Land Ownership Controversies in the Military Tract in the 1830s

There were three types of original titles to land in western Illinois.

  • Military patents
  • Congress (government) titles (through land sales offices)
  • Tax titles through state or county sales for unpaid taxes
  • Pre-emption

Miltary patents were patents for bounty land issued to veterans of the War of 1812 in exchange for their service.  McDonough County is in the Illinois “Military Tract” where large numbers of patents were issued.  (See Issuance of the patents was one factor that drew people of disparate cultural backgrounds of the northeast and the central/south to Illinois, setting up conflicts among lifestyles and philosophies, including abolition-slavery, temperance, and education.

Some taxes were waived if held by original patentee. Apparently some thought that taxes were waived for everyone; when they purchased from the patentee, they didn’t pay tax and their land was offered at tax title sales.

Land agents and Speculators.  Many veterans didn’t want to move to Illinois so they sold their patents, often to land agents, who in turn sold to speculators, often in the east.

Purchase at the Land Offices. The Quincy land office, which processed sales for McDonough County and the majority of the Military Tract opened in Feb 1831. As noted in the appeal below, the process of purchasing could be delayed by such events as unreturned surveys.

Tax titles. If taxes weren’t paid, the land was sold by the state (or in the counties by 1833) for a tax title.  In some cases, the patent owner could redeem the title for the taxes for a certain length of time.   However, the purchaser of the tax title was allowed to recover costs of improvements & the back taxes they had paid.  A tax title holder may also have been permitted to offer the land at appraised value to patent holder rather than the government price of $1.25/acre.

Pre-emption. Many paid bounty agents, or squatted on the land, clearing fields, erecting buildings, while saving up funds to pay for government entry. Sometimes they purchased tax titles to solidify their claim to the land.  Some hoped for a practice the government had used in other areas — the right of pre-emption, which gave precedence to those who settled the land or set the purchase price at the government price of $1.25/acre.

Pre-emption rights were requested of Congress by a group of landholders in Macomb Township, McDonough County, Illinois in 1837.  See below.

An Appeal to the U. S. Congress.

Memorial of Levi Hamilton and Others.

Citizens of McDonough County, Illinois, praying to be allowed the benefit of the pre-emption laws. September 30, 1837. Laid on the table, and ordered to be printed. To the honorable the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States Congress assembled.

Your memorialist, Levi Hamilton, begs leave to represent:

In the beginning of 1833, Joseph Myers settled on N ½ Sec. 5 T6N R2W 4P.M. and made some improvements. Levi Hamilton, in Oct 1833, purchased Myers’ improvements for $80 and made further improvements in 1833 and in Feb 1834, moved to & became a settler thereon, has since made valuable improvements on the 2 northern 80 acres lots, has built a frame house &other necessary buildings, enclosed and has in cultivation 80-100 acres on NE & NW lots of Sec 5.

He followed the laws of pre-emption claim & attempted to enter ownership at Quincy land office, but surveyor’s report for township hadn’t been received, he was unable to enter the purchase. Was encouraged to hope that g’ment would deal fairly w/actual settlers.

He further improved his farm; invested 4 years, constitutes nearly all his wealth; it was prairie, acquired timber & built his house; if sold at public sale, he would be unable to pay the value.

August 10, 1837

Your memorialists, Robert Grant, Elisha Fargusson, Elijah Fargusson, Thomas A. Brooking, Joseph P. Updegraff, James R. Simpson, Edmund F. Murray, Henry Frizell, William J. Fraser, Demosthenes R. Hamilton, William W. Bailey, Francis W. Simpson, Lawson H. Robinson, Cyrus Haynes and Thomas B. Grant, beg to leave to:

Owing to encouragement Congress have, from time to time, liberally extended to settlers on the public land, they have been induced to settle, or purchase settlers’ rights, on the G’ment lands in T6N R2W 4P.M. with expectation g’ment would extend to them the means of securing to them their homes & their labor as has been done on g’ment lands elsewhere. Singed Aug 10 1837.

Grant, Robert

  • Nov 1833 NW ¼ Sec 19 Got logs for house, made rails & stakes;
  • 1834 enclosed & cultivated nearly 50 acres of corn
  • residing there 1 June 1834 and continues
  • large frame house, out-buildings, stables, etc
  • 114 acres in cultivation now
  • Purchased floating right
  • Attempted to buy at land office June 1836

Grant, Thomas B.

  • single man, son of Robert Grant and resides with him

W. J. Frazer

  • 1833 Sec 29 Purchased a settler’s right
  • occupied by a tenant Oct 1833 who cultivated 1 acre wheat in 1833 (possibly the Blazer brothers)
  • settled w/his family Jan 1834
  • Fraser decided site was unhealthy for houses, settled on adjoining quarter in May 1834, now an integral part of where he lived 1 June 1834 and still resides; a tenant lives in other house
  • May 1835 attempted to buy at Quincy Land Office

Joseph P. Updegraff

  • 1834 N ½ of SW and S ½ of NW ¼ Sec 18
  • Jacob Hinton, spring 1834;
  • built house, did not settle as he was single – 2 rooms 14×16 ft each;
  • In 1834, broke 7 acres of land, sold settlers rights to Wayne A Strode who shortly after sold to Updegraff, who further improved in 1836;
  • settled in Mar 1837; has 40 acres well enclosed, 20 in cultivation

James R. Simpson

  • Fall 1834 SW ¼ of Sec. 19
  • Henry Frizell sold to Wm W. Walker in 1835;
  • sold to Simpson in 1836;
  • Mar 1836 moved to property

Congress was requested to note that the 2 townships south of this one (Scotland and Industry Twps?), all the actual settlers secured their lands by purchasing floating pre-emption rights, for the surveys had been received and purchases could be made by private entry; but that since the sales, companies have been formed for purposes of speculation, and by use of distant and irresponsible names settlers have been ousted, their labor taken away, and themselves turned out of their homes.


  • Appeal to Congress:
  • Rugh, Susan J. (1993). Those who labor in the earth: the families and farms of Fountain Green, Illinois, 1830-1880.
  • Mitchell, S. A. (1837). Illinois in 1837: A sketch descriptive of the situation, boundaries, face of the country, prominent districts, prairies, rivers, minerals, animals, agricultural productions, public lands, plans of internal improvement, manufacturers, &c., of the state of Illinois ; also, suggestions to emigrants, sketches of the counties, cities, and principal towns in the state ; together with a letter on the cultiviation of the prairies, by the Hon. H.L. Ellsworth ; to which are annexed the letters from a rambler in the West. Philadelphia: S. Augustus Mitchell, and Grigg and Elliot.



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