 23: A Case of Claim Jumping, Part 2

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Yesterday, we told you about Heber Creel’s efforts to gain control of the land on the north shore of Devils Lake as the railway headed in that direction. Creel and his cronies used every tactic, legal or not, to make sure they would make a tidy profit if the railroad bought their claims.

Two brothers from Chicago had discovered that one of Creel’s men illegally straddled two claims with his claim shack. John Bell had legal claim to only one of the parcels, so 23-year-old Fred Ward put up a shanty on the other.

At 2 a.m. on April 22nd, shots were heard at the shanty. Both Fred and his brother, Charlie, were found dead. Jack Elliot, who was also at the shanty, was badly beaten. He told authorities that a group of men surrounded the shanty and told them to leave, but when Fred opened the door, he was promptly dragged off and beaten. Charlie reportedly yelled into the dark, asking his brother if he was okay. There was no answer, so he fired his revolver from the window. The answer was a volley of rifle fire until he yelled that he gave up. When Charlie walked out, he was shot in the neck.

The men who took part in the killings arrogantly admitted they did it, calling it a case of claim jumping, but charges were filed, and a trial was held 15 months later. The victims’ father, Dr. Ward, sent a heavy-hitter from Chicago to work with prosecutors. Of the dozen men charged with the crime, the two with the most evidence against them were tried first. One had admitted that he dropped to a knee and carefully sighted before shooting Charlie Ward. There were several such damaging statements, and the prosecution was optimistic, but both men were acquitted. In a bizarre twist, the prosecutors then told the judge that if they couldn’t convict these two, they couldn’t convict any of them – an impartial jury couldn’t be found. The judge agreed, and dismissed the remaining cases.

John Bell and several others next tried to preempt the deceased brothers’ land claims. In the only justice he received, Dr. Ward took the case on behalf of the heirs. He won, and his sons’ killers were evicted.

Three months after the killings, the railroad reached Heber Creel’s self-titled town, and it was renamed Devils Lake.

Dakota Datebook written 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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