© 2023
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Case of Claim Jumping, Part 2


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 young 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 two parcels, so 23 year-old Fred Ward put up a shanty on the other.

It wasn’t widely known, but just days before, railroad magnate James Hill had taken a look at Creel City and was in negotiations with Heber Creel. At 2 a.m. on April 22nd, shots were heard, and at dawn, both Fred and his brother, Charlie, were found shot in the back outside the shanty.

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 and killed.

The men who took part in the murders arrogantly admitted they did it, calling it a case of claim jumping. Within hours, the Ward brothers were painted as the bad guys, and Creel’s men were congratulated for their “peaceable actions.” Two days later, a press release issued in St. Paul said that the railroad had agreed to buy land held by Creel and his men for $25,000.

Historian Frank Vyzralek writes, “...Creel’s former partners chuckled at their good fortune and took turns submitting exorbitant bills to Fred and Charlie’s father, Dr. Edward P. Ward, for services performed in connection with the coroner’s investigation.”

The trial was held 15 months later, with Dr. Ward sending a heavy-hitter from Chicago to work with prosecutors from Fargo and Grand Forks. Of the dozen men charged with the crime, the two with the most evidence against them were tried first. One was the local newspaper editor, Bickham Lair, who 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, dismissed the remaining cases, and all the men were set free.

John Bell and several others next tried to preempt on the deceased brothers’ four land claims of 160-acres each. In the only justice he received, Dr. Ward took the case, on behalf of the heirs including Charlie’s wife and baby, before the General Land Office and the Department of the Interior. He won, and his sons’ killers were evicted.

Three months after the murders, the railroad reached Heber Creel’s self-titled town and renamed it Devils Lake. Ramsey County passed an ordinance requiring all handguns to be registered, and only people with permits were allowed to carry them. The following summer, a group of pistol-packing cowboys got off the train in Devils Lake, and Sheriff Ever Wagness told them to either surrender their guns or get out of town. The cowboys handed over their guns without complaint. One of them was new to the territory and introduced himself... he was Teddy Roosevelt.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm