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A Case of Claim Jumping, Part 1


Back in 1884, some pistol-packing cowboys showed up at the depot at Devils Lake. The news was quickly carried to Sheriff Ever Wagness, who confronted the men and told them to either surrender their guns or get out of town. Because of events the year before, Ramsey County had passed an ordinance requiring handguns to be registered, and permits were now required for carrying them – and they had to be concealed.

It all began with a West Point graduate named Heber Creel. In 1880, Creel was a Second Lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry when he was transferred to 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 from Ft. Totten 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 sent out the word and managed to bring in a variety of former military men, frontiersmen and speculators to help him establish a townsite that he named – of course – Creel City (or Creelsburgh) on what came to be known as Creel Bay. To his area maps, Creel now added pie-in-the-sky drawings of any number of different railways – all converging on his new dominion.

He and his cronies set about gaining control of as much of the north shore as possible. They filed claims, squatted and used legal mumbo-jumbo to convince newcomers that the land was already taken. If that didn’t work, they resorted to threats and intimidation, and by the spring of 1883, they had gained control of several thousand acres.

During the winter, Fred and Charles Ward, sons of a wealthy Chicago businessman, had come to Dakota to go into the real estate business with Lucien Goodhue, the founder of Larimore. The boys filed on four 160-acre tracts under the homestead and preemption acts, and then cast their sites toward Devils Lake.

By now, Heber Creel had organized the Citizens Protective Association to ward off intruders, so when the Ward boys asked about the land on which Creel’s boys were squatting, they were warned to keep moving. The Wards brothers waited and watched and studied. About half way between Creel City and the town of Devils Lake, three miles away, they discovered that one of Creel’s men, John Bell, had used his claim shack to straddle two adjoining claims.

Accounts differ about what next transpired, possibly because one of the defendants in the case was the publisher of the Creel City Inter-Ocean – the same newspaper that reported the story.

According to North Dakota historian, Frank Vysralek, the Ward brothers went to the U.S. Land Office in Grand Forks to investigate John 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 April 22nd, 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 when John Bell and some friends showed up that afternoon. 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 written by Merry Helm